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.