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In 1936, a combination of damage to the car caused by harsh Michiana winters and the fact that its styling was outdated compared to newer Studes led the corporation to decide to burn the curiosity piece to the ground.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