Car Show Classics: 1963 Studebaker Avanti and 1964 Studebaker Daytona Wagonaire – “Nothing Gold Can Stay”

This is perhaps subconsciously the second Robert Frost-referencing title I’ve used this year, but it’s appropriate when considering Studebaker’s declining years.  Frost and Studebaker’s lives fundamentally overlapped, with Frost being born a little later and dying a few years earlier.  Like Frost, Studebaker’s promise was sometimes overshadowed by problems with money.  Like Frost, Studebaker’s golden years brought about some no-nonsense winners that the home crowd (antique car enthusiasts/Americans) can be proud to admire.  Unlike Frost, who was generally revered in the latter years of his long life (despite the fact that his musicality and anthological ubiquity occasionally and wrongly led to his dismissal as a serious poet), Studebaker in the 1960s was often dismissed as a walking shadow, barely occupying the corners of a busy room.  Regardless, like Frost’s work, Studebakers look great in gold.

Nature’s first green is gold: Frost’s color symbolism is obvious here.  Green is the color of newness, of renewal; gold is the color of success, happiness, goodness, beauty.  Youth and spring have often walked hand in hand in literature, but unfortunately, Studebaker’s gold in 1963 and 1964 was more like Shakespeare’s “boughs that shake against the cold,” an image of frigid determination married to a certain acceptance of finality.

At the Eyes on Design show in September, I found two beautiful gold Studebakers, the first being this gold on green Wagonaire.  The Wagonaire may not be part of the established classic car canon in the manner that “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is a part of the American literary canon, but it’s one of my favorite Studebakers.  Sure, it seems gimmicky in a way that Frost, who largely stuck to metrical traditions, rarely was; but as AMC did throughout its later career, Studebaker tried to find niche markets to survive.

Her hardest hue to hold: Like spring, youth’s joys and happiness are transient.  Soon enough, adulthood with its struggles, bills, and temptations becomes a lifelong reality that ends only with life itself.  No wonder people often misinterpret Frost’s breezy gate with a lack of literary heft.  As referenced in Milton’s paean to Shakespeare, Frost’s “easy numbers” are so readable that people miss the fact that he often writes of the pain and loss that comes with human existence.

Unlike “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” which was written relatively early in Frost’s career (although he was around 50), the Wagonaire was an idea hatched near the end of Studebaker’s life, and its reasoning was sound enough – a Wagonaire is essentially a four-door, convertible El Camino with a carpeted bed.  In a way, however, it was the answer to a question nobody asked; after all, how often does anybody haul an object that’s over four-feet tall?  There are only so many refrigerators to bring home in one’s short life (Please note the picture at the bottom of the article).

Her early leaf’s a flower; but only so an hour: These lines thematically mirror the first two, and the unspoken aftermath is a gradually decaying plant – craggy age lines, thinning hair, grunts and groans when getting up from a chair.  Time has its way with all of us.

Like older men and women often do, Studebaker attempted to falsify the evidence of its aging by calling on Brooks Stevens to update its Lark and Hawk models in the early 1960s.  To his and their credit, the Studebakers of this time period exhibit an almost European crispness, and few would know on first glance that the basic structure of their lineup dated back to the classic 1953 models.  Still, as is often the case with a little nip and tuck, few were buying the ruse.

Then leaf subsides to leaf: This image, although one could consider it tired (even Sinatra tried out the metaphor in 1965 in “It Was a Very Good Year”), brings to mind the weight of an impending long winter’s gloom, the finality of a summer of vitality, warmth, and beauty.  Dead leaves pile upon other dead leaves in the gutter.

Studebaker’s lifespan was therefore somewhat lifelike.  Like most of us, it suffered through the hard times and didn’t always appreciate the good ones while they were happening.  With that being said, it introduced one of its most spectacular creations in “the twilight of such day as after sunset fadeth in the west.”  This beautiful gold ’63 Avanti (I prefer the round headlights of the ’63) was a spectacular Hail Mary that could never have saved the company, but I’m still glad Studebaker created it.

So Eden sank to grief: This is where the poem becomes perhaps more all encompassing than an individual’s life cycle.  The introduction of the Fall of Man inclines us to think of Nature’s “Gold” as being humanity itself.  The implication here is of a greater catastrophe than simply the inexorable march of time for one person.  It’s an indication of a universal struggle, one we all face alone, yet paradoxically together.

Poetically, the show’s organizers situated these Studebakers right next to each other.  They represent two different paths, two slightly different colors perhaps, but the result was the same.  This picture delineates a few of the quirks of these beautiful late Studebakers.  Down low on the Avanti, one might notice the body colored extension on the valance panel near the bumper guard; this piece covered an exposed leaf spring shackle that the severe wraparound of the rear end couldn’t (See picture at the end of the text).  The wagon anecdotally had roof-sealing issues, but I’ve never owned one and can’t comment on the stories’ accuracy.

So dawn goes down today: I’ve long overlooked Frost’s twist in this line – “dawn goes down.”  Most likely, since dawn in this case represents the same ideals as the color green in the first line, it acts as an extension of the metaphor; both the coming of the sun and of spring are beautiful and filled with hope, the paradox of a rising sun’s setting represents the death of youth and hope and their ephemeral nature, and the requisite “getting down to business” that adulthood usually requires.

This Avanti shows us why Studebaker had such hope for its success.  It looked so modern on the outside, and its interior looked both like an airplane’s cockpit and like a fancy Italian car’s at the same time, with full gauges such as one would find in a hot rod, along with racy bucket seats and a console.  This one is an R2 model with a supercharger and an automatic.

Nothing gold can stay: Old poems are often left untitled, or at least the first line becomes the title for the sake of easy identification.  Frost’s famous poem derives its title from the last line.  This is probably a stretch, but perhaps Frost is saying that we can derive meaning from our lives right up to the very end.  It’s arguable that Studebaker did.  Two of its most interesting and memorable models were introduced just as it was about to close up shop forever.  Although Studebaker didn’t survive, at least as a manufacturer of automobiles, its last burst of creativity did.  That is worth remembering as we all get older.

Nothing Gold Can Stay 

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

*Author’s note: I’m aware that the colors of both of these Studebakers could be considered tan or sand.  

Wagonaire with refrigerator

Avanti rear valance