“I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.”
“I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.”
Illustration for article titled The legend of the Studebaker Lark R3: An insane compact sleeper supercar that was killed before it could succeed.

This is a post I’ve been thinking about writing for a while now. As far as “What if?” cars go, this is one of the most interesting in my mind, and I think the story behind it is fascinating. What is the big deal about this car, you ask? Well, to put it simply, not only could it blow the doors off just about any other car on the road in a straight line, but it was also said to be quite good in the corners and had extremely good brakes for the time. It did 0-60 in about six seconds, could do quarter mile passes in the 12-second range, and topped out at a whopping 150 miles per hour (160 if you went with different rear-end gearing). The engine was equipped with a Paxton supercharger producing over six pounds of boost, and redlined at 7,000 rpm, though at 6,000 rpm it could supposedly produce 400+ horsepower. And this was back in 1964.

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How did this unassuming-looking monster of a car come to be? Well, it all starts in the early 1960's, with Studebaker facing certain demise. They had recently released the Lark compact car, which was selling well, but with competition from the big three appearing, the future was looking more grim by the second. In February 1961, Sherwood Egbert became president of Studebaker, and was not only fighting to keep the dying company alive, but was also fighting for his own life thanks to cancer. With little hope of the company’s survival, he decided that if Studebaker was going down, it would go down in a blaze of glory.

Within months, two apparent miracles resulted: Raymond Loewy’s stunning Avanti and Brooks Stevens’ facelifted Lark and Hawk. This new Lark is important, because with it came the sportier Lark Daytona, which was the basis for some really cool stuff later on.

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Avanti
Avanti
Hawk
Hawk
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Lark Daytona
Lark Daytona

The Avanti especially attracted a lot of attention, and a special car needs a special engine, so Studebaker built the R1 and R2 289-cid V8 engines, which had 240 and 289 horsepower respectively, although Studebaker didn’t advertise this to the public, preferring to let the cars’ performance speak for itself. As fate would have it, they ran into a problem. The company that was supposed to make the fiberglass bodies for the Avanti was busy making Corvettes, so Studebaker ran into delays while they transferred manufacturing to their own plant. In the meantime, though, Egbert had the idea of putting the R1 and R2 engines in the Lark and Hawk. Which he did.

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The resulting R1 and R2 Super Larks and Hawks were forces to be reckoned with. The R2 engine’s Paxton supercharger gave it slightly different acceleration characteristics than other fast cars of the era, which could result in unexpected victory for Studebaker drivers in races as the horsepower increased with speed. Unfortunately, despite their impressive performance, these new cars were slow sellers.

A Lark Daytona convertible, one of several cars the R1 and R2 engines could be had in. You could even get it in a station wagon if you wanted!
A Lark Daytona convertible, one of several cars the R1 and R2 engines could be had in. You could even get it in a station wagon if you wanted!
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Studebaker’s reluctance to release stats on the engines not only made people reluctant to buy them, but it meant they weren’t allowed to compete in professional drag racing either, which limited people’s exposure to what the cars were actually capable of. Studebaker was betting everything on publicity generated from land speed record attempts. As Studebaker started setting land speed records in their Avantis, the engines once again proved to be quite good. Soon, they were developing new R3 and R4 engines for these land speed record endeavors.

These new engines were heavily modified versions of the 289 V8. They were both enlarged to 304.5cid, and the R3 featured a supercharger like the R2, while the R4 had two four barrel carburetors and 12:1 compression, makind 290 hp. The R3 was the more powerful of the two, with the factory rating it at 335 hp at 5,350 rpm - though it could make as much as 400 hp in the 6,000 rpm range - and 320 foot-lbs at 4,000 rpm. A monstrous 575 hp R5 engine was also built, but it was exclusively for land speed record attempts and never intended for production. It did push an Avanti past 190 mph, though.

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Back in the world of production cars, Egbert figured if the R1 and R2 engines were good in road cars, then the R3 and R4 would be good too. He had every intention of putting these engines into production as options for the Avanti, Hawk, and Lark, and he most likely would have, except that this is the part where the story gets a bit sad. As his battle with cancer became too difficult, he stepped down in November 1963. One month later, his replacement, Byers Burlingame, shut down the South Bend production plant where all the performance cars were being built. Burlingame didn’t care about going out with a bang, he only saw that the performance car program was expensive and not the best way to squeeze as much money as possible out of the company before it died.

The 1964 Lark R3 did enter production, but only for an absurdly brief period of time before the order came to shut production down. And within that brief period of time, publications took awhile to publish Studebaker’s achievements in setting land speed records, so few people were aware of the R3 Lark or what it could do. However, just days before production was shut down, a man named David Lee Benson marched into a dealership in New York and placed an order for an R3 Lark, paying for it on the spot. Because it was already paid for, Studebaker was contractually obliged to build the car for him, so they did and he became the owner of the only R3 Lark ever sold to the public. Luckily, that car still exists and despite being pretty far gone, it has been restored. You can read more of its story here:https://www.hemmings.com/blog/article/south-bend-stealth-1964-studebaker-super-lark-r3/

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In the Hemmings article, they ask Nelson Bove (the guy who restored the R3 Lark) what it’s like to drive. I’m not going to paste his entire description here, but I will say it’s definitely worth a read. His description of the car sounds amazing.

Before production of the Lark R3 was cancelled, journalists from various publications got to test prototype R3 Larks, and all were impressed, talking excitedly about the quick acceleration, 150 mph top speed, and good handling. It definitely makes me wonder what could’ve been if they had just gotten the chance to make a few more of the things. Perhaps it would’ve gone on to be as iconic as the Mustang and GTO. Perhaps Studebaker could’ve become one of the biggest names in the original golden age of the muscle car, rather than dying sad death making Wagonaires and Lark sedans in Canada. But what’s done is done, and now the R3 Studebakers are all but forgotten. I guess it was just too little too late...

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