Tuesday, July 6, 2004

Automotive Rebirth

On the flight back yesterday I was flipping through American Way, the American Airlines in-flight magazine, when I came across a story that unfortunately did not make it up on their web edition. The newest SUV to make its debut this summer will bear a nameplate from automotive history: Studebaker.

To those of you younger than 40, the Studebaker nameplate won’t mean much unless you’re into cars. Studebaker began in the 1830’s as a wagon manufacturer (the ubiquitous Conestoga covered wagon, as seen in movie and TV Westerns, was built by Studebaker), switching to cars in the early 1900’s. It was one of the five or so auto manufacturers that managed to survive both the Depression and World War II, only to fall on hard times in the 1950’s and early ’60’s. They made some interesting cars, especially the bullet-nosed 1950 models and the Hawk series, but by 1960 they were building what could charitably be called “granny cars” like the Lark. In 1963, in a desperate attempt to reclaim part of the market, they introduced the Raymond Loewy-designed Avanti. It was a sleek and powerful sports car with a fiberglass body, and it knocked the automotive world on its collective ear. But it wasn’t enough to save the company. Their factory in South Bend, Indiana, was too antiquated to handle the rapid changes in the auto industry, and an ill-advised merger with struggling Packard burdened the already weak company. Even taking on the exclusive distribution of Mercedes-Benz in the US didn’t help, and they finally ceased production in 1966.

Shortly after Studebaker went under, the rights to the Avanti were bought up and the car, called the Avanti II, was built and sold at a premium price. It’s been through several owners, but it’s still being built in Georgia. Avanti Motor’s newest venture is the Studebaker XUV, an SUV with a strong resemblance to the Hummer (so much so that GM sued them; they settled when Avanti made some minor design changes). It will be available with either gas or diesel engine. According to the story in American Way, the Studebaker will sell for around $79,000. That’s a lot more than an Explorer, but right up there with some of the Mercedes SUV’s out there.

The rationale behind reviving the Studebaker name is the company’s attempt to connect with the 19th century “prairie schooner” and its 21st century counterpart, the SUV. But for those of us who remember the last cars to carry the logo except the Avanti, it’s a good fit – big, boxy, and slightly out of sync with the times. Nevertheless, I wish them all the best; I have a soft spot in my heart for ventures like that; I’m holding out hope to see if Ford will bring back the Edsel.

[Updated at 6:05 p.m with minor edits and additional information on Studebaker’s history.]