Champion of the Lark: Harold Churchill and the Presidency of Studebaker-Packard, 1956–1961 by Robert R. Ebert (review)
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Reviewed by
Robert R. Ebert. Champion of the Lark: Harold Churchill and the Presidency of Studebaker-Packard, 1956–1961. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company Publishers, 2013. 196 pp. ISBN 978-0-7864-7420-2, $39.95 (paper).

Robert Ebert's Champion of the Lark is a detailed look at the management of two American auto brands during a period of fierce competition and market contraction. Ebert focuses on the presidency of Harold Churchill, a career Studebaker employee who became chief [End Page 476] executive as the company teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Under Churchill's leadership, the company shut down the declining Packard brand and returned to modest profitability. He personally oversaw the launch of the pioneering Lark, a compact car, and attempted to carve out an enduring niche for Studebaker as a producer of practical, durable economy cars. However, Churchill and the other leading men of Studebaker ultimately could not overcome the daunting obstacles that faced small auto producers in the postwar era. Churchill resigned in 1961, and production of Studebaker vehicles ended for good in 1966. Champion of the Lark is not only a useful guide to the twilight years of Studebaker and Packard for fans of both marques but it is also a valuable contribution to the general history of the auto business in the United States. Through careful research, Ebert helps to further explain why so many auto brands were discontinued in the 1950s and 1960s despite widespread economic prosperity. Market competition, internal disagreement over the future of the company, and missteps in quality and product planning all contributed to the downfall of Studebaker-Packard.

Although focused on Harold Churchill's presidency, Champion of the Lark provides background on the entire history of Studebaker and Packard. Starting with their origins in the late nineteenth century, Ebert traces their history through the merger of both companies in 1954. That merger was a product of the wave of consolidation that struck the American auto industry in the 1950s. Relatively small companies like Studebaker, Packard, Hudson, and Nash struggled to compete against the scale and market reach of the Detroit Big Three. Studebaker and Packard merged primarily out of financial necessity, and Hudson and Nash combined to form American Motors. Ebert relates that James Nance, president of Studebaker-Packard before Harold Churchill, attempted to engineer a merger with American Motors but was rebuffed. Nance also attempted to transform Studebaker-Packard into a true full-line automaker in the mold of General Motors, a move that proved disastrous. Quality and production issues plagued new models, and the loss of government contracts for defense production put further downward pressure on the company's bottom line. Nance resigned, and Harold Churchill was elevated to the role of president. Churchill inherited a company that was rapidly losing money and the faith of its creditors.

Churchill, an engineer, laid out a plan to rescue the company by refocusing resources on a few key products. He allowed Packard models to be built using Studebaker body shells until 1958, when the marque was discontinued. Churchill was a strong advocate for compact and economy cars, which he believed were an underserved market. He pushed for development of the compact Lark, which was [End Page 477] based on a shortened 1953 Studebaker body shell. The launch of this model in 1959 provided a lifeline to the struggling company, as it had a strong reception with consumers. Studebaker's short-term success mirrored that of competitor American Motors, which had introduced the compact Rambler. Even so, Studebaker-Packard quickly found itself in financial trouble again. Demand for the Lark waned and competitors responded with their own compact cars. Churchill pushed for the company to develop an all-new Lark with a four-cylinder engine, a design that reached the prototype stage. Despite this, Churchill was forced to admit that the financial investment did not make sense. Ebert argues that Churchill put the financial well-being of Studebaker stockholders ahead of his own ambitions when he decided to cancel the four-cylinder Lark replacement. Ebert argues that Churchill's other efforts at product development were generally successful within the context of the company's limited budget and...


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