(first posted 4/23/2013) In the 1970s, when I was a lad, the Studebaker Lark was my hometown’s favorite beater. If some other car was your town’s cheap-transportation choice in those days, it’s probably because you didn’t live in South Bend, as I did. These stubby Studebakers sold well in a town that was proud of its most famous company, and by the early ’70s they hadn’t been entirely used up. The Hawk, in its various guises, was the next most common Studebaker, and most of these were loved and maintained. Even an occasional gleaming Avanti prowled South Bend’s not-so-mean streets. But the Lark was the beater king.
To find this one, I had to go all the way to the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma (and is there ever a lot of middle of nowhere in Oklahoma). It looks like this Lark had been pushed here following 20 years of storage in a barn preceded by 10 years of various kids hooning the bejebus out of it. The headliner is falling down. The tail lights are broken. The back bumper needs rechroming. A bungee cord holds the trunk lid down. And check out the positive camber angle on those rear wheels. I’m not up on my Studebaker suspension geometry, but that surely doesn’t look right to me. At least the body looks straight, and most of the chrome bits are present.
What makes this Lark look so right to me is that it’s just like every Lark I saw while growing up. This video is a blast from South Bend’s past. It is part of a sketch-comedy show, called Beyond Our Control, which was produced in South Bend and aired on the local NBC affiliate for 19 seasons, starting in 1967. (BOC was a TV show that parodied TV. High-school students produced it, and several of them went on to big Hollywood careers. Read more about the show here.) This circa-1970 sketch was created smack dab in the middle of the Lark’s secondhand-transportation supremacy. The Lark wagon in the sketch is a classic example, rust holes and all.
The people of South Bend are a resourceful lot, good at making the most out of what little they may have. I’m sure we learned that from Studebaker, which frequently took to its deathbed, then leveraged this or stretched that to push on for a few more years. In the late 1950s, Studebaker realized it couldn’t compete head-to-head with the major manufacturers, so they went looking for niches they could fill. They saw that compact cars could help them live to fight another day. As usual, they hadn’t enough money to tool up an all-new car, so they simply took their full-sized platform and body (which dated from 1953), then lopped off several inches’ worth of wheelbase and front and rear overhang.
I’m sure such trickery didn’t entirely fool anyone, as some of the styling touches carried over from the basic 1953 body now looked way out of date. Still, the car seated six with the same interior room as the former full-sized Studebaker. The 1959 Lark came in five body styles: a four-door sedan, a two-door sedan; a two-door hardtop; and two- and four-door wagons. In 1960, the first Studie convertible in eight years joined the lineup. I think the hardtop, with its blade-thin roof and huge greenhouse, looks best of all.
By all accounts the Lark was pleasant to drive, offering good power (especially when fitted with the eight-cylinder engine) and good brakes.
I’m more partial to Larks from 1962 and later, a period during which Brooks Stevens was given tiny annual budgets to keep adding modern style to an aging body. That style was needed all the more as the Big Three introduced their compacts, led by Ford’s hot-selling Falcon. Formerly strong Lark sales were taking it in the chin. Stevens evolved the styling further in 1963 and 1964, after which you could hardly tell that the Lark had anything to do with the 1953 Studebaker that spawned it.
Heck, you couldn’t even trace it to 1960. Stevens did remarkable work. But it wasn’t enough, and we all know about Studebaker’s sad end. The people of South Bend still feel it 50 years later. South Bend is a town defined by December 20, 1963, the day the plant folded.
Even though I was in the middle of nowhere, my iPhone got a 3G signal. I quickly posted a photo of this Lark on Facebook and immediately, all of my South Bend friends piled on: “You’ve got to buy this car!!” But, as you can see, even the interior is a mixed bag. I’d be up for a drivable survivor that still looked okay, but this one needs work to get even to that level, and I’m just not interested in either doing it or paying to have it done.
But if beaterdom or restoration appeals to you, the phone number’s right there on the windshield. Maybe you could drive this car in the Studebaker Parade next time the Studebaker Drivers Club holds their convention in South Bend. It would be a fitting homecoming.
A more in-depth look at the Lark:
I had friends and girlfriends who learned to drive on the family Studebaker, two wagons, one Chicken Hawk, and one PackardBaker just a few miles from my house. I remember the GF having to contend with a “backwards” gas guage and a huge V8 that sucked gas.
