As most of you know, 1966 would mark the final year of production for Studebaker (although some younger readers may be surprised to discover that Studebakers were still in production into the mid-60’s). If you are not familiar with this particular Studebaker, that is understandable: Studebaker only sold 8,947 models in what would be their final model year. I held few hopes of ever seeing a 1966 Studebaker in person until I spied this one last summer at the auction of renowned Studebaker collector/hoarder Ron Hackenberger.
Things were not looking good for Studebaker in the early 1960’s. The ill-fated merger with Packard in 1956 did little to lift the sagging fortunes of either company. Indeed, Packard had to go out with the ignominy of being dressed up Studebakers for its final two model years before finally being put to rest in 1958.
Desperate for new product, but without the capital to undertake the development of a completely new line of cars, in 1959 Studebaker took 8 inches of wheelbase and over two feet of length off their 1958 vehicles to create the Lark, Studebaker’s first post-war compact car.
The Lark actually turned out to be a smart move for Studebaker: Full-sized models from the Big 3 had grown so much that, by the late 1950s, Studebaker’s “full-sized” cars were closer in size to we would now call intermediate, and were no longer competitive. Studebaker, like many manufacturers in the late 1950’s, was anticipating the coming wave of compact cars, and this was a niche that still had relatively little competition.
By downsizing their existing platform/body into a compact, Studebaker was able to quickly bring the compact Lark to market and get a one-year jump on the Big 3. Studebaker released the Lark in 1959, while the Big 3 would not release their Valiant/Falcon/Corvair compacts until the 1960 model year. Furthermore, starting with a larger car allowed Studebaker to include some large car features in their compact (most notably a V8 engine), a feature that none of the Detroit compacts would initially offer.
Sales of the Lark were initially strong but dropped precipitously as the Big 3 launched (and then rapidly improved on) their own compact offerings.
For 1964, Studebaker tried their best to modernize the Lark’s styling, whose 1950’s roots were aging rapidly. Designer Brooks Stevens did as much as possible to makeover the Lark to look more contemporary. The headlights were fully integrated into the grille, the wraparound front and rear windshields were ditched, and the deck lid and rear fenders were flattened to eliminate the vestigial tail fins. The Lark name would also start to disappear in 1964, before going away completely in 1965.
I personally find the 1964 styling improvements are surprisingly effective, especially with quad-headlights, but the market disagreed as sales continued to plummet. As a result, Studebaker was forced to close its unprofitable South Bend plant in December of 1963, midway through the 1964 model year. All Studebaker production was shifted to Hamilton, Ontario, where it was hoped that its lower break-even point could allow Studebaker to turn a profit on reduced sales volume.
The loss of the South Bend plant also meant that Studebaker would have to find a new source of engines after their supply of South bend engines was cut off after the end of the 1964 model year. So for 1965, Studebaker now had to source all of its engines from GM of Canada, using Chevy’s 194 cubic inch six and 283 small-block V8 engines.
The 1965 models were virtually identical to the 1964 models, and sales continued to plunge. With the departure of the Gran Turismo Hawk and the Avanti the previous year, Studebaker was now a single product company. Studebakers being built in Canada with Chevy engines only increased the sense with US buyers that Studebaker was moribund, thus stunting US sales further. Some folks took to calling them Chevybakers.
For 1966, a low-budget refresh was applied to the lineup in a last-ditch effort to keep the Hamilton plant running. The goal was to make the cars have a more premium feel, as Studebaker could no longer compete on low price or thrift alone.
This included a substantially upgraded interior with brocade fabrics (on the Cruiser) and plastiwood appliques on the door and instrument panel, body-colored grille inserts, and an available vinyl roof. The Studebaker Brougham.
Alas, it was still not enough, and sales dropped further, by some 50%. Despite eeking out a modest profit in both ’65 and ’66, the Studebaker board (correctly) figured that there was not much future as a low volume automaker, nor was there an easy path forward to prosperity. So on March 16, 1966, the Hamilton plant was closed after producing only 8,947 1966 models. Studebaker now belonged to the ages.
