The first muscle car? How about a Studebaker!

Everyone knows when the Muscle Car era began, right? With the 1964 GTO option package on the Pontiac Tempest, of course. While the original GTO set off the horsepower race, it wasn’t the first example of a bigger engine in a smaller car that also featured performance upgrades. That title can be rightfully claimed by the R1 and R2 Studebaker Lark. Yes, Studebaker.

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Andy Granatelli with an R2 Lark outside the Paxton shops | Studebaker National Museum photo

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.”

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

Art has been a fixture in the automotive industry his entire career, starting out as an editor for On Track and Sports Car Graphics magazines. He then moved to the corporate side, finding the money better. He was employed in marketing roles at Firestone, Bridgestone and Yokohama tire companies, as well as ran client services for a boutique aftermarket agency serving Toyota Racing Development, Flowmaster exhaust, and Brembo brakes. There was even a stint at eBay Motors. Most recently, Art served as Director of Marketing and Communications at Laguna Seca Raceway. As a writer, his works have appeared in print and online publications in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and Italy.

30 COMMENTS

  1. THERE WERE A FEW ERRORS IN YOUR REPORTING ON THE EXTREMELY INNOVATIVE STUDEBAKER RANGE OF PERFORMANCE CARS FROM 1962 TO 1964..ANY NEWS ON THE FORWARD THINKING OF THE STUDEBAKER CORPORATION IS MUSIC TO MY EARS AND GREATLY APPRECIATED BY STUDEBAKER CAR AND TRUCK ENTHUSIASTS THROUGHOUT THE WORLD..LETS START WITH THE GLARING ERRORS//—1] THE R 3 ENGINE WAS A SUPERCHARGED 304.5 cube engine with 9.75 to 1 compression ratio with a single pressurised Carter AFB 4 BBL Carburettor which Generated between 335 and 400 horsepower at rpm’s up to 6000 rpm–2]] THE R 4 ENGINE WAS A NATURALLY ASPIRATED 304.5 CUBE engine with 12.0 to 1 compression ratio breathing through 2 Carter AFB 4 barrel Carburetors with a dyno output of 280 horsepower at a low[for that motor] 4500 rpm.–3]The STUDEBAKER CORPORATIONS THEN PRESIDENT WAS SHERWOOD EGBERT–THANK YOU FOR THE STORY//

  2. You missed the mark by about six years. In 1956, you could order a Hawk with the 352 ci Packard V8, with dual quads. Seems to me that qualifies as the first Muscle Car.

  3. The same formula was used (actually developed) earlier and was actually the first muscle car. The 1941 Buick Century which used the smaller series body and the larger series motor. Would run 100 mph, the reason for the Century name.

    • you are correct!
      Buick Special body with the larger displacement Roadmaster engine, also with twin 2 barrel carbrators, larger exhaust system!
      i had a 1942 Century, baby blue!

    • YES i had one of the 1st 1950 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 (Holiday coupe, no center post hardtop).
      little known to the public the Holiday had a 3.64 ratio rear, compare to regular Olds had 3.42 ratio!

    • The formula big engine + small car goes back to the beginnings of the automotive industry. For example, the 1917 Stutz Bearcat was a two-seat roadster with a 360 CID engine. What sets the R-series Larks apart are the performance upgrades: sway bars front and rear, disc brakes, performance shocks, close-ratio four speed, limited-slip differential, alternate rear drive ratios, forged axles, etc. Prior to the Lark R series and then the GTO and Mustang these types of upgrades were previously unavailable.

  4. 1957 Oldsmobile J-2 was in my opinion the first muscle car of the 50’s. Three two barrel carbs and three on the floor. And a really nice looking ride to boot. I had one that I bought in 1964 for a few hundred bucks, needed a clutch.