The dealership wasn’t that close, about 25 minutes aways, far by New Jersey standards.
Great beaters, though.
It’s a hardtop, so that makes it worth restoring, if for no other reason. Other than that, it has about as much appeal as an old Rambler.
I’m thinking, Zack, that ya haven’t driven one yet. They’re really much more fun than Ramblers (I’ve had both). Lots of room on the inside, great little runners and loaded with much more character than the old “Schoolmarm” Ramblers. Go to the Studebaker Drivers Club on-line, and you’ll find many happy devotees!
PIc of me and my little birdie–a ’60 Lark
You can call it “trickery,” and it’s true that it didn’t save Studebaker from the inevitable.
But the Lark may have served as a wake-up call to both Detroit and the car-buying public, as it demonstrated that many large cars of the era contained nothing but wasted space. Even Popular Mechanics and Popular Science (not exactly enthusiast magazines) had been complaining about the size and weight of mainstream American sedans since at least 1958, and when the Lark debuted, contemporary reviews immediately noted that the consumer benefitted greatly from how well the former “full-sized” Studebaker’s passenger compartment worked in a trimmer overall package.
By 1961, the big three’s full-sized offering began to shrink a bit, although Chrysler took things a bit too far in 1962. Coincidence? Maybe, but you can’t help but wonder how much the Lark and Rambler influenced better space utilization in American cars.
Great point. And notice how the wheels are in the corners of this car thanks to sharply whacked overhangs? It took Detroit 40 more years to embrace this.
Those ’62 Mopars: was it the styling that turned people off, or the size? In Australia they were seen as a more sensible size, and people bought them despite the styling.
It’s a good looking car, but it sure doesn’t’ look like a car made in America in 1960, although I guess that otherness was pretty common with Studebakers. The magistrate judge in town here has a 1960 Lark 2 door sedan in bright pink, stripper everything, radio delete and all.
Awww, Jim – don’t be so hard on the poor little thing. It’s sort of like Charlie Brown’s christmas tree – all it needs is a little love. I guess there’s nothing like familiarity to breed contempt. 🙂
I spent many hours as a kid riding in a 60 Lark VIII that belonged to the mom of one of my best friends. White with black and red interior, the 259 V8 and an automatic, she drove the Lark until the summer of 1972 when it was replaced by a bright red Javelin AMX. Truthfully, I had liked the Lark better – there was just something about it.
I loved the film clip. I have to shake my head at the rust. Let’s see – all of the execs (from the President on down) and engineers lived in South Bend. Studes were everywhere. Northern Indiana and Lower Michigan were the road salt and car-rusting capitals of the civilized world. But nobody ever thought about how to do something about corrosion. Oh well.
That little hardtop is appealing. I never saw many of those. Interesting that a hardtop would be a stick shift and radio delete car. Perhaps a six as well? The body looks really nice for an old Stude. It’s a good thing it is so far away, or it might somehow follow me home. “Oh, look Honey – can we keep it? Pleeeeeeze?” 🙁
I’ve actually never ridden in a Studebaker, despite having grown up in South Bend!
I’m sure that in Studebaker’s waning years, nonsense like corrosion protection served only to shrink their margins. Every dollar counted in South Bend in those days.
Doesn’t this hardtop look like it’s all glass above the beltline? I’ll bet visibility was giant in this thing.
In fairness to Studebaker, the company…heavy use of salt or other “melting agents” didn’t start until the early 1960s. There’s a family photo dated 1955, of my parents’ then-home in Hammond, Indiana…and the Chevy New-Look pickup is wearing TIRE CHAINS! The highway is plowed, but overlaid with packed snow.
Studebaker designed the basic body in 1953; and made it the Lark in 1959. That would have meant that the last major development was going on around 1957 at the latest. Which would have meant that the 1953s hadn’t seen that much salt, nor was that much salt used then.
The problem woudn’t have really shown until the early 1960s, three years or so after the Lark was out. And by then it was too late; the company was just going through the motions with their Canadian plant.
By 1963, Studebaker was advertising its under-body rust proofing. As far as it went, it worked. But it looked like the rust-proofing was applied with mop and bucket… generously stated, coverage was uneven.
