Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Mercedes-Studebaker connection...

I have this buddy, who will remain nameless,....well, I'll call him Bart Simpson. Bart wants a Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster in the worst way. The conversation usually goes some thing like this, "Bart, what are you gonna' do with that?" "I'll drive it, every day." "Are you sure, it's a half million dollar ride, dude." "What happens if some ol' lady with no insurance nails you?" Well, Bart, being an very good attorney, just ends up smiling at me like I'm an imbecile, which by the way does nothing for my self confidence. Now to the real point of this post. Did you know there was a connection between Mercedes and Studebaker? Here's a look at some of that connection as well as the hand building of those cars.

Studebaker Golden Hawk and 190SL Mercedes-Benz share a showroom floor.
Note the Packard/Clipper banner on the wall.

In the early-to-mid 1950s, a weak distribution system left Mercedes cars virtually invisible in the United States except for some racing SLs. Yearly sales were meager. Then along came the Curtis-Wright Corp., an old aircraft firm which had business connections with both Daimler-Benz and Studebaker-Packard. In 1957, through these connections, the American distribution rights for Mercedes was acquired by Studebaker-Packard. By 1958 Mercedes-Benz cars were distributed exclusively in the U.S. by Studebaker-Packard Corporation, and sold and serviced through selected dealers franchised by the parent company. The automaker had formed a subsidiary, Mercedes-Benz Sales, Inc., headed by Lon Fleener, a veteran Packard executive. In 1958 the Packard nameplate finally died and after the breakup of Studebaker-Packard, Studebaker Corp. retained Mercedes-Benz.

In South Bend, Indiana, Studebaker's headquarters home office, there was a small but enthusiastic Mercedes staff, largely coming from existing Studebaker and ex-Packard staff. Dealer recruitment, sales training, and parts and service, particularly in those early years, were handled at field level primarily by existing Studebaker people.
Thinking back to 1959, it was easier to partner a Big Three dealer with a Studebaker franchise than it was Mercedes, a foreign brand, even with the Mercedes franchise available at a promise to buy $10,000 in parts, tools and signs plus enough open credit to floor-plan two to four cars.  By 1964, there were more than 320 Mercedes/other brand dealers in the United States. More than 150 were Studebaker duals. Most others were dueled with other imports such as Frazer Nash and MG along with domestics. Less than 20 were Mercedes exclusives. However Studebaker was in serious trouble in 1965, having first abandoned its California plant and then its South Bend home base. It retreated to assemble cars in a small Canadian plant that could not accommodate trucks or the sporty Avanti.

The Mercedes-Benz brand was by the early-60s well established like VW and selling nearly 20,000 units a year, but Daimler-Benz was doing business with dealers and the public through a now weak Studebaker organization. So Daimler-Benz bought back the Mercedes-Benz Sales, Inc. contract for near $9 million, roughly five times the earlier selling price.
By 1963 Daimler-Benz then formed Mercedes-Benz of North America Inc., ending the Studebaker-Mercedes association that spanned portions of nine years. During that time Mercedes had grown becoming a highly visible and respected brand, while Studebaker withered, as had so many independent auto manufacturers, overcome by the domestic Big Three.

Much of this info is via, Ray Windecker. Sadly photographer unknown with images via.

Studebaker/Mercedes-Benz dealer.

Large Studebaker/Mercedes-Benz Dealer in 1963.
 Notice the 230SL "Pagoda" under the covering.

Note the Mercedes-Benz and Studebaker "Lark" widow sign.

The 300SL engine goes into a chassis.

A 300SL Roadster body is then fitted.

190SL Mercedes body is fitted to the chassis.

With the 190SL the engine is fitted after the body was on.

Time to do housekeeping on a finished 190SL.

Instruments are added to a 300SL, note the 190 just ahead on the same line.

Finishing touches get added to a 300SL Roadster.

The 300SL Gullwing line.

Note the hand detailing.

300SL cars rolling along with hand detailing to make them perfect.

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  1. I got confused again. That Lark Wagon sure looks a lot like that hideous Bentley SUV that they showed last year.

  2. John,

    the photos of the ladies in house dresses working on 300 SLs sre priceless.

    Not only are these shots a real testimonial to the work ethic of the German people ( those scenes after all depict life in devastated post-war Germany ) but they also put the lie to a lot of the mythical and highly emotional BS one reads so often about the superiority of fabled German quality............one did what was necessary to survive and moved on.

    Thanks for this very entertaining blog.


  3. John go to link below, the money from this project helped Porsche a lot financially a the time:


  4. Here is another in Ann Arbor, Michigan:


  5. The picture of the 2 men in the showroom are my Father & Grandfather. The photo was taken by the local paper, to showcase them now selling Mercedes-Benz.

    My father, Gilbert R. Jones is behind the wheel of a new 190SL, which was a lot cheaper than a 300SL. However, they did sell both models. The dealership was my Grandfather's, Stewart I. Jones. Stewart Jones Motors was located @ 925-5th Ave No. St. Petersburg Fl.

    It is true Studebaker started them selling Mercedes. Both lines sold well and the City seemed to able to support high-end models, within the brands. They sold a bunch of Studebaker Golden Hawks too. For being a 'Ma & Pa' organization, they were quite successful.

    My Grandfather retired & sold the business in 1973. They still were a Mercedes Dealer, at the time of the sale. They sold Studebakers until their production ceased in 1966. So Mercedes bought them more time, than had they just been a Studebaker Dealer.

    FYI: The building no longer stands, as it burned to the ground in the late 70's.

  6. I saw an article with pictures about 15-20 years ago about a Mercedes SL looking prototype that Studebaker had made from a Hawk. It was done by some Mattel toy designer, Bob something(?), on the QT unofficially commissioned by Studebaker. Two of them, actually. When Mercedes found out, they warned Studebaker to cease and desist. They survive today somewhere in California, in the hands of the dead designer's family, last I know. I can't find any reference on line of this.

  7. Yes, based on Hawk dimensions, it was a very attractive car. Today Studebaker of South Bend could easily produce such a Mercedes, but in the 50's Mercedes protected its turf to the death. Too bad Studebaker ( and Packard ) did not pay closer attention while in this with Mercedes. Mercedes has mixed it up with Chrysler as well, and left them for dead. Thankfully there was Fiat.

  8. Early on in the Studebaker - Mercedes relationship, Studebaker workers were sent to Germany to instruct assembly people (presumably assembly line folks) on what to do to make their cars suitable for the American market. My guess they didn't have to worry about the high end models, but concentrated this effort on the 190 series and such. I have always thought this was rather humorous since Studebaker bodies were not known for their quality coming from the factory. I say this as an owner of two Studebakers.

  9. I drove a Lark for a couple of months while keeping it for a friend. I was so impressed with the handling. Years later I chance to drive a friends Mercedes sedan. I was amazed at how similar the two cars were.

  10. John: This history has always fascinated me, and I recall seeing it in a local dealership in about 1960. Did you know that Karl Kiekhafer--of Mercury outboard and Chrysler 300 NASCAR racing--tried to become the US distributor for Mercedes-Benz? If you can find his book, Iron Fist, it's a great read.