We didn’t get any correct guesses for this mystery car, though our Facebook readers were close with American brands…
Even in the early 1950s, the writing was starting to appear on the wall; “compact” cars were going to be the next big thing in the auto industry. Certainly the Europeans had a good handle on this, but as we know, Detroit is often a little slow on the uptake. GM, Ford, and Chrysler had yet to downsize their monstrous cars. American Motors was beginning to make smaller cars and Studebaker (still independent at this time) took notice.
Ferry Porsche came to the United States in 1951 for the first time since WWII. Evidently Porsche’s designs for the Germans impressed some of the opposition as Ferry was contacted by the US for a military project. While in New York, he met with his importer Max Hoffman. Porsche expressed interest in more consulting work stateside and Hoffman knew just the right person to contact.
Richard Hutchinson, head of Studebaker exports, was a friend of Hoffman’s who took interest in having Porsche design a small car more in-line with American market tastes. Even though Hoffman struggled to sell VWs and only distributed them from 1950 to 1953, Hutchinson liked the idea of the Volkswagen and personally had one of the first Beetles shipped to him while VW was still under British control after the war. His plan was for Studebaker to become the exclusive importer of Volkswagens, and he tried very hard to do so, but the firm’s bosses disagreed. (Imagine if they had signed the deal – by the time Studebaker closed, VW had sold well over 100,000 Beetles in the US.) Nevertheless, Hutchinson still arranged for Porsche to meet with Studebaker officials in 1952.
Ferry Porsche, Erwin Komenda, Karl Rabe, Leopold Schmid, and Max Hoffman drove a 356 coupe and their latest sedan prototype, the Type 530, to South Bend, Indiana. The 530 was not overly impressive to the Studebaker people, but Porsche’s potential prevailed and an agreement was reached.
According to the contract, the car, which would be known as the Type 542, was to be a front-engined sedan, rear-wheel-drive, and use a six cylinder (air cooled) power plant. Porsche embarked on a radical design for the time in terms of the engine. The initial proposal was an entirely air-cooled 120° 3.0L V6. This wide angle was chosen due to its inherent balance and required a less complex crankshaft. Studebaker was concerned about trouble with interior heating and noise from an air-cooled unit. Subsequently, Porsche also proposed a similar V6 using water-cooled cylinders and air-cooled heads. The heated water would then be used for a more conventional heating system, but Studebaker still felt the blower fan was too loud. Ultimately, a final entirely water-cooled iron block version of the V6 was decided upon. Iron was chosen due to obvious cost restrictions, but also because Studebaker was not well equipped to work with aluminum castings. Regardless, all versions of the V6 used aluminum heads and pistons. Fuel was fed through a single Stromberg carburetor, though Porsche had also experimented with using six Zenith carbs and even Bosch fuel injection. The engine produced 106 hp at 3,500 rpm and weighed 455 lbs.
Studebaker supplied Porsche with numerous parts (including wheels, brakes, handles, a transmission, and steering gear) for the car from their existing inventory to keep costs down and some similarity across the brand’s lineup.
The suspension was fully independent all-around. The front was rather unique in that it combined trailing links like a Beetle with coil springs. The rear was similar in design, also using trailing links with coil springs – something that would not appear on a Porsche model until the 914 in 1969.
Studebaker had always used body-on-frame chassis designs before, but the 542 called for unit body construction. While parts were constructed in South Bend, Studebaker wanted to be able to transport the unfinished cars to a final assembly plant in California. As a result, Porsche developed a removable front section that bolted on at the firewall. This allowed Studebaker to transport the bodies by special railroad cars that they had developed for their other vehicles.
Styling wise, Studebaker preferred their designer, the famed Raymond Lowey. For the prototype though, it was necessary for Porsche to have an entire car due to the unit-body construction. This was produced by Reutter who was of course also building 356s.
The 542 was completed in 1954 and after some testing in Europe, was shipped to the United States.
Unfortunately, Studebaker was struggling too much with finances due to poor sales from quality control issues and stiff competition from Detroit and that same year merged with Packard. The new management lost interest in the project as it would have been too costly to produce at the time. Studies had also shown that now the public preferred cars like the Beetle when it came to smaller cars. Porsche had been afraid of this and even proposed yet another design to Studebaker-Packard, the Type 633. This concept was surprisingly similar to the yet-to-be-born Corvair – rear engined, air-cooled, and smaller. Studebaker-Packard could not afford further development however.
Eventually, the 542 project would get some attention again in 1956 after John Z. DeLorean – then director of experimental engineering had a look at it. He was not impressed however and the project was over. In 1956, Curtis-Wright of aircraft fame took managerial control of Studebaker to try and turn the company around. Interestingly a Studebaker Lark was modified by Curtis-Wright to use a Porsche 356 drive train with Type-2 Bus gear-reduction, though this too remained a one-off. While the American firm struggled on, the project had supplied a good deal of funding to Porsche when they needed it most. While Studebaker and Packard were closing factories, Porsche was building new ones. Studebaker-Packard did manage to get a piece of the late 1950s imported car market eventually though – they became the American importers of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union before exiting the auto industry all together in the mid 1960s. (Imagine what Max Hoffman must have thought.) The rest, as they say, is history.
Much research credit must be given to Karl Ludvigsen’s articles on this topic from the mid-1970s.