Introducing the Studebaker Lark
The Lark was Studebaker’s entry into the compact car field that eventually would include the Ford Falcon, Rambler American and Plymouth Valiant. These cars were all about low purchase price and operating costs, and they featured not-too-impressive, down-on-power, four- and six-cylinder engines.
The standard Lark had been driving volume, but competition from Ford, Chrysler, and GM had cut into its market share. Studebaker needed more traffic through their showrooms. The solution lay in Lark’s engine bay, which had been designed to accept Studebaker’s stout V8 engine, in an albeit small-displacement version.
While Ed Cole and his team at GM had created what we now know as the small-block Chevrolet, an engine compact, simple and inexpensive to produce. A few years earlier, Studebaker engineers designed their own V8 engine, and had gone a completely different direction.
The Studebaker engine was stout where the Chevy small block was light. Main-bearing area was larger than that of the contemporary Chrysler Hemi. Crankshaft and rods were all forged. Lifters were solid and acted on forged, shaft-mounted rocker arms. Cam timing was by gear drive.
Eighteen bolts secured each cylinder head, more than most contemporary V8s. And it was powerful. In 1951, the engine produced more power per cubic inch than any other available American engine, save the Hemi.
The Studebaker V8 had been continually enlarged through the 1950s and early 1960s. First to 259, then 289, and eventually 304.5 cubic inches. But it’s the 289 version that most interests us now.
The push toward performance was led by Studebaker’s president Sherman Egbert, who told Automotive News in 1963 that “a new corporate image of speed, performance and durability would attract the nation’s younger buyers into Studebaker showrooms.”
So, the V8 that had been upgraded for higher-line models such as the Hawk and the Avanti would now be installed into the compact Lark.
Larks equipped with the high-performance engines were most-easily identified though the R designation, which actually referenced the engine configuration. There would be an R1 and R2 powered versions of the Lark, along with an R3 and R4, which were highly tuned V8s of very limited production.
The R1 Lark of 1963-1964 was fitted with a normally aspirated Studebaker 289 V8 modified with a 10.25:1 compression ratio, a Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor, a high-lift long-duration camshaft, a dual-point distributor, and an upgraded metal timing gear. In this form, the engine was named the Jet-Thrust and produced 240 horsepower at 4,500 rpm delivered through a close-ratio Borg Warner T-10 four-speed, the same manual transmission as installed in the Corvette, fitted with a floor-mounted Hurst shifter.
More horsepower came wit the Studebaker Lark R2, with a supercharged 289 V8.
McCulloch had started in the 1930s as a company that manufactured superchargers for both OEM and aftermarket applications. Founder and owner Bob McCulloch sold the original company to Borg Warner, then formed yet another producing lawn-mower and chain-saw engines. The he added the goal of developing and selling a modern, low-cost OEM and aftermarket supercharger.
That came in the form of the VS57 centrifugal supercharger, marketed as a Paxton, which was Robert McCulloch’s middle name, likely to avoid conflict with Borg Warner. The VS57 was driven off the crankshaft by a V-belt with a variable speed pulley that generated relatively high boost at low engine rpm.
The goal was to improve low-end power, then reduce the added boost from the intake path for improved fuel economy. McCulloch sold the supercharger business in 1958 to the Granatelli brothers, who in turn sold it to Studebaker in 1962.
First installed in the 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk with a 289 V8, the Paxton VS57 drove power to 275 horsepower at 4,500 rpm through a two-barrel carburetor, as much power as the 120-pound heavier Packard 352 CID V8 that Studebaker had acquired in the merger of the two companies.
For even greater performance, Studebaker again turn to Paxton for a fixed-ratio supercharger that would increase power across the entire rpm range. That unit is the SN-60 and was basically a VS57 without the variable speed pulley. It delivered six pounds of boost.
The 289 V8 Jet-Thrust R2 engine featured larger-chamber cylinder heads used on Studebaker trucks and a Carter 625 CFM AFB blown by a Paxton SN-60 supercharger. It developed 289 horsepower at 4,500 rpm, achieving one horsepower per cubic inch.
When an order for the Lark R1 or R2 was submitted with an ‘88A’ code on the form, the car would be equipped with HD springs, shocks and sway bars front and rear, a Dana 44 rear axle fitted with one-piece forged axle shafts, a twin-Traction limited slip differential and an available 4.55:1 final drive. Two-piston Bendix 11-inch disc brakes front and a close-ratio Borg Warner T10 completed the performance upgrades. These items were also available on an individual line order basis. Halibrand magnesium alloy wheels were a dealer-installed option.
Front bucket seats were included in the ‘88A’ order code along with an 8,000-rpm tachometer and a 160 mile per hour speedometer. While those Stewart Warner gauges may have reflected wishful thinking, an R2 equipped with a standard 3.31 final drive did hit 132 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Equipped with standard gearing and a four-speed transmission, Motor Trend reported a 7.3 second 0-60 time.
In total 325 R2 Larks were built, of them only 53 received the full ‘88A’ package.
The Granatelli brothers took the R concept further in 1964. They hand-built 120 R3 and R4 versions in their California shop, the block bored 0.0938-inch larger to 304.5 cubic inches. The blueprinted engines were then shipped back to Studebaker’s South Bend, Indiana, plant for installation in several different models, including the Avanti and Hawk.
The R3 was a normally-aspirated engine with a 12.0:1 compression ratio and dual-quad Carter AFBs that developed 280 horsepower at 4,500 rpm, and the R4 was a supercharger version with a 9.75:1 compression ratio andsingle blown-through Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor,, and rated at 335 horsepower at the same 4,500 rpm as almost all Studebaker V8s. The Granatelli crew claimed they saw 411 horsepower from the R4 on the dyno, likely at higher revs around 6,000.
Both the R3 and R4 engines received some special treatment, including a Magnafluxed crank, forged pistons, a high-volume oil pump, lighter and larger intake and exhaust valves, ported and polished runners, a more aggressive camshaft and high-flow exhaust manifolds. Dual valve springs were an option.
In the end, according to our best sources, only one R3 Lark model and only one of the R4 Larks reached their owners prior to Studebaker ceasing U.S. production. The rest of the Granatelli R3/R4 V8s ended up in a handful of Hawk coupes and Avanti sports cars or were assembled from their NOS inventory and sold individually, by some sources, until 1969.
Compared to the 32,450 GTOs that Pontiac delivered in 1964, Studebaker Lark R models represent pretty small potatoes. Which is likely why the GTO gets the nod as the forerunner of all subsequent muscle cars, and the Lark R models remain a footnote in automotive history.