    Roger Lawless

  5. Surprisingly no comment was made that John DeLorean, the father of the GTO, came out of Studebaker Packard and went to GM. This happened around the time that Studebaker was busy shoe horning the big Packard V8 into the Studebaker Golden Hawk. It is rumored that DeLorean actually got the inspiration for the GTO while looking under the hood of a supercharged Lark during “bs” session with his old Studebaker buddies at the 1963 Chicago auto show.

  6. Nicely penned article even with the R3/R4 swap. However the “beginning” of the true first Musclecar–the Packard-powered 56 Golden Hawk– received just minimal noting, whereas it was the first of the really fast Studebakers.

  7. The lark had no more than an engine. The sport look was not there. The GTO had the whole package. The muscle Look inside and out. And the muscle and options to back it up. I never gave the lark a second look growing up. The GTO started the fire and the fire is still burning. Growing up in Detroit I can tell you no one in Cody high school gave the lark a second look the muscle car was a package Many of my friends had GTX GTO, drag pack Torino, mustangs. I had a 1966 GTO. It was and is the look and power that made a true Muscle car.

  8. The phenomenon of the GTO was a lot more than big engine/small car–it was about bringing performance to the street. Pontiac was doing well in 1963 when GM got out of racing. The GTO was a creative answer to the question, “Now what?” All the equity Pontiac had on the racetrack was now put on the street, spurring a host of imitators. How many manufacturers followed Studebaker’s lead?

    Yeah, there were street performers before the GTO, but they were merely part of the culture of performance that began with the “Horsepower Race” of 1955. The GTO changed the culture of American performance, which is why it’s generally acknowledged as the first muscle car.

  9. Not to take away from your fine article, but putting a large engine in a smaller car started also with Studebaker in 1956 with the 352 ci/275 hp Packard V8 in the Golden Hawk. 0 to 60 was recorded at 7.8 secs.

  10. My parents gave me there 1963 Lark when I went to college in 1967. It had a v8 but I wasn’t satisfied with that my friends had worked in small block Chevys and 1 had a 64 Corvette. So I found an Chrysler 392 Hemi and a Torgue Flite transmission with push buttons for shifting a ford rear end and a ford econaline straight axle front end that a local spring shop rebuilt the springs and narrowed the front end Also put a Crane Cam I drove the the car to school for a year and saved up some money sold the Lark and purchased a 58 Corvette

  11. Studebaker had a plant in Hamilton, Ontario. In 1966, to support lagging sales, the City of Hamilton purchased Studebaker Lark Commanders for the Hamilton Police Department fleet of patrol cars. They were very fast, being powered by the Chevy 289 V-8, but didn’t stop so quickly when the brakes heated up.

    A few years ago, the Hamilton Police acquired a Studebaker Lark and restored it to look like the 1966 patrol car.
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/-jm/8725152754/

  12. I’m NOT a authority on Studebaker but I still love the story and the history. I won’t pick it apart and I can accept a few errors. I was a young teen when the muscle car era started and I became a mechanic in the 70’s so I worked on just about all these cars at one time or another. I really do miss the era.

  13. Thank you for pointing out my mistaken swap of R3 and R4. That will be addressed shortly.

    I very much appreciate your comments! It’s nice to know that their are active, engaged readers of the article!

    Regarding the first muscle car, the case we were making was that the Lark was the first small car with a big engine with significant performance upgrades.

    While the other cars mentioned do indeed meet the criteria of small car/big engine, none feature the number of performance upgrades found in the R2 Larks (or the GTO , for that matter). We attempted to avoid that controversy by stating in the introduction That the criteria was a “bigger engine in a smaller car that also featured performance upgrades”.

    Thank you again for your interest!

  14. You left out the Rambler Rebel with a 327 CI engine in the late 1950s ,way before Chevy . It was the second fastest stock production car behind the Vett.

  15. The 1955 and ’56 Packard Caribbean had the 374 cube, dual 4 barrels and produced 310 HP, slightly more than the Chrysler 300.

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