Monday, December 29, 2008

Studebaker's Speedster; how it came to be

Studebaker Speedster Development

My View of how it became Studebaker’s 1955 Trendsetter

By: Murray Stahl (12-18-2008)
GreenYellowSpeedster Ad

The Studebaker Speedster was originally conceived as a show car but quickly moved into limited production as a high trim level President Hardtop Coupe. One can easily surmise that Studebaker management was using this car as a “toe in the water” entry into the sporty car market. In 1955 the only cars that even pretended to be sporty were the Corvette, Thunderbird, Chrysler 300 and Kaiser Darrin; three of the four were of the two seater, sports car mode all relatively new to the market. Studebaker must have sensed a rare opening to exploit in the bruising automobile marketplace of the mid-fifties.

The Speedster name had been used by Studebaker before the depression and awkwardly enough was also being used by Porsche in 1955. I cannot think of another point in automotive history when a model name was in use by two unrelated Auto companies. There is no documentation but it seems reasonable to conclude that Porsche’s use of the Speedster moniker triggered Studebaker’s move to name their 1956 Sport Coupes “Hawks.”

It was in 1953 that the Studebaker, Loewy coupes pioneered the pretty touring coupes. The 55 Speedster was designed to exploit the strength of the Loewy design. The 1953 design was almost universally praised as a trendsetter but sales didn’t track the praise. Studebaker’s new design just wasn’t working, market share continued its slide. The quote "Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever." By Napoleon Bonaparte comes to mind.

Studebaker’s break-even point was nowhere in sight and 54 sales were horrid. Upon reflection it’s obvious that the quality lapses in the 1953 model launch had hurt badly. Then they had to face the fact that the sleek looking long wheelbase design on the coupe simply didn’t cleanly pass onto the shorter wheelbase, higher sedans. They sold more coupes but couldn’t overcome the loss of sedan sales. The sum-total of these lapses severely impacted sales for 53 and 54. The company was always conflicted; in order to break out of their miniscule market share niche they had to be different yet different, while capable of fostering large sales increases was inherently risky. Any mistake or misstep is a big mistake to a small company. Studebaker management had to be acutely aware of their marketplace peril.

1955 was a year of changes for the industry and Studebaker. The 6 volt electrics and the 6 quart, V-8 oil sump were in their last year. All wiring became vinyl coated, tires were tubeless across the board. The industry became enamored with the wrap-around windshield; a mid-year change that was very costly for Studebaker. They dropped their 1 ¾ inch exhaust and adopted a 2 inch only for 1955! Chevrolet and Plymouth were known to be fielding their first V-8s and all eyes would be focused on them.

It was into this “perils of Pauline” sort of atmosphere that the Speedster idea was born.

For 1955 the sales department and dealers seemed to take charge. They needed better sales and thought that they knew the design path that would lead them there. You can just imagine the pro and con blackboard as they wrestled with their position. The con side was now well known and dominated by the fact that sedans pay the bills and they just weren’t selling. Coupe sales were up but just couldn’t compensate for the loss on the sedan side. everyone at the meeting was part of “overhead” so there untenable position as the high cost producer was probably ignored. There was just no easy solution to unhealthy labor costs, inefficient plants, lousy economies of scale and a generally high fixed cost position. The elephant was in the room but ignored; in a triumph of hope over reality or perhaps just the enormity of the restructure that was needed. A small company with a large company cost structure needed major change. A difficult position that was much easier to ignore than address.

The pro side was more nuanced and required action. They would note that the two-year-old V-8 was a success and had increased sales at the high end of their sales book where profits were fatter. They had a relatively robust engine design even to the use of solid lifters like hot-rodder’s of the day yet pushing out only a puny 127HP. The engineering staff would advise that yes, output could be raised. Everyone would smile as engineering outlined dual exhausts, four-barrel carburetion and various tweaks could realize 175+ horsepower. Horsepower sold in the fifties.

Speedster Collage

High on the pro side would be the swoopy coupes styled in the very low mid-fifties European Manner with a long front and rear deck. Their reality was that the coupes were pretty and there were no funds or time for a new design anyway. There would be a lengthy discussion about increasing coupe sales. It would inevitably revolve around the heavy chrome bright work that GM was using on their cars and how it seemed to had goosed GM sales. All attendees would be very aware of how devoid of chrome Studebaker’s models were. The press and art world had applauded the stark beauty of their styling but the bread and butter sedans based on the pretty coupes were not selling. There was no money or time to design a separate sedan so they would default to an increase in bright trim to ape the successful Buick models.

Also on the pro side of the board would be the Packard money that filled Studebaker’s cash bucket. While both Studebaker and Packard were well off their breakeven points and awash in rising deficits, Packard had bought a significant dowry to the merger. It would all go.

The front end would be heavily modified. Someone would suggest they make it reflect the intake of a Jet fighter, “Super Saber.” Side trim would be devised and the parts bin hit heavily for simulated wire wheels, spot lights, bumper guards etc.. At the end they would be pleased with their efforts but still nervous about increasing showroom traffic. A dealer or sales manager would suggest creation of a show car like GM often did.

From here the ideas would cascade, make it unique, make it fast, use different color schemes. How about a luxury interior, different dashboard on a fully optioned “halo” car. Humm, a “halo” car implied enough cars to entice buyers into multiple showrooms, why not. Hey, lets call it “Speedster.” So, as I imagine was the basic concept of the Speedster devised. Time to cue the musical theme from “chariots of fire”, ah success.

