(first posted 11/3/2015) What’s the most significant car of 1959? The giant finned Cadillac? It’s pure excess embodied in steel,glass and chrome, the apogee (or nadir) of a trend that had been building for decades, spurred on by Harley Earl’s mantra: longer, lower, wider. But there were contravening voices too—weight is the enemy—and the Studebaker Lark is their ultimate expression. It’s the anti-’59 Cadillac, a mere 175 inches short and 2600 lbs light, yet it has all the classic American car requisites of the time: a V8 engine, automatic transmission, body-on-frame construction, and room for six, in a pinch. But what’s really notable is what’s missing: huge front and rear overhangs, fins, and acres of chrome.
The Lark is the alter-reality mobile of 1959, an American car with a European sensibility. And there were just enough folks who bought into that fairly radical idea in 1959 to make the Lark the biggest hit for Studebaker in way too long, as well as their last one ever.
It’s not the first time that a smaller car saved Studebaker; the first was the 1939 Champion, the car that brought Studebaker back from the precipice of the Depression and bankruptcy. It was the first serious attempt by one of the major manufacturers to counter the trend towards ever greater size, weight and power that had taken hold in the early-mid thirties. Giving up little or nothing in terms of passenger space and comfort, careful design and engineering created a car that was shorter, and most of all lighter, weighing some 2,200 lbs, about the same as the Ford Model A. That allowed it to perform well with its new and smaller 164 CID six, a sweet-running and relatively high-revving (4,000 rpm) 78 hp engine that gave the Champion big car performance, along with better handling and economy.
Rather than calling it the first modern “compact”, one could say that the Champion was “European sized”, inasmuch as it espoused the ideal of maximum comfort in a package as small and light as possible, with the attendant benefits of handling and economy. And it was about the size of a “large” European sedan.
That was no coincidence, as the Champion was designed by French-born Raymond Loewy, who had catapulted into the leading edge of the new field of industrial design. Loewy put his stamp on everything from locomotives, ships, appliances, office machines, cigarette packages, consumer goods and anything else that wanted to look up to date during this decade of revolutionary design transformation. And Loewy was a true automobile enthusiast, keeping up with the latest European trends during his many visits to the continent.
Loewy not only influenced Studebaker design for twenty years starting with the Champion, but its whole approach to car building. He constantly pushed Studebaker to build trimmer cars, and during the development of the 1947 models, he had these signs WEIGHT IS THE ENEMY posted everywhere. Although his design contract ended in 1955, Loewy’s long relationship with Studebaker would leave his influence and legacy right to the very end, including consulting and designing the last-gasp Avanti. Although the Lark was not designed under his direct supervision, it embodies all the key Loewy qualities.
The all-new 1947s reflected Loewy’s mantra, as had the 1939 Champion. This ’47 Champion coupe was listed at 2,670 lbs, over 300 lbs less than a comparable Chevy coupe. The 1948 – 1951 period saw the best sales years and profits ever for Studebaker, taking advantage of the post war market with fresh, new products. But that wouldn’t last.
The brilliant new 1953 Loewy coupes were a bold attempt to rekindle interest, and were of course lower and longer. But they were still light; a Champion coupe weighed in at a mere 2,595 lbs. But the coupes were a failure and a dead end; their sad story is here.
In some ways, the 1953 Studebaker sedans are an even sadder story, and not just in their looks, which was the result of an unfortunate last-minute effort in having it share the coupe’s styling. But the coupe’s styling didn’t really lend itself to a sedan, and the sedan was stuck with the tall and ungainly proportions of the previous generation sedans. They were a poorly-conceived afterthought, and the results were crippling.
Studebaker assumed that sedans would still make up the majority of ’53 sales, as was typical in the industry. They lacked confidence (and preparation) in their superb new coupes. And it turned out to be the opposite; demand for the coupes was stronger than expected, but serious production snags limited coupe output. And buyers shunned the ungainly sedans; a disastrous double whammy. Meanwhile, Ford and Chevrolet were discounting their cars like mad in a battle for market share; that alone was the most damaging event for all of the independents. The post war seller’s boom was truly over, and GM and Ford had their guns blazing. And Studebaker was stuck with a sleek coupe whose reputation was dinged and a sedan whose proportions were off-putting.
We’re not going to cover those difficult years for Studebaker of the mid-fifties in detail here; the “merger” with Packard, and the management contract with Curtiss-Wright, and all of the attendant bad decisions and resulting disappointments. Loewy’s design contract with Studebaker ended in 1955, and the last job handled by his team, headed by Bob Bourke, was the 1956 Hawk, a low-cost effort to inject a bit more life in the ’53 coupe body. It worked, more or less, and the Hawk would soldier on for a number of years.
Packard’s James Nance was not a big Loewy fan, and was determined to get away from the sloping low hoods and tails that Studebaker’s own sales manager, William Keller, referred to as “the droopy penis look”. Nance wanted GM-esque style, with big, bold front ends, and tall tails to match. Vince Gardner was hired to re-do the sedans for 1956, and he did just that. The result is certainly more mainstream, and gave them more gravitas; not that it did much for sales. Studebaker’s losses were mounting, and the millions needed for a completely new body to be shared with a new Packard Clipper just weren’t to be found.