This little beastie really doesn’t look too bad from the standpoint of rust. Rockers look solid; a little surface rust at the bottom corner of the left from fender and below the left headlight; some surface rust on the floor, but definitely not the swiss cheese often found there! Rear bumpers usually show more rust than fronts, so nothing there that re-chroming won’t fix (except for a bit of straightening).
Repro upholstery and carpeting are easily found. Repro badging is available, as are taillight lenses. Trim might be a problem if needed, but this appears to have all pieces in decent shape. Mechanical parts aren’t hard to find — the only real question is what’s going on with the rear suspension. That’s a solid axle, so if the rear wheels do toe in…
Any idea if this a 6 or an 8?
I have a serious soft spot for these, especially that hardtop. There were a disproportionate number of these in Iowa City in the early sixties. Especially so among the ex-pat German crowd; they took a shine to Studebakers. One neighbor drove a W111 Mercedes for himself, and bought his wife a Lark hardtop. Two others we knew had Larks. A Brit family too.
I think there was a sense among these University immigrants that big American cars were a bit over the top, and a reasonably roomy but compact Lark made sense. I’m sure they all switched to Toyotas and such in the early-mid seventies.
On neighbor wasn’t an ex-pat, but she was a serious lush. And on rainy days, her kids goaded her to drive to school, or pick them up. The Four-door Lark became the neighborhood school bus, and substantial numbers piled in. The worst seat in the house was being pushed up next to her; she didn’t smell very good.
Loved the mock-commercial video, I had never heard of that sketch comedy program before, It has a very SCTV feel.
If you didn’t live near South Bend between 1967 and 1986, there was no way you ever saw that show! It aired only on South Bend’s NBC station.
One of the guys active in the live-steam activities showed up in one a few years back. It belonged to his grandmother and also was a ’60 in baby-poop yellow. It was in rough shape, but very little rust. (Oregon car, likely from east of the Cascades.) He was using it as a daily driver. Dunno if he was going to restore it–he has the mechanical abilities, but is more interested in steam projects.
He said it was a handful at speed, with more power than it could safely use.
I like this, but hey I like Ramblers too so that’s not surprising.
Bad taste in cars has it’s advantages, but one of the problems is there are always projects calling out to me to drag them home.
Styling wise I’m partial to the 64-65 Stevens refresh. That guy was a genius.
They had enough power to be police cars. The police in Dodge City had two of them IIRC and an officer who later, by marriage, became related to me. That officer delighted in keeping an eye on me and I did get ticketed by him.
I had a 55 Ford, 272 with a three speed and I don’t think it would outrun that lark. I know it wouldn’t have outrun his radio.
All the police cars, and most ambulances, in South Bend were Studebakers for years and years. A buddy of mine who’s into such vehicles and also lived in SB for several years as a TV news photographer tells me that he actually studied the archives of the SB Police Dept. and learned that the first non-Studebaker police cars they bought were Chevys in 1967.
So much has been made of Studebaker being “saddled with a body that dated back to 1953.” And yet, that’s hardly rare, even with companies that had vastly more resources. The 1977 Impala/Caprice continued on through 1990; and how long have the patch-job Panthers cursed our streets?
The problem was, Studebaker in 1953 did not strive for a clean and timeless design; and it continued with the faddish trends in its desperation years. The wraparound windshield and the greenhouse and door uppers that just scream, 1955. Those cost money to redo; and they date recent-past designs and downgrade the brand image.
Stevens got it right with the final redesign of the former Larks, but by then it was too late. Not so much for the car, but for the board which was tired of building cars.
I think context matters here. In 1959, people were used to auto design changing regularly. Today, we’re used to it hanging on for years and years. But you make a good point about the 53 Studie body being a slave to the fashion of the time.
Something happened in the late fifties and early sixties to American cars: first bowed frames and then unit bodies that all permitted foot wells that allowed cars to be three or four inches lower with the same leg room and seat height inside. (Yeah, I know Nashes or something had all that in the early fifties with some dirigible shaped cars). And probably then Rambler from 1956 although they had some space robbing engineering mistakes as well (rear suspension that resulted in very high rear station wagon floors at the same time as using a version of the sedan roof that left a low roof over the high floor in the back).
