(first posted 5/23/2017) We (OK, mostly I) here at CC have given a lot of love to Studebakers over the years. But looking over our archives, it seems that of the 1960s models, the sexy cars have gotten most of the love. We have given lots of attention to Avantis, Hawks and even a Wagonaire. But what about the regular, bread and butter sedans that provided most of the volume to keep the men busy on the lines in South Bend? We have not covered those nearly so thoroughly, so I thought it might be time to give one of these plain Lark sedans a little affection.
There are plenty of years that mark the beginning of a “modern era” of this or that. It may be my age showing, but I consider 1963 as the start of the modern era of American cars, or at least the warmup lap. What was it that made 1963 such a starting point? Maybe because the intermediates were just beginning to get rolling as a major force. The V8/4 speed/bucket seat triumvirate that would dominate the muscle car era was getting widespread traction. Or maybe it was the styling that had clearly moved on from the “Space Age” 1950’s into the neoclassic style of the Camelot era. Whatever it was, almost every line of cars in America (alright, maybe every line that wasn’t being styled by Virgil Exner over at Chrysler) got itself dressed up and ready for a steak and a martini.
And then there was poor old Studebaker. It was actually kind of amazing that the struggling company from South Bend, Indiana was able to put as diverse a line that it did. The previous decade or so had seen the company on a roller coaster of giddy highs (like a 100th anniversary in 1952 and the stunning Loewy coupe in 1953) to the pits of dispair (like a 1958 line that looked like the product of some Eastern Bloc committee). The ’59 Lark began a resurgence that seemed to be gaining steam in the Kennedy years. We all know now that the steam valve was abruptly shut off in December of 1963. What nobody knew then was that this 1963 line would be Studebaker’s last realistic shot as an American vehicle manufacturer.
The received general wisdom is that Studebaker designed some new cars in 1953, suffered poor sales from then on, and let the old 1953 car soldier on with some fresh lipstick and hairspray applied as needed. As it turns out, this wasn’t exactly true. Yes, the basic layout and construction technique was little changed from the last time Korea was on the minds of Americans. However, Studebaker’s engineers kept making changes and improvements in an effort to keep the cars modern.
I came across this low end Lark Regal at a summertime show in a small Indiana county seat town maybe four years ago. There was something appealing about this plain Jane sedan (I’m a sucker for anything with a V8 and a three speed and I loves me that metallic silver-blue paint), but I struggled with something to say about it. “Here, a nice blue Studebaker. Just look at it!” did not seem like the level of coverage we are used to here, so the car has sat in my e-archives, waiting for me to get some inspiration.
I don’t know what made me remember it recently, but I did, which caused me to take a look at the brochure. Even I was surprised by what this car offered. Let’s first look at the (not so) obvious stuff outside. Had you ever noticed that the entire roof and greenhouse area were all new from ’62? Howabout the fact that the center part of the body lost that exposed central pillar between the doors and finally got modern thin frames around the windows?
But underneath is where the car really shone. Everyone knows that you had a really wide engine choice, ranging from a six to some really potent V8s (like the R-2 Supercharged version with a power output that Studebaker declined to publish but which was probably around 300 ponies.) But what about the fact that you could get a 3 speed (with or without overdrive), two different automatics or a fully synchronized 4 speed, and up to six axle ratios to match with them? Or the availability of the limited slip Twin Traction differential and the first successful use of caliper disc brakes in an American car? About that diff, please don’t call it a “Posi”. Packard invented it and Studebaker kept it alive until Chevy could sell it in numbers to make it’s Positraction name synonymous with limited slip. If it makes you feel better, go back to yesterday’s piece about the Chevelle SS and comment about Positraction to your heart’s content.
I’ll also bet you didn’t know that all Larks and Cruisers got a dual circuit brake system as standard equipment. I had known that Cadillac and the AMC Ambassador offered that feature in 1963, but never that it came standard on every ’63 Lark. Or that every ’63 Stude came equipped with an alternator and fifteen inch wheels? Safety padded dashboard? 2 speed electric windshield wipers? Even this Regal, the most basic of ’63 Larks, was a nicely equipped car. No Scotsman, this.
But as we all know, none of it mattered. We have all heard about that left brain/right brain thing where the left is the side of analytical folks and the right is the side of the sensitive and the artistic. Those of us who tend to be left-brainers appreciate the inner workings of a car like the ’63 Lark, which offered a combination of attributes difficult to match anywhere else, certainly for the price. Like the full set of gauges that not even Cadillac or Lincoln offered.
But that is not what sells cars. Beauty and image sells cars, a lesson learned the hard way by Chrysler about ten years before this Studebaker rolled out of the plant. It is a car’s style that makes its buyer feel ten years younger and fifteen pounds lighter when he or she gets behind the wheel. It is that elusive thing called “presence” that makes a car’s owner feel successful when the neighbors or the mother-in-law see the proud person park a shiny new car in the driveway.
The attractive new dashboard with its standard glove box vanity might have been a bone to throw at Mr. Pocket Protector’s wife to make her feel a little better about bringing home another homely, stubby car, but it was never going to seal the deal with the kind of customer most of us secretly want to be. That customer bought Buicks. Only your eccentric old Uncle Clem bought Studebakers.
This car was Studebaker’s last real shot at success. You might argue that the heavily restyled 1964 model was that car, but management pulled the plug on the American manufacturing business maybe four months into the ’64 model year. Unfortunately, the first two months of that period of time had to contend with too many leftover ’63s in dealer lots while the last two months were effectively assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. The end of Studebaker as an American auto manufacturer was viewed by most buyers as the beginning of the end, with the final 1964-66 cars wearing the stigma of being an impending orphan. So that would leave the 1963 cars as the last ones to be sold for a full year under circumstances that bore any resemblance to “normal”.
By 1963, Studebaker was offering us a very good car. It was durable, economical and offered a lot of car for the money. Unfortunately, its beauty was just too well hidden for most of America to see.