A Brief History of the Studebaker Family and Company

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 Staudenbecker decided they wanted to worship however they chose, and have more freedom for their personal lives. The Staudenbeckers were blade-makers 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 Staudenbeckers did so, and moved to Hagen, Germany for the required five years. In 1736 they finally were free to move to the new world. Two brothers, Clement and Peter, a cousin, Heinrich, and their families journeyed down the Rhine. 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 Staudenbeckers 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 on the Harle, arriving in Philadelphia. When they arrived, the immigration clerks, unfamiliar with German pronunciations, recorded their names as “Studenbecker.” Other records recorded their names as Studebaker, Studibaker, Studabaker and other variations.

The three families began farming in what were then frontier lands. 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. 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 a 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 which became world famous- the Conestoga wagon. With settlement in Ohio beginning to open up, they found a ready market for their wagons. Several Studebakers moved west in the early 1800’s with many settling in southwestern Ohio. One of them, John Studebaker, began a blacksmith shop; he raised five sons who built wagons. Two of the sons, Clement and Henry, joined together as the Studebaker Wagon Company.


Another of the sons, John Mohler Studebaker, headed to California in 1853. Stories had come back to Ohio of men quickly gaining fabulous fortunes during the 1849 gold rush. When he arrived at what is 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 took his wagon-making skills and began making rugged, durable wheelbarrows. His sturdy wheelbarrows quickly became popular, and he acquired the nickname, “Wheelbarrow Johnny.” When the gold boom receded, he took his profits and returned to Ohio. At home, the five brothers agreed to take John’s $8,000 nest egg from California, expand operations as the Studebaker Wagon Corporation 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.

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 1930’s 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 1930’s 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 vehiles 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 1950’s, 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.

In 1953, a number of problems came to a head. That year’s design was initially 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.

The Lark compact model appeared in 1959, and kept the company going at a reduced rate. Finally in the early 1960’s 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.”