On this day in 1871, Albert Russell Erskine, who headed up the pioneering American automaker Studebaker before it went bankrupt during the Great Depression, is born in Huntsville, Alabama.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Erskine worked for such companies as American Cotton and Underwood Typewriter, before joining South Bend, Indiana-based Studebaker in 1911. The origins of the Studebaker Corporation date back to 1852, when brothers Henry and Clement Studebaker opened a blacksmith shop in South Bend. Studebaker eventually became a leading manufacturer of horse-drawn wagons and supplied wagons to the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Around the turn of the century, the company entered America’s burgeoning auto industry, launching an electric car in 1902 and a gas-powered vehicle two years later that was marketed under the name Studebaker-Garford. After partnering with other automakers, Studebaker began selling gas-powered cars under its own name in 1913, while continuing to make wagons until 1920.
Albert Erskine became the president of Studebaker in 1915. Under his leadership, the company acquired luxury automaker Pierce-Arrow in the late 1920s and launched the affordably priced but short-lived Erskine and Rockne lines, the latter of which was named for the famous University of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne (1888-1931). During the early 1930s, Studebaker was hit hard by the Great Depression and Erskine was accused of financial mismanagement. In March 1933, the company was forced into bankruptcy. Erskine, who was saddled with personal debt and health problems, killed himself on July 1, 1933, at the age of 62.
New management got the company back on track, dropping the Rockne brand in July 1933 and selling Pierce-Arrow, among other consolidation moves. In January 1935, the new Studebaker Corporation was incorporated. In the late 1930s, the French-born industrial designer Raymond Loewy began working for Studebaker and would be credited with popular models including the bullet-nosed 1953 Starliner and Starlight coupes and the 1963 Avanti sports coupe.
By the mid-1950s, Studebaker, which didn’t have the resources of its Big Three competitors, had merged with automaker Packard and was again facing financial troubles. By the late 1950s, the Packard brand was dropped. In December 1963, Studebaker shuttered its South Bend plant, ending the production of its cars and trucks in America. The company’s Hamilton, Ontario, facilities remained in operation until March 1966, when Studebaker shut its doors for the final time after 114 years in business.
In April 2009, Chrysler became the first major American automaker since Studebaker to declare bankruptcy.