Our featured car is a V-Series Cruiser model. With “V-Series” indicating the presence of the 283 V8 and “Cruiser” being the top trim level, this vehicle represented the pinnacle of Studebaker’s final lineup. It also sports such optional goodies as automatic transmission ($225), Climatizer heater/defroster, and exterior mirrors.
For a car whose origins can be traced all the way back to 1953, Studebaker did a remarkable job of keeping it up to date, at least at first glance. The front and rear bear a striking similarity to the contemporary Chevy II. The use of wood trim inside is a surprisingly effective update.
However, upon closer examination, some of the problems become clear: The upright flat side glass gives the greenhouse an awkward appearance at a time when most manufacturers were beginning to use curved side glass. The creases above the wheel arches also looked dated, as the slab-sided look was now in.
Alas, as we all know, rarity does not translate into value. This surprisingly decent and rust-free example ended up selling for just $1,500, which even 50 years later speaks volumes about why Studebaker stopped selling cars.
Automotive History: The Studebaker Sedan’s Last Decade of Styling – Magic with Leftovers
Curtis Perry Outtake: 1966 Studebaker Commander – Save The Cost Of Changing Automobile Body Styles Every Year!
Car Show Classic: 1966 Studebaker Cruiser – Brougham Trainee
My Great-Uncle had a 1962 Lark VIII, which was the first and only exposure I had to Studebakers. That he died when I was about 7 years old and neither one of my older brothers wanted his Lark spoke volumes about the Lark’s reputation as an old man’s car.
It’s hard to know how I would have responded to the conditions back in the day, but I think a Chevy powered Studebaker would have been a rather good value back in the day. The Lark sized car would have been comparable to many of the then-current midsizers of the day. Depending upon your point of view, the fact that it was body on frame may or may not have been an advantage. But, admittedly, I’m one of those guys who doesn’t need to be on the cutting edge; I’ll happily drive the previous model while the bugs get worked out of the current model.
The feature car went for $1500? Someone got a deal. I hope it gets restored, or at least not parted out and then scrapped.
And in 65-66 the only way to get a 3 speed automatic with your 283 V8 was to get a Studebaker. Chevy still only offered the 2 speed Powerglide with this engine.
The Chevelle was BOF too.
There were actually plans for a facelifted 1967 Studebaker. A prototype was created by the design firm of Marcks, Hazelquist, and Powers (who also did the ’66 facelift) with a higher rear bumper, some revised trim, and a two-box grille instead of the 1966 four-box design. However, the stopping of production in March 1966 killed the idea.
There is a story floating around that the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, was that the stamping die for the decklid panel broke one day in the spring of 66. Rather than invest in a replacement, management said “that’s it”.
Brand new sheetmetal parts were available for decades (and some are still out there) but new 64-66 decklids have long been unobtainable.
$1500.00? That car has got to be the perfect starter for someone wanting to get into the serious (AACA, as opposed to cruise-in/cars and coffee/resto-rod) antique car hobby. Plus, with a Chevrolet drive train, it’s both historically accurate as well as cheap and easy to keep running.
To put this price in perspective, when my father bought me my first antique, he paid $400.00 for a clean, original, 1937 Buick Special two door luggage (as opposed to humped trunk) back sedan. Which was an average price for a running non-classic, ordinary, unrestored car in July 1968. Which gave me an almost twenty year involvement in the AACA before vintage motorcycles nudged the cars aside.
That’s a bargain I would have dived on, even though I don’t have a particular interest in Studebakers.
Having seen a ’66 Studebaker (at the museum in South Bend) that was retained by Studebaker Corporation for a while after ceasing auto production, these are very nice cars and do a good job of hiding their roots.
$1500 is an absolute steal for this car, but if that’s what the market dictates, so be it. The buyer did well.
If you go back and read the previous articles on Ron Hackenberger, he was basically a hoarder that didn’t take the best care of his 700+ cars. Most sat outside for years,if not decades. being neglected. Few of the cars at the auction were in running condition (almost all had to be moved by tow truck).
Buying a non-running car is always a big risk, as fixing the engine could be as simple as spark plugs, or as big as a cracked block. $1,500 is probably fair for a non-running example.
The design firm also planned to imagine how Studebaker would had look past 1970.
