The Great Car Museum Tour: Studebaker National Museum

Studebaker National MuseumSouth Bend, Ind.
Sunday, July 16, 2006

A real highlight of the trip was visiting South Bend and the Studebaker National Museum. I’ve always had a soft spot for these cars, probably since my dad always boasted about the red ’52 Champion he had… the first car he ever bought. As a kid, I watched Mr. Ed on TV every week and Wilbur always drove a Lark; check my YouTube area for a vintage Mr. Ed spot I’ve favorited, plus a couple of old Stude spots I’ve posted.

Billboard and car
The billboard says ’64 but the car is a ’66, the last Studebaker ever built.

The museum has a great collection of cars, trucks and wagons, as Studebaker was originally a wagon maker in the days before the automobile. It’s on three levels, with the first and second floors holding the formal exhibits. Of the classic era cars, the President Four-Seasons Convertible was really impressive. Talk about long hood, short deck… this beauty was luxury and class. For the rich Playboy of the 1930s, this was the car for picking up chicks and arriving in style at the country club. There’s even a little compartment for golf clubs.

Exhibits tell the story of the Studebaker family and the company. The exhibits do gloss over the company’s troubles through the years, ultimately leading to its demise. However, this is a museum, not a documented company history. Huge oil family portraits are on display; they originally hung in the company headquarters.

Cars on display
More than a century of transportation products.

What I found really interesting were four concept cars, along with some original design drawings. The drawings are of the revolutionary and still stylish ’53 Starlight and Starliner coupes, designed by Bob Bourke under Raymond Lowey’s direction. Several coupes and the later Hawks are on display, so visitors can see how pencil drawings were translated into steel.

The four concept cars were never put into production. The most unusual was the Packard Predictor… yes, a Packard. Back in 1954, Studebaker was broke and merged with Packard; by 1956 the luxury car maker was finished and while Studebaker limped along until 1966, the remnants of Packard ended up in South Bend. The Predictor was a styling study for what was to be an all-new line of big boats for 1957. Elements ended up in Mercury, Pontiac and other makes for the next 10 years, if you can believe it.

The other three concept cars were for mid-60s Studebakers and were created by Brooks Stevens, an independent industrial designer. The sedan and coupe are on the second floor, while the wagon is in the basement. The cars are typical of the ’60s, with crisp lines and a lot of glass. They’re based on the Lark and Hawk, so are a bit taller and smaller than the competition. I can’t imagine how they would have sold.

Tearing down plant
Another part of the old Studebaker factory crumbles to the ground.

The basement is a collection of a variety of cars, including other marques made in Indiana. They’re stacked two to a row and tight, so it’s difficult to really see the cars. In fact, that’s my complaint about the museum… the cars are rather tightly packed. But overall, it was well worth a visit.

The museum has a great brochure that gives you a driving tour of the remaining Studebaker buildings. One was in the process of demolition. It’s hard to believe that a huge factory complex that mostly shut down in 1963 is still standing, but there’s a lot of that in the “rust belt” of America.

Evoking more recent history, there’s a Bonnie Doon drive-in recreation inside the museum, with 50s and 60s Studes parked at the car-hop slots. The South Bend-area drive-in still operates and serves great ice cream and burgers. I visited one down the road and had a great dinner. When I came out, there was a gathering of classic cars for the evening. They didn’t seem to appreciate my rented Subaru Legacy wagon parking in their area, even though it was built in Indiana.

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