Paul Wilson: Studebaker could be running out of road

The last car, a shiny Commander, came off the line in 1966. But the Studebaker plant still stands, and the ghost sign is still on view. There's now word, however, that this sprawling piece of Hamilton manufacturing history could soon get knocked down.
It's 46 years since cars were made here, but the Studebaker name is still in view in Hamilton's factory zone. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

There’s a guy in Detroit who lives in the enormous and long-abandoned Packard auto plant. He has the place all to himself.

Far as I know, no one’s ever moved into Hamilton’s Studebaker plant. As it’s the size of three Home Depots, there would be room for a very large family. Now, however, it may be too late. The place could be coming down.

It’s been 46 years since the last car came off the line, a Commander sedan. Hamilton was proud of that factory. For awhile, we were the only place on the planet making the Studebaker.

The building — south of Burlington, between Victoria and Wentworth — was actually not an ideal plant for making cars. The assembly line had to snake about. The place was built to produce anti-aircraft guns, and after the war Studebaker got it cheap.

Big Three

The old Otis Elevator building stretches along Victoria Avenue for the length of two football fields. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Studebaker found it increasingly difficult to compete with the Big Three. In 1965, 19,000 cars came out of the Hamilton plant. (By comparison, Cadillac produced that many cars in a single month.)

In 1966, they shut down the Hamilton plant and 700 people lost their jobs.

Otis Elevator had a huge plant next door, built in the early 1900s, and they took over Studebaker for a time for warehousing. Then Otis itself vanished, and Allan Candy used the car plant for a time.

But for many years now, the Studebaker site has been empty. Likewise for the Otis plant next door, a two-storey brick marvel that’s two football fields long.

Many dreams

Many have floated dreams to use all this old manufacturing space. A decade ago, it was to be a film studio. It lasted a few months.

Last year it was to be an Olympic-class sports centre, a $20-million scheme put together by a Mississauga developer.

"I kept asking them, ‘Do you have the money? Do you have the money?’" says Bernie Morelli, councillor for the ward. They told him it was coming form Michigan. It didn’t.

But Morelli thinks there’s a proposal now that "may have legs." It comes from the IBI Group of James North, one of the associates being Sergio Manchia, who has done other work in town.

Plant torn down

He could not be reached on Wednesday, but Morelli says the plan is to build commercial/industrial space. He believes some of the old Otis plant will survive — but that the Studebaker plant would be torn down.

"There are still some hurdles to overcome," Morelli says. One is that the developers want Victoria Avenue made two-way again. The councillor thinks that might be doable. "I sense this project has real potential."

I sometimes take visitors along Burlington Street and tell them about the industrial muscle that used to line this corridor — Procter & Gamble, Firestone, International Harvester.

And Studebaker. For that one, I point to the south. Faded it may be, but the name that spells out Hamilton’s automotive history is still there. Check out this 10-letter show yourself. Looks like the curtain’s about to drop. | @PaulWilsonCBC

You can read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here .