Vintage Review: 1963 Studebaker Lark Wagonaire – Airy Dead End

The Studebaker Lark Wagonaire was an answer to a question nobody asked. Why would anyone find an opening rear roof panel on a wagon compelling? It sucked in dirt and exhaust fumes, it leaked water when it rained, it broiled the kiddies sitting back there in the summer heat. Oh, right; it was made for sadistic parents who got a kick out of subjecting their kids to fumes, sun, rain and heat.

And then there were the compulsive refrigerator movers. And the balled-tree buyers. And…well, I’m sure you’ll come up with some more, but in 1963, all of them didn’t total to even 12,000 buyers. And that’s for all Wagonaires; because of the notorious leaks, Studebaker rushed a fixed roof version into production by January, so there’s no breakout as to how many of each version were built and sold.

Motor Trend tested one and starts off asking “Why hasn’t anyone come up with this before?”  Because they knew better, obviously. But M/T seemed to think that the addition of a sliding roof was “a natural“, and wondered why no one in the industry had done it before.  Leave it to already-moribund Studebaker to take a flyer on a concept that had no history or known demand. Desperation is the mother of…risk taking.

Based on their extended test drive, M/T goes on to predict: “owners will find very few problems in the sliding roof.” They even subjected it to some rain, and theirs didn’t leak. But Studebaker’s customer’s Wagonaires did have problems with the sliding roof, inundated by water leaks from the front seal and undersized drains. Studebaker scrambled to fix the leaking issue as well as tooling up for a fixed roof version, which was $100 cheaper. Given the notorious leakage issues with the sliding roof over the long haul despite the fix, that was money well saved.

The ability to walk right into the rear compartment was considered a boon, but how many adults ever rode in that little barely-padded third seat? It was mounted so high that adults didn’t have enough head room to sit up properly when the roof wasn’t slid all the way forward.

But M/T did identify the one main obvious fault in the basic design: road dust and exhaust fumes were sucked into the wagon, due to the inherent low pressure area at the back of any vehicle. This is precisely why many conventional wagons had deflectors; to reduce the issue when the rear window was open. In fact they were commonly standard on three-seat wagons. But there was no way to mitigate the issue in the Wagonaire.

The tested wagon had the 180hp 259 cubic inch V8 teamed with the three-speed automatic, a Borg warner unit. Performance was decidedly leisurely; 0-60 took 15.6 seconds; a hair longer than a full-size Chevy Bel Air six with the two-speed Powerglide. Top speed was a poky 84 mph. The Studebaker V8 was not inherently a stormer, but that’s got to be the slowest V8 of the whole era; the Chevy six hit 95 mph. Maybe it was speed-limited so the kids in the way back wouldn’t be sucked out of the Wagonaire at high speed?

The optional four barrel version, or better yet, the larger 289 V8 in several states of tune were optional, and would have perked things up some. Oops; there go the kids…

Ah yes; the Wagonaire made a handy camera car! No wonder M/T was so positive. “Other possibilities are limitless“.

The 112 hp Skybolt Six was also available, but between its tendency to crack its head and its very modest performance, it was probably best avoided. The tested wagon came with drum brakes, which required more pedal effort than average, causing M/T to recommend power assist if the little woman will be driving it.


The Wagonaire’s handling came in for pretty harsh criticism: “the amount of understeer is tremendous”.  M/T attributed this to excessive weight on the front end from the heavy Studebaker V8, an issue that plagued all V8 Studebakers to one degree or another. But it seems a bit odd that it was so excessively so in this case, as station wagons inherently have much better weight distribution due to their heavy bodywork at the rear. This typically resulted in a F/R weight ratio of an ideal 50/50, or very close to it. M/T did not disclose the F/R ratio of the tested wagon, so we are left to wonder…but the result was not pretty; even with higher than recommended tire pressure “tire squeal when cornering reaches an almost unbearable level.”

Not helping things was the steering: “very slow, at slightly more than 4.5 turns from lock to lock“.  M/T suggests that the 2.5 degrees of negative caster in the front wheels was partly to blame.


The lack of headroom in the third seat is substantially impacted by the sliding roof not being all the way in the forward position.  But entry was great.

Nose dive under hard braking was more than average.

The Wagonaire’s ride was deemed comfortable. It did wander a bit during cross winds at speed, and the front suspension bottomed out easily on rough roads, but rebound was controlled well by the shocks.

The exterior finish was good, and the interior was “nicely detailed”, although the unusual vanity case that had replaced the conventional glove box was not up to par in that regard.  But the instrument panel got a bit of praise for having real instruments and being easy to read.

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

Automotive History: Selling the ’63 Studebaker Wagonaire

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