The Plot to Save Studebaker

In late 1963, two auto industry legends, Brooks Stevens and Charles Sorensen, joined forces in a last-ditch attempt to revive Studebaker. 


For this story, history owes a debt of gratitude to automotive writer Rich Taylor, who interviewed designer Brooks Stevens for the April 1984 issue of Special Interest Autos, memorializing the events described here, and to the Milwaukee Museum of Art, which hosts the Brooks Stevens Archives. 


On December 12, 1963, two old friends and auto industry associates—industrial designer Brooks “Kip” Stevens and manufacturing wizard Charles Sorensen—met in Florida for a one-day brainstorming session. Stevens, the contract designer of many memorable Studebakers including the Gran Turismo Hawk, and Sorensen, known as Cast Iron Charlie for his decades as the production boss at the gigantic Ford Rouge plant, were on a rather desperate mission: Come up with a plan to save Studebaker, America’s oldest car company.



It was a hail-Mary play.  Only a few days earlier on December 9, company management had decided to shut down the South Bend, Indiana plant and cease auto production in the USA. The Stevens/Sorensen solution was a bold one: a stripped-down, almost third-world approach to auto manufacturing called the Low Cost Molded Vehicle, or LCMV.

As the above diagram illustrates, the Studebaker LCMV would be based on a unitized fiberglass body and chassis molded in two halves, split longitudinally right down the middle. (Sorensen devised a giant Ferris Wheel-type machine to mold four body sections at once.)  Hood and deck lid were identical, while the four doors were diagonally interchangeable and all the glass was flat. Interior panels and headliner would be vacuum-formed plastic, further shaving tooling and inventory costs to the bone, and a transverse front-drive powertrain module was built around the trusty Studebaker OHV six. By Sorensen’s rough calculations, the unit cost per vehicle was only $560, enabling a retail price of $1085 and a tidy profit margin both for Studebaker and its dealers. On paper, anyway.


Along with the base four-door sedan, Stevens also envisioned a pair of cab-forward variants with the powertrain module relocated to the rear. Two alternate seating arrangements provided a three-row layout similar to a modern crossover (above) or facing rear seats to create an executive limousine (below).

While the Sorensen/Stevens plan was imaginative and audacious, to say the least, Studebaker management, then led by former Packard accountant Byers Burlingame, expressed zero interest. Pretty much as you would expect, their focus was entirely on preserving the remaining investor capital at that point. Studebaker would continue to build cars for a few more years, but only in Canada, and with modest annual facelifts by Brooks Stevens.


4 thoughts on “The Plot to Save Studebaker

    • Studebaker management didn’t want to save the auto business. The issue with these two cars is they were very low margin, and could not carry the auto division. They were on the right track with the Super Hawks, super Larks and the Avanti. They pulled the cork too soon.

  1. I grew up in South Bend. The factory was too old for modern manufacturing. But there was plenty of experience with fiberglass from the Avanti. There was no will to continue building cars

  2. And Lee Iacocca refined the car with a steel unit body and built the K car to save Chrysler.

    Studebaker had been mismanaged for so long it was impossible to save it. There was a great show on the History Channel about Studebaker and how they were a great company to work for and took care of their employees, but it also detailed their problems with mismanagement. Their money problems finally caught up with them.

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