Car Show Classic: 1964 Studebaker Cruiser – Brooks Stevens’s Last Pass For South Bend

(first posted 9/28/2012)   I love Studebaker. Pretty much any South Bend-built model gets my immediate attention, but I have to acknowledge that, in the end, Studebaker did itself in. We almost lost them in the ’30s, but thanks to the new management team of Harold Vance and Paul Hoffman–and in no small part, healthy refinancing and restructuring–Studebaker survived the Depression and by late 1933 was back in the black. Unfortunately, those same guys started making bad decisions that led to the last South Bend Studebaker cars leaving the soon-to-be-shuttered factory in December 1963; 1964 models, like this one.

Studebaker got off to a great start in the postwar era with their startlingly modern 1947 models, and with further advances such as a V8 engine and automatic transmission–both designed in-house, a major achievement for an independent–sold lots of cars through 1952, when Studebaker celebrated its centennial anniversary. Unfortunately, trouble was right around the corner. The all-new 1953 models–both the beautiful coupes and stubby sedans–sold less well than Studebaker hoped, and things would never be the same.

That’s not to say that Studebaker stopped making neat cars. Their classic Loewy coupes, handsome E Series (later Transtar) pickups, innovative Wagonaire and many other models were attractive and interesting–but sales continued their downward trajectory.

The Studebaker story is oft-told, here on CC and elsewhere, so I won’t go too deeply into it. That said, one big problem was that Studebaker didn’t control their costs. Whatever the workers wanted, they got, and with nary a cross word from management. That led to astronomical production costs compared with the Big Three, and Studebaker’s rapidly aging facilities complicated matters further. The success of the ’59 Lark provided a brief reprieve, but when the Falcon, Corvair and Valiant debuted, it was back to the same-old, same-old.

And thus do we come to the 1964 Studebakers. Brooks Stevens, the renowned Milwaukee-based industrial designer, was a godsend to small companies like Studebaker. He had quite a knack for taking a shoestring budget and delivering a major refresh that looked great. What would be his last assignment for Studebaker was the 1964 model refresh, seen here. There’s a 1959 Lark under there, but it sure isn’t obvious.

He first worked his magic in 1962, with the Mercedes-like 1962 Larks. They looked to be all-new, thanks to clever styling, but were the same old Lark. Sales increased over 1961.

That same year, perhaps his best design ever, the Gran Turismo Hawk, came onto the scene. The transformation from the befinned 1956-61 Hawk was remarkable, and a real beauty.

Studebaker had spent most of the early ’60s clinging to relevance. Had it not been for Sherwood Egbert, Studebaker may have had even less time left. But Egbert, going against orders to shut down Studebaker, instead tried his best to keep it going, hiring Stevens to come up with new styling, introducing the Avanti, and setting records at the Bonneville Salt Flats with Andy Granatelli-prepped R1- and R2-powered Hawks and Avantis.

Egbert did all he could to keep Studebaker afloat, but unfortunately his effort didn’t translate into any meaningful sales increase. Illness forced his retirement from Studebaker in November 1963; almost immediately, the Studebaker board approved shutting down South Bend in favor of limited production at their Canadian facility. The last Indiana-built car came off the line December 20, 1963. At the same time, production of all light- and heavy-duty truck lines, the Avanti, and the GT Hawk ended for good.

But not before the last “new” Studebakers came out in the fall of 1963. While technically still Larks, the name was not seen on the car. Instead, the names of different trim lines–Challenger, Commander, Daytona and Cruiser–were emphasized. Studebaker may not have had much time left, but they still had quite a good-looking car as well as attractive, colorful interiors.

The instrument panel was particularly sharp. In contrast to so many other domestic cars, the Stude had full instrumentation. And the optional tachometer was placed right there on the dash with the other gauges, unlike the difficult-to-read, center-console-mounted tachs in some GM and Ford products. Despite all their troubles, Studebaker still offered many thoughtful, intelligent design features.

In addition to more modern, squared-off sheet metal, there was power if you wanted it. The aforementioned R1 through R4 power options resulted in a sedate little Studebaker that could potentially suck the doors off unsuspecting Sport Furys, Impala SSs, and Fairlane 500s. You could even get disc brakes, but you’d have to hurry, as only South Bend-built Studebakers got the R-spec equipment. The denuded Canadian-built 1964 lineup would be limited to bread-and-butter family cars, not hot rod Avantis, Larks or GT Hawks.

But if you wanted luxury and not a hot rod, you needed look no further than the Cruiser. As in the past, the Cruiser nameplate designated the finest Studebaker you could get. While previous versions of the Cruiser had merited a longer wheelbase than lesser Studes, the 1964 model had the same 113″ wheelbase and 194″ overall length as the other ’64 four-door sedans.

The attractive, new-for-1964 “Lazy S” hood ornament was indeed appropriate for the luxurious Cruiser; it also graced all other Larks except the entry-level Challenger model.

Cruiser features included a standard Thunderbolt 289 cu in V8 (although some export Cruisers were built with the six), plush cloth interior, wall-to-wall carpeting and extra chrome trim inside and out. Available only as a four- door sedan, the $2,595 Cruiser ran about $650 above the cheapest Lark, the $1,935 six-cylinder Challenger two- door sedan.

As with our featured car, most ’64s got a clock instead of a tachometer. I think this may be one of the most attractive instrument panels of the ’60s: all business, but with just enough chrome trim to let you know you’re in something a cut above.

I recently found this handsome Cruiser at the downtown Geneseo car show. Here you can see the chrome side molding unique to the Cruiser (although Daytonas used similar trim with a black-filled center), along with sail-panel “portholes” and the 1964-only trim panel between the taillights. The light-blue metallic paint glowed, and it looked perfect with its original wheel covers and whitewalls. I don’t know about you, but I’d take one of these over that red Chevelle sitting next to it. It certainly is rarer, one of only 5,023 Cruisers built for the year.

It was a valiant effort; but with South Bend shut down, already gun-shy Studebaker buyers became even more skittish. Ultimately, the diversification-driven Studebaker board got their way, and in 1966 the car division was shut down in favor of STP car care products, Gravely tractors and Trans International Airlines. But handsome cars like this true-blue Cruiser remind us of what was once the oldest auto manufacturer in America. Studebaker, you are gone, but not forgotten.