1962-1963 Studebaker "Turtle" prototype

Chris Dresbach

Written 24 August 2013

Latest Information May 2019

        This is the story of what is probably the most forgotten about and lost part of Studebaker's history in the 60s, the Turtle. We all know that Studebaker president Sherwood Egbert's idea of the Avanti was supposed to save the automotive division of the Studebaker corporation, and ultimately could not; but what about what else Studebaker had up their sleeve to save themselves from going out of business? What was never released to the public by Studebaker was that they were actually trying to get a military contract in 1962; but since they didn't get it the history behind it was almost completely forgotten.

       In the early 1960s Studebaker knew that they were in financial peril and in a sense saw the writing on the wall that if they didn't do something, they would go out of business. Studebaker was feeling pressure from other auto manufacturers who were building higher performance cars and selling them at a competitive price. In 1961 Studebaker president Sherwood Egbert told the board of directors that what Studebaker needed was a sports car as well as high performance options for the Lark. Studebaker got their engineers going on building performance engines, which became the R series of engines, and Raymond Loewy designed the Avanti. In the 1963 model year Egbert got what he wanted: a sports car with the Avanti, and performance packages for the Lark and Hawk line. However, Studebaker management wanted to have a "plan B" in case the automotive division would have a total failure with the sports car idea. "Plan B" was to get a government contract.

       Studebaker had worked with the U.S. military supplying them with different vehicles since the Civil War and they prided themselves on being a patriotic company. In 1962 the U.S. military was interested in a device that could be used to move ammunition in a war zone. The device had to be self-propelled, relatively light weight, and had to be useful to a soldier in a practical way. Studebaker put their defense division engineers to work on building such a vehicle that would ultimately be known as the Turtle. The Turtle was actually more advanced than what the military wanted. It was not only self-propelled, but it was four wheel drive, able to float, was compact, air droppable with a parachute, and weighed less than 400lbs empty.

       Studebaker actually built three different designs of Turtles in 1962, but today only one is known to exist and that's design #1. Turtle #1 is more of a mockup of what Turtle #2 and final design #3 would become. Turtle #1 was never self-propelled, but is set up to be four wheel drive, has the steering in the center, does not float, and has prototype tires made of foam/rubber. The entire frame is also made of aluminum tubing. Turtle #2 was a little bit different from #1. Turtle #2 was the first to have a flotation hull, transmission and engine, and was four wheel drive but the tires were made of regular rubber. It also steered in the rear instead of the center. Turtle #2 was actually tested by the military in a R.A.V.E. (remote area vehicle evaluation) test in late 1962, but we'll get to that later. Turtle #3 was the same as Turtle #2 but was not four wheel drive. Instead it had a heavy rubber coaster wheel in the back that allowed it to turn. The problem with that idea was that a coaster wheel would act like a plow in mud. All three Turtle prototypes were operated by someone standing at the rear of the unit and #3 was powered by an Onan generator engine (10hp) and both had Gravely hydrostatic transmissions. Turtle #2 was powered by an 8hp Kohler engine.

       The Turtle project was top secret at Studebaker and the only people that knew about it were the engineers building them and Studebaker's board of directors. In the summer of 1962 Turtle #2 was ready for testing and was snuck out of the engineering building and shipped to Michigan for a R.A.V.E. test. A R.A.V.E. test was open to any inventor or manufacturer who thought they had a vehicle the Army could use and that would be their time to demonstrate it. Studebaker was one of several companies that brought experimental vehicles to the R.A.V.E. test site and the Turtle was assigned #17. It completed all but one demonstration test (the test for how quiet it could run). After the tests were completed Studebaker would be contacted later to talk about whether they got a production contract or not. Unfortunately that phone call never came to Studebaker. Instead it went to Kaiser who made the M-274 Mule which was also tested at the same R.A.V.E. test and was used extensively through Vietnam.

