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.)
Studebaker M-15 (Cohort Capsule – Paul Niedermeyer)
1946 Studebaker M-16 (Capsule by Jason Shafer)
1947 Studebaker M-5 (Cohort Outtake – Paul Niedermeyer)
1949-53 Studebaker 2R (Outtake/Autobiography – Paul Niedermeyer)
1957-58 Studebaker Transtar (Paul Niedermeyer)
1959 Studebaker Transtar (Jason Shafer)
There is also an excellent comprehensive history of Studebaker trucks by the Studebaker Drivers Club at http://www.studebakerdriversclub.com/studebakertruckhistory.asp
The lack of enthusiasm in the design room makes me wonder if the same apathy was at play for never really updating this pickup. Sad, really, as their most successful product (in terms of market share) was ignored for passenger cars. Sounds like too much focus on volume. Or perhaps Studebaker didn’t want to be heavily involved with the terminally lucrative pickup market?
Like you, I’m afraid this could be a static display particularly given the whitewalls bleeding onto the tire as seen on the left-rear. But that is a glorious looking pickup.
Such an attractive truck, especially for its time. Doesn’t look like it gets driven much.
Looks like it should be in the Studebaker museum in South Bend.
Some of Studebaker’s decisions (or lack thereof) sure are head-scratchers, and doing virtually nothing with their most successful product for a decade and half (up to shuttering the factory) seems like one of the bigger ones.
Nice truck, shame about it not being used (and having to sit there with those clown shoe whitewalls)
Our local brewpub has a Hamilton built 2r, also inoperative. I was surprised to find that these were assembled in Canada, why would they bother?
Your picture shows the single horizontal seam on the exterior wall of the bed – something that seems to have been filled in on the restored subject truck. Before researching this I had never thought about this being perhaps the very first styled pickup bed. On second thought, the pre-war Studebaker Coupe Express of 1937-39 also seemed to style the bed, though it was not as smooth around the edges as this one.
This bed, BTW, was the one used on early Champ pickups before Dodge stopped using it at the end of their 1960 model run. I think this was still available for the rest of the Champ’s life for those who did not want the wide bed.
An alarming tale of the most popular product being ignored due to upper management’s lack of interest. Can anyone else see the sedan apocalypse as an analog?
That is an extremely attractive truck and to me surely gives the (somewhat over-exposed) Advance Design trucks a run for their money, if only for being something a bit different but just as pretty.
However all of the other items you mentioned certainly make it interesting as well. The end result illustrates exactly how trucks were not viewed as an important money maker in the market and certainly less “status”-filled than the passenger car lines. Different times.
Very interesting; I never knew the history of Studebaker trucks. My curiosity was piqued when you mentioned Paul Hoffman because I thought I recognized the name.
Sure enough, Mr. Hoffman oversaw the implantation of the Marshall Plan after he left Studebaker — in that role he displayed a very shrewd understanding of economics and development. Relating to that, I can see how he would champion (sorry for the Studebaker pun) the value of pickup trucks to the company while other executives did not.
I believe Packard’s Ultramatic beat Studebaker’s Automatic Drive to the market by a year or so.
You may be right about that. I suppose the asterisk would be that Studebaker’s Automatic Drive was much more sophisticated in design than the Ultramatic, which I understand to be a glorified lockup torque converter. Still, first is first.
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.
Your time line and conclusion don’t quite square with the reality of the truck business back then. There was no way Studebaker (or any of the Big Three) was going to spend money on a new truck after just a couple of years. Life cycles of trucks were much longer then. GM’s market-leading Advance Design truck was made with only minimal cosmetic changes from 1948-1955; a full 8 years. Ford’s ’53-56 F Series was just a fairly minor update on their 1948-1952 truck. And Dodges were also only face lifted from 1948 all the way through 1960. International’s post war light trucks got a new design in 1957.
Back then, trucks were not nearly as profitable as they are in more recent decades. They sold in significant lower volumes than the passenger cars, and were utilitarian, hence very little possibility to upsell with high-margin options or trim lines. So it was essential to spread truck development costs over a long lifespan.
So there’s no way Studebaker , with its lower volumes than the Big Three, would/should/could have remotely contemplated investing in a new truck in the 1949-1951 years, when the new R2 series was just arriving and still very fresh. Undoubtedly, the basic R Series was expected to have an 8+ year life span, or about to 1957, assuming Studebaker was still a thriving concern.
As we all know, Studebaker was a dead man walking after 1953, and there was no way they were going to have the funds to develop and tool a new truck anytime after 1953. So the writing was on the wall. There’s no need to rehash the terrible years after 1953, relieved only briefly by the first two years of the Lark in ’59-’60.
