Curbside Classic: 1959 Studebaker Lark VIII Regal Hardtop Coupe – Studebaker’s Last Hurrah

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What’s the most significant car of 1959? The giant finned Cadillac? It’s pure excess embodied in steel and chrome, the apogee (or nadir) of a trend that had been building for decades, spurred on by Harley Earl’s mantra: longer, lower, wider. But there were contravening voices too—weight is the enemy—and the Studebaker Lark is their ultimate expression. It’s the anti-’59 Cadillac, a mere 175 inches short and 2600 lbs light, yet it has all the classic American car requisites of the time: a V8 engine, automatic transmission, body-on-frame construction, and room for six, in a pinch. But what’s really notable is what’s missing: huge front and rear overhangs, fins, and acres of chrome.

The Lark is the alter-reality mobile of 1959, an American car with a European sensibility. And there were just enough folks who bought into that fairly radical idea in 1959 to make the Lark the biggest hit for Studebaker in way too long, as well as their last one ever.

Studebaker 1939 Champion

It’s not the first time that a smaller car had saved Studebaker; the first was the 1939 Champion, the car that brought Studebaker back from the precipice of the Depression and bankruptcy. It was the first serious attempt by one of the major manufacturers to counter the trend towards ever greater size, weight and power that had taken hold in the early-mid thirties. Although giving up little or nothing in terms of passenger space and comfort, careful design and engineering created a car that was shorter, and most of all lighter, weighing some 2,200 lbs, about the same as the Ford Model A. That allowed it to perform well with its new and smaller 164 CID six, a sweet-running and relatively high-revving (4,000 rpm) 78 hp engine that gave the Champion big car performance, along with better handling and economy.

Rather than calling it the first modern “compact”, one could say that the Champion was “European sized”, inasmuch as it espoused the ideal of maximum comfort in a package as small and light as possible, with the attendant benefits of handling and economy. And it was about the size of a “large” European sedan.

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That was no coincidence, as the Champion was designed  by French-born Raymond Loewy, who had catapulted into the leading edge of the new field of industrial design. Loewy put his stamp on everything from locomotives, ships, appliances, office machines, cigarette packages, consumer goods and anything else that wanted to look up to date during this decade of revolutionary design transformation. And Loewy was a true automobile enthusiast, keeping up with the latest European trends during his many visits to the continent.

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Loewy not only influenced Studebaker design for twenty years starting with the Champion, but its whole approach to car building. He constantly pushed Studebaker to build trimmer cars, and during the development of the 1947 models, he had these signs WEIGHT IS THE ENEMY posted everywhere. Although his design contract ended in 1955,  Loewy’s long relationship with Studebaker would leave his influence and legacy right to the very end, including consulting and designing the last-gasp Avanti. Although the Lark was not designed under his direct supervision, it is still very much a Loewy-mobile.

Studebaker 1947 Champ coupe

The all-new 1947s reflected Loewy’s mantra, as had the 1939 Champion. This ’47 Champion coupe was listed at 2,670 lbs, over 300 lbs less than a comparable Chevy coupe. The 1948 – 1951 period saw the best sales years and profits ever for Studebaker, taking advantage of the post war market with fresh, new products. But that wouldn’t last.

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The brilliant new 1953 Loewy coupes were a bold attempt to rekindle interest, and were of course lower and longer. But they were still light; a Champion coupe weighed in at a mere 2,595 lbs. But the coupes were a failure and a dead end; their sad story is here.

Studebaker 1953 Champ sedan

In some ways, the 1953 Studebaker sedans are an even sadder story, and not just in their looks, which was the result of an unfortunate last-minute effort in having it share the coupe’s styling. But the coupe’s styling didn’t really lend itself to a sedan, and the sedan was stuck with the tall and ungainly proportions of the previous generation sedans. They were a poorly-conceived afterthought, and the results were crippling.

