Studebaker: First In Muscle Cars?

A conventional view of automotive history remembers that the muscle/pony car era pretty much began with the debut of GTO and Mustang, respectively, in 1964½. Not according to Hagerty Historian, Glenn Arlt, who looks back a decade prior to the evolution of Studebaker’s line screaming “family sports cars.”

1953-studebaker-commander-starliner-hardtop-coupe
The other day, I was rearranging a few 1/18 models I keep on my desk at the Hagerty Institute and something caught my eye. Two of the models—a 1977 black Trans Am and a 1953 Studebaker Commander Starliner—were curiously similar.

The Starliner (essentially a low slung, sporty, 2+2 seater personal car) is the car/design Ford designers may have had in mind when they redesigned the Thunderbird for 1958. And it was this “new” style of Thunderbird that begat the smaller and less expensive Ford Mustang and its competitors, which begat cars like the Trans Am and Camaro.

After digging into the history of Starliner, Studebaker’s largely unrecognized place in muscle car history becomes even important when you consider the automotive missing link that really connects all these cars together—another, groundbreaking Studebaker known as the Hawk.

In The Beginning

1953-studebaker-commander-starlight-and-commander-starliner-hardtop-coupecomannder-starliner

After a little research, I’m more convinced than ever that perhaps “first pony car honor” should be given to long-gone Studebaker, which introduced a very sporty, very low, gorgeous and classy looking Starlight coupe and Starliner hardtop coupe a full 11½ year prior to the Mustang.

Styled by Raymond Loewy’s team in 1952, the Starlight and Starliner started out as a couple of concept cars. Going from the drawing board to the clay-model phase, the cars were considered so gorgeous that they were ultimately given the go-ahead for full production in 1952 and debuted the following model year.

One look at the long hood, short deck and low profile of the Starliner, and even the casual observer would agree, this Studebaker classic satisfies the modern definition of “pony car” style. To say nothing of the incredibly powerful engines under the hood…

Initially, Studebaker offered two versions of the cars—the Champion series (6-six cylinder) and Commander series (V8 cylinder).  Starlight (pillared coupe) and Starliner (hardtop coupe) were sub-series designating the body-style.

By 1956, the body had been facelifted with fiberglass tail fins, obligatory for the era, and rechristened as the Hawk series. The Hawk came about as a series, because the sedans and family cars were restyled to less resemble the Loewy look. It was more appropriate to do what Ford did in 1955 with the Thunderbird and give the sportier car its own “name”.

Enter The Hawk

golden-hawk

Even more than the Olds 88, the Hawk is deserving of “first muscle car” status because it essentially established the “big engine/smaller body” formula by which later muscle cars would be judged. The Golden Hawk subseries model, specifically, followed the exact same formula that Pontiac’s GTO would eight years later:

Big Engine + Smaller, Sporty Body and rear seats = Big Performance in a “practical” package

And, interestingly, the same man had a part in the creation of  both—John Z. DeLorean, who worked for Studebaker-Packard in the mid 1950’s as a highly placed, albeit still young, engineer who’s idea for the GTO eventually lead to his promotion to head engineer at Pontiac years later.

Under DeLorean, a 1956 Packard V8 engine—boasting 352 cubic inches and prodigious power—was installed in the much lighter Studebaker Hawk (specifically, the upper-end “Golden Hawk” subseries).  Ironically, the huge Packard V8 weighed only about 30 pounds more than the much smaller displacement Studebaker 259 V8 engine, but being physically longer, it really filled the engine bay.

On the street, the four-passenger Hawk was an incredible performer rivaled only by two-passenger Corvette, which cost more. (Base price for the Golden Hawk was $3,182 versus $3,321 for the highest-powered Corvette.

golden-hawk-hardtop

The 1956 Hawk family of cars were 2+2, low, sporty, beautiful and came with engine options ranging from an economical 6-cylinder to the super-popular, barnstorming V8. (Mustang didn’t come out with a big-block V8 until 1967.)

Yes, the wheelbase on the Studebaker was much longer (with the front wheels put much farther forward than either the Trans Am or the Mustang), but this meant the engines were set farther back—almost front-mid-engine. This design feature reduced steering effort, improved weight distribution and helped handling. On the road and track, this translated into handling far superior to many other 1950s cars. The Hawk’s unique long nose, short tail, and all-round sporty look were also design traits that Mustang would emulate and capitalize on years later.

On A Lark

lark-sedan

Ford’s Thunderbird was built as a boulevard two-seater, not sports car, from 1955 through 1957. But something clearly changed at Ford for the 1958 model year when the company released its 2+2 personal luxury Thunderbird.

One theory explains the move by looking to the relative success of the super low, Loewy designs at Studebaker—especially early 1950s Studebaker coupes. It’s a well-known fact that a large number of car designers at GM, Ford, Chrysler and all the smaller car manufacturers purchased 1953 Commander Starliner hardtops back when the model was one of the most popular cars on the road.

By 1959, however, the new compact Lark had taken over as Studebaker’s most popular model, while the Hawk was continued only as the lower cost, two-door post (coupe). The Hawk’s hardtop body style was also gone, yet the car remained popular enough that when Studebaker initially planned to concentrate only on the Lark, the dealers revolted and demanded the Hawk be given a stay of execution.

For 1962, the aging Hawk was given a new lease on life.  Raymond Loewy’s main competitor in industrial design, Brooks Stevens, was given the task of updating the car on a shoestring budget, and he did so by bringing back the hardtop, two-door body style, adding fins, and ash-canning the pillared coupe in favor of a very Thunderbird-like squared off roofline coupled with Mercedes-like grille.  (Studebaker actually distributed Mercedes-Benz cars in North America from 1958 through 1965). With these pivotal changes, sales for the Hawk increased about 300 percent (or 8,388 units sold) in 1962.

What Might Have Been

sceptre

Brooks Stevens’ efforts produced a stunning and beautiful vehicle. But the automotive world was changing. At a time when “more size, more cubic inches, more power” was becoming the mantra of American car buyers, Studebaker’s old V8 proved too undersized and overweight by modern industry standard. The company was hard at work on a larger 340 cubic-inch Studebaker V8, but it ultimately came too late.

By 1963, the sales of the bread-and-butter family cars were fading. Lark was losing altitude with the Hawk close behind. This steady plummet in popularity continued until Christmas of 1963 when Studebaker execs decided that 1964 would be the last for Hawk. Only 1,767 Gran Turismo Hawks were produced for the 1964 model year.

By comparison, Ford sold 92,465 Thunderbirds for 1964 and 680,989 Mustangs for the 1965 model-year (which lasted 18 months for that car, starting sales in April 1964).  Pontiac sold 32,450 GTOs for the shortened 1964 model-year (the car being introduced in the spring, a little before the Mustang).

Despite being consistently outdone by more savvy Madison Avenue marketing, missed opportunities and slow turnaround on executing their revolutionary ideas, Studebaker still believed they had a chance to compete against the Big Three. The company even gave the green light to Brooks Stevens to begin building an all-new Hawk replacement, code named “Sceptre.”

With 340 cubic inches and optional supercharger, power that could have been in the 350 horsepower range, the Sceptre might have been a real contender against the late-to-the-party Dodge Charger, Mustang, and even Thunderbird if the company had acted sooner. But in early 1963, Studebaker execs who saw the end was nigh reversed their decision and ordered a light re-do of the extant 1963 cars for 1964.  By spring 1966, Studebaker sold its last car and closed its doors forever.

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