By on December 24, 2009

classic GT

Desperate times call for desperate measures; and sometimes the result is nothing short of spectacular. The Studebaker Gran Turismo coupe is gorgeous, despite having been cobbled together on a shoestring in six months. It’s also compromised and imperfect, a car that The Big Three would never have built. It did little to change the inevitable outcome of the Studebaker Death Watch, but then it probably would never have been created under other circumstances. There’s nothing like staring death in the face to focus the last remaining creative forces and take exceptional risks. Along with the Avanti, the GT Hawk is Studebaker’s gran farewell gesture. Gone indeed, but hardly forgotten.

CC 73 029 800In 1961, Studebaker was in a very desperate time indeed, having never really recovered from the 1953 fiasco. The daring “Loewy” Starlight coupe was originally intended to be a show car only. But Loewy convinced Studebaker to put it in production, despite it sitting on a substantially longer wheelbase than the sedans, and demanding a massive investment that the independent car maker could ill afford. Undoubtedly the most remarkable piece of styling to come from America in the fifties, it was a deeply influential and seminal piece.

Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably, it also overwhelmed Studebaker with assembly challenges and delays, and finally hit the market just as Ford and GM launched a massive market-share war by overproducing and heavily discounting. Rather than buying share from each other, it had the effect of severely damaging the remaining independents. The poor build quality of the ’53 Studebakers only added to its woes.

The Loewy coupe morphed into a low-volume sporty coupe, the Hawk, having sprouted an upright grill and the ubiquitous fins. It was a formidable performance car in the fifties, especially in 1956 with the 275 hp Packard 352 V8, and the later supercharged 275 hp Studebaker 289 V8. It foreshadowed the compact sporty muscle and pony cars of the sixties, but sold only in small numbers.

CC 73 034 800By 1961, the compact Lark’s brief day in the sun was over, having been eclipsed by the assault of the Big Three’s compacts. Noted industrial designer Brooks Stevens was hired in 1961 to do a six-month crash redesign of the Hawk and Lark models, with a minimal budget. By grafting a Thunderbird-like square roof unto the old hardtop Loewy coupe, a cleaned up rear end, and a dramatic wrap-around instrument panel, Stevens injected a remarkable amount of new life into the aging coupe. And the GT Hawk has become a modern classic.

Now here’s the remarkable thing about this particular car: it was bought by its owner Luke (TTAC reader “the duke”) when he was in high school. And it was his daily driver for six years. He brought it back to life after sitting in a barn for ten years, and it now has over 213k miles clocked on its original engine, the 225 hp four-barrel 289. It now awaits his return from a PhD in Mechanical Engineering in Michigan before its ongoing improvements resume. But it’s still very much a runner.

Luke gave me an exciting ride in this still sprightly GT. Weighing some 3200 lbs, the old 289 backed by a four speed stick had no problem living up to its name. With its narrow but long body, it reminds me somehow of a mid-western take on the theme that Bristol has been playing out for decades in England, still to this day. Perhaps the Avanti was the wrong car to revive after Studebaker’s death? And call me crazy, but from the rear especially, the GT reminds me also of the Citroen DS. Visually, that is, since the Studebaker’s ride is about as far away from the floating “goddess” as possible.

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The long, willowy frame of the Loewy coupes was a problem from day one, even though it was reinforced early on. These cars, especially the hardtops, are structurally challenged. The doors need a little help finding their way home, and speed bumps are not its friend. But once inside, a unique perspective opens up. The GT not only doesn’t look like a typical Big Three car of the times, it feels even much less so one sitting in it. It’s remarkably narrow, the cowl is high and close, and your feet disappear in front of you in shallow, long tunnels. It feels extremely European.

CC 73 041 800The dash is a brilliantly clean, functional affair with those classic round gauges scattered on its three planes. GM did a fine job copying it for its 1970 Camaro, among others. Everything about the GT has a very low-production, almost hand-made feel to it. Or does hand-made evoke the wrong image; cobbled-up perhaps? It’s not exactly Bristol when it comes to fit and finish. But then, they’ve been doing the same car for decades. The sheer number of stainless steel trim pieces on the exterior alone helps explains why Studebaker couldn’t really make any money on this car.

