Many cars have been named after the men who created the companies that made them. Famous ones like Ford, Buick, Honda and Bentley. Forgotten ones like Frazer, Durant, Tudhope and Jordan.
Ransom E. Olds even did it twice, with Oldsmobile and Reo.
There are the exotics too - Ferrari, Bugatti, Fisker - and those named for famous explorers - de Soto, Cadillac, La Salle.
But only one car has been named after a football legend: the Rockne of 1932-33.
Norwegian-born Knute Rockne has been dead for more than eight decades but he’s still one of the most famous players and coaches the game has ever produced.
As a player at the University of Notre Dame, he helped popularize the forward pass. Later, as coach of the Fighting Irish for 13 seasons, he amassed a record of 105 wins, 12 losses and five ties. Along the way, Notre Dame had five undefeated seasons and three national championships.
But back in the days when sport wasn’t big business and athletes and coaches didn’t earn millions each season, even a famous football coach had to find something to fill his time and a way of augmenting his income in the off-season.
In 1928 Studebaker began using Rockne as a motivational speaker for dealer conventions and eventually made him manager of sales promotion. He held that post for just 12 days before dying in the crash of a TWA Fokker Trimotor on a flight from Kansas City to Los Angeles on March 31, 1931. He was 43. The investigation of that crash changed aviation safety just as much as Rockne changed football.
Despite the loss of its star pitchman, the automaker went ahead with plans to build the Rockne - a lower priced companion for its Studebaker line - and agreed to pay Rockne’s widow, Bonnie, 25 cents for each vehicle sold.
The new car came in two versions. The Rockne “75” began production at Studebaker’s main plant in South Bend, Indiana on Dec. 15, 1931 and the smaller “65” at the former E-M-F plant on Piquette Avenue in Detroit on Feb. 22, 1932. Rocknes also were assembled at Studebaker’s Canadian plant across the Detroit River at Walkerville, Ont.
The “75” and “65” were different designs and both were built in several variations including two-door coupe and convertible, two-door coach and four-door sedan. A panel delivery van also was built in 1933. The “65” with 66-hp inline-six started at $585 FOB Detroit while the “75,” with longer 114-inch wheelbase and a more powerful 72-hp “six” was priced from at $685.
Features included freewheeling, synchronized shifting and key starting.
When Studebaker went into receivership on March 18, 1933 all automobile production was moved to South Bend and the Rockne was trimmed to one model, a refreshed “65” called the Studebaker-Rockne “10.”
Although Rockne wasn’t an overwhelming sales success, neither was it a total failure with 37,879 built in its two-year run (including Canadian production). But 1932-33 were the darkest years of the Great Depression and when Studebaker Corp. had to retrench, the Rockne was sacrificed. The last Rockne “10” rolled off the assembly line in July, 1933.
Most Rocknes either fell victim to rust or were crushed in the scrap metal drives of World War II, but because of their size, the 110-inch wheelbase coupes were popular with hot rodders in the customizing craze that erupted postwar.
About 250 Rocknes are known to exist today, from basket cases to restored examples.
Rockne, the man, has an enduring place in the history of sports, helped along by a 1940 motion picture, The Knute Rockne Story, starring Pat O’Brien as the erudite coach and future U.S. president Ronald Reagan as “The Gipper.”
Rockne, the car, also left quite a legacy as the new L-head six developed for the “65” remained in production for 30 years, powering Studebaker cars before WW II and then trucks from 1945-61.