       Through an odd twist of fate however, Army Generals wanted to view the design for Turtle #3 in December of 1962 but the reason is unknown. Keep in mind that the Turtle project at Studebaker was still top secret, and it just so happened that a major strike was going on at that time. Cliff MacMillan who worked in Studebaker Engineering at the time wrote an interesting article about how Turtle #3 was literally smuggled out of the plant. MacMillan, Jerry Gallagher, Chuck Wolfram, and Roy Chambers were the Studebaker workers who went into the Engineering building at midnight with a flatbed Studebaker truck, loaded the Turtle, and drove out to what is now the Singer-Marycrest building in South Bend; and somehow never got noticed. That was the last place the Turtle #3 was documented being seen since 1962, but Turtle #1 now resides in my personal collection.

Turtle Specifications:

Manufacturer: Studebaker Corp. South Bend, IND.

Weights: curb weight 355.9lbs Rated Payload 500-750lbs

Dimensions: Length 72" Width 36" Height 39" Ground Clearance 11"

Tread: 24" (with Turtle #1 being the exception with smooth tread)

Angle of Approach: 60

Angle of Departure: 50

Fuel Capacity: 3.6gal (gasoline)

Brakes: Hydraulic displacement

Engine: #1 no engine #2 Kohler 8hp 4 cycle air cooled, single cylinder. #3 8hp Onan 4 cycle air cooled, single cylinder.

Transmission: Gravely Hydrostatic

Axles: 1 vertical movement with 22 degree turn angle

Suspension: Turtle #2 front rigid, rear articulated. #3 front rigid, rear coaster

Tires: (for Turtle #2 only.) front 27x10-12 rear 9.50x8

Max speed: 6mph

Minimum speed: 0.5mph

Estimated retail price: $995.00 (Price subject to change had the Turtle went into production)

The Story Of Turtle #1

        The story of how Turtle #1 survived, how I obtained it, and proving what it was is an interesting story with a small mystery. I began working for Studebaker International in 2009 when Ed Reynolds (SI owner) bought out SASCO (the Studebaker parts dealer in South Bend) which occupied the former Studebaker Engineering building.
       I literally showed up one day and said I was there to help, and seeing that he could use an extra hand Ed put me to work shrink wrapping stainless trim to be sent to the new location across town in the former Studebaker Chippewa Ave. plant. Since I literally showed up, I wasn't formally hired (yet) and since I wasn't an employee, I was a volunteer. The ONLY volunteer during the big move. Since I wasn't on the clock I had a little more time than others to look around the old building and just help out whoever needed it. In the very front of the building I noticed a funny looking cart and asked Ed what it was. He answered that he wasn't really sure, but it had been there for a long time and was probably from Studebaker. I told him that I didn't have a clue as to what it was either, but not to abandon it. If nothing else, I would take it; and it wasn't mentioned again for a while.

       I don't think anybody expected me to stay around as long as I did. I started volunteering during the move over my Christmas break from high school during my freshman year and after school I would asked to be dropped off at the engineering building and would just help out wherever. I stayed until the move was completely finished and was the last guy to leave the building when we were done, and Ed locked the door on the last day just as his father did on the last day when Studebaker was there. (Ed's father was E.T. Reynolds, a high-up Studebaker engineer.) About a week before we finished the move Ed called me over the weekend and asked me if I still wanted the mystery cart, and I agreed to take it. The following Monday I loaded it into the bed of Jim Maxey's truck and brought it home. (A while later Ed formally put me on the payroll. I'm still there in the Chippewa plant working with parts.) At that point we still weren't really sure what it was. Somebody started calling it the moon buggy because that's what it looked like, but I knew that was just too far "out there", so I took some photos and with the help of the SDC forum researched it and figured out what it was.

