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The Auto Outsider vs. Detroit: The Studebaker Story

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
June 13, 2024 3:02 am

The Auto Outsider vs. Detroit: The Studebaker Story

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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June 13, 2024 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Miles outside of motor city in South Bend, Indiana, one of America’s most iconic classic car companies battled for survival against the ever increasing tides against it. Automotive historian Patrick Foster brings us the story of Studebaker.

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It was a big corporation. It was one of the biggest corporations in America, and for a long time it was a small business, but they built horse-drawn wagons, and they grew to become at one time the largest wagon maker in the country, and their products were sold all around the world, and they became very wealthy men and quite successful. What happened with a lot of producers of horse-drawn vehicles?

When the horseless carriage came out, they were not quite certain what to do with it. They began producing electric cars in 1902, and when it finally became obvious that gasoline cars were going to be pretty much the standard mode of transportation, they contracted with another company and started offering gas-powered cars, Studebaker-Garford. They kind of dipped their toe into the automobile business until, oh, I think it was about 1915. They started producing their own gasoline cars, you know, from a Studebaker design, and because of their fame, you know, they became successful. They did all right until the Great Depression, and then they went bankrupt for a while, and I get criticized by Studebaker people who say they were not actually bankrupt, but they were bankrupt then.

But luckily, a couple of managers came along and were able to get the company out of bankruptcy and rebuilt it. It was a new company that came out of the ashes of the old one. And the largest change for Studebaker was finally attempting to compete with the larger automakers by producing something a bit more affordable to the average American.

And they eventually got into the lower price ranges in 1939 with a car called the Champion that was very successful. It's big. It's new. It's the big news in the low-priced field. The big new Studebaker. Look at it. The Champion was a really remarkable car.

It came out for 1939. Studebaker put a lot of effort into it. You see, part of the problem, the biggest problem, that the independent American automakers had is trying to compete with the big three, with Ford and Chevy and Plymouth. They've got volume that gives them low prices and gives them more than low prices, low amortization. And that means, taking a case of Ford, if you're building a half a million cars a year or a million cars a year or two million cars a year, and you have to buy a page of advertising, well, you can spread that cost over two million cars. If you're Studebaker, that page of advertising costs you the same amount of money, but you can only spread it over maybe 100,000 or 200,000 cars.

So your cost per vehicle tends to be higher, not because the parts are more higher, but your overhead is higher. So the Champion was an attempt to break out of that by coming up with a really high volume car. And to do that, they had to be smart with their costs.

And they were. They built the car to be a little bit smaller than the big three cars, just a little bit, but in a design that retained almost the same interior space. And the car was lighter, so it would cost less to produce because automotive costs at those times were figured by the pound. It allowed them to come out with a car that was good-looking, roomy, competitive, price-wise very competitive, performance-wise very competitive, and yet got better fuel economy. So they had an advantage over the others. They could match them with roominess and ride and handling and performance and price. Studebaker did extremely well with it.

You know, it helped rebuild them in the post-war era. And by the 50s, they were really competitive with the big three. They were the largest volume of the American independent car companies by far. But trouble was on the horizon for Studebaker and the other independent car manufacturers. 1954 was the most competitive year in car sales, probably in the history of the auto industry. Henry Ford II had recently taken over his grandfather's firm. And he was itching to take on Chevrolet. And he announced, I believe it was 1953, that he was going to outsell Chevrolet in 54 or kill the company trying. And what he did in late 53 into 54 is he ordered up more production from his factories and ordered that those cars be shipped to dealers, whether the dealers had ordered them or not. So if you were a Ford dealer in South Bend, Indiana, and you ordered 20 new Fords for the month, you might get 40 of them along with a bill.

And you could either pay the bill or give up your franchise. You know, there was no messing with Henry Ford II. So, you know, most dealers said, OK, well, we're going to pay for the cars and we're going to sell the heck out of them. And they started cutting prices like crazy, advertising like crazy. And the result was Ford sales skyrocketed. Well, Chevrolet wasn't going to take that sitting down. So they did the same thing. Even Plymouth got in on it. So you've got the three biggest automakers in the world fighting it out tooth and nail for every sale.

And I mean, they did dirty things that are actually illegal. They did this practice called bootlegging, where they would take brand new cars and run them through an auction as used cars just to get rid of them, just to get a little bit money back and be able to stay in the game. Against that, Studebaker, Nash, Hudson, Packard, they just couldn't compete. And sales just dropped like a stone. So the little automakers, the independent American automakers, started bleeding money. Nash ended up purchasing Hudson Motor Company and they formed American Motors. And Studebaker and Packard merged with each other.

