Studebaker’s shoestring-budget foray in the compact market.
Development of the compact Studebaker Lark started in the spring of 1957. The South Bend, Indiana firm had created a stop-gap of sorts that year in the shape of the very austere Scotsman model, but it was obvious that this was just a severely decontented full-size car instead of the more compact vehicle envisioned to revive Studebaker’s fortunes by capturing a slice of an emerging new market segment. And a revival was desperately needed: like its rival, American Motors, Studebaker had entered into an ultimately fatal merger, in this case with the once-great luxury carmaker, Packard.
As work on the Lark started, Packard was as good as dead and its last models, which were little more than Studebakers in fancy dress, were only gathering dust on the showroom floor. For Studebaker itself, the situation was not much better as the company suffered its worst year since 1938 with fewer than 45,000 cars sold. Clearly, the new model, designed to tap into a rapidly growing market and generate much-needed profits, could not come a moment too soon, and that the Lark was ready to be introduced for the 1959 model year was a minor miracle.
This extraordinarily short development time was made possible by using the core section of the existing Studebaker sedan that was first seen in 1953. The central body section of that car was adopted virtually unchanged, its wheelbase was cut by eight inches to a 108.5 inch span and newly styled, considerably shorter nose and tail sections were added. The Lark emerged 28 inches shorter and some 200 pounds lighter compared to its parent vehicle. The front and rear bumpers were identical pressings, a cost saving measure also utilised by some other carmakers over the years.
Credited to designer Duncan McRae, assisted by Bill Bonner, the result was a somewhat stubby but quite clean and substantial looking shape that managed to look like a wholly new car, and very different from other Studebaker models, to the extent that many observers were not even aware that the Lark was not as new as it appeared until this was pointed out to them. Some may notice the similarity in the front ends of the 1959 Lark and the 1960 Plymouth Valiant: this is, possibly, not entirely coincidental: Virgil Exner was chief designer at Chrysler Corporation at the time, but his son, Virgil Exner Jr. worked at Studebaker’s design department. Somehow, knowingly or not, some cross-pollination of ideas may have occurred.
The Lark was available either with a 90hp side-valve inline-six that dated back to the pre-war former saviour of Studebaker, the 1939 Champion, or a 259 cubic-inch (4.2-litre) OHV V8 putting out 180hp, or 195hp with a different carburettor and twin exhausts. A three-speed manual transmission was standard but a ‘Flight-O-Matic’ automatic transmission made by Borg-Warner was available as an optional extra.
Buyers could choose between four bodystyles in the Lark’s first year of production; a two-door sedan, four-door sedan, two-door station wagon and two-door hardtop. As with the Rambler American, there were two trim levels, in this case DeLuxe and Regal. Studebaker went all-in with the 1959 Lark and deleted all other vehicles from its range except for the Hawk coupé: at the end of that model year the sales numbers were cause for relief and celebration in South Bend: 138,866 cars were sold, over 94% of which were Larks in various formats.
In its second season, the Lark range was extended with a four-door station wagon and a convertible. Changes to existing models were limited to detail improvements and a different grille. It would prove to be another good year for the Lark and for Studebaker as over 127,000 cars were sold, but trouble was on the horizon as all-new compact offerings from the US ‘Big Three’ automakers entered the sales arena.
For the 1961 model year, the six-cylinder engine was converted to an OHV configuration, which raised its power output to 112hp. An additional model, the Cruiser, joined the range. This was a well equipped four-door sedan on a longer (113 inch) wheelbase. Despite these changes, the number of Larks sold dropped dramatically to just 64,631, almost exactly half the previous year’s number. The antiquity of the Lark’s base was evidently starting to catch up with it in the face of the new competitors from the Big Three.
Studebaker CEO Sherwood Egbert, who had succeeded Harold Churchill at the end of 1960, realised something had to be done, but was hampered by severe budget restrictions. Nevertheless, Egbert was determined to give the Lark a stylistic update to rejuvenate it. For that, he turned to the specialist in restyling cars effectively on a tight budget: Brooks Stevens.
