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.
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).
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.
The black and white photo below shows Sherwood Egbert with Raymond Loewy and their new car; yes, Sherwood was outrageously tall.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Inside, the original Avanti used aircraft interior design as an inspiration with the t-stick heater controls and overhead console switches.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.