Studebaker’s 1963 Westinghouse Truck Prototype

Originally published 1/19/15 at Amazon’s Car Lust blog.

Form follows function. That pithy little slogan, coined by architect Louis Henry Sullivan over a century ago, sums up the hard core modernist approach to architecture and industrial design: the shape of a thing should be determined solely by what it is intended to do, with little or no allowance for ornamentation.

truck-front

“Form follows function!”

Sullivan’s buildings were not nearly as austere as the slogan suggests, but other modernists took the concept all the way to its logical extreme. Adolf Loos, one of Sullivan’s contemporaries, declared that all ornamentation–any ornamentation–is “immoral” and “degenerate,” and when it came time to design buildings, he practiced what he preached. Had he lived to see it–he died in 1933–Herr Loos would certainly have approved of the squarish Studebaker prototype compact pickup truck which is our topic for today.

By 1963, Studebaker’s automotive division was in serious financial trouble, but one of the few bright spots in the sales picture was the Model 8E5-FC, four of which are pictured below.

zip-vans

“Studebaker Zip Van: the special delivery van you’ll want to write home about.”

Studebaker had just landed a $9 million contract to build over 4,000 of these boxy little RHD critters for the United States Post Office. Powered by a “Skybolt” OHV straight six, it was known as the “Zip Van,” a name inspired by the newly-introduced “ZIP Code” system for sorting mail.

While trucks had never been a big part of Studebaker’s business, it seemed that there might be at least some money to be made building customized commercial vehicles on top of off-the-shelf Studebaker running gear. Hot on the heels of the Zip Van contract came an inquiry from Westinghouse, asking if Studebaker could produce a user-specific van and pickup truck for urban deliveries, a Westinghouse equivalent of the UPS “package car.” It would have to be visually unique, yet easy and inexpensive to build.

Studebaker design chief Randall Faurot sketched out a boxy cab-over-engine design with a forward-raked windshield which he called “Model X.” To be specific, he worked up three variants of the “X”–a van, a pickup truck with a flip-down side loading gate, and a cab and bare chassis that could presumably accommodate anything from a camper body to a dump bed–as well as a diesel-powered “upscale” fitted with a fifth wheel for towing semi-trailers.

That took care of the “visually unique” part of the specification. A man named Gene Hardig did the engineering and built the two prototypes–a van and a pickup–and squarely addressed the “easy and inexpensive to build” bit.

And I do mean squarely!

truck-rear

“You did say ‘Keep it simple,’ didn’t you?”

Though certainly minimalist and utilitarian, Mr. Faurot’s Model X design had an egg-crate grille and a subtle bit of roundness to the front end that puts it somewhere between a 1958 Ford and something from a Chesley Bonestell painting. After Mr. Hardig got done with it, it was minimalism turned up to eleven.

Except for the forward-canted windshield, it’s all 90-degree angles. The body panels are flat pieces of sheet steel; those raised ribs and the pseudo-running board along the bottom aren’t there for decoration; they’re necessary to keep the structure all nice and rigid. The only circles are the headlights, tail lights, and the wheel openings. The glass is all flat panels. There is no chrome. The door handles and window cranks and other miscellaneous fittings are Lark and Avanti (!) components.

Under the sheetmetal, everything came from the Studebaker parts warehouse. The prime mover is a base model 289 V-8 mated to a Borg-Warner three-speed “Powershift” automatic, a drive train you could get in a Champ, a Lark, or a Gran Turismo Hawk. The 96″ wheelbase frame looks to be straight off the Zip Van. Springs, axles, steering gear, and bumpers are stock Champ parts.

Because of all that, the only significant development work needed to go into mass production would be the dies for the body panel stampings, and those would be some of the simplest stamping dies ever made. It is impossible to design something to be any cheaper to produce than that.

It is also a remarkably elegant design. Not “elegant” in the Chrysler-Cordoba-with-Corinthian-leather-interior sense, but in the way engineers use the word: “a solution which is highly effective and simple.”

  • Take that forward-canted windshield, for instance. By angling the glass, it reduces glare–the same reason that you see angled front cab windows on cranes and other heavy equipment–and gives the driver an excellent view of where the front bumper is, useful for tight quarters maneuvering.
  • The “forward control” layout maximizes the usable cargo space and compensates for the short wheelbase.

On a less concrete level, the thing just looks efficient, like it means business. It’s also kinda cute, in a dorky, form-follows-function-off-a-cliff sort of way.

While there’s plenty of information available about the trucks themselves, I could not find any source which explains why the project never went past the prototype stage. Maybe they couldn’t get the cost down far enough to be competitive with off-the-rack fleet specials from one of the Big Three. Maybe Westinghouse became concerned that Studebaker might not be able to stay in business long enough to complete the project, or they just thought the thing looked too dorky. It might be that the Studebaker board decided to close the South Bend plant and get out of the truck business so fast that Westinghouse never had a chance to greenlight the project. Whatever the reason, there were only the two prototypes built.

Thought to have been scrapped, the pickup which you see here was discovered hidden away in an Indiana barn in 1982. After a proper restoration, it now resides at the Studebaker National Museum.

truck-at-museum

They keep it in the back corner.  Irony!

The van appears to be lost to the mists of time–I couldn’t even find a photo or drawing of it anywhere–but those of you in northern Indiana should be on the lookout, just in case.

–Mike (Cookie the Dog’s Owner)

Photo credits: The Zip Van photo is a vintage publicity shot found at a Japanese photoblog called, appropriately enough, the Old Van Archive. The “beauty shot” photos of the pickup truck appear to have been taken by a Studebaker PR photographer back in 1963. I’ve seen them posted to several different websites, including The H.A.M.B.

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