Near the dawn of the 20th century self-propelled automobiles were just coming into being. Electric-, gasoline- and steam-powered vehicles were tried until the gasoline engine was found superior.
Some familar names are among the dozens of failed companies that were formed during that era to produce cars. Cadillac was founded in 1902 followed by Ford a year later.
The first self-propelled Studebaker an electric model was produced in 1902. However, by that time Studebaker had been in the horse-drawn wagon, carriage, buggy, sleigh business 50 years.
From Pennsylvania to Ohio and, eventually, South Bend, Ind., the Studebaker family, from Germany, moved before setting up shop in 1852.
Besides serving the needs of local farmers with farm wagons and local businesses with freight wagons, the Studebakers expanded into the carriage trade. The Studebakers also built wagons for the nation moving westward.
The company was well-established when the Civil War began and equipped the northern army with supply wagons and gun carriages. Studebaker products soon gained a reputation among the soldiers for craftsmanship and durability.
After the Confederate surrender at Appomattox soldiers returned to their respective homes spreading the Studebaker quality legend.
Studebaker had been in business 45 years when the first serious consideration to self-propelled automobiles was given at a directors’ meeting on May 12, 1897. By 1901 Studebaker was convinced of the need to manufacture an automobile.
That first electric Studebaker built during Studebaker’s 50th anniversary was soon replaced by gasoline-powered Studebakers.
Those early cars were little more than motorized versions of horse-drawn buggies and wagons.
Throughout, there were Studebaker trucks.
By the 1930s the South Bend firm initiated a light truck with passenger-car styling. Modernized styling came in 1949 followed by light-duty diesel engines and even right-hand-drive postal vans.
Toward the end of the Studebaker Corp. came the Studebaker Champ pickup truck. The idea was born for the 1960 model year because the 1949 design was becoming dated. The wide bed, which came out in 1961, took over eventually from the old-style narrow bed. It was called Spaceside in company advertising.
A Studebaker dealer answered the Department of Agriculture’s call for a fleet of 1961 pickup trucks with the low bid. Each county extension agent in Iowa was assigned a very bare-bones Studebaker Champ pickup.
After 10 years of county agriculture extension work, the surviving Studebakers, all of them black, were gathered together in a large lot north of Des Moines for an October auction.
George Hamlin, Delmarva, Maryland’s regional director for the Studebaker Drivers Club, wanted one of those black Studebaker pickups. He, however, was in Maryland. “I couldn’t get there for months, so I enlisted local support to look the trucks over and place a bid,” Mr. Hamlin said.
Local support was his brother-in-law who prowled the lot and reported on the four most likely prospects.
“Mechanically, they were all fit, but most had body problems,” Mr. Hamlin reports.
He says the federal government’s practice of auctioning off used vehicles after seven years was extended to 10 years for the Studebakers, meaning three additional years of mud and salt.
“I almost didn’t have a truck,” Mr. Hamlin said. “Someone from the local area had submitted high bid on nearly every Studebaker. But when the bids were opened, it turned out the fellow hadn’t signed any of his bids so they were tossed out and the second-level bidders got lucky.”
Mr. Hamlin’s brother-in-law, who had remembered to sign the bid, drove off the lot with a very plain 1961 3/4-ton Studebaker Champ pickup truck.
Months later Mr. Hamlin went to Iowa to take possession of his Studebaker.
“Plain is the operative word,” Mr. Hamlin said. What sparkles now was likely covered with Agriculture Department black paint. If it weren’t safety-related the Agriculture Department wasn’t interested.
Mr. Hamlin climbed into the cab of the 3,690-pound truck, fired up the 259-cubic-inch six-cylinder engine, which was still producing 180 horsepower and drove home without a problem.
With the overdrive engaged and the engine sipping from the 18-gallon gasoline tank the truck delivered 17 mpg.
Once home, however, the real fun began. “First thing I did was weld in a new floor. Next were new doors, and after that, a new tailgate,” Mr. Hamlin recalls.
Eventually, yellow paint covered the original black except on the inside of the bed. “I knew if I painted the inside yellow I’d never haul anything in it,” Mr. Hamlin honestly reports.
After brightening the pickup’s personality with yellow paint Mr. Hamlin proceeded to, in his words, “add all the factory sizzle I could find.”
The sizzle includes:
Stainless side trim.
Sliding rear window.
Stainless wheel covers.
Tilting split bench seat.
Westcoast outrigger mirrors.
Chrome headlight trim rings.
Chrome Class A turn signals.
Five rooftop clearance lights.
Mr. Hamlin decided the optional V-8 engine would be going too far in the razzle-dazzle department and stayed with the six-cylinder .
Toward the end of Studebaker the Champ pickup was produced, the name derived from the famous Champion from decades before.
“It represents Studebaker’s famous ability to make something out of limited resources,” Mr. Hamlin said. “The front end tooling was from a 1960 Lark and the cab was a Lark sedan chopped off behind the front door.”
The 17-foot-long truck rides on a 122-inch wheelbase supported by 7.00x16-inch tires.
Mr. Hamlin’s Champ pickup carried a base price of $2,207 in 1961. Several carlike options were offered since Studebaker was, at the time, promoting trucks that felt, looked and drove like cars. They were 40 years ahead of the curve.
The odometer on Mr. Hamlin’s truck reads 75,000 miles. “That’s probably 175,000 miles,” he said. Regardless, the engine is running strong with no end in sight.
“At a time when other car companies are about to celebrate their centennials,” Mr. Hamlin notes, “Happy 150th, Studebaker. May your products continue to roam the roads for a long time.”