       Craig Parslow, a Studebaker enthusiast from Canada, found a sketch ad for what I later determined to be Turtle #2 in the June 1979 issue of Turning Wheels. Chances are it was the only advertisement ever produced for the Turtle, and it was copied and published in TW just as a filler page. I thought the Turtle was very interesting and inquired about it at the Studebaker National Museum Archives. The Archives couldn't provide me with a whole lot of information about the Turtle studies because the Engineering Dept. destroyed most of their records in 1964. But they were able to give me four photos of Turtle #3 being tested at the Proving Ground and in the Engineering Building. I compared the photos to my cart and though they look extremely different at first glance, they are actually extremely similar. I had a gut feeling that I may have been on the right track and then the case went cold for a while finding information; until one day I got a big break. I was at work and Ed called me up to the front office with "Something important to show me." Hearing that would give anybody a nervous feeling, but I went up to see what he had. He got on his computer and looked up "1962 Army RAVE report". The results he found were recently declassified from the Department of Defense in Washington D.C. and gave detailed descriptions of experimental vehicles presented to the U.S. Army in 1962 for testing. Among the many prototypes was the Army Mule which I believe is the only one of the many tested vehicles to go into production, and further down the page was a photo of Turtle #2 and a good description of it and how it performed. Those details were copied above on this page. How in the world Ed found that on the internet is still a mystery, but I'm glad he did because it gave me a tool to figure out if my cart was actually a Turtle.

       The truth is in the numbers: Proving that what I call a Turtle is actually a Turtle was the hardest part of this investigation. Since Turtle #1 was a prototype that was never supposed to survive this long, it was never issued a vin tag from Studebaker, but it had two major things in its favor. The fact that it had been inside the Studebaker factory since 1962 was a strong indicator that it was built by them. (The Turtle was originally in the Engineering building, but when parts dealer Newman & Altman bought up surplus parts from Studebaker and moved into the building across the street from the Engineering building, I guess they got permission to scavenge any parts leftover inside the other buildings. The Turtle was taken out of the Engineering building and sat in the Newman & Altman building while they occupied it until 2000. In 2000 the N&A building was demolished and the parts were moved into the Engineering building and the Turtle was brought with them.) The second clue that my car was a Turtle was by its dimensions. The R.A.V.E. report included all the dimensions for Turtle #2 (Length: 72" Width: 36" Height: 39" Ground Clearance: 11") so I compared those numbers to mine, and they were a perfect match. Since the cart was left at Studebaker for so long, and the measurements all went together, I finally had proof that my Turtle actually was a Turtle. It is believed to be Turtle #1 because it is an extremely early design and does not have any way to be self-propelled.

        Today, Turtle #1 has a good life. It is stored indoors and usually on jack stands for long term winter storage to preserve the original tires. It usually comes out a few times a year for shows. It was such an unusual thing to see that photographers from Hemmings Motor News took a photo of it and published it right after the South Bend International Meet in 2012. As of this writing it is the only known survivor of all three Turtle prototypes.

Turtle #1 as it is today.

Turtle #1 at the International Meet in South Bend. Photo By Hemmings Motor News and appeared in Hemmings.

This is the only advertisement known to exist for the Turtle, and it features design #2.

Turtle #2 went through a R.A.V.E. test. This is the only known photo of Turtle #2 and it includes its test results.

Sketches of Turtle #3

Addendum - Jan 2014

"The Turtle by Studebaker"

Originally published in the "Studebaker Spotlight", November 1962


        Mobility of ground forces and particularly the individual foot soldier have always been a problem for the military. Today, with limited of "brushfire" conflicts possible in the present political climate, there is an even greater need to relieve some of the man-packing burden of both infantry men or indigenous personnel and at the same time facilitate the movement of supplies in areas where adverse environmental and terrain conditions pose difficult problems.

        In an effort to combat these problems, Studebaker Corporations Applied Research Division has come up with a three-wheeled, self-propelled cargo cattier designed to assist the foot soldier in transporting supplies and equipment in front line areas. In rear areas, the vehicle could be used in transporting materials and stores at depots and direct support units.