They did it so quickly. They didn't do due diligence. When you're doing a merger, you have to do what's called due diligence, where A looks at the books of B to see what sort of profits and losses they're making and what their overhead is. And B looks at the books of A for the same reason.

This way, you're going into this marriage with both eyes open. Well, Studebaker and Packard were so desperate to merge with each other. And also, I think both of them were afraid of what the other one would think of their ledgers, that they didn't do due diligence. They just said, you tell us how much what your overhead is and how much your profit and losses for the last year, and we'll do the same for you.

And we're not going to check each other's books. And both sides lied like rugs. So the upshot was about three months after they merged together, they discovered they were losing money by the bucket load. They were bleeding. I mean, it was unbelievable how much money they were losing. And the head of Studebaker Packard, James Nance, sent one of his financial people over to South Bend and said, find out what what the problem is down there.

And he found out that Studebaker had understated their breakeven point by something on the order of 80 or 100,000 cars. And there was just no way they were going to turn a profit for a while. Once they merged, there was no unmerging them. It's really hard onto a merger. So they were stuck together.

And it was a rocky road for the next five years. What should have happened and the whole plan behind it, which was a good plan, was they were merged together. They would sell each other's products. And instantly the engineering team would get together and design one car body that could be used by both brands. This is what Nash and Hudson did. It's what Chevrolet had been doing for years. It's what Ford had been doing for years.

You know, a Pontiac is basically a Chevrolet with more trim. So the Studebaker Packard, the plan was they would eventually share the same body and that would cut their overhead tremendously. They would be able to spread their costs over so many more vehicles and they would be profitable.

And it would have worked, too, but they just didn't have enough capital to last long enough. And you're listening to Patrick Foster, automotive historian, telling the story of the Studebaker Corporation and in his own way telling the story of American history and American business, commerce, and entrepreneurial activity. When we come back, more of the Studebaker Corporation story here on Our American Stories. This Father's Day, shop at the Home Depot to find the perfect gift to help dad be everything he can be. Because your dad is more than just a dad. He's groundskeeper of the yard, the perfecter of the patio, and the cleaner of the clippings.

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Actually it saved it saved the corporation. Hi there I'm Rex May and this is the 61 lark. Well sure it's beautiful but more important the lark's got something new.

A new kind of performance. A new kind of excitement unmatched in any US compact. And the lark was truly a miracle of a car for Studebaker. Built using existing parts from the Studebaker Starlight.

A car which consumers didn't like. They had that 1953 car that they had been pedaling through 58 and basically because the company had no money and could not afford a new body they took that 1953 sedan body and they sawed off both ends. They shortened the wheelbase and came up with very simple styling that stood out.

That was the lark really. There was nothing new about the body other than the front end cap and the rear styling. It was designed on a shoe string and they used a lot of parts that they had been using for years and this is the interesting thing. They sold the lark for more than they had been selling the 58 big car and they were able to get away with it because it was a new concept. This was not some stripped down big car that you would be ashamed to be seen in. This was a compact car and compact cars were just becoming the rage. In 1959 the dam broke on the compact car market and Studebaker was you know part of it was luck but part of it was good product planning.

In 1959 they turned in the best year in their history profit wise. The car sold like nickel hamburgers. It was amazing and it was a good car.

It was roomy for a compact and they nailed it as far as ride and handling. Gas mileage was very good. It was underpowered but with the lark you could get a V8 engine and Studebaker had a really excellent V8 and a lot of people wanted a small car but they wanted power so sales of V8 powered compacts at Studebaker at least were very good. So they did all in all they did very well with that car. In 1960 Studebaker car sales fell because the big three got into the compact market.

61 there was a recession in the American auto industry that hit Studebaker hard. But despite the company struggling Studebaker was about to release their magnum opus, the Avanti. You know it's not unusual in the history of automotive companies to bring out a glamour car when you're struggling. The idea behind it is that this is going to be a halo car. It's going to spread a halo over all your products.

It's going to be a draw. People are going to and this was the case of the Avanti. People are going to want to come into the Studebaker showroom to see this fantastically styled new car and they'll end up buying a lark. So that was the plan behind it and they also thought that they could build enough of them and price it high enough to where they could you know they could do the Avanti profitably. They did it with a fiberglass body for two reasons. One because the Corvette had a fiberglass body and two because Studebaker didn't have enough money to pay for the hard tooling to stamp it out in steel.

