Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Different Studebaker

One of the most-often mentioned horse-drawn vehicle brands is Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing of South Bend, Indiana.  Of course, this is the same company that eventually transitioned into building automobiles.  Their involvement in the transportation industry lasted well over a century.  From the first wagon to the last car, it’s a legacy permanently woven into the very growth and development of America.   A prolific manufacturer and marketer, many original promotional materials from Studebaker’s horse-drawn days are still relatively easy to find.  For collectors of these wooden vehicles, though, it’s not quite the same story.  In spite of the fact that the company is believed to have built millions of wagons and carriages, these wooden sets of wheels have become increasingly harder to come by.  (One million Studebaker vehicles are purported to have been manufactured between 1897 and 1907†).

Just over a decade ago, I wrote an article for Farm Collector magazine about a special type of Studebaker that is equally difficult to find.  It’s called a Studebaker Model and, while it was built to the Studebaker specs, it wasn’t made in South Bend.  Okay.  That’s my teaser.  Below is the article.  It’s a bit longer than most of my blogs but I thought you might like to have it in its entirety.  So, find a comfortable spot, grab a cup of coffee, and immerse yourself in another chapter on the legendary Studebaker brand… 

An early Studebaker Wagons sign

I enjoy researching old farm and freight wagon companies.  So much so, that no matter where I travel, I usually find myself scanning the roadside farms, homes, and businesses looking for telltale signs of vintage wheels.  Maybe the passion comes from the thrill of chasing a good mystery or perhaps it’s simply a kinship toward an all-but-forgotten way of life.  Whatever the reason, the search keeps me young and, like any near forgotten art, there’s always something new to experience and learn. 

Knowing my fetish for old wagons, an Amish friend had been telling me about a Studebaker he felt I needed to see in Kentucky.  With my day job keeping me tied down, it seemed that I just never had the few days it would take to explore the eastern part of that state.  When I finally did take some time off, I was surprised at what I found.  Sitting inside a barn, covered by a thin gray tarp, was a piece of yesterday… a workhorse on wheels that had long since been retired.  Lifting off the canvas, the early morning sun lit up the faded and well-worn green paint of what had once been an American farmer’s pride and joy.  Yellow pinstripes ran the length of the box and showed significant weathering from age and use.  But, it was the unmistakable flowing curves of the Studebaker emblems that really got my attention.  Resting on an original Studebaker gear, the wagon still boasted bright logos on both sides of the box as well as the folding end gate.  Conspicuously positioned below each logo, though, was the word ‘Model’.  It was painted in the same yellow and black tones as the Studebaker name, but used a smaller block style of lettering.  Hmmm.  I’d never seen a farm wagon or even a vintage advertisement carrying the label of “Studebaker Model”.  Other than the painted stenciling identifying the selling dealer, I could find no other markings that might help shed some light on the puzzle.  The extension to the Studebaker name was a difference that nagged at me.  The owner couldn’t explain it.  Why was it there?  Was it a variation of a Studebaker design?  Was it an original piece?  Where did it come from?  Dozens of questions begged to be answered and so began my research into another chapter of the, mostly uncharted, history of America’s wagon makers. 

'Studebaker Model' wagons are rarely seen today.

Back home and in my own element, I was confident I could find some answers.  I dug through a number of Studebaker catalogs, flyers, trade cards, print ads, and associated correspondence.  I talked to wagon collectors and traders and even re-read some early Studebaker articles and book chapters.  No luck.  A month passed and, as fortune would have it, I happened across an old dealer price list from the Kentucky Wagon Company of Louisville, Kentucky.  The flyer included prices and specifications on several brands of wagons and gears that Kentucky made.  One of the brands featured was… you guessed it - the “Studebaker Model”.  I had found my first piece of the puzzle.  As it turns out, it was a very big piece. 

I knew that Kentucky had purchased construction patterns and some parts from Studebaker after they officially closed the wagon business in 1920.  But, that’s about all I had ever seen written about that relationship.  Did Kentucky have an agreement allowing them to use the Studebaker name?  To find out, I wrote the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend and asked for any help they could provide.  According to their archivist, this facet of Studebaker’s history had never been explored in detail.  However, with a little searching, they uncovered exactly what I was looking for… evidence of an old contract between the Studebaker Corporation and Kentucky Wagon Company.  In the minutes of a near-century-old set of executive meeting notes, Studebaker not only resolved to sell the remaining wagons, wagon parts, patterns, blueprints, business records, and advertising materials, but also licensed Kentucky to use the Studebaker name on wagons built from the authentic Studebaker patterns.  The resolution was dated January 5, 1921 and it authorized Kentucky to use the Studebaker name until June 30, 1923.  Even though the Studebaker Company had ended their production of wagons, it seems there was still a great deal of life -and profit- in the Studebaker name.   

The Kentucky Wagon Company made a variety of 

farm, freight, log, and military wagons.

The agreement with Studebaker came none too soon.  By the end of the twentieth century’s second decade, the auto industry had staked its claim on the future and was running with a strong head of competitive steam.  For wagon and carriage makers, it was a business environment that required a serious look at current strategies and goals.  The purchase of Studebaker’s blueprints and patterns allowed Kentucky to ease some of the pressure by reinforcing their image as a trustworthy brand with strong name recognition and the highest quality construction.  The arrangement opened them up to an even broader customer base and, by aligning themselves with the sterling reputation and design features of Studebaker, it’s a safe bet they added some of the country’s best wagon dealers to their distribution system.  Beyond the profits from the sale of the wagon division, the transition also benefited Studebaker by providing a quality outlet where existing Studebaker wagon owners could obtain original replacement parts and maintenance support… thereby continuing Studebaker’s good will with its family of wagon owners.

While Kentucky continued to build wagons under the well-known names of Old Hickory, Kentucky, and Tennessee, this new acquisition allowed them to add another powerful brand to their lineup.  Labeled as “The Studebaker Model,” these wagons sported the same logo and proven design that the original wagons from South Bend had carried for almost three quarters of a century.  According to early sales literature, the Studebaker Model was sold as both a one and two-horse wagon.  Light, medium, and heavy grades were offered.  Wheel sizes varied, with the one horse wagon featuring 40” front and 44” rear wheels.  Two-horse versions were available in a broader range of 36/40”, 40/44”, or 44/48” wheel heights.  Additionally, tire sizes varied from 1 3/8” to 4” widths for two-horse wagons while the one-horse models were offered in 1 1/8” to 3” sizes. 

The addition of the word 'Model' makes this an unmistakable 

product of the Kentucky Wagon Co.

How many of these surrogate Studebakers have survived?  It’s difficult to say.  With so few original business records remaining, it’s even harder to know how many were actually built.  However, the old Studebaker Model price list I had run across included a print date of July 15, 1928.  From that single sales flyer, it appears that Kentucky was able to secure a significant extension to the original agreement limiting their use of the Studebaker name.  In fact, according to other documents I’ve been able to locate, Studebaker was still referring customer inquiries to the Kentucky Wagon Company as late as June of 1929. 

When it comes to collecting these old vehicles, the Studebaker name naturally attracts a lot of attention.  As with any major brand, Studebaker will likely always have a solid core of fans.  So, how does the Kentucky Studebaker fit into the list of vehicles sought by collectors, historians, and others?  Time will tell.  But with only a decade or so of production, it’s clear that these are not only the last of the Studebaker wagons, but they’re also among the rarest.  

† According to original Studebaker literature in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives