Lessons of a Defunct Icon

Recently, I wrote a thing for some people, and since those people opted to go in a different direction, I wanted to share the thing I wrote with you, Dear Reader(s). I had a lot of fun researching this and I think it’s a topic that could easily be expanded upon.

I chose to write about the Studebaker automobile, or more specifically, the Studebaker advertising machine, which really had a lot going for it. Headquartered in South Bend, Indiana  (home to my alma mater-Go Irish!), Studebaker made cars for distribution around the world. One of South Bend’s private high schools is actually located on the grounds of and old Studebaker Mansion (which was later sold to the Bendix family – another local manufacturing family), and I hear that if the kids are lucky, teachers will take them to the mansion part of the building and show them all the Prohibition-era hidey holes. Another Studebaker mansion is now a high end restaurant – Tippecanoe Place. But what I didn’t know about Studebaker was how their success seemed so driven by the power of advertising.

So, Dear Reader(s), what follows is probably not my best research work ever, but there is more thorough information in the Further Reading section that I hope tickles your fancy. Because this topic is really interesting.


1961 Studebaker Hawk


The Studebaker automobile is a classic, nearly as recognizable as the famous DeLorean, the Volkswagen Beetle, or the BMW 2002. During the company’s best year (1950), it held 4.2% of the automotive market, which is impressive considering it was not one of the Big Three automakers: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. What made it so successful? If it was so successful, why did it shut down?

Much of their success lay in their approach to marketing. Studebaker was one of the first corporations to recognize the importance of advertising. A company president is on record as early as 1858 saying, “We must advertise and never cease to advertise.” And this they did.

Their advertisements were also known for their witty rhymes and catchy tunes.


According to records, their advertisements always began with a declaration of an ideal. Often that ideal highlighted the importance of family ties, of quality workmanship, of economy of operation. Located in a small blue-collar Midwestern town that had to make the transition from agriculture to industry, these values would have resonated strongly with their roots. The strength of their core message enabled Studebaker to be the only major wagon maker to survive the transition from horse-and-buggies to automobiles.



Studebaker was responsible for many Presidential vehicles, including this carriage which took Lincoln to Ford’s Theatre that fateful night in April.

They were hugely successful selling wagons to people wanting to move West. Their advertising message of hard work and family would be embodied by these Westward settlers. In 1897, they began experimenting with automobiles, starting with electric and moving on to gasoline-powered vehicles. By 1908, Studebaker had partnered with the Garford Company out of Elyria, Ohio, to build gasoline automobiles. However, the Garford Company built higher-priced luxury vehicles, and Studebaker leadership wanted to look into lower-priced, mass-produced cars. Thus, Studebaker changed partners from Garford to Everett-Metsger-Flanders (E-M-F) Company of Detroit, but when the E-M-F cars proved unreliable, Studebaker struck out on its own in 1912.



John M. Studebaker joins the firm. – 1858

At that point, the car company focused on the mid-upper price range of automobiles. Then in 1915, Studebaker’s new president tried to move to the lower-priced range. Although this, and several future attempts at entering the lower end automobile marketplace were unsuccessful and led to bankruptcy. They had even enlisted the help of legendary football coach Knute Rockne to be a spokesperson, but those models of vehicle were not very successful. Despite that, they recovered and the attempts to enter the low-priced field caught the attention of two board members who decided to take the low-priced automobile vision and run with it, choosing to directly compete with Ford, Chevrolet, and Plymouth (a relation to Chrysler).



Rockne, in front of the Main Building. This side of the Main Building has since undergone a renovation.

There are a couple of things to take away from Studebaker’s trajectory to this point. The first of note is that the automobile company was not afraid of experimentation. They were able to make the rather impressive jump from horse-drawn wagons to horseless carriages, and they were able to thrive with their second industry. Then the top executives decided to change the market of their product by attempting to move to a low-mid priced automobile market. Their advertising messaging remained focused on the importance of family ties, and they were able to recover from bankruptcy, allegedly one of the only major companies to declare bankruptcy during the Great Depression and then recover.

The years surrounding both World Wars were profitable. During World War I, the company ran a series of successful “father and son” advertisements which featured a father working at the Studebaker factory to make goods to send to his son fighting overseas, emphasizing hard work and family again. After World War II, consumer demand for cars was high, and Studebaker was able to tap into that.


The Hawk line debuts for the 1956 model year – 1955

It was during this time that Studebaker launched the largest foreign advertising campaign in the automobile industry, taking out ads on the other five continents: Africa, Australia, South America, Asia, and Europe. The advertisements were custom tailored to each culture and language. In general, Studebaker liked to use color photographs of their product instead of illustrations. This conveyed realism, believability, and glamor. In addition to their photographs, Studebaker was known for having catchy headlines and slogans like, “Studebaker-the great independent,” and “Your thrifty one in ’51.”

Their best year was in 1950, where they held 4.2% of the automotive market.


The iconic bulletnose model

But all good things must come to an end. Despite their reputation for reliable, innovative products, their commitment to advertising (both financial and as a company value), the company only held 1.3% of the automotive market a mere decade later in 1960. In 1963, they closed their American plant and in 1966, their remaining plant in Canada closed its doors for a final time.


The Studebaker Corporation closes its South Bend plant in December. – 1963




All Photos Taken From:



References for copy:







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