Meanwhile the Larks had the straight rail frame from 1953, which I bet was really pretty much the frame from 1947.
As others have noted, by the late 1950s, quite a few people started saying American cars reached their pinnacle around 1953 and went all downhill from there. They were sick of the “planned obsolescence” of annual changes. In other words they wanted a new 1953 car. That gave Studebaker a few good years, until the Falcon came out.
Paul said “the ex-pat German crowd … took a shine to Studebakers. One neighbor drove a W111 Mercedes for himself, and bought his wife a Lark hardtop. Two others we knew had Larks. A Brit family too.” In 20-20 hindsight, they could have taken a page from VW: build 1961 Larks only, spend a little on more durable materials, and commit to quality, economy and continuous improvement. The late-sixties counter-culture would have adopted it like VWs and Volvos, then OPEC would have boosted them through the 1970s.
If only a) their board of directors was still interested in building cars, b) factory and labor could commit to quality and efficient production and c) they had the foresight to see the market for quality. Hindsight is seductive, that’s a total fantasy.
PS: I adore that TV skit!
Like this 1959 Lark ad…they, or at least their agency, had the right idea. (Even if they were just responding to VW’s famous “Think Small” ads that came out the same year.)
PS: What is it about Studebaker, more than other fallen flags, that persistently compels more than a few of us to this “what-if” game?
This was what they said they were doing starting with the 1965 Canadian cars. I think that the Brooks Stevens 1964-66 car could have been competitive as a Checker-style “no change for the sake of change” kind of car. Unfortunately, sales kept sliding and we never got to find out. Or maybe we did.
They only kept that up for two years; 1966 was heralded as “The Fresh New Look.” Gordon Grundy was desperate to keep sales going, even as the board was cutting his every effort. They tried to make a virtue of no model changes; it fell with a thud. Then they tried a lo-buck freshening; and sales STILL fell.
Because Studebaker by this time had the stench of death on it; and because, to have such a low breakeven point, individual-unit profit had to be high. The Studebaker, IIRC, was priced about midway between an Impala and Caprice.
That’s a hard sell for a boxy car with a nebulous future.
HAD Studebaker’s board wanted to stay in business, their Mercedes-Benz link-up, at that point limited to common dealerships, could have provided the key. Daimler-Benz could have provided capital for new plants; maybe even key systems.
But wherever they went, it wouldn’t be South Bend and probably not the United States. Retirees were burned when the South Bend plant closed up, as pension payments just stopped; and if they’d reopened – anywhere American courts could reach – they’d have had to settle, with the retirees and with the UAW.
I don’t know if the Canadian plant was unionized; I suspect not.
Break-even for the Canadian years, IIRC, was about 27,000 units. Not unrealistic, but kind of pointless for a company that had deliberately diversified its way out of the car business.
I also enjoyed that Out of Control clip, which led me to search it on YouTube, which has more enjoyable clips, including this one, which anticipated a famous SNL parody commerical:
The father of one of my Little League team mates was the Studebaker dealer/distributor for Mexico City. One day he showed up to practice with a new 1959 Lark hardtop with a V8. Black with red interior and whitewall tires. Even I, who held Studebakers in low esteem, was impressed with this unit. The car sold very quickly, but within two weeks was totaled, killing its owner. Sic transit gloria.
Never knew that these had a fully boxed frame, in that case LSx FTW, and maybe strap a Scout/CJ front axle under it for an AWD car.
A better looker than the Valiant,those Stevens designed cars are very attractive,what a shame it was too late to save them
The sturdy construction of these cars made them virtually undestructible. I still remember many of them in the streets of Chihuahua, even in the 80’s. The last one I saw was converted into a sort of pick-up, with an iron cage where it was supposed to be the box. I remember it was fitted with automatic transmission and two-toned body, pink and black. A shame that its ultimate destiny was to serve as an egg boxes carrier and finally, sent to the junk yard.
You confirm what I always suspected-if you could keep the things away from the road salt, these were extremely durable cars. Mexico Was probably the perfect habitat for Studebakers.
Hello, jp. Snow melts quickly, and the amount fallen in winter is not more tan 3 inches, even in the northern states. So there is no need for road salt. Anyway, the tinworm eats most of what it can find in the coastal cities anywhere in México.
