By on November 18, 2013

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This week marks the 50th anniversary of the November 22, 1963 assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Shortly thereafter, the city of South Bend, Indiana suffered another tragedy: the announcement of the closing of the American factories of the 111-year old Studebaker Automobile Company on December 9, 1963. Over 7,000 local workers engaged in building the company’s Avanti and Lark models would lose their jobs – it was not the most joyous of holiday seasons in South Bend.

We will leave the story of Studebaker’s demise to other sources, like this fine article over at Ate Up With Motor. I traveled to Indiana recently to cover the Studebaker National Museum but discovered that fellow South Bend native Jim Grey had just written an excellent series about the collection for our friends at Curbside Classic. Undeterred, I decided to follow the story of one fascinating car on display and discovered some nutty tales from the company’s old test track, the Studebaker Proving Grounds.

The World’s Largest Natural Advertising Sign?

Stude PG 1963 courtesy stude100.com

The facility was built in 1926 at a cost of over one million dollars and is located on 840 acres of oak and maple trees on the old Lincoln Highway west of town. Studebaker claimed it was the first ever closed automobile testing grounds. The layout features an 3-mile oval and the usual test track assortment of twisty roads, bumpy roads, hill climbs and skidpads. The complex is now owned by automotive supplier Bosch and is still in use today.

The grounds are famous for a half-mile long grove of 8000 pine trees planted in 1938 that when viewed from the air spell out the word, “STUDEBAKER.” The National Registry of Historic Places has recognized the woods as one of the world’s largest “living advertising signs.” Damaged by an ice storm in 2004, plans are underway to restore the grove to its former glory. A glance at Google Maps reveals that the word is still easily readable today.

The World’s Largest Car?

Big Studebaker courtesy modernmechanix.com Big 1931 Studebaker Courtesy www.exposefun.com

In 1931, the company constructed a huge wooden replica of a Studebaker President Four Seasons Roadster as a prop for a short film entitled Wild Flowers, which may be viewed here. The fake car was over 40 feet long, stood 14 feet high, weighed over 5 1/2 tons and had a body constructed of white pine. The corporation parked the behemoth outside the gates of the proving grounds where it became quite a tourist attraction.

In 1936, a combination of damage to the car caused by harsh Michiana winters and the fact that its styling was outdated compared to newer Studes led the corporation to decide to burn the curiosity piece to the ground.

The Studebaker Graveyard

For years, rumors circulated about a collection of engineering and styling prototype cars and trucks dumped deep in the woods of the proving grounds. In 1969, members of the local Studebaker owner’s club were not only able to confirm the vehicles’ existence but amazingly were also granted permission to be the first outsiders to view the cars. After hacking their way through acres of brush and dodging rattlesnakes the group came to a clearing holding 45 rusting shells built from 1939 to 1955. With nary an engine or drivetrain among them, the deteriorating survivors included cars, trucks and military vehicles.

At least two cars have been known to have been removed from the forest. One was a Raymond Loewy-designed 1947 Champion Deluxe Station Wagon featuring a wood body. The wagon was rescued from the woods in 1980 and donated to the Studebaker National Museum, who performed a wonderful restoration. I thought it was the coolest car in their collection – the one and only factory-built Studebaker “Woody.”

Studebaker Museum 2013 029

Another escapee is a Hawk with a hole in its top big enough for a panorama-like sunroof. It is currently owned by a Studebaker enthusiast but little appears to have been done to the vehicle over the years other than the addition of wheels and tires.

Stude PGrounds Survivor Courtesy studebaker-info.org

For a recent look at the boneyard, check out this video from 2009.

During this week’s bell-to-bell Kennedy coverage by the media, remember the Avanti!

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21 Comments on “The Ghosts Of The Studebaker Proving Grounds...”


  • avatar
    geeber

    Nice article. I believe that the prototype in the first photo is the original “Model N” that was supposed to debut in 1952 to mark Studebaker’s centennial celebration. The company instead decided to produce a line of cars based around a rakish coupe styled by Robert Bourke of Raymond Loewy’s styling studio. The resulting “Loewy coupes” debuted for 1953.

    • 0 avatar
      Joe McKinney

      I was also thinking this looks like a Model N. From the photos and video footage I have seen, it appears there were two or three Model Ns abandoned at the Proving Grounds. Most of the cars at this location were engineering prototypes and test mules. In addition to the 1947 woody wagon there was also a plastic bodied wagon and one of the 1950 Commander Desert Cars.

      • 0 avatar
        vikingblue442

        I took 99% of all of the pictures taken at the Studebaker Graveyard over the past 30 years. My dad was President of the South Bend Chapter of the Studebaker Drivers Club and was the one that pulled the Studebaker Woodie out that is in the museum today.

