Concept Classic: Studebaker Sceptre – The Thunderbird From South Bend (Updated With Expert Commentary)

Studebaker Sceptre fq

(Update: I have received some excellent commentary and insight into the situation at Studebaker regarding the Sceptre and other plans during these final years from Studebaker historian Rob Moore. It is at the end of this post, below)

If things had gone right, the Thunderbird “Flairbird” might have had a competitor from South Bend. In 1962, Brooks Stevens was given the commission to design several prototypes for the next generation of Studebakers. One of them is this sporty-personal coupe, named Sceptre, intended to replace Gran Turisimo Hawk. Except for a few details, like the big logo on the middle of the hood, it’s certainly a credible contender.

studebaker sceptre


The electric-razor front end is a bit odd, but I could get used to it. I almost convinced myself that Stevens borrowed that windshield from a 1961 Continental, but on closer examination, I think not.

Studebaker Sceptre rear

There aren’t many really good shots of its tail end, but this gives a pretty good view. It certainly is a clean break with Studebaker’s previous cars, and Stevens’ cars invariably have a light, airy and clean look to them.

Studebaker Sceptre int b

image: sjb4’s Photostream

The interior is clearly Thunderbird-inspired. The Sceptre prototype was built in Italy by Sibona-Bassano, and is now housed at the Studebaker National Museum.

Studebaker Sceptre dash

The instrument panel is rather unique. Wonder how legible it would be in the sun?

Studebaker Sceptre hi

And how successful would it have been, against the T-Bird , as well as the Riviera and Pontiac GP? We’ll have to leave that the realm of perpetual speculation.

By Rob Moore:
The Sceptre was the two door coupe to replace the aging Golden Hawk. They couldn’t afford the tooling and therefore Brooke Stevens did the Grand Turismo Hawk-which they could afford. That decision was one of the first made by Sherwood Egbert.  Instead of doing the Sceptre, they did the Avanti.  It was different and more performance oriented. It cost less to tool because it was fiberglass. It used a platform they already had—Lark convertible.  Egbert got Stevens to do work ups and then money and reality would set in and the South Bend boys would have to back off. Stevens would then have to make the old look new.  Avanti however was the Lowey team.

When Egbert came in the plan was to facelift the Lark instead of a new model.   Get a two year run out of it and then introduce all new cars for ’64.  (Remember we are talking December 60-Jan. 61, in the middle of the ’61 Lark model which was the 3rd model year. Churchill authorized a mild front end facelift. It took off in the second half of the model year). ’62 was the Brook Stevens update done on pennies. Brooke took elements of the Sceptre and birthed the Grand Turismo. The Avanti was to be a late 62 model.  It was VERY late.  The Stevens 62 Lark facelift was only supposed to be a 2 year car.

The 62 Lark was hurt by the Chevy II. The 1963 Lark without the dogleg did not sell well.  The Senior BOP compacts that arrived that model year, along with all new Rambler models, hurt sales badly. The Avanti, despite great reviews, missed the wave crest where hoopla and available for sale should meet.  In early 62, the board new they needed to move on beyond the continued warming of the old 53 Studebaker and 59 Lark.  The cars pictured below were presented to the board. They approved both cars and put the Wagonaire into production for the 62-63 model year.  In March 63, Egbert presented the cost proposals on the  cars below and the Avanti II, a series of cars based on the Avanti (the 2 door, the 4 door, and the 2 door convertible).  His second plan was a Brooke Stevens facelift of the Lark to look like these cars and Avanti II.  His third plan was the below cars and the Avanti alone. His fourth plan was the Brooke Stevens facelift of the Lark and the Avanti and, then, if successful, put the cars pictured below into play as ‘65’s.  His fifth plan was “Plan B”  corporate liquidation.

In the presentation to the board, Egbert withdrew Avanti II (no one knows why).  The board went for Plan 3.  Egbert went to get the financing.  Banks said they would only loan the money if Egbert put up the newly acquired subsidiaries as collateral.  Egbert knew the Board was not THAT committed anymore to automotive manufacturing and declined. Plan 4 was then adopted.  If the Lark facelifts to look like these cars below worked, the banks would then lend money to tool up for 1965’s.  If not, Plan B was there.

On September 21, 1963, the Stevens facelifted 1964 Larks came on the market.  By October’s board meeting they had 60 sales days’ worth of unsold cars.  1/3 of the work force was sent home and Egbert dropped down to less than 40 cars per day.  It was over by the board meeting in November. The public was not buying the “new” 64 (even though everyone thought it the best looking Studebaker in years).    Not much is known about the November 1963 board meeting but that Egbert went in and fought to continue manufacturing.  Several items are believed to be argued by him:  1. An up tick in sales had happened but collapsed after President Kennedy was assassinated.  Egbert asked that South Bend remain open at a lower operation rate through 1964.  Second: Egbert knew both Chrysler and Ford were about to hit the youth market, which Egbert had positioned the new Lark convertible. Third. Studebaker was beginning to crack into the performance game.

NHRA Studebaker successes were beginning to draw attention. Bobby Unser and the Studebaker powered STP Special Novi  were setting all kinds of Indy records.  Egbert pleaded for time.  But then in the meeting he had to announce that he was about to go into surgery for a second round of cancer treatments.  All persons around at the time indicated he looked really bad. The guy that brought Egbert in as President was no longer chairman, having resigned in August 1963.  The diversification program had worked.  The board saved the company shareholders, and now could exit car manufacturing without much problem.  With Egbert sick and a Chairman who believed it had been over for Studebaker since the failures of the 1953-1954 models, Egbert was put on “indefinite sick leave of absence.”  Burlingame was put in as President.  The board did do what Egbert had generally recommended—lowered operational levels.  It just did it in Hamilton Ontario, not South Bend Indiana.

As you know I have studied this and as much as I don’t like second guessing,  the Sceptre would have been a better deal than Avanti. I have seen it up close at the Studebaker Museum.  Egbert wanted a signature vehicle with Corvette performance (not a fat man’s Thunderbird).   The marketing guys at the time did not think the Sceptre would sell.  Why—looked too much like a Ford at a Studebaker price way above what the Ford could be purchased for.  The money that should have gone into tooling went into the “diversification” plan.   The diversification plan worked.  It saved the company—it did not save auto manufacturing.  Churchill’s plan for the Lark worked (low cost development—few competitors in the market).  He knew time was short.  Egbert was right to move toward performance (because that was where the market was going) but he went upmarket.  Churchill would have stayed down market and built a poor man’s rocket.