(first posted 5/11/2011) Today we take a trip from Eugene Oregon to Hamilton Ontario Canada, and more significantly to the opposite side of the curb for another sort of Curbside Classic, a classic auto building. This building is known locally as “The Studebaker Plant” although it hasn’t been that for 50 years. On March 16, 1966, the last Studebaker to be built here rolled off the lines.
In 1941 Canada was already two years into World War Two, and the Canadian Government built this facility with Otis-Fensom to manufacture Bofors Anti-Aircraft Guns in the industrial hub of Hamilton. The new plant occupied 7 ½ acres off Victoria Ave. North, with rail access alongside. As a wartime project it’s a building with few frills, constructed in just 14 weeks during a grim time for a nation with a job to do.
Studebaker comes into the picture in 1946 following the war. Like all the auto makers, Studebaker was looking to cash in on the postwar sales boom and adding capacity in Canada looked like a good move. Skilled workers were nearby; the plant even abutted a residential neighborhood. Raw materials and services were abundant with the industrial base of the city, and Studebaker parts arrived from South Bend by rail.
The Hamilton plant got off to a flying start, with 1950 being the peak year of car production. Sales were good through the ‘50’s, Studebaker was the city’s 10th largest employer, and had a “family” reputation with Christmas parties and social outings. A car going down the line with family connections could even get a few extra spot welds or coats of paint.
But, by the end of the 50’s the party was starting to wind down. The causes of Studebaker’s demise are well documented elsewhere, but shrinking sales coupled with the disastrous Packard merger motivated the board to diversify the company into more profitable areas and cut the purse strings to the auto operation. In spite of this they did have some successes along the way. The clever repackaging of the full size 1957 passenger compartment with a stubby hood and trunk resulted in the compact Lark, which tripled sales to 126,156 cars in 1959 and provided the basis for the remaining years of sedan production.
The Lark’s runaway success was short lived. The compact models of the Big 3 (Falcon, Corvair and Valiant/Dart) came out in 1960 and set to work eroding Studebaker’s remaining market. From this point they were essentially doomed, with increasingly outdated product generating fewer sales, and ever less cash to develop new models. The closing of Studebaker’s main works at South Bend Indiana was announced on December 9th, 1963 and carried out just 11 days later.
Uncertainty was high in Hamilton, but the plant had always been profitable with a break even point of 20,000 units, and production continued. The closing actually provided a temporary boost to Hamilton, as additional workers needed to be hired and tooling was transferred from South Bend.
The remaining Studebaker engines were used through 1964, but starting in 65 engines were sourced from the GM plant in nearby St. Catharines making the last Studebakers even more Canadian. You could have the 194 straight six or the 283 V8 in your Stude, the only difference from a Chevy motor being that the valve covers were painted the traditional Studebaker yellow.
As the Hamilton plant, the Lark sedan and its derivatives soldiered on into the 60s, further clever and inexpensive redesigns by legendary designer Brooks Stevens helped slow the inevitable slide, but 8947 cars trickled out in 1966 before the board pulled the plug on March 5th. Studebaker survived as a legal company, but after 64 years automobile production was over.
In a way it’s merciful that Studebaker exited the auto business when it did, the spectacle of the sedan models laden with crash bumpers and rectangular headlights would have been as bad as the injustices done to the Avanti, which staggered from its grave in 1965 to live on in various zombie guises until 2007 (but that’s another story).
Meanwhile the former Studebaker building enjoyed a new lease on life, as former tenants Otis returned in 1969 for Otis Elevator production until 1987 when it was again shuttered.
Since then the mighty half million square foot facility has been chronically underemployed. A variety of small scale or just plain goofy operations have occupied all or part of the plant. A 2004 scheme called Hamilton Film Studios lasted just 2 months, they apparently neglected to consider that the many support columns in an industrial building would interfere with wide angle shots. The office building is in use as a community health center, and lately there have been newspaper articles hinting at a $20m Indoor Sports Facility, but the FOR SALE signs remain on the outside.
What’s also still on the outside are the faded block letters spelling out Studebaker. They’re on the north side visible over the train tracks that used to bring parts to the busy factory.
Like the building, it’s amazing that any Studebaker cars have survived to become curbside classics, but orphan car enthusiasts are a dedicated and resourceful bunch. The Hamilton area has an active chapter of the Studebaker Drivers Club and I’ve run across a few that are used for summer daily drivers. Most people aren’t lucky enough to have a CC Studebaker within walking distance of their home, but I’ve got two:
This 4 door Cruiser is a real gem, and best of all it’s just around the corner from my house so I can see it every time I go for an evening walk.
It’s got the 1966 only grille, so this one has a 283 and a sweet V8 burble from its twin tailpipes.
An older gentleman is occasionally seen around town in this 1950 Bullet Nose Champion. This car was getting a bit ratty last year but has reappeared outside the retirement residence with a new coat of paint. Well done sir!
The Studebaker name has long passed into irrelevance with the general population, but some well cared for cars and the vacant factory provide clues to the company that once was, in Hamilton at least. I wonder though, in 2011 the best selling passenger vehicle in America is a boring four door sedan with a reputation for reliability. If Studebaker had played their cards right could it have been them?