A history of the Studebaker family and business is provided below.
Want to learn even more?
You may enjoy reading an important letter, written in 1737, by Clemens and Peder Studenbecker: here. In addition to the letter translation, this link has an analysis of the letter, and some history about the letter.
18th Century Germany
Life in early 18th Century Germany had become very difficult for anyone who valued their personal freedom.
Wars, religious conflicts, rapacious rulers and a stifling guild system tended to make it difficult for anyone who desired a better life. Hearing of a freer life in the new world, a family named Stutenbecker decided they wanted to worship however they chose, and have more freedom for their personal lives. Also known as Staudenbecker earlier, family members had been blade makers for many generations in the city of Solingen, which was (and still is) famous for its cutlery. Leaving was not as simple as it might seem.
Fearful of exporting their blade-making skills, the Cutlers Guild required that anyone leaving the guild had to work at another trade for five years in another city before they could emigrate. The Stutenbeckers did so by moving to nearby Hagen for the required five years. In 1736 they finally were free to emigrate to the new world (America).
Two brothers, Peter and Clement , a cousin, Heinrich, and other Stutenbecker family members journeyed down the Rhine River to the North Sea. Various petty noblemen stopped them every few miles and forced them to pay “tolls,” which amounted to whatever they could extract from the traveler. An unconfirmed family tradition says that the highly skilled Stutenbeckers built false sides and bottoms in their luggage and shipping crates, where they hid the bulk of their money.
Once they reached the sea, they booked passage in Rotterdam on the British ship Harle for the months-long trans-Atlantic journey to Philadelphia. On September 1, 1736 the immigrants were marched to the public square to sign an Oath of Allegiance to England and the Penn government, a proprietorship.
March 3, 1756
The Stutenbecker (later Studebaker) families acquired land on what was then the frontier in Pennsylvania. At this time, the French were stirring up their Shawnee and Delaware Indian allies against the English colonies.
On March 3, 1756, they raided Heinrich’s farm, south of Welsh Run Creek (in today’s Franklin County). Heinrich was killed almost immediately; his wife and three of his four children were taken prisoner. Eager to get out of the area before other settlers could come to the rescue, the Indians began a forced march in which they killed Heinrich’s expectant wife and unborn baby. Years later, three of the children were rescued, and two of them eventually married and raised families.
Several of the Studebakers went into blacksmithing and wagon-making. They settled on a design that became world famous—the Conestoga wagon.
With settlement in Ohio beginning to open up, they found a ready market for their wagons.
Several Studebaker families moved west in the early 1800’s to settle in southwestern Ohio.
Another, John Clement Studebaker, began a blacksmith shop near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; later his five sons built wagons. Two of the sons, Henry and Clement, joined together as the H & C Studebaker Wagon Company.
California in 1853
Another of the sons, John Mohler Studebaker, headed to California in 1853. Stories had come back from California of men quickly gaining fabulous fortunes during the 1849 gold rush.
When John arrived at Hangtown (now Placerville), California, he quickly realized that all of the good claims had long been taken. He also realized that an industrious man could make a better living by serving the needs of the miners than by panning for gold. John used his wagon-making skills to build rugged, durable wheelbarrows. His sturdy wheelbarrows quickly became popular, and he acquired the nickname, “Wheelbarrow Johnny.”
When the gold boom receded, John took his profits and returned home five years later. His brothers agreed to take John on as a partner and, with his $8,000 nest egg from California, expanded operations as the Studebaker Wagon Corporation in South Bend, Indiana and begin building wagons on a large scale.
The Studebaker wagons proved to be extremely durable, and the Studebaker Wagon Corporation was able to obtain contracts to build wagons for the Union Army during the Civil War. The reliability and ruggedness of the Studebaker wagons became legendary, and the Studebaker Corporation was on its way to a place in history.
In 1902, the company began producing automobiles. At first the Studebakers concentrated on electrics, but in 1904 began producing gasoline-powered cars in greater and greater numbers. Upon America’s entrance into WW I, the company immediately wired President Wilson, offering to make all of its facilities available for war production. Once again, Studebaker turned out thousands of wagons, trucks, ambulances, tanker trucks, gun carriages and other vehicles for the war effort. And once again, the company earned a reputation for rugged, durable vehicles.
1933 and the Depression
When the war ended, Studebaker’s reputation for reliability led to increased sales, and the company prospered until the Great Depression. In 1933, in the depths of the depression, the company went into receivership.
Normal practice at the time was to simply sell all of the company’s assets and pay off the creditors as best as possible. Studebaker however, was able to convince Congress that its real value was as a going concern, wherein workers would still have jobs and pay taxes. Bankruptcy law was revised by Congress to let the company put forth a plan of reorganization and repayment of its debts. The company recovered from the depression, and by the late 1930s was in financial health again.
The company was rare among major auto producers that it did not do its styling in-house. In the late 1930s the company contracted with Raymond Loewy, the famous French designer, to do the styling of their cars. Soaring sales were interrupted by World War II. Once again, the company quickly geared up for war production, and again, its vehicles continued its reputation for reliability.
After the war, Studebaker’s failure to invest in new manufacturing equipment began to make it less competitive. It was still building its vehicles in the old wagon factory at South Bend, Indiana, with production processes that were becoming quaint, at best.
By the early 1950s, Studebakers that were intended to be competition for Fords, Chevrolets and Plymouths were priced like a Buick. Fortunately the innovative and striking designs of Loewy continued to attract buyers to the showroom, and the distinctive “Is it coming or going?” and “bullet-nose” cars gave the company a reputation for advanced styling.
1953, and the Centennial Car
In 1953, a number of problems came to a head. That year’s design was initally called its “Centennial Car,” but the ad writers’ “European Look,” was what caught on with the public. The company did not do proper engineering on the body panels, many of which fit poorly. In addition, the design did not permit adequate drainage from fender wells, and the cars showed a tendency to rust very quickly.
Finally, the company badly misjudged demand, thinking the four-door sedan would be the most popular model. Instead, the public was clamoring for the much more rakish-looking two door hardtop. Studebaker was unable to adjust production quickly enough, and thousands of sales were lost due to long waiting periods. The old saying that “A good reputation is hard to win, but easy to lose,” was never truer. By the time production problems were cleared up, the public had become wary of the cars. Sales began sliding, never to recover, in spite of a merger with Packard in 1957.
1959, and the Lark Compact
The Lark compact model appeared in 1959, and kept the company going at a reduced rate.
Finally in the early 1960s Loewy and Sherwood Egbert again came up with a striking design: the Avanti. However, once again the company did poor pre-production engineering, and the Avanti had to overcome several bugs. In 1964 production was moved from South Bend to Hamilton, Ontario. and in 1966, production ended. The “what ifs?” are too many to go into here, but Egbert’s last design, the Spectre, was singularly beautiful, and might have turned the business around with its simplified production requirements, but the Board of Directors decided to go out of the auto business.
Contrary to popular belief, Studebaker did not go bankrupt. It produced many other products, and was a profitable company. It eventually merged with Worthington Industries, which merged with McGraw-Edison, which was taken over by Cooper Industries. Cooper still owns the rights to the Studebaker nameplate, but has said that it has “no plans to use it in the foreseeable future.”
Selected revisions in Feb. 2012 by SAS