Vintage R&T Road Test: 1959 Studebaker Lark Six – Slower Than The 1939 Champion

I normally wouldn’t have used that title, but the writer of this Road and Track piece (John Bond himself, possibly) had fond memories of the 1939 Champion, which shared certain similarities with the Lark, in terms of being smaller than a full size car yet having many of the attributes and capabilities of one. The other thing they shared is the same basic engine, a compact side valve (flathead) six, which was all-new in 1939. It had a rep then for being exceptionally lively, including revving to 5000 rpm, which was almost unheard of for an American engine at the time.

So naturally, R&T compared their stats of a 1939 Champ with those of the tested 1959 Lark, and…well, the title says it all. It wasn’t exactly a totally fair comparison, and of course, the Lark was well ahead in other attributes.

I’ve been meaning to do a post on the 1939 Champion for way too long, as it was an exceptional car in so many ways. It was a foreshadowing of the compacts to come in the ’50s and ’60s, and so very well executed. There was little that it gave a away to the larger cars in terms of interior space, but in terms of efficiency, economy and handling, it was in a league of its own.

And as noted above, its 78 hp 164.3 cubic inch six was a gem; thanks to its relatively short 3.88″ stroke, it would happily wind up to that 5000 rpm. Studebaker should have built a sports car around it.

The lark’s version of the Champion six had a longer 4.00″ stroke, still with the original 3.00″ bore, for 169.6 cubic inches, and a rating of 90 hp. But the Lark’s engine would only rev to 4500 rpm, for what it’s worth, and the optimum shift points were at 4200 rpm.  Still pretty heady for a relatively long-stroke flathead.

The column shift “works nicely and is easy to use for traffic, although a little recalcitrant when forced, as during the acceleration tests”. That’s the first relatively positive thing I’ve read about a US car’s column shift in just about ever. “Ride qualities are good by domestic standards, certainly softer than any comparable import.” But the trade-off was the typical mushiness when cornering.The steering was “good”, and had 4.4 turns lock-to-lock. “Typically Studebaker, the steering wheel does not spin back after a turn”. There is the typical understeer, but not nearly as bad as the V8 versions, which suffered considerably due to the weight of the chunky V8.

In hard driving, fuel economy was “disappointing” (16/17 mpg), but steady cruising brought that up to 21/23 mpg.

The body design was deemed to be “not up to modern American car standards”. Well, yes, its basic body dated to 1953, of course. It was considered to be too tall and stubby. True that.

Performance was also deemed to be not up to snuff. 0-60 in 21 seconds was almost in VW territory. The 1939 Champ did it in 18 seconds, with 72 hp. The Champ did have a significantly lower (higher numerical) axle ratio, and weighed about 100 lbs less.

A lower rear axle was recommended for the Lark. As to the automatic transmission, “it should not be at all considered for the 6”. And if you wanted a faster Lark, the V8 was of course available.

The interior was faulted for being very austere and stark, reflecting Studebaker’s efforts to keep its cost down. The front seat’s quality and comfort were also faulted. The back seat was suitable only for two, due to the rear wheel housing intrusion.

In summation, R&T thought it was “a good little car, but it is at best an ‘economy car'”. R&T pointed out that there were several imported sedans of about the same size but offer equal or better performance, comfort, more economy, but without the “sternly utilitarian feeling one gets from the Lark”. But these import sedans cost more than the Lark, thus R&T predicted that the Lark would sell in greater numbers than even the VW, “a fact that should shake up the over-confident export managers of any overseas manufacturer you can name”.  That’s an interesting prediction. How accurate was it?

It was correct, up to a point. The Lark had a great first year in 1959, and a quite good second year, and it did handily outsell the VW those years. But the VW sales still grew rapidly in those years too. R&T’s prediction about “over-confident export managers” very much came true for almost all import brands in 1960, when import sales crashed, with the exception of the VW. Of course in 1960 the Big Three unleashed their new compacts. So it was mostly a very prescient call.

What they didn’t go on to predict was the Lark’s (and parent Studebaker’s) future. The Lark’s success in 1959 and 1960 turned out to be very short-lived.


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