The 1962 Gran Turismo came with a $3095 sticker($21k adjusted). That was low enough to attract some 8k buyers, which along with the restyled Lark, gave Studebaker its last little sales uptick before the final death spiral. There was no way to keep its giant South Bend factory running with sub-100k annual production output. The GT died along with the Avanti when the plant was shut down in 1964, and Lark production shifted to a smaller Canadian plant for the last few pathetic years. Barely 15k GTs were made in total, but it was a very lovely swansong indeed that Studebaker sang for us.

(thanks Luke, for the invite and ride)

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37 Comments on “Curbside Classic Dead Brands Week Christmas Edition: 1962 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk...”

  • avatar

    Thanks for doing this Curbside Classic on Christmas Eve. My first car was a 1962 GT Hawk which I owned from 1981-1989. Your review was a real treat for me.

    Compromised and imperfect is a great epitaph for this car. It was an eye catching, beautiful car, but it rusted like crazy and the body rattled everytime you hit a bump in the road. The 289 V-8 hummed along like a Singer sewing machine. The interior ergonimics were very good for the time, but this design was compromised by the use of cheap materials.

    By the 1980’s Studebaker Hawks were no longer common and it was surprising how many people did not know what kind of car this was. On numerous occasions I was asked if my car was a Thunderbird, Jaguar, or Mercedes. It really was fun driving something so unique. It’s too bad it was not better engineered and better built.

    I have some photos on my old Studebaker on my Flickr page.[email protected]/sets/72157600284383658/

  • avatar

    Speaking of dead brands, Studebakers and Christmas, the last day of production at Studebaker’s South Bend, Indiana plant was December 9, 1963.

  • avatar

    Studebaker Larks were a common police car in Australia in the early sixties, their V8 power making them good pursuit vehicles against the common six cylinder Holdens and Falcons. As a kid, I was always on the lookout for interesting cars and the Hwk certainly qualified. I never rode in one but they always looked great to me.

  • avatar

    The gas tank door badge looks like it belongs on an old Auto Union (DKW?) TT???

  • avatar

    It’s a dirty rotten crime and a commentary on American taste that this car didn’t outsell the jet-age/spaceship, Ford Thunderbird about 100 to 1.  The American public should have bought 100K a year of just the GT Hawks, forget the rest of Studebaker’s lineup.

    • 0 avatar

      In terms of build quality and long-term durability the Thunderbird was a much better car. The Hawk was the better looker, but it was also a rust prone rattle-trap. The Hawk was priced significantly lower than the Thunderbird, but even at a bargain basement price Hawk sales were only a fraction of the Thunderbird’s.

  • avatar
    the duke

    @getacargetacheck:  TT stands for Twin-Traction, showing my car came from the factory with a posi-trac rearend.  Packard invented the Positrac (with the Twin-Traction moniker) in the mid-fifties, Studebaker acquired it  with the merger.

    Thanks for the great write-up Paul, and I’m glad you enjoyed the ride.  Sadly I don’t make it home often enough. 

    For the sake of accuracy, only two corrections.  First, technically the car was rated at 220 bhp with the four-barrel WCFB (which I have).  Secondly, and notably pedantic(as it only matters to Michigan students), but i’m doing the PhD in Mechanical Engineering with research in internal engine combustion and aftertreatment.  I mention this as there is an “automotive engineering” program at UM-Dearborn, but its not of the caliber of the ME program, and engineers at Michigan get uppity about this sort of thing (not that I would…).

    edit: I was wrong in my memory, Paul is correct. The four barrel makes for 225 bhp. I’m too young to have my memory failing me…

  • avatar

    I had a 1955 coupe, white over yellow,  and I still have fond memories of that car.  I had the 4-barrel and duals and it was a really quick car for the times.  The only problems I ever had was having the front suspension rebushed to cure a shimmy at about 30,000 miles.  The overdrive made it a reasonably quiet car on the highway and it was easy on fuel.
    I bought the car in Texas and later moved to Poughkeepsie, New York.  I had no rust problems in about 4 years in New York.  It sure didn’t go in snow very well, though.  I finally sold it to my little brother and he ruined it in very short order.  He never did fully pay me for it.

