Home » Let’s Imagine If Defunct Automaker Studebaker Had Saved Itself Using NSU’s Rotary Engines

Let’s Imagine If Defunct Automaker Studebaker Had Saved Itself Using NSU’s Rotary Engines

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Beer Steins clink as the engineers from the NSU automobile company based in Neckarsulm, Germany celebrate with their new partner firm. It’s the fall of 1966, and the table at the Hans Haus restaurant is piled high with Schnitzel and Sauerbraten — plenty of Bavarian favorites to enjoy after a job well done. The firm that NSU is working with was also started by Germans one hundred years before, and it has created a beautiful body design for NSU’s innovative Wankel engine. The whole job has been a tremendous amount of hard work from both teams; thankfully tomorrow is a Saturday, and everyone is going to the local Notre Dame football game in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus.

Let me explain this alternate reality. The Hans House was not in Munich or Stuttgart but on Michigan Street in South Bend, Indiana. The company NSU is working with was indeed started by a family originally from Solingen, Germany; their last name was Studebaker. Besides both having similar ancestry, both companies share something else: they are each struggling to survive.

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Vidframe Min Bottom

Studebaker was on the ropes when a new president, Sherwood Egbert, became president of the South Bend auto company in early 1961. He wasn’t amazed by what he saw, per TIME Magazine’s April, 1963 story “Business: SHERWOOD HARRY EGBERT”:

“It didn’t take me long to see that the Lark is a damn good car that has been underestimated,” Egbert says—but little else about Studebaker pleased him. The walls of the begrimed plant were brightened with orange, green and white paint. Egbert, from his own poor days, has a philosophy: “You can stand there in ragged clothes—there’s nothing wrong with that. But you can have them pressed, and you can be clean.”

Here’s some more from that piece:

Studebaker has shelved its plans for a four-cylinder Lark, but Egbert is working with Raymond Loewy & William Snaith, Inc. to produce a restyled six-cylinder model by 1963 and a completely redesigned 1964 Lark. To make up the costs of his program and show a profit by next year, he figures he must get 3% of the auto market v. 1.6% last year.

Egbert hired design firms like Raymond Loewy and Brooks Stevens to come up with new designs on a shoestring budget — new designs such as a station wagon with a sliding roof and a T-Bird-like coupe, all available with powerful supercharged engines (yes, even that wagon).

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Studebaker 2
Bring A Trailer, Studebaker Museum

The most dramatic model was the “halo” GT coupe called the Studebaker Avanti, designed by a team from Loewy’s firm that included the man who would go on to design the Galileo Shuttlecraft.

Avanti Palm Springs Resize
Studebaker Corporation

The black and white photo below shows Sherwood Egbert with Raymond Loewy and their new car; yes, Sherwood was outrageously tall.

Avanti
Studebaker Corporation

 

Despite the best intentions and critical acclaim from enthusiasts, increased sales failed to materialize. Egbert was diagnosed with cancer and the Studebaker-Packard board used this as an opportunity to replace him with someone ready to shut the South Bend factory down in late December of 1963 (sounds like a Frankie Valli song). Production continued in Canada (where it was still profitable) for three more years before it all came to an end in 1966.

Around this time, German automaker NSU offered its first Wankel-powered car — the Spyder. The company was looking to expand its lineup with additional models, eventually releasing the ultra-modern Ro80.

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Og Wankel
NSU via The Autopian

With all of these new products, it was struggling with development dollars, and this, in the end, would cripple them and allow a takeover by Volkswagen in 1969. Serious American sales were never really on the table for NSU, and export-or-die was key for any European manufacturer back then. Studebaker had been the U.S. distributor of Mercedes-Benz, Auto Union, and DKW in years past, so they had connected with German firms before.

It would be both of these sets of circumstances that would bring Studebaker and NSU together in our alternate reality near the University of Notre Dame at the now-gone Hans Haus (don’t worry, if you go visit the Studebaker National Museum today you can still get knackwurst at Weiss Gasthaus or Moser’s Austrian Café instead, since the number of people with German last names living in South Bend and in Neckarsulm is shockingly similar).

Now, our alternate reality involves Studebaker existing a few more years in America than they actually did, but it would seem that a few different decisions (focusing on small cars, spending money on development of basic sedans earlier, avoiding a 1962 labor dispute) could have at least let them survive into our later timeline (arguably, if Egbert hadn’t gotten sick, Studebaker might have survived a bit longer). There were plenty of compact cars available in 1966 from each of the Big Three, and even AMC had the little Rambler American. To succeed as a fourth player, you’d need to offer something spectacular; that’s what these two groundbreaking companies would try to create.

