Friday, March 6, 2015

Studebaker ~ One of Indiana's Own

by Ramona K. Cecil

If you are over the age of fifty or are a vintage automobile enthusiast, you may recognize the name Studebaker. According to my husband, who fits both those descriptions, a vintage car show would not be complete without several models from the Studebaker line. But did you know that the Studebaker Company was famous for transportation long before the automobile?

Five Studebaker brothers. Left to right standing: Peter and Jacob
Seated: Clem, Henry, and John M.
It all began in South Bend, Indiana, located at the far northwestern part of my home state. In 1850, a young wagon maker and blacksmith, Clem Studebaker, moves from Ohio to South Bend, Indiana. The next year his parents and nine siblings join him there and in 1852 Clem, with his brother Henry, opens the H & C Blacksmith Shop with only $68.00 to their name. There they build the first Studebaker vehicle; a farm wagon.

Henry Studebaker
Clem Studebaker

Studebaker Blacksmith Shop, South Bend, Indiana

John M. Studebaker
In 1853 another brother, John M., catches the gold fever and heads to the California gold fields. There, he is persuaded to abandon his dream of finding riches in the land for making wheelbarrows for the hordes of other gold prospectors. If you missed Keli Gwyn's post Tuesday about Wheelbarrow Johnny, you must check it out! She tells how John made an indelible mark on Hangtown (later Placerville,) California. His memory is kept alive there through museums and even an annual wheelbarrow race. After five years in California, John M. returns to Indiana with $8,000.00 to invest in his brothers’ flagging wagon business, including the wagon repository (dealership) opened by brother Peter a year earlier in nearby Goshen, Indiana. I find the fact that he amassed that kind of money in five years during the 1850s nothing short of amazing!

Studebaker wagon exhibited in the El Dorado County Museum,
Placerville, California.

By 1860, H & C Studebaker boasts a manufacturing shop, paint room, lumber yard, office and fourteen employees not counting the Studebaker brothers. When the Civil War breaks out the Studebakers begin to supply the Union Army with wagons and their business booms. In 1868, the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company is incorporated in Indiana. By 1870 another brother, Jacob, joins the company.

Civil War Supply Wagons

Civil War Ambulance Wagons

They sky seems the limit for the young wagon manufacturing company when disaster strikes. Over the next four years, two massive fires destroy the South Bend factory. Undaunted, the brothers rise up each time from the ashes and rebuild.

Studebaker factory South Bend, Indiana

Studebaker expands its market to Europe and its wagons win awards at the Paris Exposition of 1878. Over the next couple decades the company grows, providing wagons and carriages for the Spanish, American War and Benjamin Harrison’s White House despite a third factory fire. I can’t help wondering if anyone ever thought to build a water-pumping wagon to keep on the factory's premises? Just saying. . . Other U.S. Presidents who rode in Studebaker carriages include Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, and William McKinley. The latter two rode in Studebaker carriages to the sites of their assassinations.

President Benjamin Harrison's Studebaker Coach

President Lincoln's Studebaker carriage


President Grant's Studebaker Carriage

President McKinley in Studebaker carriage

By the end of the 19th Century, the company begins to experiment with powered vehicles. In 1902 they introduce an electric car and two years later they join with the Garford Company of 
Ohio to produce a gasoline powered car. In 1910 the Studebaker company purchases E-M-F, the second largest automobile manufacturer in Detroit, Michigan, while continuing their manufacture of horse-drawn vehicles as well. By WWI, Studebaker is providing wagons for Britain, France, Russia, and the U.S.

Thomas Edison in 1903 Studebaker electric car
1908 electric Studebaker police patrol vehicle

Supply wagons, WWI

1904 Studebaker-Garford Model C gasoline-powered car

The iconic Budweiser Beer wagon pulled by a majestic team of Clydesdale horses is a 1903 Studebaker wagon.

In 1915, Studebaker is the first automotive company to offer wholesale and retail financing.

The company moves automotive production from Detroit to South Bend in 1919 and discontinues their horse-drawn vehicle operation the following year.

The next three decades comprise Studebaker’s automotive “hey-day,” during which, the company introduces the four-wheel hydraulic brake system, acquires the luxury car manufacturer Pierce Arrow, introduces a car model named for legendary Notre Dame football coach, Knute Rockne, and even expands to the West Coast by opening their Studebaker Pacific Corporation in Los Angels in 1935.

Studebaker 1920 touring car

Studebaker 1930

Studebaker Pierce Arrow 1933

1932 Studebaker Rockne

When war breaks out again in Europe in 1939, Studebaker begins supplying the Allies with trucks, airplane engines, and the Weasel personnel carrier. By 1942 and America’s entrance into WWII, the company suspends all manufacture of civilian vehicles and devotes their entire capacity to the war effort.