  • avatar

    beautiful car indeed. Very interesting history, esp the speed with which they got the thing into the showroom. Very nice photos, esp the last one, playing up those wonderful sweeping lines.
    But looks like a Citroen DS from the back???! Paul, you crazy, mon! If that looks like a DS, Pres O has a nose like Le Grand Charles (De Gaulle)! (although now that I think about it, from the side and the front, if I let my imagination really go, I can just about see a resemblance.  Amazing.
    Luke, what year did you buy the car?
    My own first car trip x the country was in a 1950 Studebaker, at the age of four, so Studebakers are special to me.
    Note to moderators: Please leave this in this time. I’m kidding Paul, I’m sure he knows it.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      David, I’m glad you’re starting to see it. Now go back to the picture of the original Starlight Coupe
      and tell me if Citroen may well have been “inspired” by the front end for its DS front end. keep in mind, the DS came out two years after the Starlight. Here’s the DS:

    • 0 avatar
      the duke

      It was 1997, I was 16 and going to be needing a car.  My dad had a 1956 Golden Hawk (now he has two) and came across this car.  It had been in a barn for 10 years so over the next year my dad and I got it running and fixed it up (somewhat) so that is was reliable transport.  Not many people my age have any clue what a Studebaker is, so I consider myself privelaged to have grown up driving this car, and after grad school it will get the attention it deserves.

  • avatar

    I just don’t know. To me they have a somewhat faint, very general resemblance, but in detail, they don’t look much alike at all. The Stude certainly could have inspired the Citroen, but I can’t help thinking that the Citroen designers could have come up with it without ref to the Starlight. It raises questions to me of how closely did the French designers pay attention to American cars, and how much of automotive design is subliminal imitation.
    To me, while there are superficial resemblances in outline, the character of the two cars are very different. I can see the Starlight in Hollywood, or Vegas, piloted by people on their way to listen to Sinatra in the latter, or going out to be seen on the strip in the former, while the DS, to me, is definitely the correct car to ferry De Gaulle to and from the Elysee Palace.
    It’s sort of like the differnce between the first gen Saturn and the olds look-alike: the resemblance is superficial, with the Saturn having a lot of attitude, and the Olds looking like Dad’s car in some middle American suburb.
    Nonetheless, all that doesn’t rule out Studebaker influence on the DS; but it doesn’t prove it to me. I’d love to ask whoever was involved in the DS’s design, but my guess is they’re gone.

    • 0 avatar

      André Citroen was very much indeed inspired by the Americans, especially Henry Ford, he saw himself as the European Henry Ford. Citroen was one of the first Europeans to mass produce cars from the Model T formula, making cars in the hundreds of thousands as early as the mid-twenties. The Citroen traction avant had a load-bearing body developed by the Budd company. And as the United States very much symbolised the future after the second world war, and Loewy and Stevens were well known industrial designers, I find it not at all impossible that Citroen could have been inspired by Studebaker. Especially the concept of the grille-less front, both the DS and (early) Studebaker using slats instead of grilles. Though the design of the DS was actually quite haphazard, not finalized until just weeks before the presentation, also, Citroen using a superstructure with non-stressed body panels.

    • 0 avatar

      My sense is that the Déesse’s basic shape was probably done before Citroën execs would have seen the Starlight — Citroën sued a French magazine around 1951 for leaking concept sketches of the new car. They did ask designer Flaminio Bertoni to make some last-minute revisions to the DS, out of fear that it would be too conventional looking (!), but I think those were mostly to the rear end, not the nose. It’s possible there was some influence, but I tend to doubt it, unless somebody finds more specific evidence.

  • avatar

    Raymond Loewy has to have been to best American post war automobile designer.   The starlight coupe, the Avanti, and the GT Hawk are the only American cars I’d want if I had a collection of great cars.

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming

    Good retrospective. You’ve packed lots of nuance into a concise essay. The irony of the Hawk – much like the Avanti and the original Starliner coupe – is that this string of gorgeous and innovative designs went a long way toward sinking Studebaker. The company was simply too small to adequately support a sporty car with such a distinct body from its higher-volume sedans.

