Raymond Loewy at the Studebaker Proving Grounds with a ’53 Studebaker Starliner. The Starliner hardtop and its pillared coupe sibling, the Starlight, are commonly called “the Loewy Coupes.” In fact, these still-beautiful cars were almost 100% the work of Robert Bourke who was assigned by Loewy to the Studebaker account.
Unquestionably the man who put the term “Industrial Design” into our lexicon was Raymond Loewy. Loewy was involved in many design projects over his long life but one of his longest-running associations was with Studebaker.
Born in Paris on 5 November, 1893, Loewy was the son of a Jewish journalist of Austrian origin, Maximilian Loewy, and a French mother, Marie Labalme. Loewy achieved an early accomplishment with the design of a successful model aircraft, which then won the Gordon Bennett Cup in 1908. By the following year, he had commercial sales of the plane, named the Ayrel.
Loewy served in the French army during World War I, attaining the rank of Captain. He was wounded in combat and received the Croix de Guerre.
Loewy came to the U.S. in the early 1920s. He settled in New York where he found work as a window designer for Macy’s and Sak’s in New York and for the Wannamaker department store in Philadelphia. He also worked as a fashion illustrator for the magazines Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. In 1929 he received his first industrial-design commission, a project to contemporize the appearance of a duplicating machine by Gestetner. Gestetner used Loewy’s design for 40 years.
Loewy in his New York office
Further commissions followed, including work for Westinghouse, the Hupp Motor Company (Hupmobile cars). Loewy had been brought on as a consultant to Hupp in 1930. He called the Hupp contract “the beginning of industrial design as a legitimate profession,” explaining that it was “the first time a large corporation accepted the idea of getting outside advice in the development of their products.” The Hupp contract also marked the beginning of Loewy’s long and often frustrating association with American automobile manufacturers. However, it was his design for the Coldspot refrigerator for Sears-Roebuck that truly established Loewy’s reputation as an industrial designer.
Loewy’s Coldspot refrigerator for Sears-Roebuck. This design really launched his career as an industrial designer, moving him away from the fashion industry.
Loewy opened a London office in the mid-1930s, an office continues to operate even today, 24 years after his death.
Before it was proven that smoking tobacco causes lung cancer and other diseases, tobacco was a big industry. American Tobacco’s Lucky Strike brand, now almost impossible to find in the U.S., was the #1 selling cigarette brand in the country, closely followed in sales by R.J. Reynolds’ Camel. Loewy did one of his earliest packaged goods designs in his redesign of the Lucky Strike packaging.
Loewy redesigned the Lucky Strike package, one of his first consumer goods package designs.
In 1937, Loewy established a relationship with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and his most notable designs for the firm were their passenger locomotives. He designed a streamlined shroud for the engine and tender for his newly redesigned 1938 Broadway Limited. He followed by styling the experimental S1 locomotive. Only one example of the S1 was built due to mechanical issues with the engine and driving wheels, issues Loewy was not responsible for.
Loewy and the Pennsylvania Railroad S1, above, and (below) the
Broadway Limited with a 1938 Studebaker President.
In addition to locomotive design, Loewy’s firm designed stations, passenger car interiors, and advertising materials for the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Loewy’s twenty year relationship with Studebaker began in 1936 when Studebaker first retained Loewy and Associates as design consultants. Virgil Exner became Loewy’s principal designer for the Studebaker account. The Loewy/Exner designs first began appearing with the late-1930s Studebakers. Loewy himself designed a new logo which replaced the “turning wheel” which had been Studebaker’s trademark since 1912.
Loewy was a gifted designer who was also gifted with the ability to promote himself and his firm. Some say, in both the positive and pejorative meanings of the term, that his true talent was in self-promotion, the pejorative context implying that Loewy had an outsized ego, a charge which certainly contains a large element of truth. Along with his talent for self-promotion, Loewy also had an ability to spot talent and hire these talented people to work for him. Two cases in point are his hirings of Virgil Exner and Robert Bourke.
Studebaker had had a close call with death during the Depression. The company had traditionally targeted the mid-price market. The Depression showed them that they needed a volume car to cover their overhead. Loewy and Exner gave Studebaker the answer with the Champion, a true low-priced car that also gave the cars owners good value. The Champion was introduced in 1939 and was a hit for Studebaker.
1939 Studebaker Champion
The Champion exhibited some key Loewy ideas. The principal Loewy idea that became a mantra with Studebaker that stayed with the company in one form or another right up to the end of Studebaker auto production in 1966 was “weight is the enemy.” Care was taken to pare weight from the Champion, allowing it to get good performance and economy from a small 6 cylinder engine.
After the launch of the Champion, Exner – not known for having a small ego and being ambitious himself – began to chafe working for Exner. As civilian auto production ended in February, 1942 in order for all U.S. automakers to convert to production of war materials, GM, Ford and Chrysler were not allowed by the FDR administration to do automotive design work until the war ended. Because Studebaker’s styling was outsourced to Loewy, Studebaker was able to develop and launch the first all-new post-war car. This car was largely the work of Robert Bourke. Exner was still on Loewy’s staff at Studebaker, but teamed up with Studebaker’s VP of Engineering, Roy Cole, to do a clandestine design in hopes of torpedoing Bourke’s design. The target aimed at by Exner and Cole was not Bourke, but Loewy. Exner wanted to become Studebaker’s chief stylist and Cole encouraged this because of an animosity he held toward Loewy. It was quite a nasty palace intrigue. Loewy and Bourke won out and Exner left, landing later at Chrysler. At Chrysler, Exner distinguished himself with the “100 Million Dollar Look” ’55 – ’56 models and the “Forward Look” ’57s. By 1959, Exner had lost most of his magic and became known as “Virgil Excess.”
