Imagine a family "crossover" with third-row seating, an optional high-horsepower supercharged engine, and the load-carrying ability of a small pickup truck--and on top of all that, it's got the world's biggest sunroof! Impossible, you say? Well ...
Here's something for you to see, it's the swingingest wagon that'll ever be. You've never seen any car to compare with the brand new Lark Daytona Wagonaire!
In the early 1960s, Studebaker may have been in decline, but it wasn't going down without a fight. The 1963 model year saw a burst of creativity all out of proportion to the company's market share. While the timelessly beautiful Avanti got a lot of the attention, the most important car in Studebaker's lineup in terms of sales was the compact Lark.
The Lark had been created in 1959 by an ingenious re-engineering of the company's full-size sedans. Studebaker kept the passenger section but shortened the wheelbase and replaced the front clip and the trunk with shorter body panels, creating a "compact" with the interior room of a full-sized car.
Though it would probably never be called "beautiful" or "striking", the 1959 Lark had a certain friendly cuteness about it, like an eager mixed-breed puppy. Happily for Studebaker, the restyling coincided with a shift in public tastes away from garish ornamentation and big tail fins and toward a more understated look. By the way, any resemblance of the front end to the W111 ("Fintail") Mercedes was purely intentional; at that time, Mercedes-Benz was sold in the U.S. through Studebaker's dealer network.
For the 1963 model year, industrial designer Brooks Stevens (who made amazingly cost-effective annual styling changes to the Lark and Hawk models in Studebaker's final years) came up with the Wagonaire, a variation on the Lark wagon in which the rear half of the roof retracted into the front. As the commercial shows, this allowed the Wagonaire to carry tall objects in its cargo area. It was also the world's biggest sunroof. Passengers in the optional third-row seat, like the kids and dog in the commercial, had a panoramic view of the sky and the road. The large roof opening would also allow the car to cool off in hot weather, an important consideration in the days when air conditioning was an expensive extra-cost option.
The Lark was intended as basic transportation, but you could get it in 1963 and 1964 with one of the high-performance Avanti engines, either the supercharged R2 or the bored-out fire-breathing R3, and a four-speed transmission. The "Daytona" trim package included front bucket seats and a center console. Thus it was possible to option out a Lark Wagonaire as a supercharged four-on-the-floor muscle car with bucket seats, though few customers (if any) actually did this.
Unfortunately, the Wagonaire leaked where the sliding panel joined the front half of the roof. The problem was eventually fixed by a redesigned seal, but it was another case of a Studebaker's too-tight development budget coming back to haunt it. The leak problems not only led to damp carpeting in the cargo area, they also dampened sales. While the initial plan had been to offer all Lark wagons with the Wagonaire sliding roof, a fixed-roof version (available as a "delete" option) was rushed back into production in January of 1963.
Still, the Wagonaire remained in the lineup through the 1965 model year--even after Studebaker abandoned South Bend and moved all production to Canada. The 1966 Studebaker wagon was still called a "Wagonaire," even though it no longer boasted a sliding roof.
The retractable-roof idea enjoyed a brief revival a generation later. In 2003, General Motors offered the GMC Envoy "XUV" with a sliding rear roof panel. The Envoy's roof was power operated, and the Envoy also featured a retractable "mid-gate" to partition the rear seat off from the cargo area when the roof was open.
The retractable-roof Envoy didn't sell any better than the Wagonaire, and it was discontinued in 2005. This experience suggests that the quasi-convertible retracting-roof station wagon is one of those clever product ideas that doesn't appeal to enough people to make it a winning economic proposition. Which only makes a quasi-convertible retracting-roof station wagon all that much more an object of Car Lust.
Imagine a sunny day in 1963. Dad and Mom load the kids and the dog up in the Lark Daytona Wagonaire for a trip to Montgomery Ward or Woolworth's to get the new swing set. On the way home, the family finds itself at a stoplight, kids and dog in the back, pre-assembled slide sticking out through the open roof, next to some boy racer in his tricked-out hot rod. Dad checks the mirrors and looks up and down the cross-street--no cops. When the light turns green, Dad pops the clutch and unleashes the supercharged R3, giving the kids a thrill, giving Mom a scare, and giving Johnny Dragstrip the surprise of his young life. Now that would be something to see.
The vintage commercial was posted to YouTube by user "weekenddriver", and is an example of Studebaker's "mad men" getting one right for a change. (I particularly like the jingle.) The advertising image of the Cub Scouts holding a den meeting in a '63 Wagonaire came from this compilation of vintage Studebaker illustrations. Gary Ash of Dartmouth, Massachusetts owns the lovely black '65 Wagonaire, and posted several shots of it on his personal website. The photo above shows Gary's Wagonaire being used as a prop in a fashion catalog shoot. Gary also has a fixed roof '63 Lark wagon and a '48 M-5 pickup truck, and used to own a 1953 "Loewy coupe." I'm insanely jealous of him.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner