The Studebaker saga begins with the founding of a small blacksmith shop in 1852 that later became the world’s largest wagon manufacturer after the Civil War (more than 750,000 wagons, buggies, and carriages since 1852). It’s automobile story begins with the sale of about twenty electric runabouts in 1902 and ends with the Avanti in 1963. The second electric car was sold to Thomas A. Edison (a distinction proudly documented with many photographs). In those 61 years Studebaker made the transition from wagon manufacturer to one of the larger auto manufacturers, to the last independent auto producer in the United States.
The firm plunged into gasoline production after wetting its toes as agent for Garford (1904-1908) and EMF (1908-1911). Studebaker merged with and/or acquired both of these operations and production of electric cars was dropped on February 14, 1911, when the Studebaker Corporation was formed. It has a place of honor in American industry of wars and depressions. Its abundant output has included luxury limousines; economy cars: Erskine (1927 – 1930), Rockne (1932 – 1933) — named for Notre Dame’s football coach — and the popular Champion first introduced in 1939; high performance Hawks and Avantis, and even racers that did nobly at the Indianapolis 500 in 1932 and 1933; trucks and military vehicles, notably the versatile, tracked World War II Weasel. Though armed with fresh designs, Studebaker couldn’t stand up to the big three in the early 1960s. In December 1963, Studebaker’s South Bend assembly lines closed.
The closing of production at the South Bend plants was greeted with much anger and disbelief. Today the city has weathered the storm and has a vibrant community.
Many of the buildings from the Studebaker complex are intact. The administration building at the northwest corner of Bronson and south Main streets.
Studebaker mileposts in history.
1909 and 1910 Ranked fourth among American automobile producers.
1911 Ranked second only to Ford.
1912 through 1914 Ranked third after Ford and Willys-Overland.
1913 Introduced a six-cylinder engine featuring monobloc engine casting (concurrent
introduction along with Premier of Indianapolis)
1915 Dropped to sixth place.
1916 Introduced a deferred payment plan. In less than ten years, 50% of all cars sold in
America were bought on time.
1921 Ranked fourth place after Ford, Buick and Dodge, and remains among the top ten
American producers through the 1920s.
1928 Set 160 endurance or speed records.
1931 Introduced free-wheeling.
1940 Survived the Depression
1946 Introduced the 1947 Virgil Exner designed Champion with the slogan “First By Far
With a Postwar Car” and went on to become the largest independent automobile producer
in the post-World War II period.
1949 One of the sole independents to develop its own automatic transmission while
working in conjunction with Borg-Warner of Muncie.
1962 Introduced the Avanti personal luxury car.
I recommend the following Studebaker books: Studebaker: The Life and Death of an American Corporation by Donald T. Critchlow, ISBN 0253330653 ; More Than They Promised: The Studebaker Story by Thomas E. Bonsall, ISBN 0804735867.
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