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Studebaker assumed that sedans would still make up the majority of ’53 sales, as was typical in the industry. They lacked confidence (and preparation) in their superb new coupes. And it turned out to be the opposite; demand for the coupes was stronger than expected, but serious production snags limited coupe output. And buyers shunned the ungainly sedans; a disastrous double whammy. Meanwhile, Ford and Chevrolet were discounting their cars like mad in a battle for market share; that alone was the most damaging event for all of the independents. The post war seller’s boom was truly over, and GM and Ford had their guns blazing. And Studebaker was stuck with a sleek coupe whose reputation was dinged and a sedan whose proportions were off-putting.

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We’re not going to cover those difficult years for Studebaker of the mid-fifties in detail here; the “merger” with Packard, and the management contract with Curtiss-Wright, and all of the attendant bad decisions and resulting disappointments. Loewy’s design contract with Studebaker ended in 1955, and the last job handled by his team, headed by Bob Bourke, was the 1956 Hawk, a low-cost effort to inject a bit more life in the ’53 coupe body. It worked, more or less, and the Hawk would soldier on for a number of years.

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Packard’s James Nance was not a big Loewy fan, and was determined to get away from the sloping low hoods and tails that Studebaker’s own sales manager, William Keller, referred to as “the droopy penis look”.  Nance wanted GM-esque style, with big, bold front ends, and tall tails to match. Vince Gardner was hired to re-do the sedans for 1956, and he did just that. The result is certainly more mainstream, and gave them more gravitas; not that it did much for sales. Studebaker’s losses were mounting, and the millions needed for a completely new body to be shared with a new Packard Clipper just weren’t to be found.

Studebaker 1957 Champ

That resulted in another last-minute refresh for 1957, now by Duncan McRae, who also designed the proposed new cars that were stillborn. New Studebaker President Harold Churchill faced a daunting task. And he nearly succeeded, based on a new strategy: stop trying to compete with the Big Three and find niches big enough to exploit profitably. Labor and other costs had finally been brought down, lowering Studebaker’s break-even point to some 100,000 units, possibly even as low as 80,000. Now the task was to find enough niches to exceed that number.

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The Hawk fit into that strategy, the only personal performance luxo-coupe of its kind at the time, and sold in modest but fairly steady numbers. In May of 1957, the flintskin niche was identified, and duly addressed by the Scotsman, the ultimate stripper, lacking even chrome on the hub caps.

Contrary to what might be presumed, Studebakers had been consistently more expensive than their Big Three competitors. They were sold on certain qualities that folks were willing to pay more for, whether that was advanced styling, trimmer size, better efficiency, or just because they were loyal to the brand. And Studebaker did have some features the competition didn’t, including an automatic in 1950, a rather advanced but expensive unit, and the first ohv V8 in the low-priced field (1951).

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But with the Scotsman, Studebaker was able to undercut Ford and Chevrolet by some $100. Only a few thousand were envisioned, but its sales exceeded expectations, and the Scotsman’s success directly led to the Lark. A growing number of Americans wanted cheap and basic transportation, and the booming import market and Rambler’s rapid growth were very real proof of that trend. And Harold Churchill wanted a chunk of it.

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In the meantime, 1958 needed to be muddled through, somehow. Meaning that poor Duncan McRae had make the ’58s look somehow more relevant, or just different. Everyone was going to quad headlights, but Studebaker couldn’t afford new front fenders, so pods were grafted on, as well as fins on the back.

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Even more embarrassing were the “Packardbakers”, a line of ’58 Packards that as forced on Churchill because S-P Chairman Roy Hurley hadn’t yet totally given up on finding the money for a new Packard line. It was a sad end to what had once been America’s leading luxury car brand.

