Being the last independent automakers was a lot like being the cartoon characters walking along the city sidewalk as the 500-lb. weight breaks a rope 25 stories above. Anybody watching was pretty sure what was going to happen to one of them, and by the early 1960s, Studebaker was among the very few that had not yet been flattened.
Studebaker’s early history is as interesting as those of most other independents; after successfully building wagons since 1852 and occasionally dabbling with vehicles that didn’t require horses, the company introduced a series of electrics in 1902. Although in production into 1912, a gas-engined Studebaker-Garford appeared in 1903. It’s probably best described as a joint venture with Garford and the arrangement’s last models were built in 1912, but in the meantime, Studebaker had become involved with E-M-F and formally absorbed it in 1911. After the final Studebaker-Garfords, everything was simply a Studebaker.
Following 1927’s introduction of the Erskine and 1930’s abandonment of the name, Studebaker in 1928 merged with Pierce-Arrow and in 1932, unveiled the Rockne. The latter was gone in 1933, the same year that the company was in bankruptcy. Pierce faded out in 1938, but during World War II, Studebaker would be known for contributions such as the six-wheel-drive US6 cargo truck and the tracked Weasel.
When civilian auto production resumed after the war, the ranks of the major independents had fallen steeply. Only Studebaker, Willys, Hudson, Nash, Packard and – leading up to the soon-to-be Kaiser-Frazer Corporation – Graham-Paige existed. Then over a few years, most of those were gone; the last Frazers were built in 1951, Kaiser purchased Willys in 1953 and Nash and Hudson merged to form American Motors in 1954, the year that Studebaker-Packard appeared. The last Kaiser and Willys came in 1955, the last Nash and Hudson in 1957 and the last Packard in 1958.
With American Motors’ Rambler, Studebaker was left standing, and those seeing the long view must have been concerned. The company had shaken up its competitors with its new 1947 model, introduced an overhead-valve V-8 in 1951 and then shocked nearly everyone with the 1953 models. Completely new and radically different, in two-door form, they looked even longer and lower than they were. A decided elegance made nearly every other American car seem just a little frumpy.
That was a good thing, as the 1953 body would serve Studebaker into the 1960s, first as the basis for the various Hawks and beginning in 1959, for the compact Larks. If not quite as outstanding as the original, both of those lines were attractive. In the Lark’s case, the only domestic competition came from Rambler. It was a fair fight, but by 1960, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler were in the game. Studebaker was being overwhelmed; it was losing sales and that meant it couldn’t afford a completely new design to put up against the competition.
The only solution was to continue making modest annual changes – plus one final major change to the Larks in 1964 – and although that obviously didn’t save Studebaker, it did create cars nicely suited for collectors seeking something out of the ordinary.
“The reason I did it is because it’s unique and unusual,” said David Murphy, the Prattsville, N.Y., owner of the 1963 Lark Regal shown here. “When I first got into the hobby, I actually considered getting a Ford Mustang, the first generation. I had my eye on a ’66 Mustang coupe and then I decided that if I’m going to spend all of this money to do a car, why do I want to have something that everybody else has got? I’m going to be just one in a row. I said ‘why don’t I spend that money and have something different like nobody else has got and I’ll stand out in a crowd?’ ”
That was 23 years ago, when the Lark had been in a field for 10 years. Not surprisingly, it was in poor condition and its restoration required 19 new body panels. That number suggests just how bad the car was, but there’s more.
“The center doorposts were completely rusted loose from the floor,” Murphy recalled. “They weren’t even attached to anything [at bottom]. They were only attached to the roof, so the doors were literally just hanging.”
Slightly offsetting that, the 169.6-cubic inch six needed nothing major, but that engine drives an automatic and Twin-Traction, Studebaker’s name for a limited-slip differential. Murphy said that’s an odd combination and not especially useful.
“With an automatic transmission with the little overhead-valve six they have,” he explained, “they don’t have enough torque to pull the cap off a beer bottle. You couldn’t spin the wheels on one of these if you were parked on ice.”
But that’s not really the point on a collector car, and Murphy’s Lark is perfect for the use it gets in today’s world; at about 20 miles per gallon, its economy balances its gentle performance.
“You drive it pretty much like you would ride a bicycle,” he explained. “You see that downhill and you get it up to 60 miles an hour and you go like mad so that you might be able to get another two miles an hour over the next rise.”
That’s actually not the point, either, and out on the road, there’s more to the Lark than speed.
“It drives absolutely beautifully,” Murphy said. “It’s very comfortable to travel in, it’s easy to steer, it’s fairly quiet.”
Power aside, it’s clearly the right car for him, given that he’s had it since 1985 and absolutely refuses to sell it.
“It’s one of things that you really can’t get tired of,” Murphy explained, “because it’s so different and so unique. It’s just one of those cars that you take one look at (and) you want to adopt it and take it home with you.”