Studebaker in South Bend: Going, Going, . . .

As we finish out our unofficial Studebaker Week here on CC, I present some musings about what became of the old Studebaker site in South Bend.

In my previous trips to South Bend, I had never paid much attention to the remains of the old Studebaker facilities there.  But DougD did a nice writeup on the endings of the Canadian Studebaker operation, which got me wondering about the state of things in South Bend.  So while I was there, I did a little online research, then drove to the old site to find it just about gone.

Before its closure, Studebaker was one of the oldest industrial companies in the U.S.  The company began building wagons in 1852 and celebrated its centennial around the time other carmakers were reflecting on golden anniversaries.

Studebaker’s main facility once filled over 100 acres in 25 city blocks, and included 109 buildings, few of which were built after the 1920s.

This structure on West Sample Street, known as Building 92, dates to 1928 and contained Studebaker’s engineering and design departments.  This is the place where the engineering happened, from the straight 8 engines of the classic era to the Avanti.  As you can see, its demolition is underway.  It appears that the stone 1920s era Studebaker wheel trademark has been removed, and is hopefully to be put on display at the Studebaker Museum in the city.

The front of the building with its entry artwork still intact is shown in a photo taken some years ago.

Moving directly west of Building 92, almost the rest of the site has been cleared, with only what appears to be Building 68 in the background.  Building 68 contained the foundry, among other things.

As you can see, there is virtually nothing left of this once-huge manufacturing site.  Several years ago, some local historians took a lot of pictures and traced the history of Studebaker’s South Bend facilities.  Their work can still be seen at www.monon.monon.org/sobend/studeplant.html.

A few miles west of the main plant site was the proving gound.  Few recall that Studebaker built the first in-house proving ground in the 1920s.  This site was invaluable for testing of products.  In 1937, the company planted 5000 trees to spell the company name.  This landmark is still visible from the air in what is now known as Bendix Park.

Some may be surprised to learn that Studebaker continues to live, in a certain way.  In 1967, Studebaker-Worthington was formed and obtained the assets of Worthington and the non-automotive assets of Old Studebaker, which was then dissolved.  Studebaker Worthington was aquired by McGraw-Edison in 1979 which was, in turn, merged into Cooper Industries LLC in 2004.

As late as 2009, the Indiana Supreme Court was continuing to wrestle with the aftermath of Studebaker’s environmental liability, finally determining that Cooper Industries is legally liable for cleanup of the undoubtedly contaminated site.

Another legacy of Studebaker is the Employee Retirement Income and Security Act, better known as ERISA.  When Studebaker finally closed the old company after the Worthington merger, the employee pension plan turned out to be badly underfunded and many employees did not receive pensions as they had been promised.  This led to the passage of ERISA in 1974 (and to a Pension Benefit Guarantee system) to exercise oversight and some level of insurance of pension plans.

So, while the automotive operation died, the company (which managed to diversify itself out of the auto business) lived and will now clean up at least one mess that it never anticipated in 1967.  I am sure that this is some small consolation to the City of South Bend that is now, nearly 50 years later, trying to redevelop the site for other uses.