  • avatar
    Piston Slap Yo Mama

    This Champion: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/55/Studebaker_Champion_(Orange_Julep_'10).jpg
    is parked in my neighborhood. It’s a breath-taking design, marvelously proportioned and sexy – to me as sexy as a Jaguar E Type. I don’t understand how a company could execute a design this perfect then kick the bucket. Similarly, the AMC AMX/3 prototype heralded a great future for AMC that never materialized. It would be an interesting alternate reality had these companies survived…

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      “I don’t understand how a company could execute a design this perfect then kick the bucket.”

      That is beautiful – and I get your point – but Tucker and DeLorean know the answer to that question.

    • 0 avatar
      Joe McKinney

      Studebaker was small company. They did not have the Big 3′s economies of scale, their overhead and labor costs were high, and by the mid-1950′s they did not have the money to update their aging products and factories. The 1953 sedans and coupes were their last all-new models and everything made after this was based on the 1953 platforms. The Avanti did have an all-new fiberglass body, but it used the old Lark chassis and an engine which dated back to 1951. By the early 1960′s there was simply no way Studebaker’s decade old platforms could compete with the latest offerings from GM, Ford and Chrysler.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I happen to live about 2 miles from the “MURRYSVILLE” tree sign, which used to be the largest in the world. These things (tree signs and Studebakers) are difficult and expensive to maintain over the years.

    • 0 avatar
      snakebit

      I don’t recall the date of the issue, but an early one, maybe mid 1970′s of Special Interest Autos magazine, now called Hemmings Classic Car, took a trip to the Studebaker graveyard. They, too, included the item that the specific area was teeming with snakes, perhaps to shoo away the snake-averse collector (for example, me) I don’t like snakes in planes or on the ground.

      • 0 avatar
        Joe McKinney

        This SIA article is posted on the Hemmings web-site. It is worth checking out.
        http://blog.hemmings.com/index.php/2007/05/06/sia-flashback-stude-graveyard-and-before-the-new-wore-off/

        There was some good, 1990′s era home video of the Studebaker Graveyard on Youtube, though it appears these videos have been removed.

        • 0 avatar
          vikingblue442

          I am looking for that video from the 90′s of the Studebaker Graveyard. It was removed for a copyright violation. The problem is my dad and i made the video with a friend. Somebody put a copyright on a movie they didn’t make. I do have the movie on vhs but i would love to find out who copied it. I heard it was somebody in the Netherlands.

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    That was an excellent write up Jim did over at Curbside Classics on the Studebaker Museum, as is this piece. I just want to point out that although Studebaker ceased production at the South Bend plant in December 1963 they did continue to produce automobiles out of the Hamilton Ontario plant until March 1966

  • avatar
    racer-esq.

    Some guy was making a new Avanti out of the S197 Mustang:

    http://www.avantimotors.com/avanticompany.html

    But, unfortunately, it was not to be:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Eugene_Kelly

    Maybe someone will try the new Corvette.

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      That Cancun operation has almost become urban legend in that there are supposedly brand new Avantis locked in the now deserted corporate hdqtrs.

    • 0 avatar
      snakebit

      …and if we and the chap who plans to transform the new Sting Ray into an ersatz Avanti are really lucky, nothing will come of this wrong-headed enterprise.

      Talk about being neither fish nor fowl, that would not improve the Sting Ray nor give us a real Avanti. If someone had the wherewithall to revive the Avanti, my first choice would be to give us the 1960′s Nate Altman continuation model, with the Chevrolet small block and, if possible, Turbo-Hydramatic, my second choice would be the same body and chassis with the latest Sting Ray powertrain only.

      I don’t ever want to see another Michael Kelly era or other of his stripe F-body convertible with simulated Avanti body panels, or the four-door version. I say build the Avanti (Avanti II) again only if you’re prepared to do it right.

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        I totally agree. I’ve been an Avanti fan since the day I saw the first one at the autoshow as a little kid, but only the “real” Avantis, skinny bias-ply whitewalls and all produced by Studebaker. Anything since has not interested me more then being a mild curiousity

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    Studebaker built a similar giant car – believe it was the President sedan- for the 1939 New York World’s Fair that I’ve seen information about in auto enthusiast magazines .

  • avatar
    Halftruth

    What was left of Studebaker became Federal Mogul, if memory serves correct.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    That area in Northern Indiana has a very interesting automotive history.
    The Auburn Cord Dusenberg museum is incredible. Stately and regal vehicles.

  • avatar
    gessvt

    This is about 30 minutes from me. Part of the property is accessible to the public as the Bendix Woods County Park, complete with hiking and mountain biking trails. The Studebaker trees are accessible, and each cluster of trees representing a respective letter is marked.

    • 0 avatar
      Chicago Dude

      My father grew up in South Bend and had a summer job at the Studebaker factory – something to do with bumpers.

      As a kid, some family still remained in South Bend and we had an annual trip over to Bendix Woods for a family reunion. We were always in the “B” trees.

      And yes, there were a lot of snakes in that area. Not sure why.

  • avatar
    WildcatMatt

    I never knew about this, thanks for the write-up!


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