    I read somewhere that in the early 1950s Studebaker had considered coming out with a unit-body compact. Once that option was rejected by management, Loewy successfully argued in favor of the Starliner coupe, which augmented the company’s new, bigger sedans. Not the last time that an attempt to go up market would fail.

    A friendly amendment on why the Starliner body lacked sufficient economies of scale. It wasn’t the longer wheelbase, which was shared with Studebaker’s high-end sedan. The problem was that the Starliner’s sleek styling required a much lower cowl. That didn’t allow very many body parts to be shared between the Starliner and the sedans.

    A key reason why the Hawk sold poorly compared to the four-seater T-Bird was that Studebaker couldn’t afford to restyle it frequently. Today the Gran Turismo looks cool, but in 1962 it was pretty old hat – a fairly mild facelift of a nine-year-old design. In contrast, in that era the T-Bird was given a substantial redesign every three years.

    • 0 avatar

      Loewy’s studio did sketch out a low slung sedan using the coupe’s cowl.  It would have been gorgeous — in a way, more European in style than the coupe.  Studebaker management axed it for some reason lost to my memory.  So instead we got the coupe’s front and back end grafted onto a tall sedan body that looked quite ungainly.  On the other hand, that bodyshell served as the nucleus for the Lark.  Reducing the overhang and squaring up the ends made the car look proportional, and with the 1962 facelift the Lark became downright attractive — amazingly close to the Heckflosse (fintail) Mercedes.

    • 0 avatar

      By the time the Loewy Coupe was approved for production Studebaker was well along in the development of the N-Body which was supposed to have been the all-new 1952 Studebaker. At the last minute management decided to scrap the near production ready N-Body in favor of a sedan based on the Loewy Coupe. The N-Body chassis was retained and one reason the 1953 sedans looked so awkward was because the engineers had to stretch the Lowey Coupe styling over the much more upright N-Body sedan platform.

  • avatar

    Regarding this beautiful last gasp of a dying company … it has been said that the fire burns hottest, and the candle brightest, just before the death of the flame… (perhaps our Maize and Blue PhD candidate can confirm or refute this assertion!)

    Anybody know who owns the rights to the Studebaker name nowadays?

    • 0 avatar

      I’d tell you to Google it, but I don’t want you crying into your Christmas breakfast.

    • 0 avatar

      “The remains of the auto maker still exist as Studebaker-Worthington Leasing, a subsidiary of Main Street Bank – Kingwood Texas, which provides leasing services for manufacturers and resellers of business and industrial products.” – Wiki

      Sometimes the truth hurts. :(

  • avatar

    The early 1960’s was such a golden age of automotive styling, in spite, maybe a little because, of the deep economic recession, not countng the hideous Mopars.  E-type Jag, Corvette Stingray, and one of my all time favorites, the suicide-door Continental were all spectacular examples.

  • avatar

    I bought a ’53 Starliner hardtop minus engine and transmission from a car lot in Tacoma in about 1961, when I was 21. It had been painted in ’56 Chevy red-orange and cream; surprisingly those colors looked good on it. I bought a beater ’51 Land Cruiser from a guy that worked for my dad, and swapped the engine and transmission into the ’53. It was pretty much an in-and-out swap, aided by a hydraulic backhoe, which is the best ever engine swapping hoist. By the time it was running and driving well, the lack of time and money endemic to college students took its toll and I had to sell it. I enjoyed the few drives I had in it though.

  • avatar

    The Studebaker-Packard/Studebaker Corporation actually survived in various forms well beyond the death of the auto line. S-P diversified in 1960-1961 — they bought the Gravely Tractor company, Chemical Compounds (later known as STP), and a bunch of others. The board had wanted to get out of the automotive business since 1959, and once they had a bunch of other successful subsidiaries, the choice was a lot clearer.
    To say the Loewy coupes killed Studebaker is really an overstatement. Studebaker was in bad shape by 1953 for various reasons, including the Ford-Chevy price war. Even if the Loewy coupe had been a big hit, it wouldn’t have given them the capital to survive much longer than they did.
    The GT Hawk is interesting, although it’s hard to ignore the fact that it’s a cobbled-together rehash of what was by then an eight-year-old car. Me, I’d like the rare supercharged Super Lark, which has more of a sleeper vibe.
    More on Studebaker-Packard’s downfall:

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, even if Studebaker had survived the sixties, it’s doubtful they could have afforded to comply with the upcoming stringent federal emissions and bumper requirements just around the corner. Hell, they would have completely wiped-out the (marginally) healthier AMC except for Chrysler buying the Jeep brand.