It likely was just a Champ that had it’s box removed and replaced with that cage. The Champ has been covered here https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-american/truckstop-classic-1960-studebaker-champ-needs-some-fresh-horsepower/ and here https://www.curbsideclassic.com/blog/cohort-sighting-1962-studebaker-champ-has-it-had-a-little-cosmetic-surgery-to-ease-the-eye-pain/ Studebaker had to make due with what limited resources they had.
Oh, no, Eric, it was a 4-door sedan. It even had what was left of the rear doors welded with the rest of the body, and a plexiglass panel was attached as if it was the rear window. Actually, it had a big wood door from some warehouse as the box floor. The Champ that you mention is a real pick-up. This was an abortion from the underworld of the cars. The only worthy portion was the front clip, wich was well maintained, even polished. The car was a delivery vehicle for a small merchant in downtown Chihuahua, who used it mostly to carry egg boxes to big markets in the city. He even went a step further than Studebaker’s.
Like Jim, I prefer the later Larks, but I really like them all. And how can you not? The ’59-’60 Lark just looks so cute. Great find!
Golly, we folks in Oklahoma sure appreciate your mentioning you got a 3G signal even here in the middle of nowhere. Did you know we also have electric lights in our tipi’s? Seriously, one of our Studebaker Club members found this car a month or two ago. We agreed it’s seriously overpriced.
Hehehehe, that was a very good remark. Once I was asked by a man in Houston in 1988 if we in Chihuahua had escalators, full WC, and houses with tile and no dirt floors! It made me laugh for a while but then, I knew that although we are neighbors, we don’t know each other enough to give up our prejudices, but it is OK, as long as they don’t become a derogative remark or an insult.
Sorry man, didn’t mean to be so insulting to your home state. We were slogging through it on Route 66 and were getting mighty tired after five days on the road. Truth be told, Oklahoma had some of the best Route 66 sights on our whole trip.
Having actually owned a 1959 Lark I should add a few words. It was a V8 overdrive 4-door sedan, white with a tan interior. In typical Pacific nw condition, it had no rust – I don’t remember any bodywork needs either. I bought it with first gear out of the transmission, figuring – correctly as it turned out – that I’d easily find a wrecking yard tranny for it. The guy was a pipefitter, and had replaced the heat control valve with a little butterfly valve whose faucet-handle stuck out from under the dash.
All in all it was a pretty cool little car that got me in and out of some interesting places in the woods, as well as providing general transportation for several months. I don’t remember now what I traded it for. It was the last of several Studebakers I owned.
First car I ever rode in was a ’60 Lark LWB ex-taxi. My late father was, well, cheap. Ubercheap. Always buying what he thought were bargains. May explain my quirky taste in cars…
I believe the 50’s Cheapskate Dad has been discussed here. I had one. Is the 50’s Cheapskate Irish Dad a thing?
Roger, You rode in a rare ’60 Lark Econ-O-Miler, either a six (1,096) or V-8 (215) which were the taxi-only, 113 inch wheelbase Y-Body versus the standard 108.5 inch wheelbase W-Body sedans for private sale. The Y-Body had been the basis for Studebaker’s top-of-the-line Land Cruiser/President Classic prior to the Lark era. For 1961, the Y-Body returned in the guise of the Lark Cruiser, their top-of-the-line “luxury” sedan. Finally for 1962, all four door Larks received the Y-body, the Cruiser identifiable by the functional vent windows in the rear doors.
This little Lark hardtop had a better chance of preservation simply because its a hardtop, considered more desirable than sedans.
I am at the present trying to redue a 63 Lark that was in a lot worse shape ( rust wise) than i thought. It needs some extra metal to keep the rear fenders attached. And sooooo many other things i wont even start. Anyone with a project you have taken on lately or at any time and could give me some good advice ( now that i already have it) please contact me
I’d buy it I already have a similar glasshouse on another car even the styling is similar vaguely, I kinda like these though Ive yet to see a two door version here.
I remember watching Beyond Our Control. It’s amazing how prescient that show was in foreshadowing stuff like Second City TV and Saturday Night Live. I vividly recall how you could never really tell when it was going to be on. Usually, it was the deadest of airtimes like Saturday afternoon, and was often bumped by a long running sporting event (like a Notre Dame football game). WNDU does, after all, stand for Notre Dame University.
