The Studebaker Manufacturing Company may be considered the godfather of Indiana auto makers, a cadre that once included such names as Stutz, Cord, and Duesenberg.
The company was started by a family of Pennsylvania Germans, who set up a blacksmithing shop at the corner of Michigan and Jefferson Streets in downtown South Bend in 1852.
Soon, the company was producing the horse-drawn carriages that delivered a nation of pioneers to their new life out West. Outfitting the government with vehicles during the Civil War, Studebaker emerged as the world’s top producer of wooden wagons.
The company further distinguished itself in the early twentieth century as the only wagon builder to make a successful transition to the manufacture of electric and gas-powered vehicles.
Two highly collectible automobiles manufactured by the South Bend-based company were, nonetheless, born of desperate moments in its 114-year history.
When the Great Depression brought the luxury car craze of the twenties to a halt, Studebaker introduced a low-cost model to be named after their company spokesman, legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. The coach never lived to see the car, however—he was killed in a plane crash months before the first Rockne rolled off the line in 1931.
Studebaker went into receivership two years later. When the company recovered, French-born designer Raymond Loewy was engaged to create such popular models as the 1939 Champion.
It was Loewy’s ingenuity that was called upon again in 1962, when the South Bend manufacturer found itself in dire financial straits. When the Avanti was unveiled, orders for the streamlined, supercharged sports car exceeded production capabilities; but ultimately problems with the fiberglass chassis doomed the hot rod.
The Avanti name and its production were taken over by a couple of South Bend auto dealers; and subsequent entrepreneurs have given the model extended life in the limited production automotive market.
Studebaker, however, never quite recovered from its eleventh-hour solution. Manufacturing moved to Ontario in 1963 and ceased for good in 1966.
Visitors to South Bend may learn more about the company’s legacy at The Studebaker National Museum, whose new facility opened in October of 2005 at 201 South Chapin Street.
Planes flying over South Bend still treat passengers to a view of the world’s largest living sign, 5000 pine trees planted in 1937 in the shape of the name STUDEBAKER.