During the 1960s, Studebaker was clearly on its last legs as an automaker. Due to falling sales and overwhelming competition from the American Big Three, Studebaker shuttered its South Bend, Indiana assembly plant in late 1963 and moved all vehicle production to its smaller facility in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. By this time, the company was also in the process of de-emphasizing its automobile division in favor of its other more profitable business ventures, which included being the makers of STP engine additives and Paxton superchargers.
For the 1966 model year, Studebaker made its final attempt to remain in the car business. It sought to do this by offering a line of compact cars for the American market. The end result was not successful, but instead became significant for being the last cars produced by a once great American automaker: the 1966 Studebakers.
Essentially warmed-over versions of the company’s 1965 cars, the 1966 Studebaker lineup consisted of four models built on the same platform: the Commander, Cruiser, Daytona, and Wagonaire. Designed by Brooks Stevens and the Detroit, Michigan design firm of Marcks Hazelquist Powers, the 1966 Studebakers were reasonably modern American compact cars for their time. Depending upon the model ordered, the cars rode on 109-inch and 113-inch wheelbases. Customers were offered a choice of three engines supplied by General Motors: a 194 cubic-inch inline-6, a 230 cubic-inch inline-6, and a 283 cubic-inch V-8. The cars were clothed in body shells styled in what the company advertised as the “Smart New Look,” which featured a new grille, single headlamps, and restyled side panels.
In keeping the company’s reputation for engineering prowess, the 1966 Studebakers also offered features that were novel for their time. Most significantly, all 1966 models were equipped with the “Refreshaire” ventilation system, which is widely considered to be Studebaker’s last technological innovation. Essentially a system in which air came in through front vents and went out through openings placed above the taillights, Refreshaire eliminated the need for ventilation windows and was praised by automotive critics of the day. 1966 Studebakers could also be ordered with one of the first electronic ignition systems (standard on the Daytona, optional on all other models) to appear on an American car. Last but not least, the Wagonaire station wagon could be ordered with an optional sliding roof, a design feature not seen again until 2001, when it re-appeared on the Pontiac Aztek.
When the new Studebaker lineup was introduced in late 1965, it received a chilly reception from the American motoring public. Customers were very reluctant to buy cars from a company they feared would soon disappear. Enough cars were sold to make a small profit, but it was not enough to suit the company’s board of directors. In March 1966, Studebaker announced that it was ceasing all automobile production. The last Studebaker car, a timberline turquoise Cruiser with a white top, rolled off the assembly line on March 17th.
A little over 8900 1966 Studebakers were built. The very last Studebaker is currently preserved at the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana. A photo of this car can be viewed on the museum’s website
Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 1534.
Kowalke, Ron, ed., 4th Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1946-1975, Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1997, p. 762-763.
Studebaker Nineteen Sixty-Six, The New Smart Look, Studebaker: Trade Catalogs: Various Models: Studebaker Range, 1955-1966, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.