A Tour of the Studebaker National Museum: Part 1 – Before World War II


I was born in South Bend a few years after Studebaker shuttered its plant, so a post-Studebaker South Bend is all I’ve ever known. But I will always love the quirky cars from my hometown. I’ve visited the Studebaker National Museum many times over the past 30 years, ever since it first claimed a few small rooms in South Bend’s downtown civic center, the Century Center, all the way through the building of its current home west of downtown. I visited again this summer, camera in hand.

The museum is cram packed with vehicles across Studebaker’s history, including this 1940 President club sedan. It’s all too much to fit into one post, so today I’ll share the Studebakers from before World War II, tomorrow the Studebakers from after World War II, and on Sunday some oddities and rarities in the museum’s collection.


The museum even includes some early Studebaker wagons, including this 1857 Phaeton. It is the oldest surviving Studebaker vehicle.


In its early automobile-making years, Studebaker flirted with electric cars. They were green a century before it was cool. This electric coupe topped out at 21 miles per hour and could run for 70 miles on a charge.


Studebaker’s entry-level line from 1909 to 1912 was called Flanders. This 1912 Flanders 20 was powered by an inline four.


This oddly styled 1924 Light Six has a custom aluminum body built by a Chinese coachbuilder. I’m sure it has quite a story, but it’s not talking.


Studebakers were positioned as hardy in the early days. This 1925 Big Six Duplex Phaeton racked up nearly a half-million miles in its time, its 353-cube inline six generating all of 75 hp.


The company also wanted to position its cars as speedy. This 1928 Commander Roadster was one of three to establish new speed and endurance records in an event in Atlantic City, where it averaged more than 65 miles per hour over a continuous 25,000-mile run.


Studebaker tried its hand at small cars in the late 1920s and branded them Erskine after company president Albert Erskine. The Erskine name still appears here and there around South Bend’s south side today. I grew up on Erskine Blvd., in Erskine Park.


Because Studebaker’s 1950s and 1960s cars are relatively plentiful, and those cars came from continually lean years where the company barely had two dimes to rub together, it can be surprising to come upon one of the company’s luxurious prewar cars. The President sat atop the Studebaker hierarchy in the 1930s and was a well-appointed automobile.


This 1935 President convertible sedan was produced in Studebaker’s Walkerville, Ontario plant and has a custom aluminum body.


This 1937 Coupe Express is a fairly rare car because these didn’t sell well. It packed an 218-cubic-inch inline six that generated 90 hp.


This is my favorite of the prewar Studebakers on display: a cheerful 1940 Champion coupe in red. I’m a sucker for prewar coupes anyway, but that it’s a Studebaker just makes my heart swell with hometown pride.

Tomorrow: The postwar Studebakers.