Before Detroit was the Motor City

At one time hundreds of companies in Indiana built cars or car parts. Elwood Haynes built his first car in 1894, a couple of years before Henry Ford built his. Car companies sprang up everywhere—Stutz, Duesenberg, Auburn—but few survived the Great Depression. One that did was Studebaker in South Bend.

The Studebaker Museum in South Bend houses an extensive collection of Studebaker wagons, carriages, electric cars, and gas-powered cars from the mid 1800s to the mid 1960s. The Studebakers were originally blacksmiths from Scotland who became wagon and carriage makers and eventually began building cars in 1902—first electric, then gas.

The original collection of 8 items was given to the museum after Studebaker ceased to exist in 1966. This collection includes carriages of famous people that the company collected as well as Studebaker vehicles.

  • Barouche carriage, Marquis de Lafayette used during his 1824 tour of the US
  • Barouche carriage, Abraham Lincoln road to Ford’s Theatre on that ill-fated night
  • Landau carriage, Ulysses S. Grant used during his Presidency
  • Brougham carriage, Benjamin Harrison used during his Presidency
  • Phaeton carriage, William McKinley used during his Presidency
  • Studebaker Centennial Wagon, won the Highest Award of Merit at the U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876
  • 1909 Studebaker Backwards-Forwards Car (“Peg”), an electric vehicle used to ferry Congressman from the Senate to the Capitol
  • Studebaker Columbian Exposition Wagon, created for the Columbian Exposition of 1893

The museum contains numerous cars throughout the building’s three stories (including two vertical rows of cars in the basement that are rotated out to replace others on the first and second floors). A few stood out to me.

  • 1904 Studebaker Model C, the oldest surviving gas-powered Studebaker
  • 1924 Light Six, with custom coach work done by a Shanghai (China) company
  • 1951 Commander, one of two used in The Muppet Movie (1979)
  • 1963 Avanti, debuted at the 1962 Indianapolis 500
  • 1963 Avanti #9, clocked 176.81mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats
  • 1965 Avanti, used in 1993 to break 200mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats

The museum, in collaboration with two other car museums in Indiana, is hosting a special exhibit on Indiana cars until October 3, 2016. As part of Hoosier Made: World Driven, the Studebaker Museum is showing Indiana cars made from 1900-1915. (The Kokomo Automotive Heritage Museum is showing cars from late teens to early 1920s and the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum cars from the 1930s.)

For the exhibit, the museum is naturally heavy on early Studebakers but does include other early cars. Curiously, in all of these other cars, the driver is on the right side of the cab, not the left.

  • 1908 Auburn Model H
  • 1909 Sperling Model K
  • 1912 Haynes Model 20
  • 1912 Apperson Jack Rabbit 4-55
  • 1921 Pratt-Elkhard Model F
  • 1921 Lohr Six

Studebaker attained peak profits in 1949 and hit peak production the following year. In 1954, Studebaker merged with Packard. By the early 1960s, Studebaker debuted the sporty Hawk (with the same transmission as the 1961 Chevrolet Corvette) and Avanti, but the downward spiral couldn’t be stopped. The museum houses the last Studebaker built in South Bend (1964 Daytona) and the last one built in Canada (1966 Cruiser) before the Studebaker company ceased to exist in 1966.

The Studebaker Museum is an outstanding museum of Studebaker family, company, and car history. It’s definitely well worth a stop for car or Indiana history enthusiasts.

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