In mid-1957, Harold Churchill made his big gamble: he would kill all of these increasingly absurd (and useless) efforts to compete with the ever bigger and finnier cars from the Big Three, and bet the South Bend farm on a compact car. After relentless pressure from his sales executives, the Hawk was given a stay of execution, so that Studebaker dealers would still be able to cater to those looking for something more upscale. But the mainstay, and Studebaker’s only hope of salvation, was to be…the Lark. Realistically, it was really the only option left, as any further attempts to make the hopelessly outdated 1953 sedan body any more competitive with the Big Three was simply foreclosed. So the opposite (and more obvious) route was taken: turn the old sedan body into a competitive “compact”. Rambler was on a roll, and Studebaker wanted in.

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Once again. Duncan McRae was given the lead on this very challenging job, assisted by Bob Dohler, Ted Pietsch, Virgil Exner, Jr., Bert Holmes, Bob Mcneary, Bill Bonner and Ray Everts. The timeline was brutally short: nine months from clay approval to introduction; a timeline unheard of back then. But then the Lark was hardly an all-new car; essentially, it was the middle section of the venerable 1953 sedan, with its ends drastically shortened. The comparison with the 1958 above makes the changes (and what wasn’t changed) quite obvious. Several hundred pounds of dead weight were left on the cutting room floor.

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The wheelbase was shortened by eight inches, from 116.5″ to 108.5″, almost exactly the same as the Rambler’s 108 inches. But the radically shortened Lark made the Rambler (above) look gaudy and profligate in comparison, what with its fins and 190″ length. In fact, it looked a lot more like the 1958 Studebaker than the 1959 Lark. What had McRae wrought? And had Studebaker gone too far in its radical appendagesectomy?

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This graphic (and in-scale) comparison with the 1959 Cadillac really brings the Lark’s proportions and shortness into perspective. The Lark is 175″ long; the Cadillac 225″.  Yet the Lark probably gives up very little in the way of useful interior passenger space, with probably more headroom and a bit less width. These two represent the black and white polar opposites of the American car in 1959.

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The Lark previewed the radical downsizing that the Big Three themselves would have to undertake in the late 70s and 80s, which resulted in a 1985 Cadillac Coupe DeVille that was closer to the Lark in length (and proportions) than its 1959 predecessor. Like the Lark, it was big on the inside and small on the outside. And not surprisingly, it was scorned by its traditional base of buyers. It’s still America.

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How was the Lark actually created? Studebaker Chief Engineer Gene Hardig took a ’58 sedan body, cut off the ends, shortened the wheelbase by tucking the rear wheel in closer to the rear seat, and gave it to the designers to come up with a suitable front and rear end. And as one small concession, they were given the budget for a flatter roof panel, to make it look a bit more modern. But the inside dimensions were essentially the same as the “standard size” cars Studebaker had been peddling for years. Not surprisingly, the Lark was quickly put to use in taxi service, where its space efficiency and economy were very welcome.

Studebaker 1959 lark wagon

Somewhat surprisingly, Studebaker had the funds to give the Lark a fairly complete line-up, including a two door station wagon that sat on a longer 113″ wheelbase, since it had to basically re-use the whole rear section of the existing wagon.

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And then there was the two-door hardtop, seemingly an extravagance, one that neither Rambler nor the Big Three’s 1960 compacts would have. And in 1960, a convertible joined the lineup, another compact exclusive. I found this very nice ’59 coupe at The Home Depot, where an employee parked it there daily for some time, and we’ll use it for a closer look at its styling, chassis, drive train and interior.

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Let’s start at the front and work our way back. One of the advantages of the Lark’s rushed development was that it could be the beneficiary of design ideas that were more 1960 than 1959. The Big Three’s 1960 compacts were already essentially designed by the time the Lark was being birthed, and that shows, in some very key ways.

