Junkyard Find: 1959 Studebaker Lark VIII Deluxe 4-Door Sedan

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin

Studebakers! They're not easy to find in your local Ewe Pullet these days, since the very last ones were built in Hamilton, Ontario more than 57 years ago. I have documented a half-dozen Studes during my junkyard travels, but none of them were examples of the compact that bought the venerable South Bend company a few more years of survival: the Lark. Last week, a first-model-year Lark sedan showed up at a self-service yard just south of Denver, and I was there to document it in its final parking spot.

By the second half of the 1950s, sales of small European cars in North America—mostly Volkswagen Beetles but also machinery from Britain, France and Italy—had grown large enough to alarm American manufacturers. Newly-formed American Motors did well selling efficient Ramblers starting in 1956, and Studebaker jumped in with its own small car for the 1959 model year: the Lark.

Studebaker had been building vehicles in North America since German immigrant Peter Stutenbecker sold his first wagon in the British Province of Maryland in 1740. The first Studebaker car was an EV that went into production in South Bend in 1902.

By the 1950s, however, small manufacturers were being crushed by GM, Ford and Chrysler. A merger with Packard in 1954 didn't help, and so for 1959 the company's lineup would consist of just the Silver Hawk coupe, various slow-selling trucks and the brand-new Lark.

The data plate tells us that this car was built at the South Bend plant, fairly deep into the model year.

The firewall tag says it's a 59V Deluxe, which the Standard Catalog describes as being built only for "special order sales, Marshal sales, fleet sales and sales outside the United States."

The MSRP on the 1959 Lark VIII Regal 4-door sedan was $2,310, which comes to about $24,043 in 2023 dollars.

Meanwhile, AMC would sell you a new '59 Rambler Rebel four-door sedan with a V8 engine for $2,228 ($23,189 after inflation). A 1959 Volkswagen Beetle two-door sedan listed at $1,545 ($16,081 now). A nasty (though short-lived) recession in 1958 helped with sales of such fuel-saving machines (and helped kill the Edsel).

There were two families of Lark models for 1959, designated according to the number of engine cylinders. The Lark VI got a 170-cubic-inch (2.8-liter) flathead straight-six rated at 90 horsepower.

The Lark VIII received this 259-cubic-inch (4.2-liter) overhead-valve V8 with 180 horsepower, which made the 2,925-pound Lark plenty quick by the standards of its time. Yes, this car weighs about the same as a 2023 Honda Civic.

Studebaker had been building its V8 engine since the 1951 model year, and the supercharged 289-cube version ended up powering the famous Avanti later on.

Many, many things we think of today as necessary standard features were extra-cost options on affordable cars in 1959. For example, an engine oil filter, which in this case was this optional assembly attached to the oil-filler tube. Even a cabin heater cost extra.

With its three-on-the-tree column-shift manual transmission, this car would have attained respectable fuel economy for its era.

For an additional $200 ($2,082 today), Lark buyers could get a Borg-Warner-built "Flightomatic" three-speed automatic transmission. Air conditioning was available as well, for a stunning $325 extra ($3,383 in current bucks).

An all-transistor AM radio with the nuclear-war-ready CONELRAD frequencies marked was an $80 option ($833 now), though this appears to be an aftermarket Motorola unit. If you were willing to wait for a tube-equipped radio to warm up before tuning in the hits of '59, you could get the cheapest possible Studebaker factory radio for 61 bucks (635 bucks in 2023).

Naturally, the radio sent its sound through a tinny single speaker. Present-day readers of "On the Road" who imagine Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty cranking up the edgy Charlie Parker at deafening volume while digging the frantic kicks on Route 36 should instead assume that they'd have been straining to decipher some squaresville sides ( e.g., Perry Como) buzzing out of a lo-fi single dash speaker and failing to punch through the road noise.

By the way, this car now resides just a few miles from the site of the now-defunct Gates Rubber plant at which a teenaged Neal Cassady (Kerouac's inspiration for Dean Moriarty) toiled prior to becoming a Beat legend. You never know what you'll learn from a Junkyard Find!

