Starlight to Sonnabend?

It’s always fun to explore whatifs surrounding Studebaker. Here’s one that hasn’t been explored much.

In 1958, after Curtiss-Wright had already LBO’d and raided the company’s best assets, management hired Abraham Sonnabend to start developing new niches. He got to work quickly and efficiently on a low budget, acquiring several profitable mid-size companies that were closely related to cars and engines.

And then something happened. The board wanted to continue with autos, even after the facts were blazingly clear. Or maybe the board was just uncomfortable. Sonnabend was aiming to become CEO, and the board hired Sherwood Egbert instead. Sonnabend quit.

Egbert primarily tried to reform the Lark, and continued with Sonnabend’s acquisition plans in a secondary way.

The auto industry and Jews have never been comfortable together. Jews were centered in NYC and specialized in abstract business, or high-value items with low mass like precious metals. They had good historical reasons for those preferences; a perpetual diaspora needs to travel light. Only two Jews have managed auto-related companies: Morris Markin founded Checker, an NYC icon. Russell Feldmann took over the Henney coachbuilding outfit in the ’50s and started several imaginative projects.

Autos are huge products requiring huge capital and huge factories to succeed.

In 1958 Studie needed to imagine a lower-mass future away from ordinary automobiles. Other auto companies had made the same transition successfully. Reo switched to trucks, Hupp switched to HVAC, Peerless switched to beer, Checker switched to making parts for GM.

The Sonnabend path would have reused worker skills for similar tasks requiring less factory space and less capital. Lawn tractors, generators, appliances.

If he had taken over earlier, he might have preserved and reused Packard’s best skills and assets, which were in aircraft, not automobiles. Curtiss-Wright nabbed up Packard’s aircraft plant, leaving nothing but the non-unique automobile skills.

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Later thought: The discomfort might have been mutual. Sonnabend already had a successful career in real estate. After quitting Studebaker he returned to his own proper niche, and his family’s company is still going strong as Sonesta.

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