From Horses To Horsepower, Studebaker Moved A Nation

John Mohler Studebaker was working with two of his brothers, blacksmithing and making wagons in South Bend, Ind., when gold fever hit him.

J.M., as he was called, was 19.

And right then he chose to leave the family trade and join the California gold rush to seek his fortune.

Studebaker (1833-1917) found it, not in the elusive gold fields of California, but as the driving force behind what became Studebaker Corp. — a household name in America for a century, from the mid-1800s through the mid-1900s.

President Lincoln rode in a Studebaker carriage the night he was killed at Ford’s Theater.

Ulysses Grant’s carriage was a Studebaker and used during his last years in the White House.

Other presidents demanded Studebaker wagons for their fleet of vehicles and for the military, from the Civil War to World War II.

Studebaker products also came through as cannon caissons, supply wagons, B-17 bomber aircraft engines and the amphibious Weasel.

Looking Long

“John M. Studebaker presided over the world’s largest manufacturer of horse-drawn vehicles, and Studebaker was the only such company to successfully transition into automobiles,” Andy Beckman, archivist at the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, told IBD. “He had the foresight to recognize what was the next big thing.”

The five Studebaker brothers went to work at early ages and from their father learned a commitment to value and quality. Their motto: “Give more than you promise.”

The dad, John Studebaker, was a first-generation American of immigrant parents who arrived in Philadelphia from Germany in 1736. Studebecker, the family name, was soon Americanized to Studebaker.

John oversaw a family that included five daughters, who along with their mother made all the clothes for the five boys.

Life wasn’t easy. The family lived in a log cabin. And the children were “reared in an atmosphere of toil and hardship and sacrifice,” wrote the South Bend Tribune in its 1917 obituary for Studebaker.

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H&C Studebaker, a company started in 1852 by two of J.M.’s brothers and later joined by him, sold wagons whose calling card was their styling. In later years, “when J.M. was running the show, the company was like the General Motors (GM) of wagon making. Theirs were the biggest and the best,” Beckman said. The firm had a worldwide dealer network and was “the Goliath of the horse-drawn era.”

With the switch to cars in the early 20th century, H&C Studebaker sped ahead with technology and safety features, such as four-wheel hydraulic brakes in 1925, followed by overdrive transmission. Later, the company was out front with seat belts as standard equipment.

Disc brakes were also standard in Studebaker’s 1963 Avanti, the first American auto to have the technology that’s part of every car today.

The bullet-nosed design on Studebakers of the late 1950s became its most popular design. More than half a million of the models were sold in just two years.

Back in the mid-1850s, when the gold bug bit John, he and his brothers built a wagon for his cross-country trip to California.

By August 1853, he reached Old Dry Diggings, Calif., also called Hangtown and now Placerville, 45 miles east of Sacramento.

Soon a townsman asked whether a wagon maker was among the new arrivals. Yes, came the answer: Studebaker, who was promptly offered a job with a blacksmith.

Studebaker at first demurred, explaining he had come to California to mine for gold. But he was impressed by the advice offered by a Hangtown citizen to “take the job and take it quick,” J.M. related during a return celebration trip a half-century later.

The blacksmith wanted help in producing wheelbarrows to sell to miners, and he was willing to pay $10 — worth $300 now — a week to the man who could provide them.

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Cashing In

While building wheelbarrows, he built a reputation, earning the nickname Wheelbarrow Johnny. Within five years he had banked $8,000, worth $230,000 today.

Back in South Bend, J.M.’s brothers Henry and Clement were having financial trouble as wagon makers. They wrote J.M. and pleaded with him to return to South Bend, buy out Henry, who preferred farming, and invest in the failing firm.

J.M. agreed in 1858. Going east at age 24, he paid Henry $3,000 for his share and put the rest of his savings into the company.

With the start of the Civil War three years later, wagons and ambulances were in demand and the Studebaker brothers built a solid standing providing them.

While Clement handled the company’s finances, J.M. took charge of manufacturing.

When Clem died in 1901, J.M. assumed the presidency, at 68 the only Studebaker brother left.

By the time he was done, J.M. had headed the manufacturing division for 45 years, personally supervising the building of nearly all vehicles that left the plant.

He died at age 83 as honorary president of what had become Studebaker Corp.

Back in 1897, Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Co. was experimenting with a horseless vehicle. Five years later came trucks and electric runabouts, or one-seat open carriages.

In 1904, Studebaker’s firm began building gas-propelled vehicles and during the next seven years sold 2,481 passenger cars and trucks at its plant in South Bend.

On The Money Road

The need for additional capital to finance development of cars led to the organization of Studebaker Corp. in South Bend.

The new company acquired the business, plants and trade names of Studebaker Bros. and carmaker Everett-Metzger-Flanders Co. as of Dec. 31, 1910.

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Now J.M.’s team was in the fast lane. Sales of Studebaker cars and trucks “soared to 51,474 in 1920 on the strength of a postwar economic boom, while profits soared with it to another record: $90.7 million,” Thomas Bonsall wrote in his book “More Than They Promised: The Studebaker Story.”

J.M. had died in 1917, but his legacy lasted for decades. “Studebaker wagons and carriages were long noted for their quality and popularity, and so too were Studebaker automobiles,” Bonsall wrote. “The 1953 Starliner and the 1963 Avanti are widely regarded as among the most innovative examples of American industrial design.”

The Avanti was introduced in 1962 at the Indianapolis 500 and that year set multiple stock car records at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, earning it the title of the World’s Fastest Production Car.

Studebaker’s stamp also drew huzzahs with the President model. Made from 1926 to 1942 and from 1955 to 1958, it’s honored by the Classic Car Club of America.

Car lovers don’t forget. The national chapter of the Studebaker Drivers Club claims more than 13,000 members, most of them Studebaker owners.

Studebaker’s company was an important player in the car business for two-thirds of a century. It fell into receivership in 1933, unable to avoid the effects of the Depression, emerged and in 1954 consolidated with Packard Motor Car Co. to form Studebaker-Packard Corp.

The factory in South Bend closed in December 1963, and the final Studebaker car rolled off the assembly line in 1966.

Had the company continued, we might be speaking today of a Big Four in the American car industry.

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