LIFE AND DEATH OF A GIANT
Edited By Richard Quinn
(This article appeared in Richard Quinn's "The Studebaker Almanac" column in September, 2004 issue of Turning Wheels and represents an edited version of one which appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of The Antique Studebaker Review a publication of the Antique Studebaker Club Inc.)
In the 1920s and 30s, Studebaker was one of the most prominent national companies insofar as advertising and publicity were concerned. Of course, the principal mediums of national advertising during that era were the magazines and, to a lesser degree, the newspapers. Today's collector of Studebaker magazine ads can attest to both the exceptional quality and quantity of ads run in a wide variety of periodicals during that era.
Of course, Studebaker had a full line of attractive offerings to publicize with both six and eight cylinder engines and numerous body styles. They could also publicize their remarkable achievements in both speed and endurance runs held throughout the country. By the late 20s, Studebaker could boast of holding every official endurance and speed record for fully equipped stock cars regardless of power or price.
Radio was becoming increasingly popular and Studebaker was quick to recognize the advertising potential of the new medium. On Sunday evening, Feb. 3, 1929 at 10:15 p.m. EST, the Studebaker Champions Orchestra led by Jean Goldkette was introduced to listeners for the first time. The program became quite popular and by 1930, Studebaker ranked third behind only Ford and GM in money spent on radio advertising. In many listener surveys the band itself was ranked at or near the top. The "Champions" name was an obvious reference to the championship performance exhibited by the Studebaker cars on the speedways and roadways of America. To emphasize the connection, the band often posed for publicity photos wearing pit crew type white coveralls. In the early 1930s Richard Himber replaced Goldkette as conductor of the orchestra and he remained in that role for nearly ten years.
Studebaker was preparing to introduce a new line of cars in the spring of 1930 and someone devised a brilliant plan to combine this introduction with the Studebaker orchestra, the second anniversary of the President record runs at Atlantic City, and the new medium of talking pictures. The plan involved the creation of a movie short that would combine an entertaining and enjoyable sound motion picture with some not so subtle Studebaker advertising. The focal point in the cinematic production would be a new 1931 model 80 Studebaker Four Season Roadster. While the movie would be primarily a musical production, it also contain a clever plot of young love. The movie's opening scenes show a young couple riding through the country on a beautiful spring day in their new President roadster. Seeing a field of flowers, the young lady (Florence Lawrence) requests of her companion (Ted Pearson) to stop while she gathers a bouquet. While waiting for her to return, the young man turns on the car radio and falls asleep. In his reverie, he sees a monstrous car identical to his own but loaded with peppy musicians who regale him with popular tunes.
Of course, the featured prop in the film is the "monstrous" car. To create this behemoth would require the talents of sixty men and three months' labor to complete. The task fell to the Studebaker craftsmen in Paul Auman's experimental body department. They were certainly no strangers to woodworking, since prior to the use of clay in creating prototype models they were made of wood – pine to be specific. The only difference in this case would be the proportions!
The length of the car they created was 41 feet with a wheelbase of 325". It was 13 1/2 feet high, 15 feet wide, and weighed 5 1/2 tons. The wire wheels were the most exacting to make and each one was six feet eight inches in diameter and weighed 600 lbs ** . Firestone made the specially constructed tires, which replicated the originals to perfection. The steering wheel was 44" in diameter and the oval head lights 33 1/2". The huge dimensions of the car can be attested by the fact that 22 members of the Studebaker Champions Orchestra were accommodated in the driver's compartment with ample additional room for eight or ten more.
The movie was entitled "Wild Flowers," and it was directed by Alf Goulding, who had worked with such notables as Bebe Daniels and Harold Lloyd. Just prior to this production, he had directed "Hells Angels" which, at this time, was an extremely successful film.
Three popular songs of the day were a part of the presentation, "Lovely Lady," "Blue Skies," and "I Love You Truly." The Champions' signature song, "Falling In Love With You" serves as the theme song for the film. The orchestra was led by Victor Young. Vocal harmony was provided by three personable young ladies referred to as Wynken, Blynken & Nod, while Bill Moyer's educated feet stepped through a series of intricate and rhythmic tap dances on the hood of the behemoth!
The film was shot at the Studebaker Proving Ground. The big car was situated on a hillside a few hundred yards west of the garages. Though it was pretty barren at that time, the second letter "E" of the STUDEBAKER tree sign would cover that even today.
The film lasted only nine minutes and was meant as a "filler" for theater managers to fill out a program. According to Studebaker publicity, it played extensively in RKO theaters coast-to-coast. An industry publication entitled "Exhibitors Daily Review And Motion Pictures Today" said this about the film:
One of the cleverest, if not the best, advertising reel we have ever seen is one just produced on behalf of the Studebaker automobile. It brings in the Studebaker Champions, so well known to radio audiences, and they use a giant motor car as the stage for their entertainment. The music is excellent, the treatment is novel, and the sum total is far and away superior to nine out of ten of the short subjects now on the market as legitimate show material.
We are sure many copies of this film were released but sadly, despite years of looking, your editor has been unable to locate a copy. If any of our members have access to old film archives, we would love to learn of the survival of at least one reel of "Wild Flowers."
There can be no doubt that Paul Auman's craftsmen did a marvelous job in creating the monster car. Some have pointed out, however, that it lacks the dual side mounts which were standard on all production President roadsters. The likely reason for this "error" is that the decision to offer the dual side mounts was made after the wood car had already been started. Side mount tires were not available on the 1929-30 Model FH roadster until just before production ceased. Photos of 1931 model 80 prototypes in your editor's research files show wood mock-ups with rear mounted spares. Another possible reason for the omission is the cost and time in creating the side mount, with tire, and the difficulty in mounting and supporting the weight. Two other minor discrepencies were the positioning of the rumble seat step plate on the driver's side rather than the passenger side and making the rumble seat lid in a single piece rather than two piece as on the production cars.
WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO THE GIANT CAR
Shortly after the film was shot, the car was carefully disassembled and moved a quarter mile to the north along a prominent knoll a few hundred yards west of the Proving Ground gate. This placed it in clear view of motorists traveling along State Route 2, a major thoroughfare running west from South Bend. It became a much admired and photographed advertisement outliving by many years its original purpose as a movie prop. Hundreds of people, from dealers to circus fat ladies, had their pictures taken with the car.
As time passed, the extremes of the northern Indiana climate began to take its toll on the giant, as did vandals and souvenir hunters. The car was originally painted the two shades of green, a very popular and attractive color used on the production models. As a result of the weathering it was given a new coat of red paint in about 1934.
By the spring of 1936, company officials felt it had outlived its usefulness as a symbol of Studebaker achievement. In addition, it looked nothing like the new '36 models. It was decided that its destruction would be as remarkable as its creation. After removing two of its tires and wheels and the taillight, it was coated with an accelerant by pretty 22-year-old Miss Jesse Meyer (recently hired as secretary for President Paul G. Hoffman). On May 17, 1936, with the South Bend Fire Department standing at the ready, a torch was applied to the oil-soaked wood and within seconds the entire car was engulfed in flames leaping 80 feet into the air. In less than 30 minutes, where once a giant car that had held its post and caught the admiring eye of thousands had stood, nothing remained but a gray heap of ashes.
The success and popularity of the giant wooden car lead Studebaker officials to create a similar Giant car for the 1934 Chicago Worlds Fair. This car represented the new aerodynamic Land Cruiser body and it was made of plaster. So large was it that it housed a movie theater capable of seating 80 people who were treated to promotional films showing Studebaker cars being endurance tested.
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