How is it possible that out of all the Studebakers we have featured here (as well as all of the old trucks of all kinds) we have never pointed the CC spotlights on the fabulous Studebaker 2R of 1949-53? It is time to do something about this. And you are probably getting tired from the blurry shots from deep in the JPCCC Archive, so let’s multitask since we’re on a two things in one theme.
A lot has been written about Studebaker’s status as the largest of the independents after the war. The company was the first with a new postwar car (1947), the first with a proprietary automatic transmission (1950) and part of the first wave offering a V8 engine, ahead of many Big 3 offerings. One accomplishment that is often skipped over is that the company also introduced a brand new and highly successful truck line, one that would turn out to be in active service until the company’s final days.
By 1949 Studebaker had a two-decade history as the maker of a full line of trucks – from big over-the-road haulers down to the half-ton pickup for the farm or the workplace. Although it can be convincingly argued that their history in trucks did not go back far enough. For a company that was built on providing sturdy, well-regarded commercial vehicles to the nation (albeit horse-powered ones) to wait until 1929 to really get going in the truck business is just one more in a long list of head-scratching decisions that came out of South Bend.
But once Studebaker jumped into trucks it certainly made up for lost time. After a decade and several series of purpose-built trucks, the 1941 M series made a significant splash with truck buyers.
As a follow-up act the big 6×6 built during the Second World War developed an excellent reputation as a durable and reliable beast of burden.
The 1930s was the decade that the pickup truck diverged from the passenger car lines that had given them birth and the 1940s continued that trend. Studebaker’s new 1949 truck (introduced in April of 1948) was no different.
It is not a stretch to argue that only the Advance Design Chevrolet trucks of the same era give the Studebaker R series some competition for the most beautifully designed pickups of the entire postwar era. With this truck Studebaker hit the big time, generating a nearly 5% market share in trucks – a higher rate than their cars ever achieved, even during the years that marked the company’s high water mark.
The R series seems to have been designed before open warfare developed between Virgil Exner (aided and abetted by Studebaker Chief Engineer Roy Cole) and Raymond Loewy. Raymond Loewy Associates had operated a South Bend studio on a contract basis since the late 1930s. In the early postwar years Exner and Gordon Buehrig took turns leading it, depending on Loewy’s moods as he promoted and demoted each more than once. Conventional scholarship credits the styling of the truck to Robert Bourke but as always, the details are a bit more complex.
In a 1985 interview recorded for The Henry Ford’s oral history of automotive design project, Bob Bourke recalled that he was the only one in the studio who was interested in the trucks, and that Exner gave him the go-ahead to start work on a new one. Being in the studio from day to day, it is likely that Exner had significant input as one of Bourke’s superiors.
For example, Bourke specifically gave Exner credit for the front of the 1947 Commander passenger car, a design which undoubtedly influenced the front of the truck that followed it, given the similar shapes of the grille openings and the overall frontal shape.
This observation has some basis in fact as well. In an oral reminiscence of Virgil Exner Jr. recorded in 1989 for the same series, Virgil Jr. recalled:
“The minor facelifts that were made between the 1946 or ’47 post-war Studebaker and 1949 for the period of two and a half years there, were all of my father’s with little ornamentation differences. They developed the Land Cruiser at that time, which was the bigger car that replaced the President. The three basic car lines became, by 1949, the Champion, the Commander, and the Land Cruiser, as well as the 1948 Studebaker truck. That was another major breakthrough. My father always felt that the front end design for the pickup truck was one of his nicest design contributions.”
Whomever was behind the design, it was a good one – great, even. Unlike the M series before it, there were no passenger car body or interior panels used anywhere in the R’s construction. The new design was clean and modern with front fenders that faired gracefully into the body and a total absence of running boards for an unbroken smoothness to the lines unmatched in the industry.
Also unmatched was the use of a double-wall bed which prevented dents inside the bed from showing through on the outside. From a styling perspective, this bed design also provided a smooth and attractive exterior surface. Bob Bourke claimed that the large lettering on the tailgate was an industry first as well.
