In 2004, GMC called its new Envoy XUV’s sliding roof section “unprecedented.” Four years later, Ford described the Super Duty’s new tailgate step as an “innovation.” Perhaps neither realized that Studebaker beat them to the punch forty years prior — and with a station wagon, at that.
Necessity is said to be the mother of invention, and in the early 1960s, Studebaker desperately needed to update its Lark model line. Launched in 1959, the svelte Lark resonated with buyers seeking thrifty, economical automobiles, but that didn’t last long. By 1960, the South Bend, Indiana, automaker once again found itself fighting fierce competition from Detroit, including the Ford Falcon, the Chevrolet Corvair, the Plymouth Valiant, and, to a lesser extent, the Mercury Comet. Predictably, Lark sales began to tumble, and production fell from 131,075 in 1959 to only 66,585 in 1961.
What to do? Studebaker was already on the fiscal ropes, so designing an all-new Lark was out of the question. Instead, the company hired industrial designer Brooks Stevens to reshape the lumpy Lark on a minuscule budget. By extending the rear deck and flattening the fenders, Stevens gave 1962 Lark coupes, convertibles, and sedans a cleaner appearance.
But Stevens’s biggest revisions came when he overhauled the Lark station wagon for 1963. He scrapped everything aft of the A-pillars in favor of a flatter roofline, whisker-thin pillars, tall windows, and crisp rear fenders. The new model was called the Wagonaire, and both its name and appearance were strikingly similar to another new Stevens-designed product — the Jeep Wagoneer.
Stevens saved one unique feature for the Studebaker: much like his 1959 Scimitar concept wagon, the section of roof immediately over the cargo area could be retracted into the forward roof panel. Rolling it all the way forward exposed the cargo area to the elements, which eased loading and allowed tall objects to be carried standing upright. Transforming this concept from a flight of fancy to reality was easier said than done — the giant gap in the roof structure required the addition of X-frame reinforcements, counterweights in the front corners of the car, and four drain tubes placed along the roof opening. In theory, those tubes would direct rainwater out of the roof channel and through the wheel wells; in reality, they sometimes clogged with debris and sent water dribbling into the cabin. Studebaker retained the sliding-steel-roof design but quickly added a fixed-roof-panel option — which also stripped $100 off the wagon’s price tag — to appease buyers who wanted no part of the gimmick.
Advertisements pitched the Wagonaire as “three cars in one.” It could function as a work wagon, a family sedan, and — with the top rolled forward — a convertible. Properly equipped, the Wagonaire boasted a fourth personality: muscle car. The standard 170-cubic-inch in-line six was nothing special, but 259- and 289-cubic-inch V-8s were options. If that wasn’t enough to wet your whistle, you could opt for one of two high-performance engines originally designed for the new Avanti sport coupe. The R1, a high-compression 289 V-8, produced
240 hp; the R2 added a Paxton supercharger and cranked out somewhere between 280 and 300 hp. Better yet, either engine could be ordered with a high-performance package that added a rear antiroll bar, a limited-slip differential, and firmer springs and dampers.
Only fifteen R2 Wagonaires were built in 1963, two of them with the full hi-po package. Malcolm Berry’s 1963 Daytona Wagonaire, pictured here, wasn’t one of them, but it is R2-powered. Berry bought the car in 1969 and shortly thereafter salvaged an original supercharged 289 V-8 from a wrecked R2 Lark. For the next few years, Berry and a partner actively drag-raced the supercharged station wagon, but a decade later, Berry felt the itch to transform the car into his ideal touring wagon. The transformation wasn’t that intensive — the stock three-speed automatic was ditched in favor of a Tremec five-speed manual, and air-conditioning, a modern audio receiver, and an armrest were added in the name of convenience.
Despite its ever-evolving state (Berry is currently planning yet another engine upgrade), this Wagonaire is remarkably original. Berry never gutted the interior during his racing years, meaning the turquoise cabin — including the clever vanity-cabinet glove box — is original. There’s a surprising amount of headroom, and the visibility afforded by the expansive windows only adds to the airy sensation. The R2 emits an intoxicating noise — and a little blower whine — even under light throttle, but blip the accelerator and that noise is bundled with a surprising kick. It takes considerable restraint not to exercise all the muscle on tap: carry too much speed into corners, and you’ll battle both slow steering and a tremendous amount of understeer. On the freeway, the Wagonaire is quite supple. We can see why Berry and his wife have no qualms about hopping in the car for long, cross-country trips.
Advertisements claimed that the Wagonaire made other station wagons obsolete — ironic, considering that Studebaker itself was headed in that direction. Nearly 12,000 Wagonaires rolled off the line in 1963, but that figure couldn’t counteract Studebaker’s continued sales spiral. Stevens redesigned the Lark’s front end for 1964, adding a handsomely chiseled fascia, but that, too, failed to capture consumers’ attention.
By the end of 1963, Studebaker shuttered its long-standing assembly line in South Bend, opting instead to build Lark models in its Canadian factory. Once supplies of Studebaker-built engines dried up, the automaker rode out the 1965 and 1966 model years by using Chevrolet-sourced in-line six and V-8 powerplants. Studebaker abandoned automobile production in March 1966 after building but 4648 ’66 models — 618 of which were Wagonaires.
Studebaker may be dead and buried, but Brooks Stevens would be proud to see many of the ideas he incorporated into the Wagonaire continue to live on.
2.8L (170 cu in) OHV I-6, 112 hp, 154 lb-ft
3.2L (194 cu in) OHV I-6, 120 hp, 177 lb-ft
3.8L (230 cu in) OHV I-6, 140 hp, 220 lb-ft
4.2L (259 cu in) OHV V-8, 180-195 hp, 260-265 lb-ft
4.6L (283 cu in) OHV V-8, 195 hp, 285 lb-ft
4.7L (289 cu in) OHV V-8, 210-225 hp, 300-305 lb-ft
“R1” 4.7L (289 cu in)
OHV V-8, 240 hp (est.)
“R2” 4.7L (289 cu in) OHV supercharged V-8, 280-300 hp (est.)
Transmissions 3- or 4-speed manual
Front suspension Control arms, coil springs
Rear suspension Live axle, leaf springs
Brakes F/R Discs/drums or drums/drums
Weight 3500 lb
Years produced 1963-1966
Number produced 19,585
Original price $2835 (1963, Daytona V-8)
Although not nearly as shocking as the fiberglass-bodied Avanti, the Wagonaire was a daring move for Studebaker, which wholeheartedly pushed Brooks Stevens’s unprecedented (and somewhat untested) roof design into mass production. The sliding roof holds up well in regular use, provided drain tubes are kept clear and weatherstripping remains healthy. Most Lark parts are fairly attainable, but some Wagonaire-specific pieces, such as the rear quarter panels, are scarce and aren’t reproduced.