Studebakers In The Blood

Over the holidays, I received what I'll consider to be one of the greatest Christmas gifts ever:  my father, myself, and my young children were able to visit the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana.  Why the greatest gift?  Read on.  What's a Studebaker?  Well, to others they were an affordable, sometimes spectacular, often very normal family sedan popular in the 1900s - 1960s.  But, to my family, they were a source of hometown pride.  My family is from the west side of South Bend.  They lived, and died, in neighborhoods built to house immigrants (often from Poland) who worked at one of South Bend's backbone industries:  The Oliver Chilled Plow Works, Studebaker Motor Corporation and Bendix.  My grandfathers on both maternal and paternal sides took an interest in these cars that their neighbors and church friends were building, and passed along their love affair...whether through osmosis or the far more likely reason that they were readily available to young 16 year-old their children.

While I was growing up, my father kept a 1963 (late model) Studebaker Hawk in the 2nd stall of our garage for almost 20 years.  Left hobbled and wrecked from an accident in the early 70's, I never once heard it turn over.  The hood was off, the fender smashed, and the inside, while a fascinating play area for a young kid, had holes in the floorboards and smelled like a box of mothballs.  No matter how hard I hoped everytime I pulled down on the automatic transmission lever, Newton was always proven correct: that car would never move without an exterior moving force...which we had plenty of as we moved the car from house to house (6 car moves at last count).  But, I still fell in love with Studebakers, long before I ever got the chance to ride (or drive) in one.  Through various "swap meets" where my dad would try to sell the parts from his car, to local parades, I saw the other, restored, vintage Champions and Hawks and Commanders that I just knew one day our car would stand beside proudly.

Some years later, after I turned 16 and stopped thinking about Studebakers, and my mother had finally convinced my father to "part" the car out and give us a full garage for the first time, luck from an auction brought my Dad in contact with his Studebaker past.  I was washing cars at the car dealership where my dad worked, and I will never forget seeing the 1956 Studebaker Hawk, with two-tone yellow/cream paint scheme, pull up through the service lane.  Dad's friend, who worked in the used car department and combed the auctions for steals, had bid on and won the car for $8,000 in Auburn, Indiana.  It was worth at least $12,000, and at least 100x this sum in our eyes.  How much fun for a 19-year old kid and his dad to go cruising the parade and car show route, displaying the car that always drew wistful compliments.  People always love the two-tone cars, especially the yellow ones, and we finally had a car we could proudly drive next to the other vintage cars.  I didn't know how lucky I was.

I went away to college, graduated, then moved to the city to work, and Dad hit a rough patch where he had to make the tough decision to sell the car.  I remember being sad when I heard, but I guess I never dwelled on how much that time had meant to me.  Notice I didn't say the car, I think my Dad still misses that car everyday, but I mentioned the time; which to me will always be the most meaningful part of owning a Studebaker.

This winter all those memories were brought back, suddenly, through the sad reality of my grandfather passing away just before Christmas.  He had always said his favorite car was a 1957 "Golden" Golden Hawk, and though we couldn't take Grandpa because of a stroke that had left him without speech and movement, I had made plans to visit the Studebaker Museum and buy him a model of the car he could put on his care-facility dresser.  I had pushed those plans off for a couple of weeks, past the Thanksgiving where, because of family obligations, I just missed seeing my Grandpa, and into later December.  We never got the chance.  He passed away peacefully the Monday before Christmas, two days before our scheduled visit.

Still numb from the sudden news, my father let me still push for the visit.  We let my 4 and 2 year-old kids excitedly run us through the exhibits of celebrity movie cars, 1800's gorgeously-crafted wooden wagons, 1920's Knute Rockne-branded vehicles, and of course, the beautiful post-war cars of the 50's and 60's, with their revolutionary sleek designs and colors.  We had some laughs, we renewed oaths to once again buy a Studebaker, and we were able to remember, and in the process partially heal; through this common thread, woven around our hearts by the vehicles imagined and produced at the  Studebaker Motor Corporation.  I bought a 1957 Golden Hawk collectible model that will sit on my dresser now.  And I have another grandfather, one who until recently always had a garage full of partially-restored Studebakers inside, who I resolve to visit.  This time I won't reschedule.

If you've never been to the Studebaker National Museum, a visit is well worth the trip, and the nominal fee.  If you're coming from outside Northern Indiana, South Bend is only 90 miles from Chicago and a day trip to the museum can easily be paired with a visit to the Northern Indiana Center for History (in the same museum campus), Notre Dame University, Amish Country, and local eating establishments and nearby wineries.

The next generation already excited about Studebakers

My Dad and his Grandchildren in front of a beautiful Studebaker Hawk

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InsightsJustin Zimmerman