Rockne 65

Car of the Day #102: 1933 Rockne 65

Rockne 65
Rockne 45 Coach • Alden Jewell on Flickr

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

Not the use-your-feet football, aka soccer — I'm talking about the use-your-hands American football, a gladiatorial display of brute force that makes me wince whenever I see a hard hit. 

Riddle me this. Why is the life and career expectancy of Formula 1 drivers, racing wheel to wheel at 200 mph as often as I get migraines, is longer than that of big boys running around on grassy fields giving each other head injuries? 

Seriously, the career length for the average American football player, ex. the ones taking most of the hits, is between 2.6 and 3.5 years. (Quarterbacks and kickers have a longer shelf life.) 

When Formula 1 was at its most dangerous — circuits lined with hay bales dangerous — drivers lasted five or six seasons. Now, with a jet-set calendar of more than 20 races at venues around the world? Drivers get about 10 seasons in F1, followed by decades of whatever they want to do in retirement.

I don't follow American football closely, so pardon my ignorance, but with the huge number of possible plays, tactics, and strategies, it seems to have evolved for overindulgent spectators, armchair jocks, and billionaire owners…and less so for the players themselves. 

Add the overwhelming pageantry on display and I'm likely not attending the next big game. (That said, can I order the drum line to play the parking lot outside of my apartment? Only for an afternoon…)

That's not to say I don’t respect players, fans, and the game itself…it is simply not for me. 

I can hold my discomfort on one hand while respecting legacies within the sport. In a field as brutal as American football, when people start throwing around the word “legacy” to describe something, you'd better sit up and pay attention — and listen to the words of Rockne.


Rockne 65 • via source unknown

If you're an American football fan, the surname Rockne means as much as Chapman, McLaren, and Penske does to race fans. In this vein, South Bend, Indiana is as important to football fans as Indianapolis, Indiana is for racers.

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 then-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. 

Keep in mind this was in 2005, at a time when Americans had committed themselves to the ‘War on Terror’, led by the Iraq War. In several places, insurgents had by then developed tactics to counter American advances; if you remember the acronym ‘IED’, you’ll remember how well standard HMMWV fared against explosive traps. (Read ‘How the IED Won’ at War on the Rocks.)

Anyway, an uparmoured HMMWV was sitting at the end of the assembly line as part of a display, and after showing us the improved thicker (and much heavier!) construction, the AM General media liaison swung the front passenger door shut with a powerful thud. 

Wincing, but not missing a beat because I’d been reading about how some military personnel had been avoiding service in the conflict, I asked for the group’s benefit: “What happens if a soldier gets his hand caught in a door?”

“He gets to go home,” the rep said. 

Take that, Tesla CyberTruck.


The larger, more opulent Rockne 75 • via theantiquestudebakerclub.com

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, on our final approach I was gazing out the window and spotted a big-ass gold dome in the distance.

"Whoa, do you know what that big gold dome is?" I asked, more loudly than I had expected to. Conversations around the small plane suddenly went quiet.

"Uh…that's…that's Notre Dame," my surprised seat mate emphasized in a hushed tone.  

To save face, I did not launch into how I went to a Catholic high school, St. Patrick’s, where our team (the Fighting Irish) and mascot (a leprechaun) were Canadian knock-offs of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish — an American football team led to superstardom by Norwegian-American coach Knute “Rock” Rockne.


1932 Rockne 65 as an Indiana State Police car • via the ever-awesome AACA Forum

South Bend, Indiana is famous. Two reasons: the Notre Dame Fighting Irish college football team and the defunct automaker Studebaker. 

In the early '30s, however, when business was booming, the two organizations got together in order to capitalize on the success of the football team's coach, Knute Rockne. 

By that time, Rockne had coached Notre Dame players to the kind of success that seems unbelievable today: 105 wins, 12 losses, five ties, and three national championships.

This includes posting five undefeated seasons — without so much as a draw(!!) The Fighting Irish won, and won it all.

A natural athlete and keen 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 yearly fee of $5,000 Usd. ($112,000 in 2024) 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.” — via fightingirish.com

Rockne was becoming 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 skills in motivating the Studebaker sales force. 

Let's say even I would have excitedly skimmed his first letter to the company's sales staff, titled: “Carrying the Fight to the Enemy”.

On March 30 of that year, he made an audio recording intended as a draft for his next motivational communication with the Studebaker dealer network. 

A day later, on March 31, he was dead in one of the most infamous airplane crashes ever, Flight 5, where the Fokker Trimotor he was traveling in had a structural failure over the fields of Kansas.

Eight died, including Rockne, who was 43 at the time and survived by his wife and four children.


1932 Rockne 65 international sales material • via Wikipedia

Ever productive, Rockne's name worked wonders beyond the grave, most significantly the public outcry that transformed air travel forever: commercial aircraft safety is no longer an afterthought. In part, we have Rockne's death to thank for that.

Rockne and Studebaker had a collab from beyond the grave, too: an entire lineup of affordable cars.

Before his death, Studebaker had approached the coach with an idea to replace the slow-selling entry-level Erskine lineup with two models: 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 in Walkerville near Windsor, Ontario built the 65.

Rockne models were also built overseas, meaning Rocknes can still be found in the strangest places.

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 after two model years, 1932 and 1933. Blame The Great Depression, but a deceased spokesperson and an uncompetitive product would have eventually sunk Rockne.

Ironically, a marque that named for one of American football’s great personalities had an even shorter history than the sport’s overworked players do.

Finally, to the snickering footballers: do you honestly think a car named after popular players David Beckham, Lionel Messi — or successful coach Sir Alex Ferguson — would do much better today?


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