Digging in the Grave of an American Carmaker
“Ain’t dead yet,” Studebaker breathed past the dripping nothingness and blast furnaces. Scraps of the wood that used to sheath the cold concrete were heaped in piles where the dozer left them. The place was almost dead, so I said nothing back.
From a wider perspective it didn’t seem like much—another pile of pillars between a saw tooth roof and artificial earth, boxed by walls to keep the cats out. But closer to its half-destroyed surface, you can almost see and smell a smaller, danker version of South Bend… one under a rain cloud, the kind that pins the blue-grey fog, rising from the chimneys of the South Side, firmly down.
Spotting the Last Lark
As an American, I don’t feel anything when I drive across this country and see abandoned farm houses, but when those car factories are shuttered on the edge of company-housing-turned-slums it touches me. If this city could drive down its own streets somehow, maybe in a mint 1964 Lark—after all, aren’t ghosts supposed to appear as they did when their soul left?
Maybe I didn’t imaging that breath, though, and there is still something Studebaker can give to its town. A sense of ingenuity and industry, and pride in production, the attributes that building the company that built the city.
Wild West Wheelbarrows
The Studebakers were wagon makers and blacksmiths when they arrived in America from Holland, and trained their sons in that tradition. In 1853 in the height of the gold rush, Indiana was part of the American West, and a popular starting place for those seeking the West Coast and its rumored riches. Three sons of a Dutch blacksmith wanted to forge their lives in the prosperity that migrating Easterners brought to the region. Two of the Studebaker brothers decided to stay in South Bend and build wagons while the third opted to adventure to California and search for a fortune.
In California, the lone Studebaker was offered a job building wheelbarrows for the gold prospectors and miners, and initially rejected it, indicating that he had come to find gold, not carry on the family business. After some convincing, though, he accepted, and soon wrote back to his brothers about what conditions faced wagons moving cross country. His recommendations were channeled into new wagon designs in South Bend.
Studebaker wagons soon became known as some of the most reliable of their kind and were the choicest way to cross from East to West until rail travel joined the coasts. The company had grown in size along with its popularity to be one of the largest wagon works in the world. On February 14, 1911, the company was organized into the Studebaker Corporation.
Midwest War Machine
The First World War broke out in 1914, but not all of those involved thought the conflict would be a lasting one; in particular, many in the British War Office assumed it would be a year-long affair only. After a certain member, Lord Kitchener, expressed his opinion that it would last at least three years, however, the British Army began ordering many more supplies. Late that year, the Studebaker Corporation received a cable asking how fast an order of 3,000 wagons could be manufactured and shipped to the island.
Studebaker delivered early, and it wasn’t too long before the French were ordering ambulance wagons and Russians sent requests for cannon wheels. Soon, even the Americans were ordering supplies and parts from South Bend, with preference, obviously.
Time between the World Wars was tragically short. In 1920 the company had stopped production of its horse-drawn products and the factory had expanded enormously. Fueled by defense contracts, a new integrated factory was built in Indiana and was turning-out “Light Sixes,” making the plant one of the only in the world to construct a model of car virtually under one roof. This new plant was soon put to work, however, as new contracts flooded in following Pearl Harbor.
For World War II, Studebaker built a wide range of objects, most notably the “Wright Cyclone” engine for the B-17 “Flying Fortress” and the T15/M28 “Weasel” tracked assault vehicle. The plant was awarded for its service to the military when the war ended, but its performance was no guarantee of future success.
Strange Silence on Sample Street
The wars had inflated the Studebaker business far beyond its future consumer demand, so that by 1948 it was still employing almost 15,000 workers in its South Bend operation alone. Company management knew it had to make cars cheaper to compete with Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, but Studebaker workers were used to their 22% premium pay over the competitors’ crews.
Pay cuts brought strikes all along the Studebaker supply line, at times forcing plant shutdowns because of a lack of transmissions. It was clear Studebaker couldn’t thrive on its own, so it merged with Packard.
In January 1963 the Studebaker Board of Directors met for two days to discuss how to save their company—two scenarios were laid out: 1.) Liquidate South Bend Operations, cut the losses, or; 2.) Put out a last-hope model and hope it sells enough to please the bankers financing the company. With a 2-to-7 vote, production continued and the management formed their prayers in the shape of the 1964 Lark.
“When You’re Dead and Gone”
By that fall, production had fallen like a dead bird from 84 vehicles per hour to just 35. Almost 2,500 workers were sitting on their hands, waiting for the company to catch itself of fall into the abyss when, after noon break on December 9, 1963, Studebaker employees returned to the factory to find their gate blocked by reporters wanting interviews. “What do you think of the plant closing?” they asked the stupefied workers, many of whom didn’t believe the news.
“Studebaker will be here when you’re dead and gone,” one said.
It was the job of one worker to close the plant down for the last time. “I went up to the second floor,” he said, “and walked along the empty assembly line. Everything was still in place, and I thought, ‘We could start production tomorrow.’ I couldn’t believe there would never be a tomorrow.”
Studebaker was demolished in 2013.