Sunday, May 8, 2011

If your car is so great, why isn't Studebaker still in business?

Good question.

By the time my car was built (in 1953) the Studebaker corporation was 101 years old, having started out manufacturing horse-drawn vehicles such as the Conestoga wagon used in the wagon trains. They managed to survive two world wars and the great depression, but couldn't make it through the 60's. By 1964, for all practical purposes, Studebaker no longer manufactured automobiles in the US (The only plant remaining open was in Hamilton, Ontario, and made a few cars for the next couple of years, but with Chevrolet engines it just wasn't quite the same.)

Like most large American manufacturers, World War II was good for Studebaker. The company made 2-1/2 ton (6x6) trucks and B-17 engines amongst other things, and by the end of the war they were in excellent financial standing. But whereas other manufacturers invested back into their business by modernizing their plants, Studebaker did not.

Studebaker's Post-War Marketing Campaign--a Portent of Doom?

In 1953, when the new Coupes came out, winning design awards and accolades (such as being selected by the New York Museum of Modern Art as one of the World's 10 Most Beautiful Cars) Studebaker management underestimated the appeal such a car would have to car buyers, and instead manufactured many more sedans. By the time orders started pouring in they were not in a position to be able to keep up with demand, and quality control slipped and the marques' reputation was damaged.  And management outfitted the cars with shoddy door latches, dull grey and brown interiors--here they had a design that could take them to a new level and their cheapness caught them.

Another factor was simply the competition--GM and Ford could, due to economy of scale, manufacture cars of equal or better quality at a lower price. Studebaker had some excellent, exciting designs post-war that attracted people to the showrooms, but it was hard for them to compete. Had their management been visionary enough in those early post-war years, I think Studebaker could've easily survived for at least another decade, when their economical cars and trucks, the Larks and Champs, could have been in great demand in a world stung by the Oil Embargo.

One of Studebaker's early post-war advertising mottos was "Unchanged in a Changing World." Unfortunately, that unwillingness to change [at least until the very end, but that's another story] was their great downfall. 

[in case you're wondering, I'm taking a break from working on the Stude for a couple of weeks so I can finish making a bass guitar for musician friend who I hope will be able to take it with him for a summer tour. Once that's finished, I'll be back to it, working on getting those brakes operational and the Champion back on the road.]

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