By Ken Newton | News-Press NOW
They have a name for these discoveries, metal hulks seen from time to time in fields and barns and vacant lots. Call them “diamonds in the rust.”
John and Diane Crooks recognize them in just that way. The St. Joseph couple has owned more than 40 Studebaker automobiles during their marriage, some coming their way in good shape, others as full-on rescues.
They share a love for the cars and the history of a company central to the nation’s development, a builder of wagons that helped settle the West before shifting with the times and turning its attention to motor vehicles.
Along the way, Studebaker had a couple of significant links to St. Joseph’s past.
John thinks he understands the appeal.
”You always hear where someone said, ‘Gee, my uncle used to drive a Studebaker or my grandpa used to drive a Studebaker,’” he said. “So they have some fond memories.”
On the Iowa farm where John Crooks grew up, his father had a 1946 Studebaker grain truck. In those days, he had not been a big fan of the car company.
”When I was a teenager, I always said if I tried to get a girl in a Studebaker, I never would have gotten a girl to go out with me,” he laughed.
But there was that one car, an eye-catcher, a 1953 Studebaker Commander. John spotted one in Rhode Island when he served there in the Navy. He tried to buy it but it didn’t work out.
A better catch was Diane, a Rhode Island native whom he married. A new bride, she would help him the day he found another car he liked, a 1955 Commander, low-slung and sporty, but in rough shape.
”It had been used for a rabbit hutch,” he recalled. “You find one and you feel like you need to save them all.”
He had no garage, and he did the repairs outside at his mother-in-law’s house.
”It wasn’t very impressive, no,” Diane said. “I have, over the years, seen what he can do. What you start off with and what you end up with are totally different things. He’s good at what he does.”
During their moves, first to Iowa and then to St. Joseph in 1970, they stayed alert for other Studebakers. They would find them and, with John’s mechanical talents, would restore them to his purposes.
That is, as transportation. He needed to drive to work.
”I’m not a purist,” he said. “I do them to suit myself.”
Along the way, John and Diane, who joined the Studebaker Drivers Club in 1972, learned more about the company’s history.
Two brothers, Henry and Clement Studebaker, opened a blacksmith shop in South Bend, Indiana, in 1852. Another brother, John, would buy out Henry in ensuing years.
They thrived in the manufacture of wagons for the trip to the California gold fields and wheelbarrows for the work once they arrived. During the Civil War, many gun carriages and ambulance wagons came from South Bend.
So widespread did the business become that the Studebaker brothers decided to locate “repositories” around the country where the wagons could be repaired or modified. The first site, in 1870, was on Fourth Street in St. Joseph.
Peter Studebaker, another brother, opened the repository and, in 1885, built for his daughter, Mary, a Queen Anne-style house that still stands on North Fifth Street. She had married a local man, Nelson Riley, partner in a St. Joseph manufacturing firm.
The Studebakers dropped all horse-drawn vehicle production in 1920 and went full-bore into car-making. But the company fell into financial straits during the Great Depression, only to revive itself in the post-war years.
Success came with models like the Hawk and the Lark, but financial problems persisted, as did the competition from Detroit. The last Studebaker came off the assembly line on March 17, 1966.
(One other St. Joseph tie: Studebaker, then in partnership with Packard, negotiated a $10 million purchase price for a petroleum product made by the locally owned Chemical Compound Co. It was called STP, sold in 1961, its manufacturing moved two years later from St. Joseph to South Bend.)
The Crooks’ house has numerous pieces of Studebaker memorabilia, including a display of STP cans, the ones made in St. Joseph with the word “Magic” featured prominently.
The couple now have four Studebaker models, a Lark, a Grand Turismo Hawk, a Daytona Sports Sedan and an Avanti II.
As Drivers Club members, they’ve traveled from coast to coast attending international meets, Tacoma, Washington, last year and Dover, Delaware, at one point. Regulars include Studebaker owners from Australia and Denmark, and friends show up from most American states.
John and Diane do not seem as though their car brand passion has maxed out.
”I’ve fixed some and I’ve sold some, and some I’ve given up on,” John said. He adds, though, “You find a Studebaker sitting around someplace and you say, gee whiz, I ought to get that fixed up instead of it rusting away or going to the junkyard.”