That resulted in another last-minute refresh for 1957, now by Duncan McRae, who also designed the proposed new cars that were stillborn. New Studebaker President Harold Churchill faced a daunting task. And he nearly succeeded, based on a new strategy: stop trying to compete with the Big Three and find niches big enough to exploit profitably. Labor and other costs had finally been brought down, lowering Studebaker’s break-even point to some 100,000 units, possibly even as low as 80,000. Now the task was to find enough niches to exceed that number.
The Hawk fit into that strategy, the only personal performance luxo-coupe of its kind at the time, and sold in modest but fairly steady numbers. In May of 1957, the flintskin niche was identified, and duly addressed by the Scotsman, the ultimate stripper, lacking even chrome on the hub caps.
Contrary to what might be presumed, Studebakers had been consistently more expensive than their Big Three competitors. They were sold on certain qualities that folks were willing to pay more for, whether that was advanced styling, trimmer size, better efficiency, or just because they were loyal to the brand. And Studebaker did have some features the competition didn’t, including an automatic in 1950, a rather advanced but expensive unit, and the first ohv V8 in the low-priced field (1951).
But with the Scotsman, Studebaker was able to undercut Ford and Chevrolet by some $100. Only a few thousand were envisioned, but its sales exceeded expectations, and the Scotsman’s success directly led to the Lark. A growing number of Americans wanted cheap and basic transportation, and the booming import market and Rambler’s rapid growth were very real proof of that trend. And Harold Churchill wanted a chunk of it.
In the meantime, 1958 needed to be muddled through, somehow. Meaning that poor Duncan McRae had make the ’58s look somehow more relevant, or just different. Everyone was going to quad headlights, but Studebaker couldn’t afford new front fenders, so pods were grafted on, as well as fins on the back. The roof panel was new, though, flatter and a bit lower. Headroom was not compromised, as there was a new lower one-piece drive shaft.
Even more embarrassing were the “Packardbakers”, a line of ’58 Packards that as forced on Churchill because S-P Chairman Roy Hurley hadn’t yet totally given up on finding the money for a new Packard line. It was a sad end to what had once been America’s leading luxury car brand.
In mid-1957, Harold Churchill made his big gamble: he would kill all of these increasingly absurd (and useless) efforts to compete with the ever bigger and finnier cars from the Big Three, and bet the South Bend farm on a compact car. After relentless pressure from his sales executives, the Hawk was given a stay of execution, so that Studebaker dealers would still be able to cater to those looking for something more upscale. But the mainstay, and Studebaker’s only hope of salvation, was to be…the Lark. Realistically, it was really the only option left, as any further attempts to make the hopelessly outdated 1953 sedan body any more competitive with the Big Three was simply foreclosed. So the opposite (and more obvious) route was taken: turn the old sedan body into a competitive “compact”. Rambler was on a roll, and Studebaker wanted in.
Once again. Duncan McRae was given the lead on this very challenging job, assisted by Bob Dohler, Ted Pietsch, Virgil Exner, Jr., Bert Holmes, Bob Mcneary, Bill Bonner and Ray Everts. The timeline was brutally short: nine months from clay approval to introduction; a timeline unheard of back then. But then the Lark was hardly an all-new car; essentially, it was the middle section of the venerable 1953 sedan, with its ends drastically shortened. The comparison with the 1958 above makes the changes (and what wasn’t changed) quite obvious. Several hundred pounds of dead weight were left on the cutting room floor.
The wheelbase was shortened by eight inches, from 116.5″ to 108.5″, almost exactly the same as the Rambler’s 108 inches. But the radically shortened Lark made the Rambler (above) look gaudy and profligate in comparison, what with its fins and 190″ length. In fact, it looked a lot more like the 1958 Studebaker than the 1959 Lark. What had McRae wrought? And had Studebaker gone too far in its radical appendagesectomy?
This graphic (and in-scale) comparison with the 1959 Cadillac really brings the Lark’s proportions and shortness into perspective. The Lark is 175″ long; the Cadillac 225″. Yet the Lark probably gives up very little in the way of useful interior passenger space, with more headroom but a bit less width. These two represent the black and white polar opposites of the American car in 1959.
The Lark previewed the radical downsizing that the Big Three themselves would have to undertake in the late 70s and 80s, which resulted in a 1985 Cadillac Coupe DeVille that was closer to the Lark in length (and proportions) than its 1959 predecessor. Like the Lark, it was big on the inside and small on the outside. And not surprisingly, it was scorned by its traditional base of buyers. It’s still America.
How was the Lark actually created? Studebaker Chief Engineer Gene Hardig took a ’58 sedan body, cut off the ends, shortened the wheelbase by tucking the rear wheel in closer to the rear seat, and gave it to the designers to come up with a suitable front and rear end. And as one small concession, they were given the budget for a flatter roof panel, to make it look a bit more modern. But the inside dimensions were the same as the “standard size” cars Studebaker had been peddling for years. Not surprisingly, the Lark was quickly put to use in taxi service, where its space efficiency and economy were welcome.
Somewhat surprisingly, Studebaker had the funds to give the Lark a fairly complete line-up, including a two door station wagon that sat on a longer 113″ wheelbase, since it had to basically re-use the whole rear section of the existing wagon.
And then there was the two-door hardtop, seemingly an extravagance, one that neither Rambler nor the Big Three’s 1960 compacts would have. And in 1960, a convertible joined the lineup, another compact exclusive. I found this very nice ’59 coupe at The Home Depot, where an employee parked it there daily for some time, and we’ll use it for a closer look at its styling, chassis, drive train and interior.
Continued on Page 2: The Larks styling, technical details, all-round performance