Northern Lights: The Ontario Studebakers

Fifty years ago, in March 1966, a gleaming Studebaker Cruiser rolled off an assembly line on Victoria Avenue North in Hamilton, Ontario, closing a curious chapter in Canada’s automobile history.

That sedan, featuring an Arctic White roof over its Timberline Turquoise body, was the last Studebaker. It also ended a brief period when Canada built all the vehicles for a company that had long been one of the world’s leading independent automakers.

From its beginnings in 1852 as a family blacksmith shop in South Bend, Ind., Studebaker had become the world’s leading maker of horse-drawn wagons before building its first automobile, an electric car, in 1902. Two years later it made the first of its gasoline-powered cars. They were successful enough that in 1910 the company acquired E-M-F, one of the five largest United States automakers, which had been selling its cars through Studebaker dealers.

With the E-M-F acquisition, Studebaker gained factories in Detroit and Walkerville, Ontario, a company town for the Hiram Walker distillery that was quickly becoming a center for car production; Walkerville was eventually integrated into Windsor.

Although successful in the 1920s, Studebaker was among the many automakers crushed by the Great Depression. The parent company entered bankruptcy receivership in March 1933 and its ousted president, Albert R. Erskine, committed suicide four months later. But Studebaker of Canada continued building cars in Walkerville until 1936 and made steady profits – even providing financial support to its parent, according to Aaron Warkentin, consulting curator for the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend.

Studebaker was solvent again by 1935, and introduced a successful low-price model, the Champion, for 1939. In early 1942 auto output ceased as plants were converted for the war effort.

By the end of the war, eager to take advantage of pent-up demand, Studebaker moved to resume production in Canada. In 1946, it bought a 7.5-acre government complex in Hamilton that had been a munitions plant, convenient to rail lines, steel plants and the Hamilton harbor. Auto production commenced in August 1948.

Consumers embraced Studebaker’s distinctive postwar designs, including the “bullet nose” 1950-51 models and the stunning European-style Starliner coupes of 1953-54. But high costs put the company at a pricing disadvantage to Detroit’s Big Three. A merger with the struggling Packard Motor Car Company did not help.

Introduced in 1959, the compact Lark offered new promise, but the Big Three quickly countered with their own smaller cars, and American Motors successfully marketed a range of Rambler models. Despite some profitable nonautomotive operations, including STP oil treatment, Studebaker’s losses grew.

In December 1963, Studebaker closed its South Bend plant and shifted all production to Hamilton.  With capacity limited to some 20,000 cars a year, the company cut its lineup to Lark-based models: the Commander, Cruiser, Daytona and Wagonaire. Gone were trucks, the Gran Turismo personal luxury coupe and the sporty Avanti (though the Avanti name and tooling were sold to dealers who resumed production as the Avanti II).

The Hamilton plant turned out all 1965-66 Studebakers, as well as unassembled “kits” that were shipped abroad for completion. But with the company’s well-publicized struggles and aging, uncompetitive designs, demand dried up.

The final car, that turquoise Cruiser, is now at the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, the object of a special exhibition that opened on March 4, just in time for its 50th birthday.

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