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 This body dated back to 1953, and was generally very out of date.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: 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.
Look at the taillight treatment. Slanted vs. horizontal. McCrae and Stevens worked on the proposals below (referring to the Sceptre and new Studebaker generation concepts). Isn’t it amazing how the first proposal looks very 1964 Plymouth and 1962-1963 Chevy! Designers were one big fraternity. Detroit was not that big a town for them! R.M.
Of course, Studebaker’s Hawk had been using a similar grille shape for a couple of years, but its integration in the front end was totally different.
And the rear is not quite as obvious as the front. But it 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. This is very huge trend that the 1959 GM cars also pioneered, 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 bear some resemblance to the Corvair’s, with that well defined line just below the belt, and the smooth flanks. Maybe there was a bit of fraternal interaction with the guys at GM too.