Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1961 Studebaker Lark Cruiser – Nothing “Average” About It, Including Its Buyers

The 1959 Lark was  created by chopping off the front end rear ends of the Studebaker Commander, resulting in a  very short (175″) car on a 108″ wb to compete in the newly hot compact car field, one year before the Big Three jumped in. By 1961, the compact market was expanding (literally) with what came to be known as “senior compacts”, in the form of the Buick Special, Olds F-85 and Pontiac Tempest, all on a 112″ wheelbase, and Ford’s Comet, with a 111″ wheelbase.

The news of these was not a well kept secret, and not surprisingly, Studebaker wanted to play in this arena too. And once again, the solution was easy enough: just use the former President center body section with its longer rear door and plop it down on the 113″ wb chassis already being used under the Lark wagon. This had already been in existence as the “Econo-Miler” taxi cab. Bingo! And make the V8 standard. Take that, all new Buick Special with your highfalutin aluminum V8!

The result was compelling, in certain ways, but not surprisingly, when you’re stuck with old bodies, chassis, and heavy engines, there were compromises too.

Car Life points out that the basic formula that the Cruiser espoused was what “the hypothetical average man” had been asking for: a car that encompassed the best qualities of compacts and full-size cars. Not too big but roomy enough for his growing family, husky V8 performance, automatic transmission convenience, all wrapped up in a still very compact package, a mere 179″ long. That’s 14″ shorter than that all-new Buick Special and those other GM  senior compacts. If this is really what the average man wants, then as the sub-title says: “then Studebaker-Packard is sitting pretty”. As if…

CL points out that a Lark with V8 and automatic got over 23 mpg on the Mobilgas economy run, “so the stipulations concerning smoothness and economy are well met”. Sure, as long as you know how to hypermile.

But they quickly move on the the Cruiser’s (and all Lark V8’s) Achilles heel: that very chunky V8, almost as as heavy as a big Cadillac V8, made these short cars excessively front heavy. This of course had a negative affect on its handling. And then there was the steering, which came in for pretty heavy criticism. They don’t say it, but presumably this Cruiser had the optional power steering, as it was deemed utterly devoid of any road feel or feedback: “but a total lack of feedback is inexcusable. it could even be dangerous…near impossible to drive at anything above a moderate speed on a high-crowned road”.

CL points out that the Lark was hardly unique in this respect, but it was particularly bad in this case.

On the other hand, the ride was better than average, inasmuch as it was both comfortable as well as “controlled”, thanks to improved shocks.

And the brakes were also better than average, with lining area increased 20% over the 1960 models, and there were even fins on the drums in those cars equipped with the 289 V8.

As to its interior, the Cruiser’s interior cam in for good marks, “if for no other reason than its unexpected roominess. Well, if you take your your extended wheelbase top-of-the line President and give it a Larkectomy on the front and rear, that should not be a surprise.

Of course the Cruiser’s real strength lay in its 200 hp 289 V8, which turned it into a very well-performing car. 0-60 in ten seconds flat used to be the domain of “hot cars”, but its curb weight of 3385 lbs curb meant that even wit a two-barrel carb, the 289 moved the Cruiser quite effortlessly, including to 100 mph in 17.8 seconds.

That same extended body as the Cruiser was also offered as the Lark HD sedan, obviously intended primarily for taxi use. Given its excellent interior room to overall length ratio, it certainly was rather ideal for that use.

Fit and finish were rated as being up to industry standards, which CL said “is not saying much nowadays”. There were a few glitches, like the exterior door handle coming off.


CL closes out “since the Cruiser does so closely approximate what people say they want in a car, it will be enlightening to see if average does as average says.”

We have the benefit of hindsight to answer that with a resounding No! Lark sales fell from 128k in 1960 to 67k in 1961, a painful blow after tow good years and unexpected profits. There’s no breakout of the Cruiser’s sales in 1961, but these were very rare back in the day, so its safe to say that the Cruiser did not amount to a significant share of ’61 Lark sales.

But the new 113″ wb format for four door sedans was adopted across the line in 1962, so in that regard, the ’61 Cruiser was a foreshadowing of things to come, for better or for worse. The Lark did essentially become a “senior compact” or something like that, and of course added length to its front and rear ends. But it never appealed to “the average buyer”, not by a long shot.

Related CC reading:
Curbside Classic: 1959 Studebaker Lark VIII Regal Hardtop Coupe – Studebaker’s Last Hurrah

Automotive History: The Studebaker V8 Engine – Punching Below Its Weight

Automotive History: The Studebaker V8 Engine – Punching Below Its Weight

Car Show Classic: 1963 Studebaker Lark Regal – A Left Brain Car For A Right Brain World