Valiant 1960 front

As mentioned earlier, Virgil Exner, Jr. was on the design team that worked on the Lark. And what was his dad working on at the same time? The Chrysler’s 1960 Valiant. It’s no coincidence that the Valiant’s front end was previewed on the Lark in 1959, minus the quad headlights. Admittedly, the 1956 Hawk already had a similar neo-classic grille shape, but there’s more to it than that, most of all the low-set headlights and the the “eyebrows” over them. Prior to the 1959 GM cars and the Lark, this was just not seen before, and was the beginning of a design revolution that would soon sweep the world, thanks to the 1960 Corvair. And by extension, the Lark, although it didn’t make quite the impression on Europeans as the Corvair would.

Corvair 1960

And although we don’t know the source, there was obviously a mole in the Chevrolet studio. The Lark’s clearly defined horizontal character line and the smooth and slabby body sides below it were clearly influenced by the 1960 Corvair. The design community was a small one, and secrets were hard to keep.

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The Valiant may have donated its front end, but in addition to its sides, the Corvair  also contributed to the Lark’s flat and stubby tail.

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No, it’s not a dead ringer, but no one else was doing anything like this in 1959. Suddenly, it’s 1960!

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The one place the Lark didn’t crib was its hardtop roof. It was new to the sedan body, since the very DeSoto-like 1958 hardtop wouldn’t fit on the shorter Lark. But it was hardly all-new either. It echoes the ’53 coupe and Hawk’s roof, and for a good reason. There’s little doubt in my mind that the rear windows are the same in both, which dictated the roof line. Curved windshields and rear windows are expensive to tool up, so recycling them was part of the brief.

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The windshield is a carry-over from the wrap-around unit introduced mid-year 1955 on the sedans, and nicely clad in aluminum (or stainless) trim on the hardtop. Overall, it’s a surprisingly effective make-over of what had been a very dowdy and aged sedan dating to 1953.

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The end result is decidedly European; if someone said this was a Borgward, Mercedes, Lancia, Peugeot, or Humber, and you didn’t know better, it would seem plausible. Its proportions are European, and its simplicity of line and good tailoring gives it a pass. Actually, its Corvair-inspired cleanness put it ahead of most European cars of the time. Designer Bob Doehler gets the primary credit for putting it all together in his clay.

So much for the good. The lark sits too tall, given that it has a full frame underneath it, which was almost totally passé in Europe by then. And somewhat oddly, it still used big 15″ wheels and tires, which gives it the look of a puppy with big paws. Maybe someone can photochop it to sit a bit lower, as it would if it were a unibody.

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Of course there’s more than a passing resemblance to the Sunbeam Rapier, given how the Hillman Audax cars were also styled by Loewy’s firm.

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I left out BMW from my musings above, but its 1600/2002 is really the European car that most resembles the Lark. Maybe we’ve been giving credit to the wrong car that inspired the BMW’s timeless design.

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The Lark’s interior had recycled bits and pieces too. The central glove box dated from 1956; the steering wheel from 1957. But they all harmonized well enough, and most critically, there were no tooling or production glitches in getting the new Larks put together, unlike the ’53s, where front clips wouldn’t match up to the cowls.

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Sitting in a Lark, or any Studebaker, had a distinctive feel, from the basic shape, the materials and the design elements, but also because the floor was rather high, and the center drive-shaft tunnel quite small. Unlike the Big Three cars of the times, whose cars had either X or perimeter frames that allowed the floor to drop down between the frame members, the Studebakers sat completely on top of the frame, a rather archaic construction. It’s what made them look tall, and why the sleek Avanti had its seats right on the floor.

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Studebaker interiors always let one know they were from a smaller manufacturer; one could see how the parts had been created and mounted, with exposed fasteners quite common. Larger molded plastic parts were conspicuously absent. It may have been thrifty, but it never felt cheap or plasticky. The low and rather distant instruments and controls were a Studebaker hallmark. It’s simple, but quite appealing. And again, it has a rather European feeling. Although Raymond Loewy didn’t directly oversee the Lark, his influence was lasting, on the overall concept as well as in the many parts and details.