I even noticed a shot of the Dew Drop Inn dive bar in the clip. I think that place is still in the same, now otherwise vacant lot over all these years, sitting forlornly by itself, somewhere off of Sample Street in a downtrodden part of town. It’s actually quite near the location of where the Studebaker factory used to be and one can easily imagine Studebaker assembly line workers once hanging out there a half century ago.
By the time I was paying attention, BOC aired Saturday (or was it Sunday?) late afternoon pretty consistently. I watched probably starting in 1979, through 1985 when I left town.
The Lark was an excellent example of making the best of what you got on a limited budget and it did the trick for a couple of years. But man, were these tings ever stubby-looking. The front end reminds me of those 1950s GM HD trucks where there was almost nothing ahead of the front wheels.
With the slight camber to the rear wheels and the popped trunk lid it almost looks like the rear-engine Lark with Porsche engine that Curtis-Wright built.
How do you manage negative camber, or any camber, with an rear axle design now only seen on pickup trucks?
A friend’s dad had a ’60 Lark at the point that we started driving in early 1969. By that point it was well-worn but still running reliably. My buddy desperately wanted a new car, so his dad cut him a deal – drive the Lark until it dies and then we’ll help with the down payment on your next ride.
Fast forward to 1975 and the Lark still started every morning, so Bob tried to hasten its demise. First, he stopped changing oil or doing any other maintenance. 1976 came around and . . . still running. Then he tried to get it stolen by leaving the keys in the ignition; no dice. We nicknamed the car “Mr. Dependable.” Now for the kicker:
When Bob finished college and had his first job, he took the opportunity to sell the Lark and bought a brand-spanking new 1976 Chevette. That car made it 3 whole blocks from the dealership before it had its first failure and had to be towed back. If memory serves, the Chevette spent just about as much time in the dealer service bay as Bob did driving it. To ice the cake, Bob regularly saw the Lark on the street with its new owner, well into the 80s.
There was no four door station wagon in the 1959 Lark lineup. Four-door wagon and convertible appeared for 1960. Two door wagon disappeared after 1961.
The Larks were raced in Australia’s premier production car race, the Armstrong 500.
Brakes and wheels were the weak link. YouTube has plenty of footage if you google “Studebaker at Bathurst”
Mr. and Mrs. Post’s favorite car make. aka “Mr. Ed’s keepers”.
In the Studebaker Museum, there is copy of letter approving sponsorship of the “Mr. Ed” show.
One episode had Mrs. Post wanting her own car, so she used Mr. Ed to pull a buggy. Horse begged Wilbur to get her a car, “I’m tired!”. She got a Wagonaire, I think, at the end.
That show began as a syndicated show and not a regular network offering. It was initially sponsored by an association of Studebaker dealers. The network soon picked it up and Studebaker Corporation took over sponsorship. I think it was the only show on television in the 60s that had Studebakers either featured or in the background on the rare occasions they filmed outside of the studio.
The shot below is probably the most famous.
Here is the opening credit shot from the original syndicated series, which was called Wilbur Pope And Mr. Ed.
Solid stick shift car. Are you kidding? This one is an easy restoration. The script that would be on the right side of the rear panel is missing that would say, “Lark VI” or “Lark VII” – the six being the reliable L-head and the eight a great performing, yet not fuelish fun ride. NOS parts still available and priced right. Wish this was mine! I thought it was Wilbur Post on Mister Ed?
So I re-read this when it re-ran just a few weeks ago. Today I was talking with a co-worker whom I’ve known, but not well, for several years before we started working together closely. Today when we were discussing our orginization’s AV equipment and he mentioned “back when I was working at the TV station” and then went on to say that it was part of JA and I knew that he grew up in Indiana. Well it turns out that he was talking about his years in Beyond Our Control. He was amazed I knew about it, and of course wondered why in the hell I would know about it.
Came home today and looked up this post and found the show’s website and sure enough there he is mentioned in the 69-70 cast picture. He told me that before he retired from teaching he would show a clip with him in it and the reveal to the students that one of the kids in that video was him and challenged them to figure out which one he was.