Witness to History

Former Studebaker of Canada Employee - Keith Baker

 

                                                                                                                                                                                      by Roddy Sergiades

 

                    The luck of the Irish played out for good more than half a century ago on St. Patrick's Day, 1966, when Studebaker of Canada automobile production ceased. A final 11 minutes* that day spent completing the very last Studebaker and a press release noting the end of an era made it official. One day earlier the clatter and chatter of the assembly line fell silent for ever more when a magnificent “orchestra” played its last note in perfect harmony. When every car had been finished save the last, the assembly-line workers sounded their horns in unison to mark the end of 114 years of Studebaker vehicle manufacture. There to witness that poignant moment that Wednesday in Hamilton, Ontario was a young and relatively new employee, Keith Baker. Although those days are long gone, his fond memories remain as fresh today as they were back then.  All the guys got in the last cars, blew the horns when production ended. “It was kind of touching; all the guys were out of a job”, said Baker. He added the horn blowing had been led by the body-shop employees, who were the first to stop working when the last cars were built.  Although Baker was not amongst them, many employees autographed the motor and engine bay of the last Studebaker, a Timberline Turquoise-coloured V-8 Cruiser four-door sedan with a white top. It is now displayed at the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana.

             Currently retired and living in Bracebridge, Muskoka, the heart of Ontario's cottage country, Baker fondly recalls the joys of working for Studebaker in his first full-time job. “I really enjoyed working with pride there. One of the better companies I worked for”, said Baker, who worked in Production Control, the only position Studebaker employed him in. “It was a good company, very fair”.  He was hired in the fall of 1964 after his girlfriend's uncle, a foreman with about 20 years seniority, recommended him. A few days after the official shutdown, Baker left along with most of his co-workers. “The company tried very hard to relocate everyone through the unemployment agencies. A lot of these guys were together for years and years. In the mid '60s you didn't change jobs too often”, the ex-Studebaker employee said. With his former employer's great help, Baker secured a position at Firestone Canada.

             Speaking of his Studebaker job, he reminisced at some length. “The (production) orders came down from the upstairs office. We printed them up, did the paperwork for the assembly line. I printed the line sheets”. Once this had been done, the newly hired 20-year-old employee went around the plant to about 25 sub-assembly stations dropping off the paperwork. “I liked doing the line sheets and taking them to the guys on the line. I liked getting to know them”, said the gentleman who made refrigeration and air conditioning his eventual career. An extra duty tied to his position was that of tour guide. From time to time, Baker would give plant tours to groups of a dozen or so people interested in learning how Studebaker made cars from start to finish. The septuagenarian has not seen his Studebaker colleagues in decades. He would have liked crossing paths again with his former supervisor, Jack Holden (who passed away in June 2019), or John Long another ex-Studebaker co-worker, amongst others. This is not surprising, as Studebaker was well known for its employee parties, day trips, and camaraderie.

 “In the fall of 1964 the company mood was quite optimistic, though nervous, skeptical and, not surprisingly, the rumour mill was pretty steady”, said Baker. He added there was a positive attitude when he first began despite the troubles in South Bend.  Baker recalls the two-shift assembly-line system employed 150 to 200 people Monday through Friday. Usually building 45 cars per eight-hour shift when officially it was supposed to be 48. The morning shift would begin about 7:30 a.m., while the afternoon shift wouldn't end until 11-11:30 p.m. The line didn't stop for lunch, but there would be at least a half-hour break between shifts. (By comparison, the Windsor, Ontario {just south of Detroit} assembly plant building the current Dodge Grand Caravan works on three shifts a day, with a production target of 525 to 530 minivans every eight hours. Everything is timed to the minute, including a nine-minute break and 22-minute lunch.)

 The vintage-car hobbyist added the biggest percentage of Hamilton-built cars were made up of four-door sedans, which is a far cry from today's SUV-mad world. Two-door cars were also, as expected, quite common, while four to six Wagonaires came with each shift. Convertibles, hardtops and trucks were not produced during Baker's “Steeltown” (Hamilton) tenure. Once a  car rolled off the assembly line it was expected to start as most did. But some failed to fire right up and were pushed to a small repair shop. There the brand-new Studebaker was often found victim of a dead battery or an unconnected wire. “It would be fun trying to figure out what was wrong with it”, said Baker. There was also a “dull-up” area at the end of the line charged with eradicating a paint scratch or some other minor complaint; few needed this treatment, he said.

 By his estimation, 50 to 60 per cent of all factory employees drove what Studebaker of Canada advertised as “Studebaker: Canada's Own Car!” So, naturally, Baker's first new car came straight from the Hamilton plant. It was a 1965 two-door Commander sedan in Laguna Blue (light blue), with a GM-built Thunderbolt 283-cid V-8 engine sporting a standard transmission. Ordered with overdrive, radio, clock, and regular cloth seats, he substituted the standard 3.73 rear end for a 3.31. Baker found the brakes to be adequate, although with a short wheelbase the ride was a bit choppy. Paying dealer price, Baker remembers spending between $2,300 to $2,400 (about $19,000 today) for the car he owned four years. Replacing his '54 Pontiac, he found the pride of Hamilton “a great car”, while he resided in nearby Burlington. But with marriage and a growing family, he needed a larger car and later settled for buying his father's two-door Pontiac.

 Towards the end, in early 1966, Baker found the company mood very sombre. “You could see the writing on the wall, especially in the last few months”, he said. Producing just 8,947 cars for the '66 model year, Studebaker announced the decision to call it quits as a car producer on March 4. Ironically, a small profit was still realized on every vehicle built in 1966, as the parent corporation enjoyed a very successful year as a whole. The venerable firm moved on from automobile manufacturing just as Baker began his career, yet he never forgot the camaraderie and the satisfaction of working for the company that gave him a commanding ride in more ways than one.

 *According to Stu Chapman, the last Studebaker of Canada director of advertising and public relations, in a conversation I had with him on April 27, 2019.

                                                                                   

                                               

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