Studebaker did the only thing it could do: keep making what they had to sell to the dwindling base of loyal Studebaker buyers. Which is what they did with their cars except for that brief spell with the original Lark. There was no alternative.
You make a very good point about the longer model cycles of the truck market in general back then.
I think my only quibble is that Studebaker was underinvesting in many ways in that time period after Hoffman left. The new 1947 car ran through 1952, an eternity back then – six model years was unheard of on a basic body. Neither was there money put into a modern factory. They kept up their lifelong practice of underinvesting in the business to finance unusually high dividends.
And there were lots of ways they could have kept the basic truck a little (or a lot) fresher. They had a V8 engine that didn’t make it into trucks until 3 years after cars. There was not even a grille change for the first 5 model years. Everyone else at least made some detail changes. Hubcaps? Instruments? Steering wheel?
I think that if there had been someone who cared about trucks there would have been more done with the line. Paul Hoffman was not content to let the M series go beyond early 1948 – that one only saw about 4 1/2 model years of production (with war interruption, obviously).
Chippewa Avenue was the newest plant they had, was also used for production of some car models too. When truck sales volume fell to low enough levels, 11k for 1957, it would have made sense for them to install most of the car production there. It was a one-story facility where material handling and ‘foot-print’ could be reduced. Plant inefficiency plagued South Bend production to the end in 1963. Question is whether the old plant could accommodate the truck production though it had during the pre-war years.
“And Dodges were also only face lifted from 1948 all the way through 1960.”
Weren’t the ’54 C-Series models significantly changed from the earlier B-Series?
As Paul points out, the truck market had a much longer restyle cycle than cars. The need for an updated truck arrived about 1956-’57 when S-P by then was in a real financial crisis. Funds to update the cars, which were their core product, were severely limited to the point where only minor facelifts were possible. Remember the Lark came to be for $6M, a pittance when $50M-$100M was the norm.
Clay models were created for a new truck series for 1957 and later but there was no money to tool them. They were similar to the ’57 Ford trucks in design: full-width cab with wrap-around windshield, wide grille and hood. It was an attractive, still-born design which could well have helped.
Bob Bourke designed the R-Series front fenders to be fared into the front door similar to what is seen on the Dodge. It was nixed by engineering as more costly and could result in damage to the door should the front fenders be hit, pushing it into the door edge. Shame because it could have kept the 2R and successors looking current. Iirc, the 2R designation came from the decision to use the design they did with the separate fender/door design since the fared fender/door design was essentially 1R.
It’s that 1934 truck that most catches my eye – what a wacky 4 piece windshield. And do I see a modern-style crew cab?
Was this the first American pickup truck without running boards?
It’s quite stylish and probably could have served well into about 1956. Of course by then Studebaker was hanging on by a thread and restyled or re-engineered trucks were not their priority for the little money they did spend
Pre-war over-the-road trucks had wide cabs with a small sleeper section added which looks like a modern crew-cab. The small windshield panels were added to widen the cab for full stretch out space in the sleeper.
“Was this the first American pickup truck without running boards?”
Yes they were. JP reminded me of this fact in the past when I had forgetten about the Studebaker trucks and said the ’55 Task Force GM trucks were the first without running boards.
I am late to the party, but just wanted to say this was a good read and I really nice find JP. I think it is interesting examining the Studebaker truck sales of this era. While the truck started strong out of the gates in the 1949 model year and stayed relatively good for the next few years, there was a sudden drop in sales for 1953. While some blame the lack of styling changes, it should be noted Chevrolet had virtually no changes during that time. Chevrolet in fact increased it sales from 1952 to 1953. The 1954 restyle resulted in no sales improvement, in fact, the 1954s were even lower than the 1953s.
I don’t think styling had much to do with the drop in sales. These trucks still were stylish and had a more “modern” style than the Fords and Dodges and maybe even the GM trucks even in 1953. With Studebaker car sales dropping during this time, I wonder how much of the sales drop can simply be attributed to the lack of confidence in the brand by the buying public? Who want’s to buy a vehicle from a brand that seems to be on the way down? I don’t know if an updated truck or a V8 engine or any other changes could have helped Studebaker truck sales at that time. And even if Studebaker could have afforded a new truck for 1956 or 1957, I am not sure if it could have overcome the brands reputation and made that investment worthwhile in the long run.
As a side note, Studebaker stopped vehicle production (like all the car companies during the War) and started making copies of the Wright 1820 Cyclone 9 cylinder radial aircraft engine. Those were used on the B-17 featured in the Alcan ad. I read somewhere that Robert Morgan, pilot of the B-17F Memphis Belle, refused to let his crew chief use replacement Studebaker engines, as they supposedly were not as durable as the original Wrights. They had a reputation for excessive oil consumption and losing power as they accumulated hours in the air.