Classic Car Profiles & Reviews

The 1960s Studebaker Lark Wagonaire Was the First Crossover

Billed as three cars in one, it had features—including a sliding cargo-area roof—that other automakers claimed as groundbreaking decades later.

Long before the Subaru Outback came on the scene, and decades ahead of Chevrolet both confusing and delighting pickup fans with the Avalanche, Studebaker was busy inventing a vehicle that mashed up various vehicle types—a crossover. Of course, it wasn’t labeled as such: marketing mavens in the early 1960s were as creative as they are now, but the South Bend, Indiana–based automaker was more laser-focused on survival than pioneering new automotive segments when the sliding-roof Studebaker Lark Wagonaire debuted.

It may have been the first of a breed that wouldn’t be recognized until nearly 30 years later, but the 1963 Lark Wagonaire was more specifically the product of Studebaker’s keen need to fill showrooms with new models while spending as little of its rapidly dwindling capital as possible.

Luckily for the brand, it had secured the services of Brooks Stevens, an industrial designer who had already penned the well-received Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk, the eye-catching Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, a series of bikes for Harley-Davidson, and the soon-to-be-released Jeep Wagoneer. Stevens would dip back a few years into his own design past to revive the idea of a station wagon with a retractable metal roof, which he had initially explored in the late ’50s while doing concept work for Chrysler.

The Lark lineup had been a strong seller for Studebaker, with its various coupe, sedan, wagon, and convertible models appealing to thrifty families seeking a small and relatively frugal commuter with respectable style. Eager to squeeze a little more life out of the Lark platform in the face of stiff competition from Detroit’s Big Three, Studebaker president Sherwood Egbert tasked Stevens with tweaking the overall look of the cars for ’62.

The move was a success, and thirsty for more, Stevens was then pressed to continue massaging the Lark’s sheetmetal, and was given enough leeway to execute the world’s first production wagon with the sliding roof he had been dreaming about for nearly five years. Dubbed the Lark Wagonaire, the vehicle offered the ability to retract most of the steel covering over its cargo area, creating a practical open-air bed that added considerable usefulness to the already useful wagon body style. It also boasted an available tailgate-attached step for ease-of-entry.

If this sounds more like a novelty than anything the public was actually asking for, you’re not far off. Studebaker itself had no real idea how to pitch the Wagonaire’s party trick, with various ads from the era showing the Lark hauling a fridge upright down the highway, or parked on the side of a river so that a man in a jaunty fishing cap could cast his line from the comforts of its available rear-facing third-row seat. Or, in another version of the poster, simply a family setting up camp deep in the wilderness with the roof open for, well, some reason.

This is not to say that the Wagonaire was a bad idea, or that it wasn’t actually extremely useful for that small slice of the car-buying public who wanted to transport surfboards without a rack (even though the Lark offered one over the forward roof section) or setup their telescope and gaze at the stars while safely ensconced in their Studebaker. It’s more that the car lacked the marketing muscle to be perceived as innovative rather than quirky.

Other unusual aspects of the Wagonaire’s design included convertible-like X-bracing for the frame and a pair of 35-pound counterweights on the outside of the frame rails at the forward corners. It was available of course with a cost-focused six-cylinder, as well as two available V-8 engines. You could even step up to a 240-hp, high-compression ‘R1’ version of the top-spec 289-cubic-inch motor, which was lifted from the Avanti sports car and sold as the Lark Daytona. Nearly 300 horses were available from that same engine in ‘R2’ spec thanks to the addition of a supercharger. (Read more details and our drive of the R2-powered car pictured here as part of our “Collectible Classic” series.)

Despite being quick, practical, and affordable, the Lark Wagonaire was facing a somewhat suspicious public, which had become leery of the convertible wagon’s ability to keep the elements at bay after early reports about leaks and drips. The top was a simple mechanical design, using a single hand crank to slide to-and-fro. It locked into one of three positions with a series of pins to keep it from sliding, and it relied on pressure against rubber weather-stripping to keep water at bay. What did make it through flowed into four drain tubes that exited in the fenders, but the drains often clogged up and caused moisture to enter inside the vehicle if not attended to.

Moisture fears put enough of a damper on the vehicle’s reputation that by mid-model year, Studebaker had offered not just a fixed-roof version of the Wagonaire, but also a discount of $100 on that version to appease would-be buyers. The company made it difficult to avoid the slider, however, forcing buyers to opt out of the feature at ordering time. This author’s father owns one of each—you can probably guess which one is infinitely cooler—and Studebaker would build the two Wagonaire versions essentially concurrently through ’66, when the retractable feature disappeared completely.

The Lark Wagonaire would be among the last truly original vehicles to be produced by Studebaker, which would close its South Bend factories by the end of 1963, move its operations to Canada, and then play out the string outsourcing motors and dressing up aging designs until the company’s bankruptcy before the end of the decade.

That the versatile Studebaker managed to prefigure both the GMC Envoy XUV’s similar sliding-roof system, which would appear in 2004, as well as the Ford F-150’s much later tailgate step, gives truth to the argument that the company had unwittingly stumbled into the crossover category. That it was completely unable to leverage its trailblazing to do anything other than buy a few extra years’ time from its creditors is unfortunate, but at least we have the surviving Wagonaires to remember what a pioneering automaker can be capable of.