Curbside Classic: 1964 Studebaker Challenger – This Challenger Never Had a Chance

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I have long had a peculiar love for the 1964 Studebaker.  I am one of the few people who spent time around at least two of these as a kid, so there is surely some nostalgia involved for me.  But it’s more than that.  The 64 Stude was a last valiant effort by the oldest vehicle manufacturer in the world to offer a fresh, contemporary car to the buying public.  It was, of course, too little too late.  It was also not all that fresh or contemporary.  However, this car represents the heart of a company that gave the best effort it could, given what it had available.  Who doesn’t love a car that represents such dogged and stouthearted determination?

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One of my very first Curbside finds was a ’64 Cruiser sedan.  At the time, I considered the car a mite rough for full CC status and opted to write the car up as an Outtake.  (And looking at it now, the picture quality was awful).  I was quite certain of my ability to find a better example of one of my favorite cars in short order.  After all, I live in Indiana, so how hard could it be?  A little harder than I first estimated, as it turns out, as I have never seen another since.

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Until Father’s Day weekend, when this little guy was seen parked outside of a car show I attended with my daughter.  It is not the Daytona hardtop or convertible that be my first choice, but this one sort of fits in with CC’s recent two door sedan jag.  And in this shot with its vintage license plate, its red white and blue sort of fills out an American Independence Day theme.

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Do you know how the term “Chrysler Imperial” is like fingernails on a chalkboard to many lovers of big Chryslers?  Well, “’64 Studebaker Lark” does the same thing to me.   The Lark name that had served the company so well for the previous five years was banished to the basement to languish with other old nameplates like President and Dictator.  Kind of.  I suppose that the Lark, which had seemed so fresh and new in 1959 now seemed a bit declasse’ to a company that was trying to move the car up a level or two in size and prestige.  The Lark was known to many as a cheap compact, an image that Studebaker was trying very hard to run away from as quickly as it could.

Studebaker 1964

Studebaker 1964

 

Actually, the Lark name technically applied to the lower trim lines, but the word “Lark” was not on the cars anywhere.  It was, however, in the brochure ( in some places but not in others) and a Lark logo was affixed to the C pillar.  The 1964 line (excluding the Avanti and Hawk) would consist of four models.  At the top was the Cruiser sedan (Luxury Studebaker).  Then came the Daytona (Sporty Studebaker), which came in a full line of sedan, hardtop, convertible and wagon.  Next was the Commander (Regular Studebaker) and at bottom was the Challenger (Studebaker for Tightwads).

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I have written before about my best friend Tim from my grade school years.  His family’s driveway was StudeLand until well into the 1970s.  In addition to their own family’s cars, Tim’s grandma drove a ’64 Daytona two door hardtop in the same shade of Laguna Blue as this Challenger.  You might say that this car set some of my automotive tastes for years to come, if not for life.  The practicality of the design, the luxurious touches of chrome here and there, and the slightly sporty touches in the interior really appealed to me.

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1964 Commander. Source: Eric Clem

 

Then there was the brown Commander sedan that Tim’s father borrowed from his brother for several weeks while the Avanti was apart in the garage for some repairs.  The Commander, a six/three speed car seemed the perfect answer for one who needed a practical transportation appliance.   Tim’s mother hated when we played in it, because every slam of one of the doors led to a shower of rust particles that threatened stains on her new driveway.

Studebaker 1964

Studebaker 1964

 

Until fairly recently, I had assumed that the Commander was the low-end car.  But no, that was the Challenger’s job.  I wonder – was it really cheaper to produce a second set of front end pieces for twin instead of quad headlights?  Perhaps so.  Or was this South Bend’s way of a gentle upsell for those who cared even a little about the looks of their car?  Who knows.

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Speaking of names, some other companies have taken some of these Studebaker names and made some pretty good cars.  Daytona and Challenger have made for some pretty iconic Dodges.  Then there was the Jeep Commander.  Toyota still offers a Land Cruiser, too.

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I do know that Studebaker made a valiant effort at making the 1964 model a car that appealed to everyone.  There were plenty of people who liked luxury, or sport, or economy, or genuine near-race performance.  Studebaker offered a car for each of them.  Or would have, if there had not been so many compromises that lessened the car’s appeal to each of those demographics.  Perhaps the company was trying to subdivide and create new demographics with the hyphenating word “practical” for each one.  The advertising makes much of the full instrumentation, the flat floors and the bolt-on rear fenders.  Or, more likely, Studebaker was doing it’s best to interest buyers in the automotive equivalent of day-old bread.  OK, maybe week-old bread.

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But really fast week-old bread, if the buyer was careful with the options list.  1964 was really the end of the road for a car like this – one that could be suited to any conceivable purpose.  By 1964, the market was fragmenting.  Manufacturers would offer several models, each of which satisfied a small niche and did it well, rather than one that could satisfy them all but with serious compromise.  The buyers of 1964 must have agreed, because once it became clear that the new 1964 model was not selling significantly better than the 1963 before it, the company pulled the plug.

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The ’64 Studebaker sort of tugs at my heartstrings the same way Rudy does in the movie of the same name.  All heart, but only limited talent.  But where Rudy Rudiger graduated from Notre Dame and went on to a successful life in business, the ’64 Studebaker got kicked out of it’s home right before Christmas and became a Canadian refugee. Before dying in it’s sleep two years later.

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It is with apologies to my neighbors to the north that I consider the ’64 models to be the last real Studebakers.  I did, after all, grow up within an hour and a half of South Bend.  And just what is a Studebaker without that ancient, heavy, durable and sometimes really, really fast V8?   Even these ’64s are a curious mixture of U.S. and Canadian production.

Although the Studebaker foundry stayed open long enough to supply home-grown engines for the remainder of the 1964 model year, every single car built after December 20, 1963 was assembled by the Hamilton, Ontario plant.  My usual signal for Canadian cars is the all-white steering wheel instead of the two-toned piece from South Bend cars.  The owner of this car has, however, swapped in an aftermarket wheel.  Maybe there are other signs that would identify this car’s parentage, and some sharp-eyed reader will further educate us.

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If you have not already noticed, this car has really sucked me into its little orbit.  I will even admit that the thought crossed my mind to call the phone number listed on the window and inquire as to whether a straight trade of a Miata might be possible.  But then I remember my stupidest-ever car trade in 1979 of a very nice ’68 Mustang hardtop for a ’59 Plymouth Fury sedan.  A Miata for Studebaker might top that one.  So never mind.   Infatuation can do funny things to a guy.

Studebaker 1964

Studebaker 1964

 

So can a Studebaker 289 V8 mated to a 4 speed.  At least I hope that’s what it is.  A smallblock Chebby would just be too much for me to bear.  If you want the Heartbeat of America powering your late Studebaker, well that’s what the 1965-66 Hamilton cars are for.   You can do so much better!  OK, maybe not with the head-cracking six that this car probably came with.  Still, it would be fun to tell everyone that I just bought a Challenger.  Must. Stop.

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So here we leave that oddest of 1964 American cars – the one that somehow simultaneously checks all of the boxes for a car of it’s era, yet also checks none of them.  But still, they tried.  They really did.  And it resulted in maybe the most competitive Studebaker since what, 1956?  Perhaps not a huge endorsement, but all in all, it was a pretty good car.  If you like that kind of thing.

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Further reading:

1964 Studebaker Cruiser (Tom Klockau)

1964 Studebaker Cruiser (Outtake by J P Cavanaugh)

The Studebaker Sedan’s Last Decade, Magic with Leftovers (J P Cavanaugh)