Rockne 65

If there's one sport I absolutely loathe, it's football.

Not the use-your-feet football, also known as soccer—a great sport I've played for a number of years. It's a pastime that's far more fun to participate in than watch, likely a factor in why it's not so popular here in North America.

I'm talking about the use-your-hands football, a gladiatorial display of brute force that makes me cringe whenever I see a hard hit. I don't follow the sport closely, so pardon my ignorance, but with the huge number of possible plays, tactics, and strategies it seems to have been designed as much for spectators and armchair jocks as the players themselves. 

Add on top the overwhelming pageantry on display at most games and you can ensure I'm most likely not attending the next big football match.

That's not to say there haven't been great plays, players, coaches, and teams. Moreover, in any sport, when people start throwing around the word "legacy" to describe something, you'd better sit up and pay attention.

If you're a football fan, the surname Rockne means just as much as Chapman, McLaren, and Penske does to race fans.

 

 

One of my first big press trips as an automotive writer was to South Bend, Indiana, the home of AM General. I'd been invited on a multi-day drive of the all-new H3, but beforehand we toured both the special Hummer H2 assembly plant in Mishawaka, IN, as well as the old-school HMMWV assembly plant in South Bend.

A recently up-armoured HMMWV was sitting at the end of the assembly line as part of a display, and after showing us the thicker (and heavy!) doors, the AM General media liaison shut one with a powerful thud. I asked, "What happens if a soldier gets his hand caught in a door?" "He gets to go home," the rep said.

Anyway, on the flight into South Bend, before the trip, I'd struck up a conversation with the man beside me on the short flight from Detroit. He was a South Bend native.

As I recall, I was gazing out the window on our final approach and spotted a gold dome in the distance. "Whoa, do you know what that big gold dome is?" I asked.

The small plane suddenly went quiet.

"Uh…that's…that's Notre Dame," my surprised seatmate answered.

 

 
When Rock signed off with his traditional `Go, Go, Go’ he had the entire audience, including Ford and Sloane, on their feet cheering like a bunch of college sophomores at a Yale-Harvard game.
— Paul Castner

I've since learned that South Bend is famous for two things: the Notre Dame "Fighting Irish" college football team and the now-defunct Studebaker. In the early '30s, the two organizations got together in order to honour the football team's coach—one of the best-ever in football—Knute Rockne. 

By that time, Rockne, a Norwegian-American, had earned success that seems unbelievable today: 105 wins, 12 losses, five ties, and three national championships. This includes posting five undefeated seasons without a tie.

Besides being a born athelete, leader of men, and strategist, Rockne was one of the first in sport to harness the power of advertising in order to draw more attention to his team—and earn more revenue from ticket sales. He was also a successful pitchman, helping to sell a number of products.

None, however, would be as ambitious as marketing his very own car.

At first, Studebaker hired Rockne in the winter of 1929 to be a motivational speaker for the carmaker at dealer conventions. His $5,000 yearly fee is worth about $70,000 today, and by all accounts it was money well spent. The University of Notre Dame describes Rockne's first speaking gig:

Rockne's first talk came in January of 1929 at the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce at the Commodore Hotel in New York City. In the audience was literally a Who's Who of the automobile industry including Henry Ford, Sr. and Alfred Sloane, Jr. of General Motors. According to Paul Castner, "When Rock signed off with his traditional `Go, Go, Go' he had the entire audience, including Ford and Sloane, on their feet cheering like a bunch of college sophomores at a Yale-Harvard game.

Rockne started to get closer and closer to Studebaker, and in March of 1931 he was announced as the brand's manager of sales promotions, a post intended to utilize the football coach's skillset in motivating the Studebaker sales force. Let's just say even I would have read his first letter to the company's sales staff, which was titled: "Carrying the Fight to the Enemy".

On March 30, he made an audio recording intended as a draft for his next motivational communication with the Studebaker dealer network. A day later, he was dead in one of the most infamous airplane crashes ever, TWA Flight 599, where the Fokker Trimotor he was traveling in had a structural failure over a field in Kansas. Rockne and seven others died.

He'd work with Studebaker even beyond the grave: before his death, they had approached the coach with an idea to replace the brand's slow-selling entry-level Erskine lineup with two models: the Rockne 65 and 75. 

The 65's design was the work of Ralph Vail and Roy Cole, two Detroit-based automotive engineers. The larger, more powerful and more expensive 75 was based on the Studebaker Six and built in South Bend. Both the old Erskine plant in Detroit and Studebaker's Canadian assembly plant near Windsor, Ontario built the 65.

Typical of the era, Rockne models were available in a number of different body styles, including sedan, coupé, and delivery van. The lineup went on-sale shortly after their namesake's death in 1931, with a number of factors—mostly the Great Depression—preventing the new marque from gaining a foothold. 

In July, 1933, Studebaker shut the doors, putting Rockne cars out of business. Fewer than 250 exist today. If you're a football fan, maybe this inexpensive classic is worth your care.

Sources