1947 Studebaker Champion – largely the work of Robert Bourke on the Loewy team at Studebaker.
One of the most memorable Loewy/Bourke Studebaker designs is the 1950-1951 “bullet nose.” These cars were largely the same as the ’47s from the firewall back, but the new front clip made them one of the three most iconic Studebakers ever built.
The iconic ’50 Studebaker “bullet nose,” this one being a Champion Regal convertible.
Studebaker’s 100th Anniversary was in 1952. The company wanted to bring out a new anniversary model but was unable to finish the work in time for the introduction of the 1952 cars. Much of the design work involved retaining inner panels from the 1947 design but putting newly-styled body panels on the outside. At the same time, Robert Bourke wanted to design a sporty coupe concept car for the show circuit. Loewy sold management on this project and it quickly morphed into what became the most famous Studebaker design of all, the Starliner/Starlight coupes.
A publicity shot of Loewy “working” on a model of the proposed ’52 100th Anniversary Studebaker. Robert Bourke stands behind Loewy.
The proposed 100th Anniversary car was shelved. Instead, for the 1952 100th Anniversary year, a new front clip that in some ways prefigured the front end of the 1953 Studebakers was added to the ’47 body, eliminating the “bullet nose” of ’50 and ’51.
In a previous “Gear Head Tuesday” post, we saw how Bourke’s show car concept became a production reality. In another post, we read how Studebaker made mistakes with the 1953 cars that unleashed a chain of events that ultimately saw the end of Studebaker auto production. Aside from the production issues with the Starliner/Starlight coupes that were the result of Studebaker not setting up a pilot production line to sort the building of the cars out, management refused to build the sedans based on the coupe body, wanting to re-use inner panels (as they had planned to do with the Anniversary model) from the ’47 design. The result, as we saw in the previous posts, was a dumpy-looking foreshortened sedan design that did not sell well; sales further hurt by the price war between Chevrolet and Ford in 1953 and 1954. Even as persuasive as Loewy was, he couldn’t talk Studebaker management into building the sedans the way Bourke and Loewy wanted. Given the reception the public gave the Starliner/Starlight coupes, it is likely that had Loewy and Bourke had their way with the sedan design, Studebaker would not have been so badly hurt by the war between Chevrolet and Ford.
Studebaker should have built its 1953 sedans on the coupe body as shown above. This is what Loewy and Bourke wanted to do. Instead, the sedans were built on a foreshortened and taller version of the coupe design that retained many inner body panels from the 1947 design. Packard president James Nance hated the looks of the Studebaker sedans, dismissing them as having “the drooping penis look.”
The 1953 Starliner/Starlight coupes are a landmark design. These cars are as beautiful today as they were in 1953. The design influenced car design for 50 years after, including Ford’s 1964 1/2 Mustang. Commonly called “the Loewy coupes,” the Starliner was the first car to be displayed in the New York Museum of Modern Art. While Loewy happily took credit for Bourke’s design, he hardly put a pencil to it. Bourke had an almost completely free hand with the design, down to and including the details of the interior including the design of the door and window handles and the switches on the instrument panel.
Another publicity photo of Loewy in Bourke’s 1953 Commander Starliner, taken at the Studebaker Proving Grounds.
When Studebaker and Packard merged in 1954, Packard president James Nance set out to launch a new line of cars for both Packard and Studebaker that shared most body shell components. Nance hated the design of the Studebaker sedans, referring to them as having “the drooping penis look.” He sought to terminate Loewy’s contract with Studebaker and install his own people in Studebaker styling. Thus Vince Gardner was sent to Studebaker to restyle Studebaker’s sedans for 1956 with orders to “square them up and make them more GM-like.” The last work done for Studebaker under the existing Loewy contract was Robert Bourke’s restyle of his svelte coupe design into the 1956 Studebaker Hawks.
Robert Bourke’s restyle for Loewy of his ’53 coupe design into the ’56 Studebaker Hawks. The Golden Hawk was powered by a Packard V-8.
While Loewy is famous for his company’s work for Studebaker, he left his mark on many other areas of design. He redesigned the iconic Coca-Cola bottle, changing the logo from being part of the glass into a painted “Coca-Cola” on one side of the bottle and, for the first time, added the word “Coke” to the bottle. He designed the Coke fountain dispenser and Coke’s first metal can.
Loewy designed the livery for the Boeing 707 that became the first Air Force One. A variation of that design are still used today on the current 747 flown as Air Force One.
Loewy designed the livery for the original Air Force One
In addition to designing the livery for Air Force One, Loewy was called upon to design the interior of the supersonic jet Concorde.
While we “Gear Heads” remember Loewy for his work at Studebaker, he also did work for British car builder Hillman. The Loewy touch is seen on logos he did for Exxon, Shell, Hoover and Nabisco. Loewy worked with NASA to make space capsules more habitable for astronauts.
Loewy with a sampling of his work
Although James Nance terminated Loewy’s contract with Studebaker when the ’56 Hawks were finished, that was not the last of Loewy’s work for Studebaker. As we saw last Tuesday, in 1961 Studebaker president Sherwood Egbert called upon Loewy to design the Studebaker Avanti.
Loewy’s own sketch for the Avanti
In an exhibit of Loewy’s life work at the Smithsonian, an Avanti was displayed.
The Avanti had to be turned on its side to get it into the Smithsonian
In addition to his offices in New York and London, Loewy established offices in Paris and Freibourg, Switzerland. Ultimately Loewy returned to live in his native France. After a period of poor health, he died at his home in Monte Carlo at the age of 92 on 14 July, 1986. Through the offices Loewy established around the globe, his work continues even today.