(first posted 5/10/2012) In the mid 1990s, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan described an economic situation in which investors were extremely active in the financial markets even though common sense would find no reason for it. He coined the phrase “irrational exuberance”. Is there any better description of Studebaker Corporation during the all-too-brief tenure of Sherwood Egbert?
I would really like to have met Sherwood Egbert. Egbert was the guy who replaced Harold Churchill as head of Studebaker-Packard Corporation in early 1961. Egbert was really quite unlike any head of Studebaker in a long, long time. Studebaker, you see, had been led by a long line of conservative old-timers. But Egbert was a hard-charging 40 year old who had been transferred over from Paxton Products to take the reins as Studebaker wound down its automotive operations.
What, exactly, was it about Egbert? There must have been really something about this guy. If you or I were to have suggested to Studebaker’s board that we could take a small budget and make some revisions to the company’s antiquated 1953-vintage cars which would make them competitive in the marketplace, we would certainly have been given the bum’s rush. And for good reason. Studebaker had been trying to pull this same rabbit out of the same hat since 1955, with results that started out bad and mostly tapered off from there.
But Sherwood Egbert somehow convinced the board (and most others in the company) that it could be done and done successfully. We have all heard the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, each time expecting different results. We have also heard that there is a fine line between insanity and brilliance. Egbert in person must have been a real force of nature. Part leader, part salesman, part cheerleader, and yes, part magician. There have always been a few people who are natural motivators and leaders. People who can make you think not only that you are capable of winged flight, but that you will look good while doing it. From all I can tell, Sherwood Egbert was such a person.
Did Studebaker under Egbert really do anything different than had been done several times before? Let’s see. There is a short chassis and a long chassis, both narrow enough to qualify as small cars. There are two deeply flawed body structures from the early 1950s. There are a couple of aging but competent V8 engines, a flathead 6 being converted to overhead valves, and a Borg Warner transmission that was essentially a 1950s Ford-O-Matic. All of these things are built in a ragtag collection of 1920s era factories with the highest labor costs in the industry. All you need is to add a pinch of magic and stir. What can possibly go wrong?
We often talk about the 1970s as being the decade of malaise in the world of automotive design. But if malaise had an automotive home, it was Studebaker in late 1960. They were down to two cars – the Lark and the Hawk. The Lark had been been a brief success until the big three had the audacity to introduce compact cars that were ready for 1963 instead of having been introduced in 1953. And the Hawk was there because – well, because the dealers pleaded for something, anything, to sell besides just Larks. Worse, the attractive hardtop model had been discontinued after 1958, leaving the pillared coupe with its ancient thick upper doors as the sole Hawk offering.
The 1962 Gran Turismo Hawk’s story has already been covered in Paul Niedermeyer’s excellent CC (here). Suffice it to say that industrial designer Brooks Stevens provided the magic to be added to the ingredients described above, and brought us this unique and fascinating car.
To me, the G.T. Hawk was the 1960s Studebaker that got away. I started kindergarten in the fall of 1964. One of the kids I met in our carpool lived down the street. I loved the days his mom drove us in her white 1960 Lark VIII coupe. Very rarely, we got to ride in his dad’s red ’64 Avanti R2. Tim and I became best friends, and his dad became my original car-mentor.
Over the years I got to spend a lot of time around Studes at Tim’s house. Larks, a Champ pickup, and a pair of ’64s – a stripper Commander sedan and a silver-blue Daytona hardtop. But nobody in the family had a G T Hawk, so I experienced these only in pictures. Could someone please explain to me how I could grow up with at least three Pontiac GTOs living either side of me next door, yet I somehow preferred Studebakers? There is probably a diagnosis and at least one prescription medication for this.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. I was dropping some bundled newspapers off in the bins at our parish school and was driving to the office. As I came to a stop sign, it took me a moment to realize what I was following. I had some time, so I decided to follow it a bit longer. Maybe I would get lucky like I did the last time I followed a Stude home (CC Here).
I turned off the radio and lowered the window so that i could listen to the lightly muffled exhaust note of the Stude 289. This is a sound that I cannot begin to describe, but that is planted deeply in my memory banks. It is a fatter, fuller exhaust note than any other V8 I have heard, sort of like a rapid-fire series of blop-blop-blops.
As I followed the car, it occurred to me that it would never unseat the contemporary T-Bird in the personal luxury market. Although all of the publicity photos I had seen of the car gave it some T-Birdish proportions, in real life, the car is quite narrow. From the rear, this is not a large car, and is actually a little petite.
I got caught at a traffic light and was sure that I had lost the Hawk, but then I saw it turn into a parking lot and then emerge from behind a restaurant into a parking place. I pulled into the lot just in time to meet the car’s owner, who was meeting some friends for breakfast.
We had a short but enjoyable chat about his car. He is a South Bend native who has owned this car since the 1970s. This is an original 66K car that is absolutely beautiful. Was there ever a better color combination on a G. T. Hawk? He is preparing to sell the car at auction, so if this old Hawk speaks to you, maybe it could wind up in your own garage. Why, oh why did I have those pesky, expensive children?
Looking at this car up close, it is an unusual combination of dimensions. Its length (and its 120.5 inch wheelbase) are from a big 1962 car. Its width is from an intermediate or even a pony car. Its height is quite low, and I can only imagine how this basic car must have stuck out in the fall of 1952. It’s dimensions are actually reminiscent of the roadsters and speedsters of the 1920s and 1930s.
And considering what few resources Studebaker had at the time, the interior is fitted out quite nicely. The dash is plainer than other examples I have seen, and appears to lack the large clock and tach dials on either side of the instrument cluster. This has to have been among the first U. S. cars to employ woodgrain trim on the dash. Even so, the lack of suspended pedals gives away the age of this platform.
It is unfortunate, but the G. T. Hawk failed quite miserably, with less than 10,000 1962 models made, including for Canada and export. Sure, this was about double the abysmal showing of the 1961 Hawk, but was about half of Hawk production during its glory days of 1956-57.
After spending a few minutes taking this car in, the rational side of me understands why this Hawk failed to take off and save Studebaker. Although cleverly updated, it was clear from the front and from the drivers seat that underneath, it was still the same old Hawk that most buyers had been passing up since 1956. In the world of 1962-63, it was neither fish nor fowl. It wasn’t a big car, and neither was it a small one. Not really luxury, and certainly not a sports car. The Hawk was (and had always been) unique. But the time had long passed for anything out of South Bend to set the style or lead a niche.
But for those of us who like to stray from the main paths when it comes to what we drive, the G. T. Hawk was a great stop on a less traveled path. I don’t know what Sherwood Egbert said or how he said it to unleash the irrational exuberance that took hold in South Bend in 1961, but I am certainly glad that it all happened. Because even after fifty years, an occasional whiff of that substance, whatever it is, can still be found in the air as it was here for me on a warm spring morning, as I spent a few minutes with this beautiful black Hawk.