With a budget of just US $7 million, the Milwaukee stylist delivered some impressive work. (Stevens also transformed the old Bourke/Loewy Hawk coupé into the stunning Gran Turismo Hawk in the same year.) He suggested that the wheelbase of all four-door Larks be stretched to 113 inches and got his way since the recently introduced Cruiser attracted twice as many orders as the standard four-door model. The restyled Larks were thus a bit longer, which helped to alleviate the stubby appearance. Quad headlights, a flatter roof, new rear end styling and a grille inspired by Mercedes-Benz completed the stylistic update. A sporty two-door hardtop or convertible named Daytona was a new addition to the range. The buying public obviously liked the new look as sales recovered to around 93,000 units.
For 1963, more changes were performed by Stevens: the mildly panoramic windshield was replaced by one with less curvature and slimmer side window frames subtly but noticeably modernised the appearance of the car. An interesting novelty was the Wagonaire, a Lark station wagon with a sliding roof panel at the rear to provide more room for bulky items. Unfortunately, the Wagonaire tended to leak when exposed to sustained rain showers, which resulted in customer complaints that hurt Studebaker’s image. Starting that year, the Lark name was progressively pushed to the background and was rarely used in publicity materials. At the end of the model year, the counter stopped at 75,378 cars sold, a worrying decline from the previous year and, unfortunately, things would only get worse from then on…
Still, the feisty South Bend firm pressed on and enlisted Stevens once more to create a new look for the car. This time, the result was arguably even better than in 1962, since the changes were such that it really looked like a totally new and different car, with no outwardly visible vestiges of the 1953 base remaining. Tellingly, there were no more Lark badges to be seen on the cars either. Another new roof panel with a Thunderbird-style C-pillar, a nicely integrated grille and headlights and a generally more straight-edged appearance turned the old Lark into a car that looked totally contemporary, although its hidden structure and underpinnings were anything but.
By now, however, the public was fast losing confidence, perhaps not in the product itself but rather in Studebaker’s longer-term chances of survival as a carmaker, which was reflected in a disappointing 44,639 cars sold. The company was back in the 1957-58 doldrums and the end seemed imminent. Indeed it was, but there would be a short postscript, with production moving to Canada(1) in 1964.
Studebaker Canada president Gordon Grundy believed that his Studebaker plant, which was much more modern than the outdated facilities at South Bend, would be able to produce more efficiently and thus have a lower break-even point. By Grundy’s calculation, he would be able to make a profit on a volume of 20,000 cars. Sadly, the new Avanti and elegant Gran Turismo Hawk were axed in order to simplify logistics.
The 1965 models as produced at the Hamilton, Ontario plant looked virtually identical to their predecessors but their engines were now sourced from GM Canada: there was a choice between a 194 cubic-inch (3.2-litre) inline six and a 283 cubic-inch (4.6-litre) V8. For that model year, 19,435 cars were built: close, but no cigar for Grundy.
The very last Studebakers of 1966 vintage were treated to a slight facelift; they now had single headlights again and a new ventilation system named ‘Refreshaire’ was fitted, with its stale air exhaust vents neatly integrated into the top of the tail lights. However, Grundy saw the writing on the wall and announced in March 1966 that all production would cease. On Saint Patrick’s Day, 17th March 1966, the last Studebaker was completed, marking the end of the road for the respected company that had celebrated its centenary fourteen years before. The Lark was a valiant effort (no pun intended) and a good car in its own right, but it could only postpone the inevitable.
(1) South Bend would continue to produce engines for a while to honour an existing union contract.