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And what did Studebaker put underneath one of the cheapest. quickest but most remarkable make-overs in automotive history? Studebakers all sat on a very conventional ladder frame since…forever. The version from 1947 was never really changed much, and the Lark simply used a shortened 1958 Champion frame, but it was stiffened some, in the growing understanding that torsional and beam stiffness in a frame was a good thing, and was crucial to good handling. The long and willowy frames on the Loewy coupes had been problematic, and were the reason Studebaker didn’t build convertible versions.

The suspension was carried over from ’58, with Studebaker’s conventional short-long arm IFS with variable-rate coils in the front, and a live rear axle supported by leaf springs. Steering was by peg-and-sector on the sixes, and roller-and-sector on the V8s; with 4.5 turns it wasn’t overly slow. Thanks to the weight reduction on the front wheels, testers found the unassisted steering quite light.

Reading over a few tests from 1959 reveals a mixed bag in terms of overall handling. On the one hand, the Lark’s stiffer frame and lighter weight undoubtedly made it the best handling car to ever come out of South Bend, but then the company didn’t exactly have a rep in that department (along with Rambler), undoubtedly a reflection of the smaller budgets available to them for extensive suspension testing and development.

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The Lark undoubtedly handled relatively well compared to some of the heavy and soggy cars of 1959. But it was noted that those qualities deteriorated rather quickly with more weight aboard. And the limitations of a heavy live rear axle controlled only by the springs made itself felt, with a shudder from the rear on every take off but the gentlest, and skittering over rough surfaces. The relative ratio of unsprung to sprung masses deteriorated with the lighter body, an issue better dampened by heavier cars.

Sports Car Illustrated wrote in their review: As the Europeans have shown, when you make a light car, the only way to get big car comfort on all roads is to incorporate independent suspension on all wheels. Easier said than done, unfortunately. A critical insight, and one that explained why big American cars had mostly good rides, and the compacts mostly didn’t, except the Corvair. Lots of “road hugging” unsprung weight was cheaper than independent rear suspension. or just a well-located live rear axle. And Chrysler’s 1960 Valiant soon showed the handling benefits of a rigid unibody and well-sorted but conventional suspension. Body-on-frame construction was not the way forward, especially in a car 175″ long.

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Road and Track was more effusive, given that the Lark was exactly what its Editor John Bond had been calling on Detroit to build for years, and called it “a less insolent chariot”. They were impressed with its six-passenger roominess in such a compact package, and the resultant improvements in handling, steering, braking and efficiency. There is absolutely no feeling at any time of driving or riding in a small, light car. The ride is extremely comfortable, yet for an American car, it does not feel soft or mushy. 

Since the brakes were carry-overs from the 1958s, both the Lark six and eight (with bigger brakes) had better than average braking, with no more than eighteen pounds of weight per square inch of brake lining, a good number for the times.

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Needless to say, the Lark’s hurried and cheap development program meant that little could be done in terms of its engines. That was more of an issue with the aged flathead six, which dated back to the 1939 Champion, than the ohv V8, which was new in 1951. There had been some early work done to develop a new modern ohv six, but it was not to be.

Back in 1955, Studebaker gave serious consideration to converting the sidevalve six to an F-head, and Barney Roos, who had done just that with Willys engines in 1950, was brought in to consult. But it was determined that the F head configuration, which created an overhead intake valve and port but kept the original side exhaust valve and port, was getting to be a bit dated for the the late 50s.

As an alternative, Studebaker arranged an engine swap for 1956, whereby AMC would take Studebaker V8s and give its more modern ohv six to Studebaker. It never came to pass, as AMC had its own V8 ready for 1956.5, and lacked capacity for any more sixes.

