Memories of Stubebaker

Program: WVPE Features

Reporter: Michael Puente, Chicago Public Radio; for IPBS

Airdate: 06/12/2009

As General Motors begins to shutter plants around the country, forcing thousands of layoffs, South Bend knows that reality all too well.

 

The Studebaker car company died nearly 46 years ago. But just saying the name brings back memories of malt shops and good times for some residents of South Bend.

 

For more than a hundred years, Studebaker made all kinds of vehicles at the company's sprawling production campus; everything from horse drawn carriages to the stylish automobiles like the Lark and Avanti.

 

Today the town is a very different place.

 

Nineteen Sixty-three was both a good year and a not so good year for Ron DeWinter.  

 

In September of that year, around the same time this commercial was on the air, an 18-year-old DeWinter snagged a job on the assembly line.

 

He went to work at the Studebaker automobile plant in South Bend.

 

That's where DeWinter's father and older-brother worked.  

 

The Studebaker plant is also where most South Bend teens fresh out of high school would go looking for their first real jobs.

 

DeWinter's job was installing headliners, which were the cloth covering for the roof's interior.

 

DEWINTER: We could put a headliner in about 3 ½ minutes. Two guys, put a headliner in a car. I think I got paid 2, it was 1963, so it was $2.94. That was good money at that time.

 

But that good money didn't last.

 

Studebaker's 113-year relationship in South Bend came to an end just five days shy of Christmas 1963.

 

DEWINTER: Stubebaker came so close to going out of business so many years. People were shocked because they always knew they came close. That walk out and they closed it up and the cameras were there, and people were walking out for the last time, they knew it was over then. But nobody knew until that day. Nobody would believe it.

 

DeWinter is now 63 years old and runs a hair salon and a spa in South Bend. He still owns and drives a black 1964 Studebaker Hawk.

 

He says the legacy lives on.

 

The engineering building for the Studebaker Company is one of the last few remaining buildings in what was once a sprawling manufacturing campus. The two story building, which looks like a large, old warehouse, is largely vacant but there's still some business going on inside. Dennis Lambert operates a Studebaker parts store.

 

LAMBERT: Most of this stuff is new old stock parts which means they are original, not remanufactured, not fresh new.

 

Lambert began working here the same year Studebaker closed its plant. But because there's a worldwide demand for Studebaker parts, he's still in business.  There are more than a million parts in here.

 

But while there's still a romance with the Studebaker brand, Lambert says decades after the plant closed, South Bend still hasn't recovered.

 

LAMBERT: It hasn't. But it's not just because of Studebaker because the industrial climate. There's no manufacturing. This is nothing but a retail town and Notre Dame. There's still no manufacturing to come out.

 

Lambert has a pretty good idea of what towns that depend on GM are going through right now.

 

LAMBERT: There's probably five non-direct GM jobs for every GM jobs there is. Same thing with Studebaker. There were probably 30 or 40 business in South Bend that had something to do with Studebaker when they closed.

 

But other jobs did eventually take root. Ron DeWinter says the number working at the plant had already dwindled from about 20,000 to 6,000 over the years, so change was well underway.

 

DEWINTER: Being that it happened in 1963 it probably helped us later because we turned over to becoming a banking center, hospitals, Notre Dame."

 

DeWinter says it will be tough for those who are laid off by GM.

 

He says they can bounce bank, but worries about the future of manufacturing in the U.S.

 

DEWINTER: We're not going to be a prosperous country unless we build things. And we've got to build them here, too.

 

DOUGLAS: My car was the red one down here; the 1950.

 

Remembering the bad times isn't why Delores Douglas visited the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend last week. The Winter Park, Florida resident recalled when her father sold Studebaker.

 

DOUGLAS: He was so sold on Studebakers that he didn't even look at anything else. That was his car.

 

For Douglass and others here in South Bend, that's exactly how they want to remember Studebaker.

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