And if you like to see how the 1967 front end might had look. http://forum.studebakerdriversclub.com/showthread.php?17909-Design-a-Post-66-Studebaker-Grille&p=193043&viewfull=1#post193043
And Down Under in Australia, they used for the first season of the tv series Homicide, a Studebaker before switching to Ford Falcon, Holdens and Aussie Chrysler Valiants.
Thanks for posting the front-end pic. I remember seeing it ages ago but hadn’t been able to find it on the web.
The coppers in Victoria really did use Studebakers from the late ’50’s through to about ’66, including ’65-type models, so the Homicide usage is accurate. I suppose it was because they were locally assembled and had a V8, where no local Holdens or Fords did. From ’66 on, the Falcon had a V8 available (though so did the Valiant from ’65 or so).
I’ve said this before about Studebaker – the 1966 model was long outdated when it came out. At best, it looked like a 1963 Ford Fairlane, but cruder.
The company just could no longer compete in any car arena, just like all the others that went before it, and AMC would soon enough find out within 20 years.
AMC had a portfolio of modern, if half-baked, cars and SUVs when Renault sold to Chrysler. They weren’t pushing just 4WD Hornets.
Some Stude purists will argue that the engines in these are McKinnon engines (built by and purchased from GMs McKinnon Divison, not Chevrolet engines. But I say tomayto-tomahto.
Studebaker never could have withstood the safety and emissions rules that were about to start cascadingin 1966. AMC was a juggernaut in comparison and was itself nearly on the ropes a decade later. Studebaker picked a perfect time to quit.
The Hamilton-built 64 models had South Bend-built engines because the Studebaker foundry was on a separate UAW contract and continued in operation for the rest of the 64 model year.
The Keystone Region of the Studebaker Drivers Club held its annual swap meet in York, Pa. until 2017. It was not uncommon to see a 1964 Studebaker at the meet.
These may look decent in photos, but in real life, it’s apparent that they were outdated compared to the offerings of the Big Three and AMC.
One person who purchased a 1966 Studebaker was actress Frances Bavier, aka “Aunt Bee” on The Andy Griffith Show. Bavier was a Studebaker loyalist, and that 1966 Studebaker was her final car. Her pea-green Daytona still exists.
Hand in hand with the falling sales was the evaporation of the dealer network. When my dad bought his 51 Champion, he went to a dealer close by in Dearborn. When he went shopping for the 56, the Dearborn dealer was gone, so the Commander came from a dealer in Ann Arbor. When the time came for the Lark, the Ann Arbor store was gone and he ended up at Husak in Detroit. Some time in 63 or 64, I rode along when dad needed to buy some part for the Lark. As we pulled into Husak, I noticed all the signage said Dodge.
Meanwhile, as mom was buying her 64 Rambler, I looked across the street at what had been the Kalamazoo Studebaker dealer. The round disc on the front of the building that had been the location of the Studebaker S logo, now had a VW logo on it. That Kalamazoo dealer must have abandoned Studebaker in mid 64, as I saw several 64 Studebakers around town for several years after the dealer switched to VW.
The final end of Studebaker was an inevitable death spiral. Management didn’t want to put any money into the car division while it was spending on other divisions like Gravely, Onan and Clarke. That left the cars with obsolete underpinnings that made them cramped inside when rooflines fell, and customers stayed away. Fewer customers made for fewer dealers, which made it harder to buy a Studebaker, so more people gave up and bought a Rambler (mom) or Ford (dad) instead.
The story I read of why the company picked that particular day to end production was that one of the stamping dies for the truck lid broke. The company refused to spend the money for a new die, so when the on hand inventory of trunk lids was used up, they turned off the lights.
I’m trying to imagine what was going through the mind of the last person to buy a new Studebaker. At least the last person who bought a Detroit built Packard had some prospect of there being parts and service support as S-P was carrying on. But what is the person thinking who buys the last car from a company that has exited the business?
