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Monday, May 16, 2016

The Rear-Engined Studebaker With the Heart of a Porsche




Usually when a car exhibit is trying to feature a trunk, you should prepare for a Jimmy Hoffa joke. But in the case of the Studebaker National Museum, it’s what’s in back of an ordinary-looking 1959 Lark that surprises everyone. It’s Porsche powered.

This rear-engined German-American did not come from South Bend. The Curtiss-Wright Corporation purchased the Lark in early 1959. Engineers in New Jersey ditched the front-engine, six-cylinder layout, and swapped it for the rebuilt 1500cc four-cylinder boxer motor from an early 50s Porsche. Volkswagen Bus components helped fill in the rest of the drivetrain.

It was clear that the 70-horsepower motor from Porsche was not meant to be a hot rod upgrade. While the Lark was Studebaker’s compact car, it had a lot more heavy steel than the sprightly 356 coupe. Instead, the reason for this transformation might involve another German manufacturer, NSU.

Curtiss-Wright was one of the first companies to secure rights to produce the new Wankel engine. They had secured their license from NSU only four months prior to purchasing the little Lark. The small but adequate Porsche motor might have been a suitable stand-in until a rotary engine was ready.
More evidence that this Studebaker was intended for a star role at Curtiss-Wright was its level of finished detail. The gas tank and spare tire were properly shifted to under the hood. That left the full interior intact. In fact, the engineers removed the driveshaft hump to possibly showcase the spatial benefits of having the complete drivetrain in the rear.
Regardless of speculation, the Lark prototype never made it to the spotlight. It was sold off like an ordinary used car. The unique Lark went through a few Studebaker enthusiasts before being donated a decade ago to the Studebaker museum in South Bend, Indiana.


While this Lark did not live up to its expectations, it came along during an interesting time. Studebaker and Porsche had a more formal relationship earlier that decade. South Bend commissioned Stuttgart to build a front-engine V6 compact car prototype. The project (known as #542 in Germany and Z87 in America) was delivered in the fall of 1954. Even if Studebaker had the finances to build the car, some executives did not favor the European-built concept designed for the American market. Ironically, this included John Z. Delorean who was head of Advanced Engineering at the time.
Also, in the months before the Lark project began, Studebaker made it clear that they wanted out of their management contract with Curtiss-Wright and their stock option control. This animosity with C-W makes it unclear if Studebaker would have ever had or been given a hand in this project.


So as innocent as the Porsche-powered Lark is, it can also feel like a little like a Melrose Place-style drama where two jilted suitors make out on their mutual enemy’s couch. But back in reality, this Lark is more of an interesting oddity with a story that’s destine to remain incomplete.
In fact, since the car has no official presence with Porsche, Audi/NSU, or Curtiss-Wright, its rear-end display in the Studebaker National Museum gives the compact coupe the most legitimacy it has ever seen. Andrew Beckman, Archivist at the National Studebaker Museum describes this odd Lark as, “It’s an official prototype Studebaker, but not an official Studebaker prototype.”

Photo Credit: Studebaker National Museum (lead image), Myles Kornblatt for BoldRide