Almost 40 years ago, I “collected” this story’s subject, a 1962 Studebaker Lark Daytona. The car didn’t look like it does now. It was found in a field, hub-deep in mud, serving as a storage bin for paint cans and a nest for a flock of slacker birds. It has since been restored twice, and now my Lark runs as well as it ever has.
The story begins in 1958 when I cajoled my father into buying a Mercedes-Benz—not an obvious choice back then for a family in Brooklyn. Studebaker-Packard was Daimler’s U.S. distributor at a time when most people thought Gullwings had feathers. Thanks to its often nonfunctional Hydrak semi-automatic transmission, my dad’s Benz provided more theoretical than actual transportation. The car’s woes called for repeated visits to the local Studebaker dealer, where the service staff seemed flummoxed in the face of Stuttgart exotica. I was often left to wander the showroom and so got to know the merchandise. There’s no rational explanation, but as a preteen I became a Studey stalwart.
A year later, Studebaker shed Packard and focused all its resources on the compact Lark, which was initially a huge sales success. When Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler fielded their own small cars, Studebaker’s surge subsided, but the company soldiered on. Studebaker’s first Lark convertible debuted in 1960, and the Daytona, a more sporting version with bucket seats, center console, and available four-speed gearbox, joined in ’62. A two-door hardtop version could be ordered with a sunroof—unheard of in a domestic car of that era. The Daytona could also be had with a 289-cubic-inch V-8, providing a power-to-weight ratio befitting a muscle car, though the term hadn’t yet been coined.
Studebaker moved production to Canada at the end of 1963, but by then the writing was on the wall: The truncated 1966 model year was the last for a company that had begun building wagons 104 years earlier. Despite the brand’s demise, somehow Studey stayed on my mind, and I resolved to find a Lark someday. But not just any Lark. It had to be a convertible, with a four-speed and a V-8. In 1977, I found a car that checked all those boxes in a tiny classified in Old Cars Weekly. The $500 selling price seemed too good to be true. It was. The car was a mess. Despite its rough condition, my brother and I managed to jump-start it and drive it home, shredded top flapping in the wind. Upon completing a harrowing 27 miles, its brittle oil pan gasket gave way, and the crankcase relieved itself of 6 quarts of oil in front of my house. I wasn’t popular with my neighbors.
Thankfully, I later found Eddie and Lambert, the guys who had run the service department of L.A.’s last Studebaker dealer. They had their own shop in the middle of a barrio near downtown and put things back together mechanically. With paint, a new top, tires, and upholstery, it was almost presentable. The late David E. Davis Jr., founder of this very publication, accepted my pitch to drive it to South Bend, Indiana, the place of its origin, and back. The top stayed down the whole way. The result was a spread in Car and Driver titled “The Studey Zone” and included a photo of a Nebraska state trooper ticketing me for doing 85 mph in a 60 zone, who noted: “I don’t believe I’ve seen a Stoodeybaker convertible before.” To which I responded, “Feast your eyes.” He had a credit card machine in the back of his cruiser, and $75 later I was on my way. Mr. Davis was resolute in not reimbursing me for the cost of my heartland transgression.
My Lark doesn’t have power steering, so I owe whatever upper body strength I may have to wrestling with that huge—and not entirely round—steering wheel for all these years. The Lark’s front-heavy weight distribution is far from optimal, but the reality is that this isn’t a car you’d use in a gymkhana event. It was the product of the same basic formula that begat Pontiac’s GTO: Put a big engine in a small car and mash the throttle. The result was convincing enough that a Lark Daytona served duty as the 1962 Indy 500 pace car. It subbed in for Studebaker’s Avanti, which shared its underpinnings with the Lark but wasn’t ready in time for the race.
Over the years, I’ve acquired a number of collectible cars both foreign and domestic, including an Avanti. Yet I always refer to the Lark as “my last car.” If I had to divest my collection, even my everyday driver, the Lark would be the last to go. We’ve been through a lot together, and it’s rarely let me down. I know it’s foolish to have an emotional bond with a machine, but there’s no denying it. Maybe it’s a symbol of my personal history and, to some extent, the nation. JFK was in the White House when it was built, Vietnam wasn’t yet the imbroglio it became, and Studebaker still had a fighting chance to survive. Upon its introduction, the advertising slogan was “Love That Lark.” I’ve found that to absolutely be the case.
|Engine||289-cubic-inch OHV V-8/210 hp, 300 lb-ft|
|Front Suspension||Control arms, coil springs|
|Rear Suspension||Live axle, leaf springs|
Look in the mirror and ask yourself if you’re like everybody else. If the answer is “yes,” you’re not a Studebaker person. If it’s “no,” you qualify for the contrarian’s car. If as many people who profess their love for the car today had bought one when they were new, Studebaker would still be in business. A Studebaker is a conversation piece that eclipses other cars that are many times more expensive. It’s a peppy car that’s fun to drive, and despite the Benzesque grille, it doesn’t look like anything else. The top goes down and you shift through the gears behind a fairly powerful V-8. What more could someone who thinks of himself as an outsider want?