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So the Champion six was massaged a bit for the Lark. Stroke was reduced back to 4.00″, where it had been from 1940 through 1954, which with its little 3.00″ bore resulted in 169.6 cubic inches (2.8 L). Compression was upped to 8.8:1, and it yielded 90 gross hp at a relatively high 4,000 rpm, for a flathead engine. Torque was 145 lb.ft.@2000. Unlike most lazy big American sixes, this one was smaller than average, and required more revs. Given the Lark VI’s 2,600 to 2,700 curb weights (as-tested weights were some 170 lbs more), performance was…barely adequate.

0-60 times varied in different reviews, from as low as 18 seconds to well over 20. It ran out of steam pretty quickly, especially with a load or on hilly terrain. Performance was not as good as AMC’s ohv six, and certainly would be overshadowed in 1960 by the Valiant’s new slant six. But that’s what there was, and it would be 1961 until an ohv conversion would be ready, and even then, it was hardly a success. The small bore made it difficult to fit decent sized valves in the head, and as a consequence of squeezing them in, cracks between the valve guides became all-too common.

But economy was quite good, given the times.  There are a lot of widely different numbers thrown around, but stop-and-go driving yielded about 18 mpg, and about or just over 20mpg were seen in steady speed driving, but not over 60 mph. Overdrive was available, and that improved mileage on the highway, into the low-mid 20s in optimum conditions. Combined with the Borg Warner automatic, acceleration was even more leisurely, and economy dropped some 2 mpg.

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The availability of a V8 in the compact Lark was a benefit of its origins. The Studebaker V8 was hardly light or particularly compact, weighing in at about 700 lbs. For 1959, both the Lark and the Silver Hawk shared the same 259.2 cubic inch (4248cc) versions, making 180 gross hp with a two-barrel carb and 195 with the optional four barrel carburetor. The Studebaker V8 had a reputation for being durable and reasonably efficient, as well as being incontinent, with oil leakage being almost ubiquitous.

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Weight on the Lark VIII (why didn’t they just call it the V8?) increased by 300 lbs, pretty much all of it on the front end. That increased understeer, but performance got a much-needed shot in the arm. 0-60 times were now in the 11-12 second range for the 180 hp version, and 9-10 seconds with 195 hp, at the reasonable expense of a couple of mpg in fuel economy. The availability of the V8 clearly gave the Lark a whole different image than just an economy-minded compact, like the 1960 Ford Falcon. And it was considerably faster than the new Rambler V8.

For that matter, the Lark wasn’t ever trying to be ultra-cheap, like the Scotsman. The basic Lark VI sedans did just barely keep under the $2000 barrier, with a list price of $1925 for the two door and $1995 for the four door. But painted hub caps were a thing of the past.

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Harold Churchill was an energetic and expansive man, and it showed in his sales projections for the 1959 Lark: 300,000! In reality, it turned out to be some 130,000; 100k sixes and 30k V8s. Along with a smattering of Hawks, which were kept in the line-up at the insistence of the dealers, total MY 1959 output was 138,866. That was still a splendid showing, as Studebaker hadn’t had a 100k+ year in way too long. And due to Churchill’s diligent cost-cutting, profit for 1959 exploded to $28 million.

The financial turnaround for Studebaker within a little over a year was miraculous. The new-found cash was quickly put to use in expanding the acquisition of other companies, so that Studebaker’s carry-forward tax credits from its previous losses could be put to use to offset the profits (and resulting taxes) from them. And the convoluted financial/management contract with Curtiss-Wright was terminated early. Studebaker primarily used its stock for these acquisitions, and the 1959 turnaround suddenly made that seem valuable. Investors and banks were happy again.

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Churchill (on right, delivering the 100,000th Lark to its new owners) was a hero, and he expressed no concerns about the new 1960 compacts due from the Big Three in 1960. He tried to put the usual spin on it, that with the Big Three promoting compacts the overall market for them would expand, and propel the Lark along with it on the updraft.

