Vintage Cars - 1964 Studebaker Wagonaire

Discussion in 'OT Driven' started by TriShield, Jun 26, 2003.

  1. TriShield

    TriShield Super Moderator® Staff Member

    Jul 6, 2001
    Likes Received:

    The last wagon from South Bend

    The Brooks Stevens-designed Studebaker Wagonaire was a clever innovation that few people needed.

    (14:13 July 02, 2001)

    Studebaker's downsized Lark gave the company a shot of tonic for the 1959 model year. The trouble was, the Big Three were readying their own compact cars, and by the time the 1960 sales numbers were tallied Studebaker had fallen from 10th to 11th place (it had been as low as 13th in 1955-57).

    The Lark had been created, rather ingeniously, by the expediency of a nose-and-tail job to the 1958 sedans and wagons, which, in turn, were reskinned versions of the 1953-55 cars. But against the fresh, all-new Falcon, Corvair and Valiant, the Lark looked rather frumpy. Minor trim variations for '60 and '61 were not enough to stem the tide, and the downward sales slope continued. For that, and other more complicated disappointments, president Harold Churchill was shown the door, to be succeeded by Sherwood Egbert, from chainsaw manufacturer McCulloch.

    Egbert wanted some new, more exciting products, but Studebaker's resources were meager. Bypassing the in-house studio, he called an old friend, designer Brooks Stevens, responsible for the Willys steel-bodied station wagon and the Excalibur sports car. Stevens elongated the rear quarters, adding prominent round taillights, and substituted a more elegant grille. An upscale Daytona model was added to the top of the line.

    A new roofline was designed for 1963, and the interior redesigned to include a clever vanity compartment in the dashboard. Stevens' most innovative stroke, however, was saved for the station wagon. Adapting the manual sunroof technology of the day, he contrived to have the aftermost portion of the wagon's roof slide forward, opening the rear of the cargo bay to the sky. This, in combination with the wind-down tailgate window, provided the perfect environment for hauling upright objects like refrigerators or trees.

    The name given to the body style, "Wagonaire," aptly evoked the image of openness. But the Wagonaire was far from trouble-free, as leaky roofs prompted redesign efforts and eventually a fixed-roof option at a $100 savings.

    This car's owner, Mike Rugens, has also owned a succession of 1955 to 1966 Studebaker models.

    What seems remarkable about this wagon today is the amount of light admitted to the passenger cabin. We forget that before deep-tint glass the "greenhouse" was aptly named. The effect is heightened by the chrome trim around the windows. The performance, with a six-cylinder engine and automatic transmission, is adequate but not neck-snapping.

    Studebaker's six had a heritage dating back to the little Champion flathead of 1939. The '60s demanded a modern configuration, so an overhead-valve head was adapted in 1961, increasing horsepower by nearly 25 percent, but displacement remained at 170 cubic inches, unchanged since 1941. Two V8s, of 259 and 289 cid, were also available.

    On Dec. 9, 1963, shortly after this car was built, Studebaker announced its factory in South Bend, Indiana, was closing for good. In a drastic cost-cutting move, some models would continue to be built in Hamilton, Ontario. Sedans and Wagonaire production continued in Canada until early 1966, using Chevy engines, as Studebaker's engine plant was also shuttered.

    The Wagonaire never made much difference to Studebaker's wagon sales--1963 production was at about the same level as the year before. The reskinned Larks, the Wagonaire, Stevens' restyled Hawks and the bold Avanti had all fallen short of the desired bottom line. A third-generation Studebaker employee once told this writer, "Bad news always came before Christmas." In 1963 it certainly did. South Bend, a company town where the Studebaker brothers built their first covered wagon in 1852, would take years to recover.

    The recent decades have brought us innovative automobiles like hatchbacks and minivans, but none suited, like the Wagonaire, for transporting appliances and garden supplies.

    Perhaps that's why recently the best-selling car has been a pickup truck


Share This Page