This is true history involving a classic name from the US industry that goes back over 200 years!
The Studebaker family migrated from the Netherlands to Pennsylvania in 1736 on the ship “Harle” from Rotterdam. The family trade was blacksmithing although the name can be traced back to another occupation: baker – the spelling was slightly changed over time from Studebacker or Stutenbecker and originates from what is now Germany. By the mid 19th century John Studebaker had moved his family to Ohio and with his sons were making wagons – as America expanded westwards many of the wagons used for the gold rush and pioneering came from Studebaker.
In the 1870s the Studebaker sons (Henry, Clement, John, Peter and Jacob) merged their separate businesses to form the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company. Henry and Clement had moved their families to South Bend, Indiana and John had been seduced by the Gold Rush and moved to California. This gave them quite a view of the US industry and with rail starting to take much of the freight westwards, they looked at other manufacturing as the wagon business was slowing down.
John moved back to Indiana and invested in the Studebaker company. They started to look at using electricity as the power source for some cars and they built several models selling about 20 of them. To increase business further they entered into two distribution agreements with other petrol powered manufacturers – Garford of Ohio and Everett-Metzger-Flanders of Detroit and by 1904 they were making petrol based Studebaker branded cars.
During this time both agreements caused problems with the Garford one dropped first due to them increasing production at the expense of the Studebaker brand. Garford was ultimately bought by Willys of Jeep fame. Then the E-M-F agreement got into difficulty due to poor quality that affected the brand. Studebaker eventually acquired the assets of E-M-F and reformed as the Studebaker Corporation in 1911.
Studebaker added in a truck model as well – a throw back to their heritage. Considering that we are still talking about a very new industry, Studebaker were one of the leading companies and as early as 1926 had built the first US based vehicle development and test centre. In fact if you use Google Earth and search for Bendix Woods in Indiana you will still see the pine trees that were planted spelling out the name Studebaker.
Studebaker survived the Great Depression and like many manufacturers developed a tier 2 brand, Rockne, which was a cheaper marque designed to appeal to a wider market. They also acquired Erskine and Pierce-Arrow. During WW2, Studebaker switched to building for the war effort building trucks for the army and after the war they switched back to making cars for the civilian population. The post war period was a time of growth for the US and it was the start of the great battle between Ford and General Motors which had a major impact on all other US manufacturers. In addition to this, labour costs were increasing and Studebaker started to suffer financially, especially when labour strikes hit their factory in South Bend.
To survive, Studebaker merged with Packard to form the Studebaker-Packard Corporation and when this entity struggled they brought in a management team from Curtiss-Wright an aircraft company. The car company had built aircraft under licence during the war so already had a relationship with them. Doesn’t history repeat itself, in 2008 Ford employed Alan Mulally an ex Boeing executive to help turn them around! But back to Studebaker, the recommendation from Curtiss-Wright was to add the distribution of European cars, namely Mercedes-Benz, Auto Union & DKW to the car manufacturing. The Packard name was soon dropped both from manufacturing and the corporate name.
During this time, manufacturing of the vehicles had been moved to Ontario in Canada and diversification away from cars was also happening. The company owned Franklin home appliances, STP Oil, a tractor and a generator manufacturer. This diversification caused funds to be reduced to the car division and by 1966 car production had stopped altogether. The development centre was bought by Bendix, a supplier to the company and eventually was passed to the city of New Carlisle as parkland, although the proving grounds are still used by Bosch. Studebaker General Products was bought by another local manufacturer, Kaiser who wanted it as they both produced military vehicles.
Studebaker became a closed investment company with many subsidiaries, merging to become Studebaker-Worthington, which in turn was acquired by McGraw-Edison who were ultimately bought by Cooper Industries. The leasing division of Studebaker-Worthington is now part of the Main Street Bank of Kingwood, Texas, having been sold by the State Bank of Long Island in April during the GFC of 2008.
There have been a few attempts to resurrect the Studebaker name for a car – but all have failed. None of these attempts have been endorsed by the Studebaker family although one model, the Studebaker Avanti from 1962 was built by Avanti Motors in Cancun, Mexico until 2011. This version used a 4.6 litre 300hp Ford V8 and included airbags, traction control and all mod cons under a classically styled body. Avanti seemed to have more lives than a cat and each owner moved the production facilities, possibly to take advantage of Government money.
Studebaker was one of the great pioneers of the motor world and the name still lives on albeit in a different industry. There are two important resources for anyone who wants to learn about the full history: the Studebaker Museum and the Studebaker Drivers Club.