A new line of trucks was a good excuse for a new plant to produce them. Obtained from the military after the war, the Chippewa Avenue plant would be used almost exclusively for trucks into the 1960s. The added capacity would be a good thing because these trucks would break sales records for the company.
Production on Chippewa Avenue (as well as in Hamilton, Ontario) boomed, with 48,665 1949 models built in calendar 1948 and another 63,473 in calendar 1949. The next three years saw production settle into a range of 50-60,000 units per year before dropping off to 32,000 in 1953. All in all Studebaker churned out roughly 273,000 2Rs during the model’s run.
Power for these trucks came from the passenger car engines, the 170 cid Champion six (85 bhp) in the lighter trucks and the larger 226 cid (94 bhp) Commander six in the heavier duty rigs of over 1 ton – engines that were enlarged to 245.6 cid and 102 bhp in trucks built in calendar 1949. Although the big six was in the size and output range common in the class, the little Champion six allowed the company to trumpet the operating economy of its truck line. Studebaker claimed another first when it offered overdrive in the trucks for 1950.
The basic 2R-5 (like the featured truck) was a 1/2 ton on a 112 inch wb and with a short bed, Larger offerings included the 2R-10 (3/4 ton) and 2R-15 (1 ton), going up through 1 1/2 ton (2R-16) and 2 ton (2R-17) models. Although the short bed 2R5 was a bit smaller than the Chevrolet in wheelbase and GVWR (4600 v 4800) the 3/4 and 1 ton models were quite competitive with the big sellers.
One truly unique feature of these trucks is the way all components on the instrument panel are serviced from under the hood.
So let’s review. Studebaker got into trucks in the late 1920’s, steadily built momentum and reputation and hit the big time with a stylish and durable product in the 2R series. And then . . . . pretty much nothing. Studebaker would never design a new truck series ever again.
According to historian Thomas Bonsall, Paul Hoffman had been the man in Studebaker management who had seen the value in a competitive truck line. But Hoffman left the company in 1948, and there seemed to be nobody left who saw trucks as a worthwhile business. Development funds essentially stopped – it is difficult to identify the 2R trucks by year as they went virtually unchanged between the initial 1949 model and the final 1953.
The truck got a new name (3R) for 1954 as well as a fresh face and a one piece windshield. And, finally, optional V8 power. But as for basic layout, the 2R cab (by what ever other name it was later called) was still being sold in a few forms as late as 1964 and the guts of the 2R served as the chassis for the light duty Champ pickup. And by 1954 a lack of funds was a definite problem, as it would be for the rest of the company’s existence.
South Bend has been the source of quite a few “what were they thinking” moments in automotive history. But this one is special – to introduce what might have been the company’s most competitive product ever, to have it produce some real and significant gains in market share, and to then completely ignore it. Ignoring an unpopular product is understandable. Even exiting a market is understandable. Especially when money is tight. But if there had ever been a time at Studebaker when money was not tight, it was 1949-51 – a period when investment into the 2R’s successor should have been a no-brainer. But instead, the company let a competitive product rot on the vine for no reason other than that nobody seemed to care. At the company parked in the heart of the farming and small industrial cities of the Midwest. But that’s what happened.
The 2R seems to have an excellent survival rate – big 1 1/2 and 2 ton stake-bed farm trucks are still occasionally seen for sale in the Midwest and the light models like this have become more popular than many of the company’s cars of the era. I was thrilled to find this one parked outside of a bank in Lafayette, Indiana.
Actually I did not find it – my sister told me that she had been out and had seen a Studebaker truck somewhere, giving me a general area where it had been parked. I am a little fearful that it is being put to work as a sign. It is a little like a strong and capable workman settling for walking the sidewalk wearing a sandwich board – so much wasted potential. Although if there is any truck that can make a living from its good looks it would be one of these. I hope it is not consigned to a life of deterioration from sitting outdoors.
Oh well, it is not my truck and there is nothing I can do about it. I am just happy for the chance to see one of these out in the Real World, still working for its living (in some fashion, at least.)
There is also an excellent comprehensive history of Studebaker trucks by the Studebaker Drivers Club at http://www.studebakerdriversclub.com/studebakertruckhistory.asp