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Except for the addition of a convertible and four-door wagon, the 1960 Lark was essentially the same. Its frame had an X-member added and box-section reinforcements to its sill, and as a result weighed almost 400 lbs more than a sedan, blunting its performance somewhat. Bit it was the only convertible in its field, and Studebaker’s first since 1952.

Some within Studebaker argued for a face-lift for 1960, given the wave of new competition. But Harold Churchill suddenly started channeling Henry Ford, and determined that the Lark was just perfect as is, and should never change. He saw it as an American Volkswagen, and felt it could go on forever. What is it about a bit of success getting to someone’s head?

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Sales for 1960 started out quite good, with Lark VIII sales on the upswing; V8s now accounted for almost 50% of Lark production. But sales of the six dropped precipitously, withering under the onslaught of the Falcon, Corvair and Valiant. The Lark quickly was forced into an even smaller niche: compact V8s. Calendar year production was down to 105k, but much worse, profits withered to a mere $708,850. Meanwhile, the Lark had not impacted Rambler, as might have been hoped; Rambler sales continued to grow, and were close to a half million in 1960.

Another crisis hit Studebaker in 1960, as it had just about every two years since 1954. That one was solved by the merger with Packard. The 1956 crisis was solved by Curtiss-Wright. And the 1958 crisis by Churchill’s Lark. But there was no ready solution for the 1960 crisis, which would only get worse in 1961.

Meanwhile, Churchill would take the hit, being effectively demoted and assigned a variety of tasks other than running the company. That job fell to Clarence Francis, 72, retired President of General Foods who now became chairman and CEO of Studebaker.

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Standing pat a lá VW was not going to work. So the 1961 Lark got a bit of a freshening, with a new C-Pillar and rear window, a first start on what would be a continuous process of hiding its 1953 sedan origins bit by aged bit.

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And the first step in lengthening the Lark was also taken. The 1961 Lark Cruiser sat on the longer 113″ wheelbase as  used by the station wagon, and also used the longer rear doors from the 1958 President, as well as the older style 1959-1960 C-Pillar and rear window. Studebaker was rummaging around in its body die warehouse, and re-using whatever they thought might work.

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The extended rear compartment and extra leg room made the Cruiser suitable for weddings as well as taxi cab service, even off-roading, if the ad for the LWB HD sedan is to be taken literally. Studebaker was desperate to find new niches, no matter how small.

Studebaker 1961 Lark coupe

Steering was improved, with a new recirculating ball type box, and power steering with 3.5 turns lock-to-lock was available, for the first time. And the hardtop coupe also got a version of the new sail panel and rear window. But the market had moved on, and Lark sales fell off a cliff, to just just 66k.

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To Clarence Francis’ credit, he did not see himself in his role for more than to effect a transition. And that came in 1961, when he and the board hired the very dynamic Sherwood H. Egbert (here on left with Raymmond Loewy) as President and last-ditch savior of the automotive business. Contrary to what is often said, Studebaker’s board would have been thrilled to see their car business succeed. Giving it the resources, in light of its deteriorating condition, was another matter. Their efforts to generate excitement with the Avanti ended up similarly to the ’53 coupe – in tears. That sad story is here.

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Churchill left behind plans for an even smaller Studebaker, on a 100″ wheelbase and a flat four engine, along with body panels to be shared with a new 108″ wb Lark. It didn’t take Egbert long to realize that the market for cars that size was too small, and already too heavily contested by the Rambler American and all of the imports. Instead, he went the other direction, and had all the four door Larks now ride on the Cruiser’s 113″ wheelbase, and called designer Brooks Stevens in to make it look even longer. For 1962, Stevens could only push out the grille some in the front, but was able to create an extend rear end with protruding round tail lights. The budget was a measly $7 million for tooling, and an even measlier six months to implement it.

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For 1963, Stevens was able to take it to the next level, with a complete new upper body greenhouse. But as the Lark evolved, it also started to leave its name behind. In 1963, this Cruiser sedan was no longer a Lark, and by 1964, the name took flight forever. The Lark had a short five year life span.

