When you examine the evolution of the automotive industry in the United States, you typically think about the “Big Three” and their various respective divisions in and around the Motor City of Detroit, Michigan. These companies, and the automotive epicenter of Detroit have indeed played a major role in the history of American automaking (and the very field of automotive engineering itself), but they do not stand along in the annals of history.
Many of us were not around when they were at the peak of their influence, but the Studebaker Corporation deserves a lot of credit for furthering the cause of automotive engineering and helping to establish the foundation of the industry. It may seem as though cars and trucks have been around forever, but in reality they are a relatively recent phenomena, and we have the early pioneers to thank. Studebaker was among the first of these visionary companies, starting out in 1852 in South Bend, Indiana.
The men who founded the company back then were a pair of brothers, Henry and Clement Studebaker, and they were blacksmiths by trade who originally provided the metal components for carriages. Eventually, they made the entire carriages themselves, and they were very prosperous, capitalizing on the needs of those who were heading west for the gold rush while securing a lucrative military contract. Henry Studebaker had moral reservations about supporting warfare, so he sold his share of the company to his brother John in the late 1850s. The company did indeed make a lot of money supplying wagons to the Union during the Civil War.
The next generation of Studebaker sons and son-in-laws went on to guide the company toward the manufacturing of automobiles, and the first Studebaker cars, which were electric models, were introduced in 1902, and by 1904 the company was making gasoline powered vehicles. By the time the Great Depression hit in 1929, Studebaker was employing around 23,000 people and capable of producing 180,000 cars per year. The Depression and World War II stalled the company’s momentum, and though they were still a major player during and 1950s and into the sixties, Studebaker ceased U.S. production in 1963, and the last Studebaker made in Canada was built in 1966.
This is a brief overview of the company’s history, but true aficionados of American automaking will want to digest the full story by visiting the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend. It is chock full of everything anyone would want to know about the history of the company and its immense contribution to the automotive industry. The museum features an ongoing series of exhibits, and its archives house over 50,000 images that date back to the early days in the 19th century. The archives also contain over 500 films like promotional shorts and vintage television commercials, and they have also preserved the manuals and guides that supported their many different models spanning decades.
The Studebaker National Museum is a must-see for the classic car fan. It is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and from noon to 5:00 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is $8 for adults and $5 for kids six and above; children five and under are admitted free. The Studebaker National Museum is located at 201 S. Chapin in South Bend, and you can reach them by phone at (574) 235-9714.