The Wankel engine would be the key to success of the new Studebaker; General Motors in particular was going all-in on rotary power by the late sixties but this pesky “NSUBaker” upstart could have beaten them to the punch. I’m envisioning a standard two rotor engine with the option of a triple rotor unit topped with a four barrel carburetor. Independent front suspension could be matched by an independent or DeDion setup in back, possibly with inboard rear disc brakes for less unsprung weight. Too complex? Maybe, but I say go big or go home, and why waste the talents of these German innovators? I promise you that Ford or Chevy were not going to make the car of the future (and I’m not interested in spending time after work drawing Ford Falcon knockoffs, nor are you in reading about them, right?).

If NSU could provide the unique, ultra-smooth and compact rotary engine, Studebaker could design a car as striking as the Avanti five years before. In fact, before the collapse Studebaker had developed sedan versions of the Loewy coupe; they’ve been rescued and are on display at the Studebaker museum (there’s more pictures on this site here). Unfortunately, Loewy put some size and headroom constraints on the project which caused the design of the sedan to lose a lot in translation from the Avanti coupe; it’s like you asked for Robert DeNiro and got Jim Belushi.

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Avanti Sedans
Wikimedia/Michael Barera

It might make the interior tiger, but we’re gonna keep our new Hawk GT low and lean, using the best of the Avanti features while losing the ones I’m not nuts about like the big pontoon front fenders. One major advantage of the rotary engine’s small size is that we can keep the hood very low, move the engine very far back and even fit the spare tire under the hood.

Nsu Studebaker Castle

Pop up headlamps keep the front clean, and the asymmetric power bulge of the Avanti stays; at the end a chrome bezel houses turn signal and high beam warning lights for the driver to see.

Hood

The glass bubble at the back of the Avanti doesn’t really work on the four door (as proved by the awful sedan model made in the 1980s); we’ve exchanged the wraparound window for sixties-style sail panels and upswept beltline. It’s recognizably a late Studebaker but fits in with the “Coke bottle shaped” sedans of the time like the 1968-72 GM midsizers (Chevelle, LeMans, Cutlass). The overall appearance is actually quite similar to the rare V8 powered Monica sedan from Jean Tavistan; a resemblance to a bespoke premium sedan is one that I’ll gladly take. The front now looks a bit like a Lotus Elan +2.

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Monivs
Bring A Trailer, Wikipedia/Buch-T

Inside, the original Avanti used aircraft interior design as an inspiration with the t-stick heater controls and overhead console switches.

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Studebaker Corporation, Hyman Ltd.

The Hawk GT will double down on this and simply ape the cockpit of the upcoming (at the time) 747 jetliner (yes, airplane people, I know this is a later 747 than the 1969 original).

 

1280px Jal Boeing 747 446 Flight Deck
wikipedia/Norio Nakayama

By using slide-down instead of fold-down windshield sun visors we can line up rocker switches just above the driver’s head on the headliner (there’s secondary fold-down side window visors as well). In the center overhead console, there’s controls for interior lights and are for optional gauges like a clock, compass, and thermometer. On the passenger’s side an optional lighted visor vanity mirror “makeup station” (this was 1967, so sexism was still in play) can exist with storage behind the mirror. I’m not sure if wiper and headlight switches overhead are logical, but they are close to line-of-sight, and if you don’t think reaching up to the ceiling to turn on accessories is cool then you should be reading Automotive News or some other freaking website.

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The rear view mirror would sit on top of the dash as our own Jason seems to like. The radio mounts in a raised binnacle like on the 747 at the top of the dash, while aircraft-style vents and gauges sit below (most of them rotary drum type instruments). Climate controls and the gear level mimic the throttle controls of the airplane (here’s everything called out if you’re interested).

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Is the more than just a sedan? Of course. A two door coupe version of the four door would actually replace the expensive-to-build Avanti, while a unique wagon design called the Wagonaire II takes the original sliding roof concept to the next level. The entire fiberglass rear roof, quarter windows, and hatch can lift off to create a pickup bed; a canvas-and-clear filler panel could seal off the passenger compartment. Folding down the tailgate would expand the bed space with fold up or add-on side rails.

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You might be wondering why there’s a German license plate on the example rendered above at the foot of the hill below Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria. That’s because the Hawk GT would have been offered back in the land the Studebaker family originally came from. That’s right- with its small size, high-tech motor, and advanced chassis there was really nothing on the autobahn quite like it. The NSU connection and German dealer network would help justify selling a car imported from cornfields of Indiana. American cars could have sold overseas, but the issue was always that they couldn’t outperform the local competition, and it would have been like bringing a cheese sandwich to a banquet.

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The Hawk GT would not have been a cheese sandwich. Both Studebaker and NSU deserved better than they each got, and it’s fun but also disappointing to imagine what they might have created together.