  • avatar

    I drove a 62 Hawk as a daily driver for about 16 years and it never gave me any major problems. When things would wear out I could always find replacement parts to fit, either at the local parts store or sometimes from the many Studebaker vendors. The Hawk had a heater under each seat with a seperate blower motor for individual climate control and the transmission started in second gear unless you floor boarded the car. I think it had more of a personality than any car I’ve ever owned. I sold it to a guy from Canada and its now restored and living the life of a trailer queen.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    one  of  the prettiest cars  ever made. A  guy  in the neighborhood had a silver GT when I was  a paperboy.  The Avanti is fugly in comparison. So is  the 63 T’Bird
    I had a 61 Willys Overland do Brasil made in Sao Paulo. It was an Overland wagon with a nose job by Stevens. Stevens just did a touch up. Just the grill and the front fenders were changed and the tail lights looked ‘zactly like the Lark Daytona wagon units. It presaged the Wagoneer by having the same silouette

  • avatar

    Thanks, this brings back so many great memories.  As a teenager  in the 50’s I hung out at a Studebaker dealership and made friends with everyone there.  My first car was a 1952 Studebaker sedan with 80,0000 miles on it.  Although I never owned one I remember the Hawks well and loved every one of them.

  • avatar

    Packard invented the Positrac (with the Twin-Traction moniker) in the mid-fifties, Studebaker acquired it  with the merger.
    Great car, always nice to see someone keeping things on the road.  So sad that people didn’t buy them, but yeah, the Fords of the day were higher quality than the Studes…
    BTW, hope you’re not suggesting that Packard invented the LSD (I recall ZF did one in the early 30s for Porsche when he was working at Auto-Union…)

  • avatar

    I wish I could say that I had some great interaction with one of these cars, but unfortunately I was a fetus through most of 1962. I now really appreciate the styling of these end of the line Studes, now that I have the perspective of the history of the cars and their contemporaries.
    Luke, take good care of this piece of rolling history.

  • avatar

    This is the first car I ever drove.  That is if sitting on your Dad’s lap and steering the wheel can be called driving.  The peddles were impossible to reach at that age anyways.  My Dad’s car didn’t have a twin-traction rear end.  But besides being red inside and out it was identical to Luke’s.
    Here are some things my Dad said about it.  Rear tires were wont to wear out quickly as with the overly heavy front end they would slip with the lightest touch of the gas.  You learned to be light footed and rotate your tires.  Studebaker did not have the money to retool so they were stamping a heavy gauge steel for their sheet metal.  This made their cars less profitable due to the extra cost of the thicker metal and was one of the factors that lead to their demise.  Another was they built a car, the lark, according to the desires of the buying population recorded in surveys as to what was an ideal car.  What people say they want and what they really buy are two different things.  Finally, even with the 289 and four speed, gas consumption was reasonable for a car of its class.
    I would add that it was a tank.  A drunk smashed his car into parked rear end of my Dad’s and the Hawk just had a slight scratch in the chrome on its trunk.  The other car was unsalvageable!  Studebaker was a great American company.  Its trucks kept Russia alive in the second world war.  Their patents were a very significant asset and I would have rather seen them saved than Chrysler its first time around.

  • avatar

    I loved the Hawks that I saw as a child in the 60’s – I ended up buying (what I considered the “spiritual successor” to the Hawk) a ’69 Pontiac Grand Prix, since Hawks became very rare in PA in the early 70’s (no doubt due to rust worm).

  • avatar

    Not too many years ago, I came across this cars predecessor for sale (honest) by the side of the road.  It was white with red interior and had the 259 V8.  Totally cool car, however, I contemplated my own ‘resource shortage’ and thought the better of it.  Pity.

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