At the dawn of the 1960s, most of the smaller independent American auto and truck manufacturers had faded away under the searing light of “The Big Three,” General Motors, Ford Motor Company and Chrysler Corporation. Studebaker was way older than any of them but was grimly hanging on to it’s tiny slivers of the car and truck markets.
Studebaker was founded in 1852, incorporated as the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company in 1868 and was a very well known and respected manufacturer of horse drawn wagons, carriages of all types and tack well into the 20th century. Their involvement in motor vehicle manufacture started in 1897, when they experimented with electric vehicles. They started building gas powered cars in 1904, floundered a bit with ill-advised collaborations with Garford and E-M-F, finally setting down in 1911 with their own Studebaker brand. Though their horse-drawn equipment was a big money maker in World War I, Studebaker execs saw the writing on the wall and ceased the production of wagons and horse tack in 1919.
From World War I into the ‘30s, Studebaker was one of the leading motor vehicle manufacturers and at points was one of the pinnacles of automotive technology. It was in the 1930s that Studebaker’s involvement with diesel power began. By 1937, Studebaker had a full line of trucks into the medium duty range up to 3-ton capacity and they offered a 2-ton model J20D with a Hercules DJXB diesel. That continued for 1938 with the K20D. The market interest in diesels was limited at this time, but Studebaker continued offering a smattering of diesel products well into the 1950s, especially for export markets, most of which used Perkins diesels.
By the early 1950s, Studebaker was in deep financial distress and merged with Packard to become Studebaker-Packard. This shallowed the steep financial dive but the company was still headed for the ground. By 1960, after more corporate reshuffling, the company was holding it’s own and the managers of the truck division decided the time was ripe to introduce diesels into their medium-duty lines. They went diesel shopping and settled on the recently introduced Detroit Diesel 53 Series as a good fit for their Transtar truck lines.
The first experimental installations of the GM 4-53 took place late in 1960 and into 1961. As these things go, it was a fairly easy update and the Studebaker sales department announced the new line of trucks in April of ‘61. The first production diesels rolled off the line in June of ‘61, though there was some initial confusion on whether they were ‘61s or ‘62s. For those ‘62 models, only the 212 ci, 130 hp 4-53 was offered in the 2-ton E45A and E45E (19,500 lbs GVW and 23,000 lbs GVW).
For ‘63, the lineup was expanded to introduce a 159ci, 97 hp 3-53 into the E15 (1-ton dually) and E25 (1-1/5-ton dually). The E35A (1-1/2-ton HD) and E35C (2-ton light) got the 4-53 and E-45A and C models were unchanged. Added were the 96BBC option trucks, which were all 2-ton fifth-wheel tractors. They featured a flat nose that shortened the truck by 10.5 inches. This was designed to allow the truck to tow 40 foot semi-trailers and stay within the legal total length limit of the day. This lineup stayed the same into that fateful last year for Studebaker,1964. According to published sources, a total of 702 Studebaker diesel trucks in all weight classes were produced from ‘61 through ‘64. Overall, this was a perfectly timed entrance into the medium duty diesel market and the Stude with it’s reliable and proven Detroit could have been a contender had not Studebaker one foot in the grave.
Studebaker expired by what might be called “the death of a thousand cuts.” Their status had looked up a bit by the late ‘50s and again in the early ‘60s, with new management. Then the UAW strike of January of ‘62 happened and left them swinging for 38 days. The news media began (apparently inaccurately) reporting Studebaker intended leaving the auto business, which became a self-fulfilling prophesy and immediately killed a sales boost that had started after the strike. Nobody wanted to be stuck with a car or truck from a defunct manufacturer. That drove the final nails into Studebaker’s coffin and U.S. production ceased in 1964. Their Canadian factory continued building cars into 1966 and they were selling well to thrifty Canadians. The General Products Division, which built mostly Defense Department equipment, was purchased by Kaiser-Jeep, then American Motors and eventually became AM General.
This truck belongs to Marv Dane, an Ohio hay and livestock farmer, who bought the 8E45E-96BBC truck as a derelict in 2011 and spent a year and a half bringing it back to life. It’s the star of a small collection of five Studebaker trucks. Nicknamed Miss Levasy after a ghost town in Missouri, it’s won numerous show awards, including Best of Show at the Gilmore Car Museum 2018 truck show and four other first place awards in various shows. It’s currently one of four 96BBC trucks known to still exist. We saw the truck at the 2019 Flatrock Creek Truck Show and it really stood out. Especially when he started it up. A Jimmy with a straight pipe tends to do that.