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In its final 1964-1966 incarnation, it was just the Studebaker Cruiser, Challenger and Daytona, and there was nothing visible left to remind folks of the 1953 sedan from whence it originated, except for the basic proportions, like that set-back rear wheel. With a bit of squinting, one can see where Brooks Stevens was heading, design-wise, and his prototypes and concepts for new Studebakers would have gone even further in that direction. Studebaker still hoped to find a niche, for a (seemingly) sophisticated downsized American automobile, just big one that would allow it to survive. But realistically that didn’t really exist, until it did; and by then it was dominated by cars that were intrinsically superior in every way.

Studebaker 1959 Lark _4dr

During my grade school years in Iowa City (1960-1965), Larks were unusually common. On our third day after arriving there, we were taken on an our first outing by an English couple in a pink four door. There were no less than three Larks on our block; one belonged to an old widow, another to the wife of a German hydraulics professor (who drove a Mercedes), and another to the alcoholic wife of an engineering professor (who drove a big Olds hardtop); she would sometimes would show up at Lincoln School on a rainy day, and about a dozen of us squeezed into her red two door sedan. I remember once having to sit right up next to her, and her boozy smell and the moaning little six as it struggled up the steep hill on Park Road are seared in my memory.

Studebaker MBZ dealer Web

Some close friends, also from Germany, lived a block away and had a Lark. And there were more. Come to think, there were more Larks than Corvairs, especially in the ex-pat University of Iowa crowd. The Europeans, especially the Germans, seemed to really have taken a shine to the Lark; it was the affordable Mercedes of its time. The fact that Studebaker had been distributing and selling Mercedes in its dealer’s showrooms from 1957 to 1963 probably only added to the image that Studebaker was more continental than the others. And after Studebaker closed, Iowa City’s dealer sold Toyotas, which were then quickly embraced by the same folks in the late 60s and early 70s, when their Larks were worn out.

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The Lark and the Corvair were the most European cars ever made by an American car maker. The Corvair was an Americanized European car, with its air-cooled rear engine and sporty handling, and it appealed to Americans wanting some European flair and flavor. The Lark was a Europeanized American car, with its conventional build and a husky V8 in a small package; it appealed to Europeans wanting an American car with continental styling and dimensions.

Although the Corvair did a bit better than the Lark, neither of them found a niche large enough for true and lasting success. They were pioneers, testing new compact solutions to America’s fragmenting society and automobile market. Others would pick up where they left off, synthesizing aspects of both in a new compact form, one that appealed to genuine Americans, not just Europhiles or European ex-pats.

 

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The Lark had its brief moment of sunshine in 1959, almost solely by virtue of cutting in ahead of the line of the new compacts getting dressed for their coming out in 1960. That’s hardly a recipe for enduring success, yet it managed to generate enough money for its corporate parent to diversify and survive. Desperation is the mother of invention, and the Lark was one of the most unusual and compelling cars of the post-war era, an odd mixture of clumsiness and elegance; practicality and flair; thrift and performance. And most of all, American and European. It was a unique synthesis that was both ahead of its time and behind it. Only Studebaker could pull that off.

 

More on Studebaker’s last decade:

The Studebaker Sedan’s Last Decade Of Styling – Magic With Leftovers   by JPCavanaugh

CC 1963  Lark Wagonaire – A Real Vista For The Cruiser   by JPCavanaugh

CC 1963 Studebaker Avanti – Flawed Brilliance   by PN

CC 1962  Gran Turismo – Irrational Exuberance  by JPCavanaugh

CC 1962 Gran Turismo – A Beautiful Death  by PN

CC 1964 Challenger – This Challenger Never Had A Chance  by JPCavanaugh

CC 1956 President – Sadly Squared Up  by Laurence Jones

1957-1958 Scotsman – Discount Life Preserver  by Jeff Nelson