13 thoughts on “Independent Diptych (Part Two)”
Another great story of making much of little, thank you Bruno. Given how the auto industry has consolidated into a small number of automotive giants, there are no longer any examples (that I can identify) of impoverished manufacturers developing new models from old on a shoestring, which is a shame as the results were always interesting. The most recent I can think of mostly date back to the 1970’s and 80’s. The Morris Italian, Austin Ambassador, Chrysler Sunbeam, Citroën LN and Talbot Samba were all developed in this way as was, more recently, the SEAT Exeo and Golf Mk6, although obe could hardly describe VW Group as impoverished.
Not very recent (80s, again), but the Lancia Trevi probably qualifies as another good example.
Sorry for the late reply to this wonderful article. I always associate Fiat with this kind of thing: skirt the abyss, develop a great little car (500, Panda, Cinque), find success, develop uninteresting products for a while (Seicento*, several Bravo/a models), skirt the abyss… rinse and repeat. The second Panda (2003) still underpins the current one and the 500 (bar the new electric one) not to mention the second-gen Ford Ka; the Punto was built on the Opel/Vauxhall Corsa platform, which wasn’t new when the Punto was introduced. The Punto was subsequently kept on the market for a good decade and a half. Its design was strong enough to survive for a large part of that without Brooks Stevens-level genius being needed, but at the end it was a farce.
Other A-segment models (when manufacturers still bothered) were often similarly related: the well-known 107/c1/Aygo triplets and their 108/C1/Aygo successores which were basically reskins. Not as desperate as other examples you mention, but pretty ruthlessly costed all the same. The world may be thankful that when VW bothered with the A-segment, and subsequently kept the result alive forever, it was at its design zenith. In a sense, the whole of Stellantis has raised the ethos of “reskin and reskin again” to corporate policy – admittedly with frequently quite convincing results.
*I rather like the Seicento, but it is a pale shadow of the Cinquecento that it’s based on, particularly design-wise.
Hi Tom. You might be interested to know that covered the lovely Cinquecento and its less lovely successor back in March of last year:
That’s an excellent observation, Tom.
Good afternoon, Bruno. Thank you for this insight in the history of these cars that I knew very little about. I never realized there were so many ups and downs in the last years of Studebaker.
An interesting, sad, story. That first restyle is remarkably effective; the revised car looks vastly more modern.
The Lark’s proportions remind me of the Hillman Super Minx with, for the time, a relatively long wheelbase for the length. This seems to bring many brickbats the Super Minx’s way (dumpy, etc.).
The later Stevens Larks are a remarkable transformation.
As for a more recent example of a transformation, perhaps the original Land Rover Discovery could qualify as there was a lot of the 1970 Range Rover bones within it.
A pretty sad story with Studebaker, they should have introduced a 1959 Lark type model much earlier as the growth of the 4th gen Champion against the previous 3rd gen Champion (that ceased production in 1952) created a 7 year gap that during the 1950s ultimately cost them dearly compared to AMC and predecessors that produced more compact sized cars. They were in a position to field larger and compact cars at the same time in the early-1950s due to the flexibility of their platform yet did not think the public wanted compacts.
Another sad aspect would be how the Studebaker V8 OHV was not only unusually heavy and should have been a more compact engine, but also how they experienced early teething problems that was said to have cost them about $4 million to rectify with Studebaker incurring the cost of replacement not giving the customers any problems.
Studebaker’s corporate office basically starved the car operations from 1960 onward. They had a 2-step plan for the company’s survival;
1. Diversify – early Lark profits were put into buying the Gravely lawn mower company, Onan generators, STP and others.
2. Get out of the car business, as soon as union and dealer contracts allowed.
Good morning, everyone. I spotted this 1960 Studebaker Lark VIII convertible at the Saturday Night Cruise in The Hague yesterday. The only Studebaker I spotted among a sea of GM, FoMoCo and to a lesser extent Chrysler products.
Thanks, Bruno. As much as I like the big stuff, it was refreshing to see this Lark here. Together with a Pontiac Fiero this must have been the smallest cars there.