Studebaker M29 Weasel

At war’s end, Studebaker is the first company to produce a postwar automobile and is the subject of a Life Magazine ten-page article. One of the most iconic of the Studebaker models was the bullet-nose Champion of the 1950s. I remember a co-worker of mine in the mid 1980s who still drove her Champion to work every day and claimed it was the best car she ever drove. My husband’s favorite was the last of the Studebaker models, the 1962 sporty Avanti, which he still aspires to one day own. Despite the Avanti, Studebaker is faltering by the mid 1960s. The South Bend operation closes in 1963, followed by the Hamilton, Ontario plant three years later.

1950 Studebaker Commander

1950 Studebaker Truck

1950 Studebaker Champion

Over the next couple decades, through a series of mergers and sell-offs, the Studebaker Automotive Company ceases to exist. By the late 1980s, all that’s left of Studebaker is Avanti Motors, which finally shuts down production in 1991. Several attempts to resurrect Avanti in the U.S. and Mexico fail and by 2008 Studebaker as a brand is relegated to history.

1962 Studebaker Avanti
2007 Studebaker Avanti

Though Studebaker automobiles are no longer rolling off assembly lines, Studebaker enthusiasts can take heart and head to the two Studebaker Museums in South Bend, Indiana. In the original building on Chapin Street visitors can peruse three stories of memorabilia from Studebaker’s century and a half history, including seventy historic vehicles. 
Studebaker Museum Chapin Street,
South Bend, Indiana
Old Studebaker National Museum, Main Street, South Bend, IN

Do you have a Studebaker in your past? I’d love to hear your story.

Ramona K. Cecil is a poet and award-winning author of historical fiction for the Christian market. A proud Hoosier, she often sets her stories in her home state of Indiana.

Check out her website at


  1. That is a long history for this car company. Very interesting, from wagons to wars to presidents. Sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

    1. Hi, Sharon! Yes, it is. Sad that they were unable to make it in the modern market, but 150 years is not a bad run.

  2. Second try at making a comment! Grrrr!

    Okay, so what I said before is that my father loved Studebaker cars and bought them for our family for many years. He was so disappointed when they stopped making them.

    1. Hi, Louise! What a ringing endorsement from your dad! I've heard much the same from other drivers among the "Greatest Generation." It makes me wonder why Studebaker wasn't able to compete in later years.

  3. I enjoyed hearing the about the rest of the Studebaker story, Ramona. What the brothers accomplished is amazing. From their humble beginning they went on to become an international success. I especially like the part John M's days in my hometown of Placerville, California played. If it hadn't been for the fortune he amassed making wheelbarrows for miners, the Studebaker story could have turned out much differently.

    I remember my mom driving a Studebaker when I was a young girl. Now I enjoy seeing them at the car shows my husband and I attend. I wish Indiana weren't so far away. I know we'd both enjoy touring those museums.

    1. Hi, Keli! I loved your history of John M.'s California years. You are sooo right! If John hadn't made and saved that $8,000 making wheel barrows in Placerville, California, and then was willing to invest his hard-earned money into his brothers' business, there wouldn't have been a Studebaker story. I'd LOVE to tour the Studebaker museum with you. What fun that would be. My hubby as already put it on our summer travel schedule. LOL

  4. what a great article!
    my dad restores old buggies and one of the a couple years ago was a Studebaker. Fun to see all the different models.

    1. Thanks, Carla! How interesting that your dad restores old buggies! From what I learned, Studebaker wagons and buggies were made to last. They remind me of the Oliver Wendell Holmes poem, The Deacon's Masterpiece. I actually memorized that thing and gave it as a recitation to my eighth grade literature class years ago. LOL

  5. My grandfather always had a Studebaker car. He thought they were the best! I can remember one he had in the 1960s when I was a kid, and it looked like the photo of the 1950 Commander that you have here.

    After reading your article, I wonder if the Studebaker boys had any sons who worked in the company. Was it a generational company, or did someone else buy it out?

    1. Hi, Donna! I love the look of the Commander. That visor above the windshield is sooo cool! Sons of the original five Studebaker brothers did inherit the business. As years went on, they brought people into management who didn't always make the best business decisions, causing a loss of business. Later, the business went through mergers and sell-offs until it no longer existed as a business.

    2. Thanks for the info, Ramona. The Studebaker company lasted over a hundred years, so I'd say that was good. A lot of companies don't make it that far.

  6. Great post with lots of car pics, Ramona! Although we never owned a Studebaker, I've been familiar with the name for decades. The farm wagon looks so familiar too and I wonder if it had a patent, or if everyone copied it as a generic design.

    I'm so glad you teamed up with Keli for this 2 part post to show the beginnings of this company. You can see where the genius and tenacity came from when you look at John M Studebaker and his wheelbarrow start. You can find it a

  7. Thanks, Anita! I was blown away about how John M. was able to amass that kind of money in the 1850s making wheelbarrows and then have enough faith in his brothers to sink every penny of his hard earned money into their business! That the company weathered three devastating factory fires also speaks to the Studebaker brothers' determination. A great lesson! In the words of Winston Churchill, "Never, never, never give up!"

  8. Thank you for sharing the rest of the Studebaker story, Ramona. Such fascinating history!

    texaggs2000 at gmail dot com

  9. Thanks, Britney! I'm glad you enjoyed it. :-)