I’ve had a long held fantasy since 1971, when GM’s mega-barges appeared: to take a cutting torch to a Caddy, and make a clean slice across the front and rear, just ahead of and behind the wheels, resulting in something like this (sorry, I don’t Photoshop). The result would be hundreds of pounds lighter, easier parking, better performance, economy, handling and braking, but without any loss from that roomy interior. Turns out that Studebaker designer Duncan McRae beat me to it, by some thirteen years.
And unlike my Caddy, which was going to just have perfectly flat extruded steel slabs on each end, McRae blessed his torch job on the 1958 Studebaker Commander (see below) with remarkably clean and attractive new end caps. The result was the 1959 Studebaker Lark, a wide-body “compact”, and the only American car to have been birthed this way. It was a rare triumph of sanity and rationality in a time of giant finned monsters. And for a few years, it breathed a brief hope of life into its terminally ill parent, forestalling the inevitable end of America’s oldest and once largest vehicle manufacturer.
The fifties were Studebaker’s decade from hell. It started so promising, having beaten the Big Three with the first all new post-war cars in 1947. And in 1953 Studebaker pulled out all the stops again with the grand/insane idea to build its exquisitely styled new Starliner coupe using a completely different body from the also all-new sedans. Contrary to usual practice, the coupe’s wheelbase was longer than the sedans’, requiring a different frame. Pretty ambitious for an independent car maker. But that’s a story for another CC, as soon as I find me a nice Starliner on the street.
The low and sleek coupes were the most radical car of its era, and suffered from numerous production maladies, pretty predictable given the challenges involved. The sedans were more modest, but just didn’t ignite much interest, especially after the first year. And the coupes’ maladies hurt their sales. Studebaker production took a disastrous dive from 1954 on. The coupes morphed into the Hawk and Gran Turismo, an interesting but low-production preview of the sixties’ personal coupes. But the bread and butter sedans languished. Slapping on a new grille and rear fins, and messing around with with the trim didn’t help. Studebaker was desperate, so out came the carving knife.
Did Studebaker know that the recession of 1958 would be a pivotal moment in the industry, heralding a shift to smaller and saner cars? No; it was luck, desperation, imitation, and trying to repeat history. American Motors was was doing pretty well with its smaller Ramblers. Chasing the Big Three was a dead end, might as well follow somebody else. And in 1939, Studebaker had created a truly remarkable smaller American car, the Champion. It was perhaps the closest thing to a successful American compact up to this time. Studebaker President Harold Churchill had a soft spot for the ’39 Champ, and decided it represented the way out of the current bind.
So stylist Duncan McRae walked into the studio and hacked off the hideous front and rear ends he had grafted onto the 1953 sedan body two years earlier. The result was a drastically shorter and cleaner car, but the passenger compartment was unchanged. A “compact” with the interior space of a standard size car; what a brilliant concept! The result was the exact polar opposite of the long and willowy Starliner coupes; Studebaker was going for the extremes. The new Lark shed several hundred pounds on the cutting room floor , allowing it to use the same little 170 CID flathead six that had powered the ’39 Champion. Another twenty-year cycle repeats itself.
The result is surprisingly cohesive, unlike the fussy donor sedans that sacrificed their extremities for the Lark. The clean front end is inspired by the Hawk, and the overall effect is rather European. Maybe that’s why so many European academic types drove these in Iowa City at the time. And Studebaker’s role as the sole importer of Mercedes at the time may have had some influence: the Lark is not that far off from the roomy but compact Mercedes sedans of the time in its basic configuration.
The freshly-minted Lark arrived in 1958 during the worst economic downturn in some time. Recessions (or high oil prices) always have a remarkably sobering influence on Americans’ love for the excessive and flashy. The Lark soared for a year or two, until the new compacts from Detroit in 1960 and 1961 clipped its wings. Studebaker’s struggles during its final years in the later sixties will have to wait for another CC too; meanwhile, we need to properly revel in the joys of their last brief and fleeting days in the sun. So many memories…
I knew the Lark was no real compact as a grade schooler, because about thirteen of us used to pile into the red one that the perpetually drunk Mom down the street drove to pick up her kids and anyone else in the neighborhood from school on rainy days. We’d spot it, and make a dash for it, as many of us piling in as was physically possible. The time I got squeezed up against her in the front seat was very memorable indeed; not exactly all in the best ways. There were at least four or five of us in the front; try that in a Falcon. That wide Lark bench seat saved me from a number of cold wet walks home.
The Lark was also unusual for a “compact” in that a V8 was available, the only one in its class. Of course, the V8 version sported as Lark VIII badge on the back, but for some reason, as a kid, I somehow got it through my head that the Roman numerals signified the series/model year, like in Mark VI. My European background was showing. Anyway, almost all of the Larks in Iowa City to my memory were sixes back then, chuffing along with their burden of the baby boom years. And that Studebaker 259 CID V8 was a mighty heavy anchor, weighing at least a hundred pounds more than a Chevy small block. But with a four barrel carb, it claimed 195 hp, and made the Lark a sprightly number.
The Lark has a decidedly feminine quality to it, and was commonly purchased as a second car for the little woman of the house to haul the kids and replenish her stock of booze. Another neighbor around the corner was an even more stereotypical owner: the German professor drove a MB 220SE, she a Lark Daytona coupe. What a handsome couple they (the cars) made in the driveway. I was only seven or eight, but I made all the relevant connections of that pair intuitively.
The little flathead six made all of 90 (gross) hp, and was showing its age. Unable to afford a modern new six, Studebaker at least grafted a new OHV head unto the sturdy little long-stroke block for 1961, and coaxed 112 hp out of it. They optimistically named it the Skybolt Six, and now called the Lark “the compact with Performability”. Studebaker wasn’t totally immune to the sins of Detroit. Another affectation was the revised chrome accent on its flanks; moving it up higher in 1961, above the crease left from the 1953 body dies, was thought to make the Lark look lower.
Let’s get to this particular Lark, which is readily available for anyone in Eugene to see, since it’s spent at least the last thirty-five years outside, having served as a daily driver for this family without a garage until quite recently. It was bought for a song by the owner in the mid-seventies, and his kids grew up in/with it, and learned to drive it, which rather made them the object of interest at South Eugene High. It has over 200k miles on it now, but thanks to the kind of attention that I don’t bestow my old truck, it looks mighty nice indeed, still.
Like the owner of any vintage daily driver, this Lark’s handler has become intimate with all its warts. But old Studebakers were pretty solidly made, except for those willowy Starliner coupes, that is. The beefy frame means that the drive shaft tunnel is almost non-existent, another handy feature on those rainy afternoon mosh pit rehearsals. And the simple but rugged interior materials have held up to the test of time and kids. The grandkids will be riding in it soon.
After the unprofitable giant South Bend plant was shuttered in 1963, Studebakers were built in the smaller Hamilton, Ontario factory, and imported until 1966. That’s kind of ironic, because I always imagine that if Canada had designed and built its own cars, it would have resulted in something like the Lark: a highly pragmatic car combining the best US and European influences. How un-American is that?