Sunday Studebaker

From this post comes this observation:


Studebaker’s V-8 was one of the best engines of the era. We have pointed out in previous posts that it had one major design factor that severely limited Studebaker’s ability to expand it: the bore center spacing was such that the engine could not practically be expanded beyond 289 cubic inches. We perceive of that now as being a flaw in the design, but we need to understand the engineers’ reasons for designing the engine as they did. The engineers DELIBERATELY designed the engine to be limited in displacement. Deliberately?!

Yes, because South Bend’s engine engineers had counted on postwar predictions from General Motors Research Labs that future gasoline octane ratings would soon rise above that of aviation fuel. Charles Kettering, GM’s research boss, saw higher octane ratings and higher engine compression ratios as the next big thing.

Studebaker bought into that and developed its postwar V-8 so it would accept compression ratios of up to 14:1. The idea was to increase engine power and efficiency by progressively raising compression rather than by expanding displacement. Unfortunately for Studebaker, the oil companies didn’t go along with Kettering’s vision, automotive octane numbers stayed flat, and Studebaker was left holding the small-displacement bag.”


Besides noting that history is replete with examples of the folly of human beings trying to predict the future, even when the arena is at least partially under human control, think about the ramifications of this point. Studebaker was in no position to cover the waterfront; that is, it did not have the resources to design multiple V-8 blocks. Chevrolet/GM could develop a small-block and big-block V-8 with different overall exterior dimensions, including different bore center spacing, and not just different displacements. Studebaker could not afford that approach.

I have a graduate degree in Economics (which, at this point, will get me breakfast at McDonald’s as long as I also have $5). Once an industry begins to shake out in terms of market share—and luck/stochastic variation can play a large role in that process—it can be virtually impossible for those firms with smaller share to ever gain market power. Market share begets more market share. Once the US auto industry developed into The Big Three and everyone else, and this happened sooner than most people realize, the demise of the Independents may simply have become inevitable. (For model year 1941, the last full year of production before World War II, all of the top eight makes in terms of production were Big Three makes.)

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever, its loveliness increases. It will never pass into nothingness…”

– John Keats

See the source image

From a picture of a Studebaker Avanti.

See the source image

From a picture of a Studebaker Commander Starliner coupe.

From Keats again, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever, its loveliness increases. It will never pass into nothingness…”


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Not all of the posts are about Studebaker, but a lot of the posts are about automobiles.





2 thoughts on “Sunday Studebaker

  1. Great points about the market share game. The GM juggernaut almost alone drove the Independents out of the market. Ford and Chrysler were left to scrape by on the crumbs GM left.

    Then GM made the decision that nearly cost the company its life: in 1959 control of GM went from “the Car Guys” in Detroit to the Financial Staff in New York. From that decision came the lamentable cars of the 70s into the late 1990s, even into the early-to-mid 2000s. The poor build quality, the loss of distinctiveness*, etc. caused GM to hemorrhage market share. Then the company that drove the U.S. independents out of the market was very nearly driven out by Asian and European competitors who offered cars that were superior in every way to the rust-away-on-the-showroom cars of GM.

    * Remember when each GM division had its own engines? Chevrolet had its own automatic transmissions as did Buick, though Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Pontiac shared the Hydra-Matic. Then the Bean Counters decreed that the divisions would share what was basically the Oldsmobile 350 V-8. The cars shared bodies more than had ever been the case when the “Car Guys” were running the company – the cookie cutter cars the Bean Counters forced on the company differed only in name badge, front and rear trim and interior details. All the other body pieces – both internal and external were the same. The Asians and the Germans deftly exploited GM’s stumbles. The Bean Counters forget that Product Matters.


    1. Many thanks for the thoughtful comment, 56packardman. I have written about the deleterious effects that badge-engineering had on GM. I also think that while GM was worried about what the DOJ might do when, for example, its US market share exceeded 50%, I think GM also became lazy. When IBM took control of the company away from the engineers and gave it to the sales and marketing people, the effects were also extremely negative.


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