Automotive History: The Studebaker Sedan’s Last Decade of Styling – Magic with Leftovers

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It is well documented that the last really new Studebaker was the 1953 model.  The Starliner and Starlight Coupes got all of the glory, but the bread and butter of the line were the regular sedans and coupes.  These “standard” Studebakers were nowhere near as good looking as their sportier siblings, but had just as long of a life – sort of.  It is received wisdom that Studebaker kept building that 1953 model all the way to the end.  But did it?  Let’s take a walk through the many changes that Studebaker would make to these cars in the attempt to keep things fresh.

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Many casual car fans do not fully appreciate how different the Loewy coupes were from the rest of the Stude line in 1953.  These were, really, two completely different models that shared almost no major body panels.  And with the lackluster reception that these models received from the buying public,  Studebaker would be forced to rely on both of them until the end of its days.  And like with a leftover Thanksgiving turkey (that the ’53 models sort of turned out to be), the cooks in Studebaker’s styling department kept finding new ways to serve up the leftovers for the next decade.  Sort of like Turkey Helper?


I have previously compared the AMC Hornet (and the cars that were made out of it) as AMC’s ’53 Studebaker.  However, the more I have thought about the analogy, I am not being fair to the Stude.  While the first Hornet and the last Eagle were easily identifiable as sharing the same body, this comparison is not quite so clear between the ’53 and the ’64-’66 models put out by Studebaker.


Studebaker was fortunate in one respect, which was that its cars were still body-on-frame construction.  This meant that changes were much less expensive to make than on cars of unit construction.  This problem would plague Nash and Hudson as the 1950s progressed, making it virtually impossible to disguise the basic bones of their aging unit-construction bodies.  However, the fact that the Studebaker was less expensive to change didn’t much matter when they didn’t have the money to make changes anyway.


This would be a good time to point out one interesting feature about the 1953-55 Studebaker two-door sedan – a feature that I had never noticed until recently when I was looking at one on the Bay of E.  Notice how the body panels behind the doors and ahead of the rear fenders appear to be vestigial doors, welded into place.


As visible as it is in brochure artwork, it is even more so on an actual car, especially so in a light color.  If ever there were a smoking gun to prove how behind schedule the company was in getting the new ’53 models out the door, here it is.  Had the folks in South Bend possessed a bit more imagination, we could be discussing the inspiration of those suicide-door cab-and-a-half pickups of the 1990s.  But instead, we just shake our heads at the cutting of a very visible corner.


The first big money to be spent on the car was on the be-all and end-all of 1950s styling: the wraparound windshield.  This was seen as such a huge priority that the company couldn’t wait until the new 1956 models to bring it out.  Many of you may never have noticed that there were both early and late 1955 Stude sedans.  The early cars (and most, if not all, of the lower-priced Champion models) came with the 1953-54 -style windshield.  Then midway through the year, the new wraparound windshield appeared.  There were even two versions of the cover page of the brochure.  The 1950s version of Photoshop?


Not as radical as the wraparounds from GM and Ford in 1955, the Studebaker version was fairly conservative.  Good thing, as it turns out, because that design would be on these cars for quite awhile.  The 1955 windshield would display another trait that would dog these cars to nearly the end:  Studebaker could never make enough changes to a new style to make it really look new.  The late ’55 windshield was easily missed on the 1955 car that so closely resembled the prior models.  Then, when the heavily revised 1956 model came along, the stylish new wraparound windshield would be ignored as a holdover element from last year’s car.


The 56-58 models had quite a lot of design money spent on them, but it was almost all in the sheetmetal and trim below the beltline.  This restyle was notable for the loss of the scallop in the rear door that confirmed the kinship between the 1953 sedans and their sportier Starliner cousins.  However, though the scallop in the rear door disappeared, the rest of the character line from the front fender would remain, simply disappearing in the back door.  This line would dictate the placement of side trim for quite a few years yet.  The greenhouses of these cars (the most expensive part to change) were mostly unchanged from the late ’55 cars, except that the two-door sedans finally received proper rear quarter panels that did not resemble a welded-shut door.


There was one significant change to the 1958 model that I had missed completely.  Everyone notices the awkwardly incorporated quad headlights.  But what was missing was that ubiquitous rectangular fresh air vent in the front fender.   Although this feature would remain on the Hawks until the final 1964 models, the sedan line eliminated it beginning in 1958.  Am I alone in wondering if that money might have been better spent on a more elegant solution to the quad headlight problem?


There was one mysterious exception to the unchanged greenhouse during these years – the attractive single year hardtop roof of 1958.  This hardtop will go down as one of the great mysteries to Stude fans everywhere:  With the first investment made in the roofline of this body since 1953, why did it disappear after a single year?  If nothing else, why did this roof never get adapted to the Lark?.  Could it have been that there was a  stench of death from the rest of the ungainly 1958 model?  But I digress, so back to the sedans that are the topic of this conversation.