        Known as the Turtle, the 400 pound cargo hauler was displayed for the first time at the recent annual meeting of the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) in Washington D.C. The Turtle in one of several products Studebaker in building for the Defense Department appraisal under its "Mobility" program instituted last year by Sherwood H. Egbert, company president.

        Demonstrated at several Army posts, the Turtle proved that it was as much at home in the water as on land. The buoyancy of the expanded Royalite body and the rapidly increasing displacement of the vehicle toward the top permits the Turtle to float with a full load and still maintain an eight-inch freeboard above the water line while maintaining a two mile per hour swimming capability in the water.

        The Turtle is small, measuring only 72 inches in length, 35 inches in width, and 35 inches in height, which permits it to operate on any type of terrain, weather in the jungle, on a mountain or the tundra and snow of Arctic wastelands. Its large cargo capacity, nominally 600 pounds through 1,000 pounds can be accomplished in most situations, makes it usable as a litter bearer as well as a transporter for crew-served weapons, ammunition, rations, communications equipment, or other front-line supplies.

        Operated by a 5.5 horsepower, four-cycle engine manufactured by Onan Division, driving through a hydrostatic transmission, the vehicle will operate at a normal three to four miles per hour under load. An eight horsepower, two-cycle engine is also available for the Turtle. The large "Terra Tires" provide excellent off-road mobility with a 60 percent forward slope and 40 percent side slope. The vehicle is stopped by placing the transmission in neutral position. It also is capable of operating for five hours on a tank of gasoline.

        Very conceivably, the Turtle also could be extremely useful as a tool and equipment carrier for missile bases and as a tool, ammunition and supply carrier for advance combat air fields for reconnaissance posts.

        The Turtles ability to operate in mud, water, and on steep grades and in side slopes also makes it a natural for many jobs in the field of civil engineering. On attraction is its ability to replace a half-a-dozen unskilled laborers to cut costs, keep construction on schedule and, in some instances, get the job done when enough labor is not available.

Turtle Addendum

"Midnight Adventure"

By Cliff MacMillan

Studebaker Corp. 1962

        Prior to the strike the Studebaker Engineering Department, working with the department of defense, developed a vehicle called the "Turtle" which was intended to substitute for the traditional Army mule. Looking somewhat like an oversized wheelbarrow, it was propelled by an eight horse power Onan engine. The operator walked behind it to operate the controls. In theory, this unique contraption would be used to move ammunition, food, and other supplies from advance storage areas to the front line under combat conditions.

       Egbert had taken appeals for assistance in obtaining government contracts to Indiana Congressman John Brademas, former President Eisenhower and President John F. Kennedy, all of whom were sympathetic to Studebaker problems. As a proven supplier of military hardware, it was not in the public interest for Studebaker to go out of business. However, no matter how much sympathy was generated at high government levels, we still had to go through a maze of bureaucratic red tape, demonstrate our capabilities and finally, we hoped, win contracts through and open bidding process. The government set aside funds and contracts for small and minority businesses, but we qualified for none of these. We had to compete head on with entrenched contractors most of whom had highly competent staffs whose sole responsibility was procuring government business. Their resources were far superior to ours.

       Our Defense Division was, at the time, a small, ad-hoc group recruited from automotive and other divisions on a part time basis. The Turtle was a simple mechanism not requiring massive research and development. It offered a quick opportunity to get that all-important first government contract. This, said by my secretary, Nancy Gloyeski, can be compared to getting a kiss from a pretty girl. The first one comes hard; the others are likely to be easy.

       Gene Hardig, who had brought both the Lark and the Avanti on line, had built an engineering prototype of the Turtle which was locked in the Engineering Building when the strike began. (In 1962) To avoid picket line problems (which developed anyway) I had agreed that management would not drive automobiles into the plant. Egbert was furious about this but, for a time, observed the agreement. He was attempting to downplay the strike in Washington but, strike or no strike, the time came to demonstrate the Turtle to high ranking Army procurement officers. Egbert's pride would not allow him to walk an Army General and his staff through a picket line in below zero weather. There also was another factor, the vehicle needed to be outside so it could be demonstrated in any way the Army wanted.

