(first posted 4/23/2013. Updated and expanded 3/26/2017) It’s an issue that has bugged me for way to many decades: why did the 1959 Lark and 1960 Valiant have such similar front ends? There’s the vee’d and inset grille, the low-set lights with eyebrows over them that wrapped around and continued along the side; and the finely-textured mesh grille itself. And it’s not just the front end alone either; some design similarities can be seen in their rear ends too. And finally, I have an answer, thanks to Rob Moore, a Studebaker historian who clued me in: it was design theft. But who stole from whom?
Duncan McRae was given a very modest budget to transform Studebaker’s moribund 1957-1958 sedans into a “new” compact for 1959. It was a semi-desperate gamble, and one that paid of surprisingly well, generating profits for Studebaker the likes of which it hadn’t seen in way too long.
The main task was to drastically reduce the front and rear lengths of the Commander body. That may have been the easy part. But the Lark needed a fresh new face, as well as rear end. This body dated back to 1953, and was generally very out of date.
Here’s where the story gets interesting. Rob Moore, a devoted Studebaker historian, sent me this:
One of the magazines we get talked about the styling of the first Lark. Duncan McCrae was the Studebaker stylist. But the secret is out. Really what happened:
Duncan McCrae had his team create three proposals for the Lark in Clay. None were all that inspiring, according to Del Coates a Studebaker designer. In the article/interview, he recounts the story of how he and Bob Doehler, another Studebaker designer had each created one of the three Lark model proposals. Doehler’s design was very Mercedes inspired. One of the three were to be selected by McCrae for production.
One late evening, Coates and Bob Doerhle were called into a room with Duncan MacCrea and a fourth man, a person from Chrysler on a job interview for Studebaker. The designer brought with him, the Valiant designs. Doerhler and Coates were each given 5 minutes to study the photos and drawings. That was it, the guy didn’t get hired, but Studebaker set out to copy the design that Coates and McCrae and Doerhler viewed and memorized the best they could. So that’s the story.
In essence, Virgil Exner leaked some style elements from the Valiant through his son, who was consulting with Studebaker. McCrae took those elements and stuck them on the Lark. Look at the grill and the Valiant. Look at the headlight eyebrows on the Lark. Then look at the Valiant.
Of course, Studebaker’s Hawk had been using a somewhat similar grille shape for a couple of years but its integration in the front end was totally different.
And realistically, the Hawk’s grille was just another Chrysler/Exner imitation, given how Exner had pioneered the return of the classic grille back in 1953 with his Chrysler Ghia D’Elegance. For that matter, the Valiant’s low-set headlights and eyebrows are quite fully on display here already too. It was not that big a jump from this front end to the Valiant’s.
This really does help explain how Duncan McRae came up with such a successful design, and a rather forward-looking one at that. Keep in mind that the Lark essentially pioneered headlights in a lower position on the front, unlike up on the peaks of the fenders, along the 1959 GM cars also pioneered it, and the 1960 Corvair popularized in Europe and the rest of the world. I’d long wondered how McRae was able to be in the vanguard of this significant new wave of design, and now we know. As Bob said: designers were one big fraternity.
It’s also significant to note how the Lark’s sides and rear end treatment bear some very decided resemblance to the Corvair’s, with that well defined line just below the belt, the rear tail light position, and the smooth flanks. Seems like there was likely a bit of fraternal interaction with the guys at GM too. If the Lark’s chrome character line/trim had been contiguous and not humped up like that, it would have been too obvious.