Tooling for fiberglass bodies is cheap and I think it was one of the best looking cars that's ever been made in America. I remember coming out of high school. I was a senior and I was skipping class in the morning to go downtown for breakfast. I'll admit that here and this gold Avanti pulled up to a traffic light at the intersection where I was waiting to cross and I had never seen one before and my jaw hit the ground. I had never seen anything so dramatic. I mean in a sea of Ford Fairlanes and Dodge Darts here is this Avanti and I didn't know what it was. You know I was with a couple of guys and I said what is that and a guy says oh that's a Studebaker Avanti and I was dumbfounded. I said that's Studebaker because I had you know a friend of mine had a Studebaker Lark and the Avanti didn't look anything like any Studebaker I had ever seen. It was dramatic and it was supposed to be and it was a beautiful car. They were well finished.

They were very very fast and the shame is that they had so many production problems with them that they never really got it sorted out. I think it took them about two years to finally get it sorted out and by then you know Studebaker was in such bad shape that nobody wanted to buy anything with a Studebaker name on it. And one of the biggest problems for Studebaker was its own union. The problem was the union they fought tooth and nail for every concession. They struck at the most inopportune times. If you're an automobile union and you really want to cripple a company you say okay we're going to wait till announcement time for the new models and then we're going to go on strike and then dealers are going to have nothing to sell and then you're going to have to go to the company to sell and by the time we win our concessions and go back to work you know the market's going to be gone and they did that. They did that in 62 and it just devastated the company. They were having a party down there in South Bend. They had college guys that were on the payroll who were not actually working.

There was one guy who was typing his college theses in the room. There were stuff that a good management doesn't allow to happen. After the strike in 62 the company never really recovered. For some reason I don't know if the buying public just gave up on them but car sales just all of a sudden went off the cliff and the company was still building cars. Good management tells you you don't build a car without an order. That's been you know like a like a watchword in the industry from from day one but they wanted to keep the assembly lines going so they were building cars that they had no orders for and then at the end of the month or at the end of two months they'd have this huge stockpile of cars all over the place all around South Bend in fields with weeds growing up to the doors all getting sun baked and they would have to call their dealers up and say here we got a special deal on you know take 10 cars and we're going to knock so much money off of that. The company was losing money that was it they ran out of money they had to close down and they announced it just before Christmas 1963. While the company would continue to build cars in Hamilton Ontario until March of 1967 the closure of the plant in South Bend had a devastating impact on the community. There was actually a book written on the effect of the closure of South Bend and there was you know there was increased suicides alcoholism depression families breakups because you know thousands of people lost their jobs and the biggest employer in South Bend you know was gone so it was very tough for the human element the you know the the public but the town itself got together businessmen and they worked hard to help people find jobs to lure new industries in to do everything they could to help the workers that were displaced by this loss and I think South Bend is probably a better place now than it was you know back when Studebaker was there I it's been a few years since I've been there but I think overall they've done better. One thing I do really appreciate is that the city itself has embraced its automotive heritage they have an outstanding museum the Studebaker National Museum and you know they they have gatherings of Studebaker enthusiasts every year and it's really you know they don't try to bury the past they celebrate it and that's the way it should be this is this is American industrial history and you know good or bad we should recognize it. And that's what we do here at Our American Stories every day we don't try and bury the past we celebrate it and that's the good the bad and everything in between you've been listening to Patrick Foster Automotive Historian great job as always to Monte Montgomery the Studebaker's story here on Our American Stories. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have supervision enhanced hearing extraordinary reflexes to be dare we say superhuman well Roku's new Pro Series TV can't do any of that for you but with a 4k screen side firing speakers and a blazing fast refresh rate it'll sure feel like it elevate your entertainment using all your favorite apps like iHeart and play all your music radio and podcasts with the new Roku Pro Series your senses aren't better your TV is from BBC Radio 4 Britain's biggest paranormal podcast is going on a road trip I thought in that moment oh my god we've summoned something from this board this is Uncanny USA he says somebody's in the house and I screamed listen to Uncanny USA wherever you get your BBC podcasts if you dare hello it is Ryan and I was on a flight the other day playing one of my favorite social spin slot games on Chumba casino.com I looked over the person sitting next to me and you know what they were doing they were also playing Chumba casino coincidence I think not everybody's loving having fun with it Chumba casino is home to hundreds of casino style games that you can play for free anytime anywhere even at 30 000 feet so sign up now at Chumba casino.com to claim your free welcome bonus that's Chumba casino.com and live the Chumba life no purchase necessary vtw void prohibited by law c terms and conditions 18 plus
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-06-13 04:42:16 / 2024-06-13 04:51:30 / 9

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