Everything will be alright…
Everything will be alright…
Yeah….sure… GM is still in business as a car manufacturer, but they dropped the notion of designated Saturn servicing dealers a couple years ago, and Astra parts are rapidly transmuting into unobtanium.
in the documentary on Studebaker that the PBS station in South Bend did in the 80s, there is an interview with a former Studebaker salesman. He had a woman in his office ready to sign the sales documents, when the little radio he had in his office reported a bulletin: “as of 5pm today, Studebaker will stop making cars in South Bend”. That girl was quick on the uptake “what am I going to do with this car?” The salesman lied profusely and got her to sign the documents. Bet that woman spent the next several years cursing that salesman and the horse he rode in on.
Only 1500? What’s wrong with people? A nearly perfect body, and a Chevy V8, easy to find parts or interchange.
I looked through the inventory PDF that you posted earlier. Amazing. Hardenberger had ALL the interesting cars in the world.
I’ve got about a thousand pictures from the auction, good for a lifetime of CC posts. I’m going to try to plow through them at some point.
Yeah, Hackenberger was a hoarder but how many of the 700 cars would have been crushed if not for his efforts?
Glad the 66 Stude found a new home. I still have a 66 Stude around the corner from me. Young guy drives it every day in the summer. 🙂
Studebaker should have been Rambler-based starting in 1956 or 1957 and Hudson should have been the volume large car in the ’57 Packard Program, not Clipper. This all goes back to Nance not respecting Romney.
I’ve read there was an abortive attempt to purchase Studebaker Canada and sell the Isuzu Bellett rebadged as a Studebaker.
Even stranger was the Studebaker tie-up with Porsche in the early 1950s which resulted in some interesting prototypes but ultimately went nowhere.
$1500? That’s close to “any running and legal car” territory. Well bought, NP all day long.
I remember there was a 2-door ’66 Stude – these colors, too – parked beside a gas station my mom used in the ’80s.
If the trunk lid die breaking story is true, it’s surprising they didn’t finish off with a run of wagons only, making ’66 Stude wagons more common than the other body styles.
There is a similar urban legend about the Ford C series trucks. They say that after 33 years in production the body dies were just worn out.
Something along those lines about Grand Wagoneers too, that the standard woodgrain was to conceal poor panel fits due to worn tooling.
A close friend of mine used to work for a large Ohio dealer group that owns several CDJR stores, he was telling me about the woes FCA’s having over Challenger quater panel fitment, seems the dies for them are about worn out and FCA doesn’t seem interested in retooling them.
Brooks Stevens did wonders for these things on the cheap, yet even his magic wasn’t enough to save Stude. The flat side glass and extremely upright roofline with almost no tumblehome gave away their early ’50s roots I’m afraid, and despite much improved interiors for the last 2 model years, it wasn’t enough.
Are those taillights painted over? Did they do some really half-assed respray in an attempt to spruce up the car for the auction or something?
The tailights with the vents above are supposed to be chrome. I owned a ’66 Commander 2 door 194 MacKinnon 6 and 3 on the tree for several years in the early 90’s. It was a great car that did its job for me well. A few external tweaks and the little 6 really woke up. With its light weight, and twin traction 3.73 rear, it would really jump off the line. I could keep up with a V8 Hawk on the drag strip until about halfway when the little Chev couldn’t breathe through the stock head porting. It would run hard up to 70 though.
It’s hard not to feel for that 66 Studebaker. Last model of the last true American independent and all that. Still, it’s an underwhelming car in many ways. How the folks at Studebaker ever thought they could pull off Hamilton production is beyond me. Shouldn’t the last Studebaker really be the ’64?
Regardless of its public announcements, after South Bend closed the corporation was waiting for its US dealers to quit so the corporation wouldn’t have to settle with them.
Thank goodness for this article. My parents bought me a used 66 Studebaker Cruiser in 1971 for my graduation. Cost $100. It was white with black vinyl hardtop. Interior had gold brocade seats. I remember being told it was a V-6 with a Chevy engine. I’ve told many people over the years about my first ever car and they told me I was crazy, that they made no more Studebaker’s after 64. Now I can finally have proof. It was a great car. My parents paid the $35 fee for registration for the first year. Foolishly I sold it after the first year.
Early ’66 Studes had painted tail light/vent housings. This was switched to chrome sometime in the production run.