 

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David Hamilton
David Hamilton
9 days ago

I love it. Despite all the practical concerns of a rotary, the design alone would be worth it. After all, you can always swap something else in! My favorite part is that you mentioned De-Dion rear suspension. I think that particular design is heavily slept on in the modern age and deserves a second look.

It gives a better average contact patch between both sides than any IRS I’ve ever seen can, AND it does so with 0 static camber AND zero camber when it squats, which is ideal for tire wear and straight-line acceleration. Simply attach it with a Satchell Link and most cars should be good to go.

Otherwise, you could also throw in a toe link to give it toe gain with suspension movement, and it’s even possible to include a camber link, which, if angled down will give the inside tire positive camber during cornering, which is something that NO independent design could ever hope to achieve passively.

Ideally, it would be developed to the point where some sort of linkage would exist or be made that could lean both tires into the turn (inside positive, outside negative) when the body rolls, but maintain 0 or near 0 camber under equal compression (jounce/squat/lift)… Hell, I could do it myself if I had some kinematic 3d software to quickly test and compare designs, but I digress.

Rapgomi
Rapgomi
9 months ago

You referenced a Monica! Very nice.

A beautiful but deeply obscure car even to most enthusiasts.

Inthemikelane
Inthemikelane
9 months ago
Reply to  Rapgomi

Had to look it up, no joke, beautiful car.

Bill Ozinga
Bill Ozinga
9 months ago

We used to have Porsche Club meetings at Hans House, I lived just down the street.

Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf
9 months ago

I was visiting my sister and her husband in Vermont this weekend. Her daughter and son (6 and 4yo respectively) had come up with nicknames for my wife and I. Mine was Uncle Studebaker (after a local dog, not the car brand) and my wife’s was Aunt Bakes the Best Cakes.
I think Uncle Studebaker is a pretty awesome name and will only be answering to that from this point forward.

Unclewolverine
Unclewolverine
9 months ago
Reply to  Thomas Metcalf

I approve of niece and nephew assigned nicknames!

Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf
9 months ago
Reply to  Unclewolverine

Username checks out!

Speedway Sammy
Speedway Sammy
9 months ago

I had a work friend who emigrated from Germany. He said that when two NSU drivers passed on the road, they would hold up hands with how many fingers signifying how many times the rotary engine had been rebuilt.

1961ford
1961ford
9 months ago

There was a Ford Falcon knock-off from that period. It may have also been considered the car of the future. You may have heard of the Mustang?

John J Gerding
John J Gerding
9 months ago

It always breaks my heart to see what could have been. Instead, we get bland from GM, etc. I have loved the Wankle since I bought an RX3 off the showroom floor back in the day. BTW, if anyone is interested in seeing an original, never restored NSU Rotary sports car, stop by the Pioneer Village off of I80 halfway across Wisconsin. They have one just kind of sitting there on display, among the hundreds of other vehicles in six buildings.

Inthemikelane
Inthemikelane
9 months ago

Once again I love this from the Bishop! Always liked the Avanti, such an unusual car for the time, and this just carries it to what it could have been. That interior would have been the bomb. Rotary’s aren’t my favorite, but it works to keep that hood low, really setting the stage for the whole look.

Marc Fuhrman
Marc Fuhrman
9 months ago

It might make the interior tiger, but we’re gonna keep our new Hawk GT low and lean, using the best of the Avanti features while losing the ones I’m not nuts about like the big pontoon front fenders.

There’s tigers in the interior? Sounds like that might be a slightly unpleasant ride.
Joking aside, I’m really loving this design! You managed to take away the parts of the original car’s design that I’ve always thought were a bit awkward, reworking it into a legitimate beautiful car that still manages to look like a Studebaker. Nicely done.

Kuruza
Kuruza
9 months ago

This is probably the most disappointing of these what-if design exercises yet, because the eight or so illustrations have me hooked fast and wanting more, especially rear views of the three variants. The cockpit is phenomenal, especially the overhead console. At some point soon I’m going to have to see if any manufacturer has made pull-down visors… it seems like a great idea.

One of the things that these designs reinforce for me is that it’s necessary to get a detailed look at a car (in person, if possible) before passing judgement on its aesthetics. The four-door version seems the least graceful in profile but the color illustration makes the element I liked least (the C-pillar) come alive, with the rear door’s shut line creating an engaging shape that wouldn’t have existed with frameless windows. And those wheels remind me of the turbine styles used on the DB7 and Fox body Mustang… I’d love to see a second chapter of this project.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
9 months ago

Can I point out the many car manufacturers that built unique stuff failed. The ones who built appliances succeeded. You build the appliances until you have bank then build unique.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
9 months ago

Okay posting this on a car aficionado site I expect to get attacked for my opinion as usual. But as a Boomer I don’t care. If you have a struggling car brand you succeed by putting out a average looking vehicle with average power with quality build and warranty. The Kcar saved Chrysler that is what it was. Heck even the minivan was just a reliable car with a better box attached. You don’t save a brand by new unreliable technology because a warranty from a closed company is worthless. Be the next he’ll be the first Toyota.

