The Studebaker National Museum contains its share of unusual vehicles, too. This 1951 Commander is one of two used in The Muppet Movie.
It’s changed quite a bit since 1979 when the movie debuted. Actually, I doubted that it was the same car until I looked at the open trunk and found driving controls. Did you really think Fozzie Bear drove the car himself?
The museum is also home to the 1956 Packard Predictor show car. Designed by Dick Teague and built by Ghia, it’s definitely a 1950s vision of a begadgeted future. I don’t think the styling has endured. The Predictor was built to run, and packed a 300-hp V8.
It had to be clear by 1962 to everyone in Studebaker leadership that the company was on the shakiest of ground. The Avanti was a hail Mary pass, a halo car around which the rest of the Studebaker line would rally. Studebaker hoped to build a whole line of everyday cars that used Avanti’s styling cues. Two prototypes were built – a fastback sedan and a notchback sedan. This is the fastback.
This is the notchback. Both cars were built in France by Pichon-Parat atop stock Studebaker running gear. Could cars like these have saved Studebaker? Probably not, but it’s surely fun to imagine seeing them on the road.
The Studebaker National Museum is home to a few non-Studebakers. The Bendix Corporation had a major presence in South Bend; my grandfather was an engineer there for much of his career. In the early 1930s, the company began building this car to showcase its automotive products. It is entirely hand built; off-duty Studebaker employees participated. It cost a whopping $84,000 to build, and was completed in 1934.
I’m not quite old enough to remember when the U.S. Mail was shuttled about in these little Zip Vans; my earliest mail-truck memories are of right-hand-drive Jeeps. Studebaker supplied the chassis and drive train while Met-Pro Products of Landsdale, Pennsylvania, built the bodies. This 1963 Zip Van is a ground-up restoration of a rusted-out hulk found in a junk yard.
The Zip Van’s interior is a mighty Spartan place to be.
South Bend was also home to the Wheel Horse Company, which manufactured lawn and garden tractors. When I was young, the company made promotional stickers that read, “Get a horse! Wheel Horse, of course.” It was considered tres cool among the South Bend schoolyard set to have these stickers plastered all over your notebooks.
The museum also shows cars that travel the museum circuit. When I visited, this VW Beetle with a unique body was on display.
This Beetle appears to be drivable, with an engine in the back and a key in the ignition.
This 1950 Champion Starlight is also part of the traveling show. It is tricked out to resemble a World-War-II-era Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter plane. My favorite detail is the Mitsubishi and VW logos on the side as if to indicate the number of enemy planes shot down.
I spent a good couple hours wandering around the Studebaker National Museum, as it may be my last visit for a good long while. My parents have both retired now and plan to leave South Bend for Indianapolis, since all of their children and grandchildren live here. Even though my last physical tie to my hometown is about to be broken, I’ll always be from South Bend and feel proud of my town’s automotive heritage.