If you ask people what's the first thing that comes to mind when you say "South Bend", most would say Notre Dame, or the Golden Dome, or something related to the university. But South Bend was the home to a major automaker for a good part of the last century. That company was Studebaker.

1941 Studebaker President
A 1941 Studebaker President at a car showroom. (Getty Images)

In the mid-1800s Studebaker started making coaches and buggies, and then eventually made cars (including electric ones 120 years ago.) After World War II they just didn't have enough money, merged with Packard, which was a disaster, and then went out of business in the 1960s. Before they did close up shop, there's a fascinating story about attempts to hook up with Nissan or Toyota and selling those cars under the Studebaker nameplate.)

Just like all the other manufacturers, Studebaker had a test track/proving grounds adjacent to their plant west of South Bend, near New Carlisle. In 1937, the company planted a grove of some 5,000 trees lined up to spell the Studebaker name. Maybe they were tweaking the Big Three, but it was impressive. Those trees are still there and are quite popular on Google Earth. Part of the property is now Bendix Woods County Park, about 5 miles west of South Bend on Highway 2. The test track has changed hands numerous times, but some say it's now owned by Navistar and is still in use. Also, limited "niche" market vehicles have been built in the area through the past decade.

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A vintage Studebaker concept (Getty Images)

For many years a rumor persisted of the existence of a Studebaker graveyard. The rumor was later confirmed to be true when the remains of many prototype automobiles and a few trucks were discovered at a remote, heavily wooded site bounded by the proving grounds' high-speed oval. Most of the prototypes were left to rot in direct contact with the ground and full exposure to the weather and falling trees. Attempts to remove some of these rusting bodies resulted in the bodies crumbling under their own weight as they were moved, so now they exist only in photographs. - wikipedia

It makes one wonder what if Checker Motors had done the same at their test grounds on the north side of Kalamazoo. It would have made an interesting natural attraction for some, and for car geeks, it could have been an automotive attraction.

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