Within college football circles, Knute Rockne is considered by many to be a truly legendary figure. He is best known for his storied tenure as head football coach at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. As coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish from 1918 to 1930, Rockne compiled the highest-ever winning percentage by a Division I football coach (105 wins, 12 losses, and 5 ties) and helped popularize college football in the process. Although best remembered for his exploits at Notre Dame, it is largely forgotten that he also holds the distinction of being the only college football coach to have a line of cars named for him: Rockne.
Rockne cars were built and marketed in 1932 and 1933 by Rockne Motors Corporation of Detroit, Michigan, a wholly owned subsidiary of Studebaker Corporation. The Rockne line represented Studebaker’s second attempt to crack the low-priced car market (the first being the unsuccessful Erskine, which was manufactured from 1926 to 1930). From a developmental point of view, the line’s origins can be traced to pair of 1930 prototypes originally designed for Willys-Overland Motor Company by automobile engineers/consultants Ralph Vail and Roy Cole. Willys-Overland turned down the prototypes because it was on the verge of bankruptcy, but granted Vail and Cole permission to offer them to another firm. So Vail and Cole showed the prototypes to Studebaker’s chairman A.R. Erskine, who promptly bought them and started developing them into the firm’s new low-priced challenger.
From a promotional point of view, the Rockne nameplate was the product of a close business relationship between Rockne himself and Studebaker Corporation, whose company headquarters were located in South Bend. Rockne was hired by Studebaker in 1928 while he was still coaching at Notre Dame. A close friend of A.R. Erskine, he served the company as a spokesman and motivational speaker. On March 19, 1931, Rockne was named Studebaker’s Manager of Sales Promotions. Tragically, he was killed in a plane crash only twelve days after this appointment on March 31, 1931. Soon after Rockne’s death, Erskine named the new line “Rockne” and marketed the cars as a tribute to the deceased coach.
The Rockne line was formally introduced to the public in February 1932. Initially, the line consisted of two models: the Rockne Six “65” and the Rockne Six “75.” The “65” was largely based on the Vail and Cole prototypes, and was powered by a 190 cubic inch inline six engine developing 65 horsepower. The larger “75” was based on the already existing Studebaker Six, and was powered by a 205 cubic inch inline six engine developing 72 horsepower. The cars were competitively priced, with the “65” starting at $585.00 and the “75” at $685.00. In 1933, the line was pared back to a single model, the Rockne Six, which was an update of the “65” powered by a 190 cubic inch inline six developing 70 horsepower.
Unfortunately for Studebaker, the Rockne line was not a success. This was mainly due to the fact that the line was introduced during the middle of the Great Depression, which brought severe economic conditions that forced Studebaker Corporation into receivership in March 1933. Rockne cars also had the misfortune of competing against the Ford V-8, which outperformed and undersold the former. Faced with these economic realities, Studebaker ceased production of the Rockne line in July 1933. A total of 30,243 Rocknes were built.
Catalog showing images of the Rockne Six “65,” 1932
Here’s the full story of the Rockne Six, Rockne: Trade Catalog: Fleet Vehicle and Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, 1931-1933, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of The Automobile Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 1348.
Kimes, Beverly Rae and Henry Austin Clark, Jr., Third Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1996, p. 1304.
“Knute Rockne” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knute_Rockne
Notre Dame Department of Athletics, “Rockne: The Coach and the Car” http://www.und.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/111105aak.html
Rockne Six, Sponsored and Guaranteed by Studebaker, Rockne: Trade Catalog: Fleet Vehicle and Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, 1931-1933, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Studebaker Museum http://www.studebakermuseum.org/
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.