Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Studebaker Wagonaire

1963 Studebaker Wagonaire

The Studebaker Wagonaire was a station wagon produced by the Studebaker Corporation of South Bend, Indiana from 1963 to 1966. The wagon featured a retractable sliding rear roof section that allowed the vehicle to carry items that would otherwise be too tall for a standard car of the era.

Studebaker Wagonaire's unique roof was the invention of industrial designer Brooks Stevens, who was charged by the company's president Sherwood Egbert to find as many ways possible to expand the company's limited model range without spending vast amounts of capital on retooling. Ironically, Stevens was also the designer of the Kaiser Jeep Wagoneer, a truck based SUV that remained in production until the 1990s.

The Wagonaire, which was inspired by Stevens' German-built 1959 Scimitar concept car, was based on the standard Studebaker Lark station wagon body, which was suitably modified above the beltline. What made the car unique was the roof over the cargo bay, which manually retracted into and then locked into position in the forward section of the roof above the rear passenger's seat. This unique configuration allowed Studebaker to boast that the Wagonaire could transport items (such as standard size refrigerators) in an upright position.

Wagonaires seated six passengers (five with the optional front bucket seats), and could seat eight when equipped with a rear-facing third-row seat, which was available as an option through 1965. When the third seat was ordered, the cars were fitted with special "Captive-Air" (puncture-resistant) tires, as the additional seat took up the space required for a spare tire and wheel.

Unfortunately for Studebaker, early buyers soon found that their new wagons' roofs leaked water near the front of the sliding section. This problem was addressed -- with limited success -- by the factory. As a result of the leak problem, fixed-roof station wagons were rushed into production alongside the Wagonaire and became available in January 1963. These sold for US$100 less than the sliding-roof wagons, but it was technically a "delete option", meaning that if the buyer wanted the fixed roof versus the slider, it had to be specifically ordered that way by the selling dealer and was not a separate model.

When Studebaker closed its South Bend, Indiana assembly plant and continued production at its Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, plant, the company eliminated its "halo" models, the Avanti and Hawk, but continued to build Lark-based sedans and Wagonaires.

The 1964 models, which were built only in Canada after December 1963, were the last to carry Studebaker's own engines. Beginning with the 1965 models, General Motors supplied engines based on the Chevrolet six-cylinder and V8 designs. The 1965 models were available only with the sliding roof.

The fixed-roof option made a return for Studebaker's final model year in 1966, but the third seat was no longer offered. In addition, the '66 Wagonaire finally was made a model in its own right, blending the exterior features of the Commander with the interior trim grade of the sporty Daytona. Only 940 Wagonaires were built for '66, making any fixed-roof model rare.

Matchbox-Lesney made a miniature Wagonaire, complete with a sliding roof section, which was sold for many years after Studebaker stopped production. Husky also manufactured a Wagonaire similar in size to the Matchbox product.

A high-performance station wagon?

The 1963-64 Daytona version of the Wagonaire could be considered the forebear of the current "pocket-rocket wagon" fad. When equipped with a V8, Carter 4 barrel carburetor, and a column mounted shifter manual transmission with overdrive, the Wagonaire could hold its own against several makes of "muscle cars" from the era. Interestingly, from its earliest days on the market, the Wagonaire could be ordered with any of Studebaker's available "R-series" high-performance Avanti V-8 engines and the four-speed floor-shift manual transmission. Few (if any) were ordered with such high-performance equipment, however.

Short-lived revival of the concept

The concept of the retractable roof was picked up by automaker General Motors for a model in its GMC Envoy line in 2003 as a 2004 model. Ads for the new Envoy XUV incorrectly touted the feature as "first ever". One feature that GMC did adopt that Studebaker never did was power operation of the roof section.

However, the Envoy XUV was no more popular than the Wagonaire had been, and GMC discontinued the model in 2005.