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The 1966 Studebaker Commander owned by Mary and Leonard Lucas of Belleville, Ont. (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)
The 1966 Studebaker Commander owned by Mary and Leonard Lucas of Belleville, Ont. (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)

Classic Cars

Studebaker’s Canadian connection Add to ...

Search “Studebaker trees” on Google Earth and it will zoom in on a grove of pines planted 75 years ago, spelling out the name of the now-defunct U.S. auto maker – whose long history in Canada is being celebrated by a gathering of the faithful in Belleville, Ont., this weekend.

Among those taking part in the Studebaker “Made In Canada” Celebration will be enthusiasts Mary and Leonard Lucas, from Belleville, who will be sharing the front bench seat of one of the last cars produced by the company in its Hamilton assembly plant, a red-and-white 1966 Commander sedan.

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They’ll be joining the 60-100 other Studebaker owners expected to turn up to mark a trio of anniversaries; the 160th of the founding of the company, the 50th of the Studebaker Drivers Club and the 40th of its Ontario Chapter. On hand as special guests will be former employees of the Hamilton factory and Studebaker dealers. Events begin Friday with area driving tours, followed by a car show on Saturday and conclude with owners taking part in Belleville’s Canada Day celebrations on Sunday.

Studebaker was founded in 1852 by five brothers in South Bend, Ind., as a wagon and carriage making concern that eventually included among its customers U.S. presidents.

It decided to get into the self-propelled vehicle business in 1902 with electric cars it would continue to build until 1911, but hedged its bet by joining forces with the Garford and E-M-F companies to produce gasoline-engined cars in 1904. Within a few years, Garford dropped out of the picture and E-M-F was acquired and became part of the new Studebaker Corp. created in 1911. Among E-M-F’s assets was a manufacturing plant in Walkerville, Ont., now part of Windsor.

In what proved to be a successful effort to improve a somewhat-dodgy reputation for reliability, Studebaker then spent a million dollars to hire mechanics and dispatch them to sort out the problems of individual owners. What followed was half a century in which Studebaker established itself as one of the most popular brands in North America before fading in the 1950s and finally disappeared in the mid-1960s.

The 5,000 pine trees forming the Studebaker name were planted in 1937 at the proving ground the company established – the first of its kind in North America – in the 1920s.

Initial Canadian operations centred on the Walkerville plant, which built Studebakers for sale here and export – under a “British Made” label – to other pink-tinted countries on the world map, until production ended in the 1930s.

Canadian production, relaunched in a former anti-aircraft-gun plant in Hamilton in 1948, continued until its closing in 1966. Chassis, bodies and drivelines were sourced from South Bend, but enough local content went into Hamilton-built Studebakers to make them uniquely Canadian.

Studebaker Canada merged with Packard Canada in 1954, becoming Studebaker-Packard Corp. of Canada. It became the official importer for Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union cars and, at one time, imported Volkswagens under a duty-dodging scheme that saw it resell the cars to Volkswagen Canada, saving it money and reputedly making Studebaker $150 a car. It was deflected from doing a deal to become the Datsun importer by a call made (reputedly) by Richard Nixon, then part of its U.S. legal team.

Studebaker offerings in the 1950s started with unique style – the bullet-nosed Champion of 1950, the Commander of 1952 and the stunning Starlight and Starliner coupes and then the Golden Hawk of the mid-50s – but its last popular models were its pioneering compact Lark of 1959 and the sporty Avanti of 1962.

But by this time, the end of the road was looming just over its “lazy S” hood ornament and, in 1963, Studebaker shut down its South Bend operation and sold off Avanti. The always-profitable Hamilton plant (which rumour says will be torn down soon) continued operations, using engines sourced from General Motors in the final cars produced. Only 9,000 1966 models were built before the line was halted on March 16, the last a Commander like that owned by the Lucases.

The first Studebakers Leonard Lucas, now 75 and retired, likely had anything to do with were crumpled wrecks or derelicts dragged into his father’s Hillcrest wrecking yard in Belleville, where he went to work as a 16-year-old.

And for most of his life, old cars were just so much scrap metal, but after retiring, he acquired a 1947 Hudson Commodore Coupe (which may at one time have passed through the wrecking yard) and half a dozen years ago a 1947 Studebaker half-ton. “I just love that little truck,” says Mary, who works providing home care to the elderly and is a wholehearted convert to the old car hobby.

The Lucas’s latest Stude is the 1966 Commander acquired just a year ago from a fellow club member. It’s an evolution of the original Lark, a compact four-door sedan (with a surprisingly limo-like rear-seat area) powered by a General Motors 230-cubic-inch overhead valve inline-six. And it is very basic, with bench seats, a three-speed overdrive manual transmission, no power steering or brakes and an AM-only “audio system.” But it looks good, cruises comfortably at 100 km/h and has proven reliable.

Which it has to be as the Lucas’s enthusiasm for the old-car scene involves an almost every day of the week schedule of car shows – many at old folks homes – cruise events and multi-day club tours that keep them rolling between May and October. “And we don’t just wait for a show. We just jump in the car or the pickup and go for a ride. We just love it,” says Mary.

Check out our photo gallery here: In pictures: 1966 Studebaker Commander

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