There is a certain humour in the fact that Studebaker — a company that built wagons for the U.S. civil war in the 1860s, and then for settlers to travel across the vast plains and mountains to bring civilization to the western side of North America — would end its days assembling cars in the north end of Hamilton, Ont.
And those final cars were powered by Chevrolet engines.
Although the Indiana-based company started making cars in 1904, Studebaker entered the automotive industry on a large scale with the purchase of Everitt-Metzger-Flanders in 1910.
At that time, a small production and distributorship was established in an old furniture factory in Windsor. Sales were satisfactory for the next two decades, but by 1936 high Canadian tariff rates were such that head office in South Bend suspended production. The success of the 1939 Studebaker Champion in the U.S. led to a rethinking of a Canadian facility, but the Second World War put that on hold.
Trade conditions after 1945 were favourable for a new Canadian presence, and in 1946 Studebaker purchased the former plant of elevator manufacturer Otis-Fensom, which had been used for building thousands of Bofors anti-aircraft guns and equipment during the Second World War. This was an ideal location for the production of Studebaker cars and trucks in the heart of industrial Canada.
The community welcomed Studebaker with open arms.
“Opening of this new industry will mean a great deal to Hamilton,” read a newspaper account at the time. “Only a few hundred men will be employed at the start, but as the business grows, the number is expected to reach several thousand.”
By the end of 1948, 2,000 cars had been built in the plant, all four-door sedans. A year later, trucks started to roll down the assembly lines along with cars, and in 1950 a car-hungry public bought over 13,000 cars and close to 2,000 trucks, the best production year for the company.
For the rest of the decade, Studebaker never hit the high mark of 1950, steadily dropping to a low of 4,515 cars in 1958 as the company tried to keep pace with Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. South Bend executives bought the ailing Packard Motor Car Company in 1955 for its high-end luxury automobile to go along with the entry-level Studebaker, but the purchase of Packard was a money pit for Studebaker, and the once-proud marque was dropped in 1958.
In 1959 Studebaker introduced the Lark, a smaller and more economical car than most others of the day, and a year before the Big Three would bring out the Corvair, Valiant, and Falcon compacts. The Lark was a great success and gave the company some hope. It continued to build its larger Hawks, and introduced the trend-setting Avanti, but sales still continued to slide.
Hamilton-produced cars were virtually identical to those built in South Bend, using six- and eight-cylinder engines imported from the U.S. There were some variations in interior materials and trim, as well as paint colours. As at other U.S.-based auto companies, top-level models such as convertibles were assembled and imported from the U.S. Hamilton did not build any Packards or Avantis, and few Hawks. Truck production in Hamilton was terminated in 1955.
Studebaker was applauded in 1960 for its contribution to the economy after producing cars in Canada for 50 years.
“The retail value of Studebaker products from the Hamilton plant alone amounts to a 12-year total of $25,000,000, but statistics tell little by themselves of what the automotive industry has meant to Canada,” noted a newspaper article in October 1960.
But despite the success of the Lark, and the innovative Avanti, South Bend could not produce enough cars to remain viable, and Studebaker’s U.S. assembly lines were halted at the end of 1963.
“Studebaker made a lot of money in 1959 with the Lark,” said Stu Chapman, Studebaker’s former advertising manager for Canada in an interview in 1979. “Then they diversified, buying STP, Trans International Airlines, and a few other companies. Their first loyalty was to the stockholders so there was a tremendous diversification. In hindsight, if they had put that money back into the car the company might have been saved. By 1962 the operation was doomed.”
The Hamilton plant was going strong in the early 1960s, putting out Commander and Daytona sedans and station wagons. In 1964 over 17,000 cars were built, and output increased to over 18,500 in 1965.
But in March 1966, with only 2,045 cars built that year, Studebaker Canada ceased operations, and 900 employees had to find new jobs. The last car produced, a turquoise Lark Cruiser four-door sedan, rolled off the line on the morning of March 17.
Hamilton did not have engine or foundry facilities, and when the final Studebaker engines were shipped from South Bend late in 1964, management in Hamilton had to find something to power their cars.
Former Studebaker of Canada president Gordon Grundy worked with General Motors to supply engines for his cars, but the costs of the 194-cubic inch (3.17-litre) six and 283-cubic inch (4.63-litre) V8 from the GM engine facility in nearby St. Catharines were greater than expected, which did not help the bottom line for the Canadian operation.
Today the Studebaker has a large and devoted following, and owners of the Hamilton-built cars are especially proud of their Studes produced by this feisty independent, which in its last years could not compete with the larger domestic automakers or with the influx of foreign autos.
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