Drew
Drew
9 months ago

if you don’t think reaching up to the ceiling to turn on accessories is cool then you should be reading Automotive News or some other freaking website.

Aww, man, now I’m sad that I don’t have a bunch of functions on ceiling switches. It is cool.

Last edited 9 months ago by Drew
Lardo
Lardo
9 months ago

My fav of yours so far. It has a little Lotus in the design to me. Always loved Avanti’s. Maybe the triple rotor would stand up longer to higher milage? Makes me think of when I would draw cars as a kid. You know enough to make the fantasy a possibility.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
9 months ago

You’ve certainly moved the Avanti design forward, which is fitting.

OrigamiSensei
OrigamiSensei
9 months ago

Those are very attractive designs. As a fan of Studebaker I would have loved to see them last longer.

Myk El
Myk El
9 months ago
Reply to  The Bishop

The Avanti was an American grand tourer type. Not been a kind of car the US market has embraced on the whole, but I do like them.

JDE
JDE
9 months ago

It would be more interesting to see what GM might have done with it if they say, acquired Studebaker and the one remaining Canadian plant. I would have liked to seen the Avanti with some Euro inspired motors. Maybe aluminum v8’s or even the Pontiac Sprint 6. Maybe even a supercharged one of those. The lark could have been the Buick equivalent to the Chevy 2, or just Chevy 2’s as it were. Perhaps the Corvair could have been swapped over to studebaker and made to run on Wankel? That would be something interesting for sure. but the issues with rotary motors would have doomed it in the end anyway.

Aaron
Aaron
9 months ago
Reply to  JDE

Studebaker was sourcing GM engines during the last 2 years of operations, so that’s not entirely unfounded. The most likely outcome would have seen Studebakers become badge-engineered models running parallel to Pontiac and Chevy. The Avanti would have been killed for the threat it would pose Corvette and the whole brand would have gotten the axe in the early 2000s along with Geo and Oldsmobile.

JDE
JDE
9 months ago
Reply to  Aaron

correct, but the question is would the likes of John Delorean been able to make something like the Pontiac Banshee out of an avanti? Could he have been more experimental with the Euro sportscar themes and left Pontiac to be tarted up Chevies? It might have been interesting to see the old supercharged studebakers with GM money behind development.

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
9 months ago
Reply to  JDE

I want to live in a parallel universe where the Banshee made the cut.

OverlandingSprinter
OverlandingSprinter
9 months ago

It is my understanding that Studebaker was still profitable when its board shut it down in 1966. Had the company’s chips fell slightly differently — not merging with Packard or as you suggest, not losing Egbert — perhaps the brand would have survived much longer.

However, partnering with NSU to field a rotary Avanti would have doomed the company. Maybe a partnership with BMW, which was hardly a powerhouse brand in the 1960s, would have resulted in a more successful merger.

That said, the Wagonaire II is a killer design. Well done!

Sensual Bugling Elk
Sensual Bugling Elk
9 months ago
Reply to  The Bishop

So Studebaker would have become a homegrown Saab? I can get behind that.

Speaking of, how about a model year 2023 Saab lineup from a universe where they found a better dance partner than GM?

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
9 months ago

This is a great idea. Love me some Saaaaaaaaab.

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
9 months ago

Awww, hell yeah.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
9 months ago

I like it. The rear side windows look a bit Citroën SM to me, and rotary drum gauges are definitely 70s Citroën so how about a hydropneumatic suspension?
On a side note a De Dion axle with inboard brakes is what the Rover P6 used at around the same time.

Adam Rice
Adam Rice
9 months ago
Reply to  Slow Joe Crow

The interior strikes some of the same notes as the 1964 Thunderbird: drum gauges, inverted T-switch controls, general space-age aesthetic. Though the T-bird was more Flash Gordon.

UnseenCat
UnseenCat
9 months ago

Aside — I haven’t thought about the Hans Haus in years! It was still a fixture when I was in high school, before I left the area for college. My high school graduating class (or was it just the Honor Society? I can’t remember…) had a banquet in the upstairs room there in the mid-80s.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
9 months ago

Man, I am getting serious Ferrari 400i vibes off this thing. Wasn’t there a custom sedan version made of it?

10001010
10001010
9 months ago

Tell me more about this coupe version, would is be available with a rear hatch possibly?

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