By Llewellyn Hedgbeth
1927 Erskin Model 50 Regal 4 Door Sedan
Studebaker's Erskine Six, produced from 1927 to 1930 and named for Studebaker's president at that time, was meant to be a compact six-cylinder car that appealed to the European as well as the American market. Its smart styling was impressive and it had its admirers—but it never sold especially well. Mechanical deficiencies, a price significantly higher than that of competitors, and frequent changes to its look and its marketing kept customers away.
First the Erskine was touted as a European car, then as a European car built expressly for Americans, and finally as just an American car. Body styles changed year by year, and prices yo-yoed frequently. Though Studebaker was building a reputation for its advanced, well-engineered, and powerful motors, the first Erskines instead were assembled models utilizing a lower-cost Continental engine. Erskine sales were also disadvantaged because Erskines fell in Studebaker's lower-priced market, meaning dealers made less profit on their sales. Therefore, dealers preferred to focus their attentions on more expensive models.
The man who envisioned the car was Albert Russel Erskine, Studebaker's president from 1915 to 1933. Born January 24, 1871, in Huntsville, Alabama, his great-grandfather had fought with the patriots during the American Revolution. The family went on to build a fortune but Erskine's father, who joined the Confederate army at age sixteen, lost nearly everything during the Civil War. After the war he lived in a number of places, eventually settling in Alabama where Albert was born. From there the family moved to St. Louis where Albert went to public school.
When Albert reached the age of fifteen, he began his working career, starting out as an office boy for the Huntsville station of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. By then he was also an avid reader, digging into technical journals and periodicals in the evenings and developing a lifelong habit—that of reading the dictionary daily.
One of his jobs at the rail station was assisting the company bookkeeper, and the bookkeeper must have trained him well. Erskine not only did bookkeeping for the rail station, he made a career in finance. In 1898, he left Huntsville for St. Louis where he worked as chief clerk with the American Cotton Co. at $75 a month. When a second bookkeeper left that firm, Erskine said he could do both bookkeeping jobs. He was given the opportunity to do so at the increased salary of $100 a month. Working extremely long hours, he managed to keep up with accounts. Over time he moved on to that firm's New York office as general auditor and operations manager, overseeing three hundred cotton gins in the South. Also while with American Cotton, he married Annie Garland Lyell of Huntington, West Virginia in November, 1903. They would go on to adopt a son who followed a career in writing and editing.
When American Cotton went into receivership, the next step for Erskine was Yale and Towne in New York where, in 1904, he became treasurer before he'd reached the age of thirty. He earned a hundred dollars a week auditing books and accounts. In short order he also became a director and member of the executive committee there. From Yale and Towne he transferred to Underwood Typewriter Co. in 1910 where he worked as treasurer, vice president and director. He'd only been at that company a year when a friend of his let him know that Studebaker was looking for someone to fill a job worth twenty thousand dollars a year. Erskine wasted no time in applying for it, and in October 1911 joined Studebaker. As he later related, "I took no office, not even a desk. I spent the first four months out in different departments. I went to the desks of the men in every department and asked them to show me what they were doing, how they were doing it and why they were doing it." His was a tried and true methodology and through it he learned what employees could be sent packing and what clerical operations were either repetitive or unnecessary. He brought satellite accounting branches back to headquarters; he reduced the number of administrative forms from 3500 to 1500; and he recommended staff downsizing. By December 1913, he was elected first vice president and, in July 1915, at age 44, he became president.
Albert Russel Erskine
He had taken over from Clement Studebaker, one of two brothers who'd opened an Indiana blacksmith shop in 1852. The Studebakers expanded their business into building horse-drawn wagons and became major players in that sector. In 1902, however, they entered the car market with an electric car, offering a gasoline-powered car as well a year later. While the first gas model was marketed as Studebaker-Garford (Garford built the chassis), by 1913 Studebaker was selling gas models in its own name. They made both four- and six-cylinder cars. Even as they flirted with cars, however, Studebaker continued making wagons—right up to 1920.
Erskine was respectful of the firm, writing its history in 1918. Energetic, optimistic, and efficient, he was fond of saying, "I eat obstacles for breakfast." He developed a plan to make Studebaker a major player in the automotive industry. By 1920, the firm was focusing exclusively on Sixes and, under his direction, the company flourished in the mid-priced field. At the January 1922 meeting of the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, the association awarded Erskine special recognition as "Baron Erskine, doctor of financial difficulties."
All that wasn't enough for Erskine, though. In 1926, sales declined, a fact Erskine attributed to Studebaker not having a toehold in the lower-priced market. His answer was to develop the Erskine. While Studebaker had developed a solid reputation for powerful and reliable sixes, Erskine feared they were somewhat lacking in the "class" department. His Erskine, with its European inspiration, was meant to remedy that.
Some said Erskine was clever, kindly, generous, courageous, and forceful while others characterized him as ruthless, dull, overbearing and ill-mannered. He enjoyed a sterling reputation in business, however, and was a skilled leader. The Board of Directors focused on the amount of money he was making and gave him a free hand in running the business. Shareholders thought he was a miracle worker, and no one blinked when he commanded a salary of a hundred thousand dollars or when his talented deputies—vice president of sales Paul G. Hoffman (who, in Los Angeles, had built the most successful Studebaker dealership in the country) and vice president of production and engineering Harold S. Vance (moved up from general sales manager)—were rewarded with salaries of $75,000 each. In 1927 Studebaker hosted a banquet at New York's Plaza Hotel where Erskine, in recognition that Vance and Hoffman were under 40 and that the average age of a Studebaker engineer was 37, said, "I believe in young men. They have what this business needs."
Paul G. Hoffman (left) and Harold S. Vance