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“One of the best decisions Studebaker ever made:” Loewy designs focus of Studebaker Museum talk

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Images courtesy Studebaker National Museum.

The “what if” game doesn’t hold much appeal for Andy Beckman, so the archivist for the Studebaker National Museum didn’t care to speculate on an alternative universe in which Studebaker never engaged the services of industrial designer Raymond Loewy. Beckman can say, however, that the decision certainly helped the South Bend automaker elicit attention during a difficult time.

“For all of Studebaker’s issues that led to their demise, styling was nowhere near the top of their problems,” he said. “Their investment in Loewy paid them back many times over.”

That investment, as Beckman put it, lasted from 1936 through to the early 1960s and formed the basis of the Studebaker National Museum’s latest exhibit and a program Beckman will present next month, which will include many rarely seen renderings and proposals Loewy made for Studebaker.

Loewy, already an internationally recognized industrial designer who had done some work for Hupmobile, took on Studebaker as a client on the request of Studebaker President Paul Hoffman, a fan of Loewy’s work. “He was pretty much given carte blanche,” Beckman said.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Loewy himself worked on Studebaker designs. Loewy instead employed a stable of designers and, according to Peter Grist’s Virgil Exner: Visioneer, Loewy raided GM’s designer pool once he landed the Studebaker account, luring away Clare Hodgeman, Paul Zimmerman, and Exner, the latter assigned to oversee Studebaker. After opening a satellite office in South Bend in 1941, Exner then brought on more designers and clay modelers to work for Loewy on Studebaker, among them Bob Bourke, Frank Alhroth, Jake Aldrich, Bob Bingman and Tom Dingman.

“For the most part, Loewy gave his designers free rein, although they were not allowed to do any freelance work,” Grist wrote. “Loewy, however, insisted on having the final say on designs.”

In addition, Loewy insisted on taking full credit for his firm’s designs while others – including Exner – wished to see the entire team of designers credited, according to Grist.

“Loewy took full credit for his agency’s work,” Beckman wrote in his book on the Avanti. “His signature occasionally appeared on subordinates’ drawings, and he periodically starred in photo ops revising a sketch or working clay. This practice has received criticism in some circles, while others point out that the Loewy name sold a design that might otherwise have remained on a drawing board.”

The friction of Loewy and Exner’s working relationship – along with Studebaker engineering vice president Roy Cole’s dislike of Loewy – led to an infamous episode of “castle intrigue,” as Beckman put it, during the design process for Studebaker’s first post-war car. Though Loewy had the contract to design the car, Cole convinced Exner to set up shop independent of Loewy and submit his own design for what would become the 1947 Studebaker. Cole also, possibly intentionally, give Loewy incorrect body dimensions, effectively sabotaging the project.

“There are certainly reasons why people on both sides felt the way they did,” Beckman said. “Though you can definitely point to Roy Cole as the black hat figure in this episode.”

In response to the friction with Exner, Loewy hired Gordon Buehrig – who in turn hired John Rhinehart Reinhart, Jack Aldrich, Bob Koto, Dick Calleal, and Vince Gardner – and had Buehrig’s team work with Exner’s (sometimes subordinate to, sometimes in charge of) until June 1945, when he fired Exner and Buehrig, believing both were in on the sabotage of Loewy’s postwar Studebaker design.

Bourke then took over the Studebaker effort for Loewy and, with Exner rehired by Studebaker to head its own in-house design team, worked “in friendly competition” with that team until 1955. Among Bourke’s team’s achievements during that time were the bullet-nose Studebaker of 1950, the 1952 redesign, the Starliner hardtops, and the streamlined 1953 coupes.

Loewy with Sherwood Egbert.

According to Beckman, James Nance refused to renew Loewy’s contract with Studebaker because he believed “Loewy didn’t do Studebaker any favors. He wanted to toe the line with Detroit rather than have Studebaker establish its own design identity.” It was Nance’s successor at Studebaker, Sherwood Egbert, who decided to bring Loewy back not to work on the main line of sedans but to design the Avanti, which he did with Tom Kellogg, Bob Andrews, and John Ebstein over the course of six weeks in a rented house in Palm Springs, California. As Beckman wrote in Studebaker’s Last Dance, The Avanti:

Loewy took a significantly different role in the Avanti’s design process than on previous Studebaker projects. When Raymond Loewy Associates held the Studebaker account… he visited South Bend on a periodic basis and represented the Design Department to the Studebaker Board, but he was far from a day-to-day manager. In Palm Springs, Loewy visited the studio daily. He encouraged the team to explore new avenues within the Avanti’s established design concepts but remained open to a well-reasoned argument. Ever the celebrity, Loewy also made sure his role in the Avanti’s creation was properly recorded. Photos show Loewy posing in a white smock with clay modeling tools and a number of Kellogg’s sketches bear Loewy’s “RL” signature.

While Loewy proposed extending the Avanti’s styling across the Studebaker line to create four-door and sedan versions, the automaker’s end was nigh, and Studebaker executives curtailed everything but the Lark after 1964. Interestingly, according to Pat Foster’s Studebaker: The Complete History, it was a former Loewy designer – Bob Marcks of Dearborn-based Marcks, Hazelquist, and Powers – who designed the very last Studebaker automobiles, the 1965-1966 Larks.

Beckman’s presentation on Loewy’s contribution to Studebaker design will take place March 15 at the Studebaker National Museum. The Loewy exhibit at the museum will continue through June 4. For more information, visit