This car spent many years in the special-reserve collection of Colorado Auto & Parts, a family-owned yard that has been in operation since the late 1950s and which is known worldwide as the birthplace of the airplane-engined 1949 Plymouth pickup. CAP auctions off some of these vehicles from time to time (to make room for more), while others end up in the self-service yard.

It's rough and fairly rusty, but probably could have been put back on the road without a huge investment. Lark sedans just aren't worth much, sadly.

There are some clues about this car's past to be found here, so let's examine them.

There's a 1974 Texas registration sticker on the windshield.

Amarillo is surprisingly close to Denver (by the standards of the American West), just 430 miles to the southeast. Economy Motors was incorporated in 1959, just in time to sell this car.

Six Flags over Texas opened in the summer of 1961. I think this Studebaker moved to Colorado in the middle 1970s.

I'll bet this vintage snow tire has been with the car for most of its stay in the Centennial State.

The faded paint, ravaged interior and permanently flattened tires indicate at least a couple of decades in outdoor storage.

Most of the glass and many of the trim pieces still look to be in nice shape (note the vintage Idaho sticker), so we can hope that local Lark owners rescue all the good bits off this car before it meets The Crusher.

I'm trying to talk the local 24 Hours of Lemons racers into rescuing today's Junkyard Find and making a race car out of it. After all, there's already one Lark competing in the series.

By the 1960 model year, the Lark had what turned out to be unbeatable competition from Detroit. That was when GM introduced the Chevrolet Corvair, Ford's Falcon had its debut, and Chrysler piled on with the Valiant. The Rambler American was a great compact deal, and the Chevy II would hit dealerships just two years later. Still, the Lark managed to hang on until the very end of Studebaker, though the Lark name itself was retired in 1964.

Mister Ed says, "Tell 'em we sentcha!"

[Images: The author]

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Murilee Martin
Murilee Martin

Murilee Martin is the pen name of Phil Greden, a writer who has lived in Minnesota, California, Georgia and (now) Colorado. He has toiled at copywriting, technical writing, junkmail writing, fiction writing and now automotive writing. He has owned many terrible vehicles and some good ones. He spends a great deal of time in self-service junkyards. These days, he writes for publications including Autoweek, Autoblog, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars and Capital One.

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2 of 21 comments
  • ToolGuy ToolGuy on Apr 27, 2023

    All those Roman numerals couldn't save it.

  • 3SpeedAutomatic 3SpeedAutomatic on Apr 27, 2023

    These bare bones cars like the Scotsman were that type that got you thru college or trade school. As soon as you earned your first set of regular checks, off to the dealership to ditch it and get something nice with a stereo & 8 track, A/C, power windows, seats, and brakes with a vinyl top to boot.

    The trade-in felt more like relief versus sentential loss.

  • James Hendricks The depreciation on the Turbo S is going to be epic!
  • VoGhost Key phrase: "The EV market has grown." Yup, EV sales are up yet again, contrary to what nearly every article on the topic has been claiming. It's almost as if the press gets 30% of ad revenues from oil companies and legacy ICE OEMs.
  • Leonard Ostrander Daniel J, you are making the assertion. It's up to you to produce the evidence.
  • VoGhost I remember all those years when the brilliant TTAC commenters told me over and over how easy it was for legacy automakers to switch to making EVs, and that Tesla was due to be crushed by them in just a few months.
  • D "smaller vehicles" - sorry, that's way too much common sense! Americans won't go along because clever marketing convinced us our egos need big@ss trucks, which give auto manufacturers the profit margin they want, and everybody feels vulnerable now unless they too have a huge vehicle. Lower speed limits could help, but no politician wants to push that losing policy. We'll just go on building more lanes and driving faster and faster behind our vehicle's tinted privacy glass. Visions of Slim Pickens riding a big black jacked up truck out of a B-52.