In the 1970s, when I was a lad, the Studebaker Lark was my hometown’s favorite beater. If some other car was your town’s cheap-transportation choice in those days, it’s probably because you didn’t live in South Bend, as I did. These stubby Studebakers sold well in a town that was proud of its most famous company, and by the early ’70s they hadn’t been entirely used up. The Hawk, in its various guises, was the next most common Studebaker, and most of these were loved and maintained. Even an occasional gleaming Avanti prowled South Bend’s not-so-mean streets. But the Lark was the beater king.
To find this one, I had to go all the way to the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma (and is there ever a lot of middle of nowhere in Oklahoma). It looks like this Lark had been pushed here following 20 years of storage in a barn preceded by 10 years of various kids hooning the bejebus out of it. The headliner is falling down. The tail lights are broken. The back bumper needs rechroming. A bungee cord holds the trunk lid down. And check out the positive camber angle on those rear wheels. I’m not up on my Studebaker suspension geometry, but that surely doesn’t look right to me. At least the body looks straight, and most of the chrome bits are present.
What makes this Lark look so right to me is that it’s just like every Lark I saw while growing up. This video is a blast from South Bend’s past. It is part of a sketch-comedy show, called Beyond Our Control, which was produced in South Bend and aired on the local NBC affiliate for 19 seasons, starting in 1967. (BOC was a TV show that parodied TV. High-school students produced it, and several of them went on to big Hollywood careers. Read more about the show here.) This circa-1970 sketch was created smack dab in the middle of the Lark’s secondhand-transportation supremacy. The Lark wagon in the sketch is a classic example, rust holes and all.
The people of South Bend are a resourceful lot, good at making the most out of what little they may have. I’m sure we learned that from Studebaker, which frequently took to its deathbed, then leveraged this or stretched that to push on for a few more years. In the late 1950s, Studebaker realized it couldn’t compete head-to-head with the major manufacturers, so they went looking for niches they could fill. They saw that compact cars could help them live to fight another day. As usual, they hadn’t enough money to tool up an all-new car, so they simply took their full-sized platform and body (which dated from 1953), then lopped off several inches’ worth of wheelbase and front and rear overhang.
I’m sure such trickery didn’t entirely fool anyone, as some of the styling touches carried over from the basic 1953 body now looked way out of date. Still, the car seated six with the same interior room as the former full-sized Studebaker. The 1959 Lark came in five body styles: a four-door sedan, a two-door sedan; a two-door hardtop; and two- and four-door wagons. In 1960, the first Studie convertible in eight years joined the lineup. I think the hardtop, with its blade-thin roof and huge greenhouse, looks best of all.
By all accounts the Lark was pleasant to drive, offering good power (especially when fitted with the eight-cylinder engine) and good brakes.
I’m more partial to Larks from 1962 and later, a period during which Brooks Stevens was given tiny annual budgets to keep adding modern style to an aging body. That style was needed all the more as the Big Three introduced their compacts, led by Ford’s hot-selling Falcon. Formerly strong Lark sales were taking it in the chin. Stevens evolved the styling further in 1963 and 1964, after which you could hardly tell that the Lark had anything to do with the 1953 Studebaker that spawned it.
Heck, you couldn’t even trace it to 1960. Stevens did remarkable work. But it wasn’t enough, and we all know about Studebaker’s sad end. The people of South Bend still feel it 50 years later. South Bend is a town defined by December 20, 1963, the day the plant folded.
Even though I was in the middle of nowhere, my iPhone got a 3G signal. I quickly posted a photo of this Lark on Facebook and immediately, all of my South Bend friends piled on: “You’ve got to buy this car!!” But, as you can see, even the interior is a mixed bag. I’d be up for a drivable survivor that still looked okay, but this one needs work to get even to that level, and I’m just not interested in either doing it or paying to have it done.
But if beaterdom or restoration appeals to you, the phone number’s right there on the windshield. Maybe you could drive this car in the Studebaker Parade next time the Studebaker Drivers Club holds their convention in South Bend. It would be a fitting homecoming.