The 1955 greenhouse would come over to the new 1959-60 Lark pretty much unchanged.   On the one hand, it did not make for an unattractive compact, and may have been the best looking coupes and sedans put on this body up to that time.  On the other hand, the Lark’s unique greenhouse styling made the new car immediately recognizable as a rehash of an old one that had never received much love in its earlier iterations.   Actually, the Lark’s windshield appears to carry a different part number from that of the 1955-58 car.  Whatever the change was, it seems invisible to the naked eye.


Also, this is where we correct those who would claim that the Lark was nothing more than a 1958 model with the overhang on the front and rear ends sawed off.  The Lark also received a new 108.5 inch wheelbase, shortened considerably from the ’58 Champion’s 116.5 inches.  At least part of this eight inch shortening shows up in rear doors that for the first time received a dogleg cutout for the rear wheel openings.  Could the 1958 Studebaker have been the last mainstream passenger sedan with perfectly rectangular lower rear doors?


The relative success of the 1959 Lark must have freed up some major restyling funds because the first change to the roof of the car would appear on the 1961 model.  For the first time since 1953, Studebaker did away with the reverse-slant C pillar that had been a signature styling feature on these cars.  Also, you probably never noticed that the windshield was changed again, with a more upright angle and less of the wrap-around effect.


Actually, the old style roofline was retained on the stretched Lark Cruiser which joined the lineup in 1961.  The Cruiser was really a retail version of the Econ-O-Miler taxi model which shared a 113 inch wheelbase with the four door wagon instead of the 108.5 inch wheelbase used on the rest of the Lark line.  Do the rear doors on the ’61 Cruiser look vaguely familiar?  Those longer rear doors likely mandated that the “classic style” roof be maintained.


1962 would see quite a bit of change, not all of it readily apparent.  This would be the first sedan designed with Brooks Stevens’ input.  Unfortunately, this was a styling job that would have to be done in two installments.  First, she short wheelbase version would disappear, so that all Larks would now be on the longer 113 inch wheelbase.  But now, the long wheelbase body got an updated roofline similar to the basic ’61 Lark.  Most of the design budget showed up in the revised front and rear styling, including fenders and quarter panels.  It would appear that the new Lark also made use of slightly revised versions of the long rear doors from the ’61 Cruiser.  But for all of the new changes, it was clear from that out-of-style windshield, those thick upper door frames and the old-fashioned exposed B pillar that it was the same old Studebaker.


It was with the 1963 model that Brooks Stevens would finally be able to afford to finish his vision for the car.  This year marked the first really visible change to the car’s greenhouse since 1955.  A new modern windshield and thin door uppers were added to what was otherwise last year’s Lark.  Although it is difficult to tell, this car may have used the same roof panel as well.  Stevens also jettisoned the “dipped” bright side molding that made the ’62 take on a swaybacked appearance.  That dipped molding had been made necessary by the perennial character ridge in the body side that was finally eliminated on the ’63 sedans.  In an apparent cost savings, that ridge remained pressed into the 2 door models all the way through 1966.  Another change which not even I had ever noticed until a later edit is that the lower doors were revised to finally conceal the old exposed B pillar, which had always stuck out like a sore thumb.


There were also enough changes made to the cowl for modern parallel action windshield wipers to replace the old 1950s-style opposing wipers.  It was a major step and a major expense for Studebaker, but the new lightened upper body was not completely up to the task of changing the look of the heavy lower body.  Once again, the carried-over parts of the design worked to overshadow and disguise the new parts, and to confirm that this was anything but a new car.

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Thanks to Eric Clem for this beautiful 1964.


It would not be until the 1964 line that  Brooks Stevens would be given the budget to do a more thoroughly revised outer body.  This was a very clever job which involved a revised roof and rear door uppers, along with a new front clip that finally eliminated the Lark’s sawed-off appearance.  The car also got new rear styling, all of which served to disguise the carried-over doors and rear quarter panels.  For the first time since 1953, it could be argued that the new Studebaker was indeed a new model.  We will ignore the 1963 dash panel that carried over, as well as the fact that the body still perched on top of the frame rather than nestled down into it as on every other body-on-frame car not named Checker.  Also, not until writing this would I come to realize that the outer rear fender appeared to be the very same piece used in 1962 and 63.  Attractive as they were, the new 1964 model would unfortunately prove to be too little, too late.  When early sales figures did not show a significant jump from 1963, the decision was made that enough was enough, and production in South Bend would cease within just a few months after the 1964 model’s debut.  This car would, of course, soldier on for two final model years as a product of Studebaker Canada, but there would be no body changes from the final American version.

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There is probably no company that did more with less over a longer time than Studebaker.  And I would be surprised that if, by 1964, there was a single significant piece of the original 1953 body that was still in the car beyond the floor or the firewall.  Actually, even the floorpans were slightly revised in 1961.  But just as the old axe that had received two new heads and three new handles was still Grandpa’s axe, the 1964 Studebaker will be for all time considered to be a very cleverly disguised 1953 model.  An accurate assessment?  Certainly a point for debate.

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What is beyond debate is that through a decade of relatively minor, incremental changes, Studebaker finished up with a design that was certainly no less appealing then they one with which they began in the early 1950s.   And that, dear readers, is not something seen very often.