       It took Egbert about one second to tell us what to do. "Get it out." It took us a little longer to do it. The other three veterans of the "Case of the missing graffiti", Jerry Gallagher, Chuck Wolfram, and Roy Chambers, joined me in a council of war. It other strikes we simply would have explained the situation to the Union. Now, due to the extreme feeling between the union and the company, we knew that to approach the Union not only would be useless bot also would alert the Union to our need of the Turtle and the pickets would go all out to keep it in the plant.

       We explored out options. The simplest way would have been to fly it out with a helicopter but that only would have added fuel to the fire. We considered court action, but that would take time and we had no assurance it would work. We finally decided to smuggle the Turtle out of the plant through an abandoned gate in the perimeter fence. There had been no pickets on that gate though we knew the Union checked it by car at intervals.

       Much as I wanted to participate, it seemed wise of me to stay out of all this so I could pick up the pices if those carrying out the plot were caught. We didn't anticipate violence but knew the Union would make a big issue out of it and we had enough issues as it was. The trio with one of the engineering staff went into action late that night. The whole operation was conducted in darkness using only flashlights (the building had a lot of windows and faced a public street). Wolfram obtained a flatbed truck and was to be its driver. The engineer was to help load the Turtle on the truck; Chambers, who incidentally was hard of hearing, would unlock the gate and watch for pickets; Gallagher led the group.

A letter by Wolfram tells what happened:

       "As for the Turtle, we couldn't figure out how to get it on the truck. We tried planks, but we couldn't start it because of the noise it would make. It was too heavy to do much with and there was no way to get hold of it with a lift truck. Chambers thought we could back the truck up to an elevator with an outside door and stop the elevator even with the truck bed. We had a heck of a time pushing the Turtle around inside the building by hand to get it on the elevator. Then Chambers stalled the elevator between floors and the gate wouldn't come up leaving us trapped in the elevator. We finally got it loaded and I drove the truck out the Garst St. gate of the plant with no lights. I told Chambers to quietly open the gate of the fence and let me know when I should start the truck. I wanted to be sure that once I started, I could go right on our without giving any roving pickets an opportunity to block the street with their cars. Chambers had that big ring of keys which kept jangling while he was trying to get the key in the lock in the pitch dark. (He couldn't head them, but I could.... 50 yards away). Then he yelled to me that the gate was open (he probably thought it was a loud whisper) in a voice that seemed to carry a block he also yelled "Hold it!" because he thought I was going to hit the gate post in the dark; but we got out.

       After delivering the Turtle to Marycrest (another building complex not associated with Studebaker) we returned the truck to the plant, coming in at the Prairie Avenue gate between plant No. 1 and the export building. That gate was seldom used and had no pickets stationed at it, but pickets were circling the plant in their cars at regular intervals. That gate is directly under a bright street light. I parked on a side street across Prairie Avenue from the gate and sent Chambers to open the gate so I could come in and then close the gate before any roving pickets could spot us. Chambers stood under that street light and tired various keys, one by one, until he found the one which would fir from the ring which seemed to have 100 keys on it. Miraculously, no one ever knew of our leaving or coming that night. The next morning, some salary personnel in Engineering tried to report a theft of government property during the night and couldn't understand why we didn't seem overly concerned about it.... they thought it was very serious, that it should be reported to the police and that someone should be prosecuted for it if caught."

       Gallagher, Wolfram, and Chambers reported their tale of the evenings work to us at the Oliver hotel. They were in a jovial mood, joking with each other about their narrow escape from being apprehended. I lost sight of the Turtle after that, but it never was produced as far as I know.

Cliff MacMillan, 1962



A great deal of thanks is due to Chris for continued research and reports on this topic