Studebaker is an American automotive legend, and of the few manufacturers to successfully transition from the horse-drawn to the horsepower eras. Founded in 1852, the company produced high quality wagons for farming and overland freight hauling. By 1875 Studebaker was the largest vehicle manufacturer in the world, producing wagons and carriages in a proto-assembly line that had no rivals.
By the 1890s Studebaker had seen the future and entered the car business in 1897, while still producing wagons (until 1919). The first Studebaker cars were electrics, and then through partnerships the company produced internal combustion engines for their cars, and others.
Studebaker would continue in business all the way through the 1950s, as minor but steady player in the business. But its business practices were not as solid as its cars, and it would regularly alternate between good and bad years despite delivering quality cars that sported occasional brilliant design.
By the 1950s, Studebaker was slipping badly in the marketplace, despite superior styling by Raymond Loewy. It became clear that the market was changing, and Studebaker’s fortunes were growing increasingly desperate. They were not alone. Hudson, Nash, Kaiser-Frazer and Crosley all sought mergers, consolidations or exited the business in the early and middle years of the decade. An ill-advised Studebaker merger with Packard in 1956 actually made things worse, confusing the brand images of the storied marques.
By the 1960s, the end was in sight. Packard had closed in 1958, and though Studebaker had some solid cars, there just wasn’t a significant place in the market for them any more. Even the dramatic Raymond Loewy-designed Avanti of 1963 could not pull the company out of a fiscal death spiral.
Brooks Stevens, the industrial designer who had worked with Studebaker since 1956 (Loewy’s expensive contract had not been renewed), watched in horror as Studebaker lurched from one crisis to another, with bankruptcy becoming ever more certain by the day. Like Loewy, Stevens had a steady career of designing good products of all types dating back to the 1930s. Although not as flamboyant as Loewy, Steven considered himself every bit the equal to the aristocratic Frenchman, and was determined to counter the Avanti with an entire lineup of cars that would rescue Studebaker.
Stevens knew that even more than almost any American manufacturer, Studebaker depended on solid workaday sedans and coupes for the common buyer who looked for value and reliability in a car. Stevens’ designs for the Studebaker Golden Hawk and the compact Lark were well regarded, and had achieved solid sales figures.
Stevens would design a series of sedans, coupes and MPV-like vehicles for the future of Studebaker, with the target model year set at 1966. But to give the lineup a ‘halo car’, he worked on a design that would compete with the Thunderbird, the new Riviera, and yes, even Studebaker’s own Avanti. The car would be a replacement for the GT Hawk, be larger than the Avanti (which was built on a compact Lark frame) and be aimed more at the nascent Personal Luxury Car market.
Stevens and his staff worked at breakneck speed to craft a design for the Sceptre, as the car would come to be named. Then the design was sent across the Atlantic to Turin, to the Carrozzeria Sibona-Basano – a short-lived but highly-regarded coachbuilder which worked in a remarkable variety of body types, and with extremely high quality, for marques such as Abarth, Lamborghini and Simca, as well as for Virgil Exner and, of course, Brooks Stevens.
Stevens had sent the Sceptre to Italy for a little Italian polish on the design, and for high-quality craftsmanship on the construction of the concept. He was not disappointed. The project only cost Studebaker $16,000, and, as the car was unloaded and presented to Studebaker management in April 1963, Stevens beamed with pride. It was a brilliant piece of work – described by Stevens as ‘jewel-like’ and ‘impeccably crafted’ – a gleaming black, gold, and silver composition. And it was a dramatic, futuristic departure from the elegant, but aging, design of the Gran Turismo Hawk.
A walk around the car reveals its innovative design. Then and now, the overall massing and profile of the Sceptre remind many of the Thunderbird, although there is no discernable ‘borrowing’ from Ford’s signature coupé. The side elevation shows a low hood and trunk with a high airy glasshouse in between. The profile, with a angular wedge at the front, seems to preview the Italian designs that emerged a decade later. The line of the trunk seems low to our eyes – but this is after a generation of ‘bustle-backs’ and ‘Bangle butts’ and other high trunk designs that have us trained to look for higher, more formal massing terminating our cars.
Interesting details along the side include the trim, which is a narrow strip on the passenger side, but a more substantial, streamlined band of chrome across the driver’s side. Also, the C pillars, which looked like broad trapezoidal elements – very Thunderbird-like – were actually a pair of thin pillars with a panel of darkened glass between. On the outside, especially with black paintwork, the pillars appear solid, but on the interior they open the rear seat to the light and view.
At the front the hood terminated in a wedge-like ‘electric shaver’ trim over the grille. This grille, almost invisible under the broad overhang, was dramatically backlit with a specially developed light bar by Sylvania that distributed forward lighting across the entire width of the car. Special lamps illuminated the corners as the car turned.
At the wheels, the three-sided ‘polo mallet’ medallion forms the hubcap, and the motif is repeated on the hood and the steering wheel. A tiny red lamp was placed in the center of the wheel to form a running light.
At the rear, the Sylvania light bar is again utilized to form a solid strip of light across the car, but this time behind a red bezel. Judicious use of chrome make for an understated elegance, typical of a search for expression in the years just beyond the end of the tailfin era.
The glasshouse was precisely that – an airy glazed top for the car, especially after you got over the bit of C pillar chicanery and realized how light the passenger compartment was. The silver roof made the glasshouse seem even lighter.
On the interior, Stevens did his best on a budget – vinyl, mylar and plastics reigned supreme. Still, the four seats were well-tailored with a smart gold, black, and silver colourway, and an embossed Sceptre badge at front and rear. The instrument panel was futuristic with tilt-up panel that contained the speedometer, and bubble covered secondary instruments. The steering wheel contained a sculptural version of the ‘polo mallet’ emblem. In front of the passenger seat, there was a special glovebox, like a shelf, that opened to reveal a secret vanity with storage for personal items (like gloves).
Overall the effect was futuristic, but a bit familiar too. It had an Italian flair to it, but with the Studebaker name, definitely grounded in the American Midwest. Executives and board members of Studebaker, and the limited press who saw the car, gave it a warm reception. The Sceptre, and the associated designs that went with the proposed turnaround package, were discussed and studied widely in certain design and engineering circles within the company.
But it was all too late.
Studebaker’s board was already planning to wind down production and begin shutting down plants. There would be no last-second rescue or merger as in previous times. Studebaker’s South Bend, Indiana Plant would close at the end of 1963. The Canadian plant in Hamilton Ontario would stay open until 1966 producing limited volumes (but, ironically, remaining profitable).
Raymond Loewy would later write, “My decades with the company were exhilarating and unforgettable, and my respect for its engineering department immense. I leave it to others to uncover the reasons such a great, prestigious marque, having at last found its market, finally disappeared at a time when it was admired throughout the world, and when the Avanti had just come out with a backlog of orders. It was an industrial tragedy.”
For Brooks Stevens the future was more rosy. His Jeep Wagoneer design of 1963 would go into production and be manufactured until 1991. The ideas he presented to Studebaker would find a partial realization in American Motors projects of the early 1970s. And his industrial design practice flourished and, indeed, is still in business today.
As for the Sceptre, Stevens managed to retrieve it and place it in his private museum. When that closed, it made its way to the Studebaker National Museum in Indiana, where it can still be seen today.