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Studebaker in South Bend, IN

Updated on December 23, 2010

Studebaker Wagons

In 1852 Henry and Clement Studebaker opened a blacksmith and wagon shop in South Bend, Indiana. In 1858 they were joined by another brother, John, since their company had received a large order to build wagons for the US Army.

During the height of the westward migration with wagon trains, half of the wagons used were Studebakers ! They made about a quarter of all wagons, and for another 25 years they manufactured the metal fittings for other builders in Missouri.

Another large order concerned supplying wagons for the Union Army in the Civil War (1861–1865). By 1868, annual sales had reached $350,000, and the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company was incorporated.

By 1875, Studebaker was the largest vehicle manufacturer in the world, with sulkies, broughams, clarences, phaetons, runabouts, victorias and tandems.

Studebaker Carriages

In the 1880's, roads started to be surfaced in tar, gravel and wooden blocks.In 1884, Studebaker opened a new service and sales operation on Michigan Boulevard, Chicago.

In 1889, President Harrison ordered a full set of Studebaker carriages for the White House. By then the South Bend plant covered nearly 100 acres (0,40 km2).

Studebaker Automobiles

Studebaker entered the automotive business in 1902 with electric and gasoline vehicles. At first they merely assembled automobiles, and until 1911 they worked with the Detroit EMF Company (Everett-Metzger-Flanders), and the Garford Company in Elyria, Ohio.

After the cooperation with both partners ended disastrously, Studebaker sought to remedy customer dissatisfaction by replacing defective parts in their vehicles. Their frenzied testing resulted in Studebaker's aim to design for life, and the emergence of really rugged cars.

Over the next 50 years, the company became a leading automobile producer, and established an enviable reputation for quality and reliability.

The first gasoline car, fully manufactured by Studebaker, was produced in 1912. The 1913 six-cylinder model was the first to cast a monobloc engine, which became a major asset in World War I. It was a powerful six-cylinder, that soon became known as "the Big Six". In 1919, Studebaker ended the production of horse-drawn vehicles, and replaced it with a truck line.

Three brilliant technicians, Zeder, Skelton and Breer, called "the Three Musketeers", came up with the successful 1918 model, but they left in 1920 to form a consultancy, later to become the nucleus of Chrysler Engineering.

In 1926, a large part of the Detroit plant was moved to South Bend, and a new small car, the Erskine Six was launched. By 1929, Studebaker sold 50 models and business was great. The annual production capacity was 180,000 cars, and 23,000 employees were employed. Studebaker's plants were spread over three locations ; South Bend, Detroit and Walkerville in Canada.

However, the collapse of the stock market and the Great Depression caused massive unemployment for several years.

In 1935, Lehman Brothers helped them to fully refinance and reorganize. A new car was brought out, the Studebaker Champion. It was introduced in 1939 and instantly doubled the company's sales!

During World War II, Studebaker produced the Studebaker US6 truck and the M29 Weasel cargo and personnel carrier. In 1948 Studebaker opened a new assembly line in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Studebaker's Decline

Ballooning labor costs (the highest in the industry), quality control issues, and the enormous rivalry between Ford and General Motors wreaked havoc on Studebaker's balance sheet. Their massive discounting could not be equaled by the independent car makers, and Studebaker's only hope seemed to be a large merger of Studebaker, Packard, Hudson and Nash.

After 1950, Studebaker declined rapidly. By 1954 it was losing money, and when it was taken over by Packard in 1956, it was nearly bankrupt. It continued to make and market both Studebaker and Packard cars until 1958.

In 1962 there was a labor strike at the South Bend plant, and by 1963 all of the company's automobiles and trucks were selling very poorly. On 20 December 1963 the South Bend plant was closed and nearly 20,000 people lost their jobs!

Studebaker's Death Throes

Limited automotive production was continued at the company's last plant in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, where Studebaker produced cars until March 16,1966.

Given Studebaker's extraordinary reputation for quality and sturdiness, a few later experiments are noteworthy.

The late 1960's combination of a Studebaker car with a powerful Cadillac engine was called the Studillac, and there was extraordinary story of Studebaker's last model, the beautiful and powerful Avanti.

South Bend, Indiana harbored a Museum in an old Studebaker location, and in November 2005 a new Studebaker National Museum was opened.

You'll find Studebaker's history on


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