Curbside Classic: 1963 Studebaker Lark Wagonaire – A Real Vista For The Cruiser

(originally posted 8/31/2011)    The early 1960s produced some beautiful cars and saw an increased offering of models and sizes, but was an extremely conventional time in terms of body styles.  Other than the 1961 Lincoln 4 door convertible, the industry produced a steady diet of sedans, hardtops, wagons and convertibles, just as it had ten or twenty years earlier.  Studebaker, however, was not like other car companies.   “What if we take a station wagon, give it a sunroof, and make it like a pickup?”  “Great idea.  Build it.”  And here it is.

Is there a single car company who has ever squeezed so many unique and fascinating products out of so little money as Studebaker in the 1960s?  By 1961, Studebaker had spent the previous 8 years lurching from one disaster to the next, each time coming closer to insolvency.  But this was the year that Studebaker got a new president in the hard charging Sherwood Egbert, who was not ready to go down without a fight.  Studebaker’s last 2 years in South Bend produced a whirlwind of activity not seen in years, with the Avanti and the Gran Turismo Hawk being the most noteworthy new products.  But there was another new product that was noteworthy as well – but in a different way.  How about a station wagon with a sliding roof?

Studebaker had a very small styling department and an even smaller budget.  But Egbert knew that sales of the bread and butter Lark were starting to wane, and he had to do something about it.  He contacted Wisconsin industrial designer Brooks Stevens, whom he had known from his work at McCulloch during Egbert’s time there.  In 1962, Stevens created some prototypes for a new line of standard Studes, including a wagon he called the Skyview.  the car sported a partially retractable rear roof, allowing the car to carry tall cargo.

Unfortunately, there was no money available for a new car, so Stevens drew up some ideas to update and modernize the Lark on a tight budget.  Stevens pushed for the retractable-roof wagon, and Egbert gave the go-ahead.  Thus was born the Wagonaire.

Does anyone else see a resemblance between the Studebaker Wagonaire and the early Jeep Wagoneer?   Other than the name, I mean.  Both were products of Brooks Stevens’ fertile imagination.  The Stude FINALLY got some modern thin door uppers for 1963, about 6 years too late.

In the fall of 1962, the ’63 Studebakers hit the showrooms.  Every Lark station wagon would be a Wagonaire.  A brilliant idea, actually, which nobody else in the industry was offering.   Need to tote a refrigerator?  Need to pick up some trees from the garden center?  Do you have a den of Cub Scouts who won’t sit down?  The Wagonaire was the car for you!     The car actually sold fairly well (by Studebaker’s standards, anyhow), moving about 11 thousand units during the model year.  Unfortunately, this was much less than the volume that management hoped for.

I just love these cars, and for multiple reasons.  First, I have a thing for station wagons in general.  Also, I still carry a soft spot in my heart for Studebakers, having spent a lot of time around them during my childhood.  But most of all, there is just something about that sliding roof that makes me want to own one of these.   This car is just cool, that’s all.

So, knowing my biases,  you can imagine my reaction when I saw one of these drive through an intersection in front of me a week or so ago.   “Quick”, I said to my daughter, who was driving, “turn right and follow that car”  And she did.   Actually, it was quite an adventure for her, getting driving hours for her learners’ permit with Dad.  They did not cover “Follow That Car” in drivers’ ed.  But she hung with it, and a few miles later the Stude turned into its driveway.

Barry  McPhearson was happy to talk about and to let me photograph his car.  A longtime member of the Studebaker Drivers’ Club, he was very knowlegeable about the car.  He is amassing a supply of parts to refurbish the old wagon, but meanwhile, he drives it regularly.  With a 259 V8 and an automatic, the car is remarkable in that it has just 81 thousand miles under its belt.  For an original Stude in Indiana, they don’t get much more rust-free than this.

Discerning viewers will also note that this is the top-of-the-line Daytona version.

Unfortunately, I could not ask for a demonstration of the roof because all of the seams are taped over to keep the inside of the car dry.  This was a problem with these cars from birth.  Barry explained that the drainage tubes were never of sufficient size and would be overwhelmed by any good rainstorm.

A view of the inside shows that the roof’s opening mechanism is a simple pair of tracks that allow the panel to slide forward right below the headliner for the front section.  This view also shows the extra height built in for clearance.

Barry says that this car starts a lot of conversations, including some from younger folks who have never heard of a Studebaker.
Barry reports that, surprisingly, there are scads of parts available to keep these old Studes on the road, and that the world’s largest Studebaker parts supplier sits one county away.

It is not surprising to me that the Wagonaire was a failure.  The sliding roof was a great idea by a failing car company that did not have the money or time to work the bugs out of it, or to affix it to a newer, more modern station wagon.  Actually, the ’64 model got some new lower sheetmetal to go with the new roof, but it was a case of too little too late.

The Wagonaire appears to have stayed in the catalog during the last two years of Canadian production.   I think that the square-shouldered 1964-66 cars carry the Wagonaire roof a little better than the pudgier-looking  ’63, but doesn’t our featured car just shout “Hey, look at me!  I’m a Studebaker!”

At first, I wondered why, in nearly 50 years, no other carmaker has ever tried to develop the idea further.  Come on, guys – a smoked glass rear roof panel, a switch on the console to make it slide electrically – what’s not to like here?   Or maybe I’m just getting carried away with Studebaker-love.  Don’t answer that.

But wait!  I had completely forgotten about the 2004-05 GMC Envoy XUV until my brother in law Bill reminded me about it.  A little more ambitious than the Wagonaire, it also featured a sliding rear roof.   GM solved the leak problem by making the cargo area weatherproof.  Also, like the Wagonaire, GM sold about 12 thousand in the vehicle’s first (and only) full year.   Maybe the lesson here is that in any given year, there may be 11 to 12 thousand people in the U.S. who like a sliding roof wagon enough to buy one.  The sliding roof wagon maintains its perfect record – it has now failed to save TWO mortally wounded car companies.

Anyway, it may be small consolation to any surviving ex-Studebaker people, but a chance encounter with this car and its dedicated owner brought the biggest smile to my face all week.  As an added bonus, maybe my daughter is starting to get the Curbside Classic bug.  As we were leaving to go back home, she said “that was fun.  Can we do it again?”   You betcha, kiddo.


Related reading: Selling the 1963 Studebaker Wagonaire  also by Jim Cavenaugh