There was little time so the designers would have to hurry to embellish the top of the line President coupes. A bright tiara would outline the wrap-around rear window. A pretty little crest and script spelling “Speedster” would grace the side trim running the length of the car. The optional center hood trim piece would be tweaked and trimmed in gold. Of course the most cost effective change would be three-tone paint schemes unique to the “Speedster.” The interior would be quality leather in a diamond-stitched pattern very popular with hot-rudders of the time. One of the designers would suggest a “machine-turned” face on the dashboard somewhat like the old Cord had used. It would be only a short leap to the use of wildly optimistic “Stewart Warner” reading 160MPH and 8,000RPM. The excitement of the moment would overshadow the lack of a glove box; perhaps they simply forgot it. By the time it came to market the Speedster was to be sold fully optioned except for the new air-conditioner units. The horsepower of the 1954 V-8 was increased from a modest 127 to a marketable 175HP, a 38% boost for the 55 President; the Speedster boasted 185HP to enhance it’s special place in the sales book. It was decided to build an initial twenty cars for the auto show circuit but they quickly decided on a limited production run that eventually totaled 2215 cars. The initial run of 20 cars all featured the outrageous lemon and lime paint combination to stand out at auto shows. The Speedster had entered center Stage of the automotive marketplace. That’s my story of creation and I’m sticking with it.

Speedster Dashboard

The Speedster came to market at $3,253 while you could purchase a Corvette at $2,800. Of course the Speedster seated 5 very comfortably while the wife’s purse could cramp the Corvette. The Speedster generated very large amounts of both general and automotive press and it was quite favorable. Everyone road tested it and a couple of the car magazines had two articles in the year. Motor life claimed an honest 110MPH; great stuff in 1955. It was evident that Studebaker was returning to the performance market after an absence of many years; John Dillinger drove Studebaker getaway cars in the thirties.

The limited production Speedster with its sporty, low slung “family sports car” persona did drive people to the show rooms and stimulated press interest. Once people were in those showrooms the Speedster “halo” cars work was done; it was then up to the regular Studebaker line of cars. I think that without the Speedster’s showroom stimulus Studebaker sales may have totally collapsed. It had held the line and pointed the way to the Hawks of the future.
In 1956 Studebaker fielded 11 automobile models, up two from 55. The Hawk lineup totaled four and was headed by the Golden Hawk. It sported the Packard V-8, engine turned dash similar to its Speedster predecessor and full gauges. All Hawks were on the 120.5 inch wheelbase and employed grill work reminiscent of Mercedes. The Flight Hawk was the entry coupe and came with only the Studebaker six. They were only to be a pillared coupe but true to form Studebaker produced quite a few open hardtop Flight Hawks mostly for export.

56 Sky Hawk AD

Studebaker cash flow was fast disappearing but the depth of their offerings in 1956 was astounding. Eleven models, two wheelbases, two V-8s and the largest line of coupes ever. By March of 56 S/P would be actively seeking a new merger partner to prop up their enterprise. By June Packard would cease to exist as a manufacturer with its own unique automobile platforms; henceforth Packard’s would be badge engineered Studebakers for a short while. A sad end for a pioneer company that began in 1901. Two many models, lack of manufacturing scale, high labor costs and an inefficient factory operation combined to eventually doom Studebaker Packard.

The manufacturing complexity of many models with low volume production must have created a continual state of panic in South Bend. The company should have furnished tranquilizers to its engineering and accounting staff.

Studebakers for 1956

Yet there were lapses; in 1955 and 56 Studebaker had no 4 door wagons or convertibles. One wonders what impact a culling of models would have had. Maybe one Hawk model with only a Studebaker V-8 could have been offered at a more attractive price but with all the luxury accouterments on the money saved by elimination of all those models. Having the senior Studebakers on two different wheelbases had to cost more than the benefit you might gain. Studebaker wasn’t viable as a “full line” manufacturer for many decades; if they had consolidated models to increase value and dropped trucks might they still be with us? We’ll never know but it is a fact that well run companies will close or sell divisions that don’t meet profit or growth goals.

In 1957 you could have your Hawk with Studebaker’s own supercharged
V-8. Forever true to their roots Studebaker’s coupe era ended with the Gran Turisimo of 1962 and the Avanti of 1963. More milestone cars styled to transcend time with beauty that approached fine art and created on a budget that the “big three” wouldn’t consider adequate for door handle design.


The Speedster set Studebaker on the road to highly styled touring coupes. It was the direct ancestor of the Hawks despite the name change perhaps triggered by the confusion with Porsche. It was one of the first group of “factory hot-rods”, a trend that remains to this day. It’s a milestone car whose styling still turns heads today; I say Hoo-rah to the Speedster.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

My Winter Saga

On a cold snowy Saturday we got up early to visit my Grandkids in Syracuse. After coffee Joanne went to the bathroom for paint-up, fix-up before we left. I had plenty of time for sure so I thought I’d get the 2nd car we borrowed from daughter Karen going. We had about 16 inches or so of snow overnight and it was 13 degrees out. I started the little Pontiac and promptly got it stuck. I got out to shovel out the wheels while the engine ran, shut the door and found it had locked automatically with the slight motion I had achieved. Figured about 8 hours for AAA. Yikes

This was an Ah s—t moment for sure, the car was running, doors locked with the single set of keys inside and we were to leave in a couple of minutes. For whatever reason I had picked up a slim-jim door opener a couple of years ago at a car show. I was astounded that I knew where it was. Trekked through the snowdrifts in the back yard and got the tool. I fit it between the window and rubber seal, played around for 5 minutes developing a ghetto skill, Walla, it opened as I hummed the theme song from “chariots of fire, ” success, sweet success.

Finally got the car unstuck and drove at 40MPH to Syracuse over lousy roads in the snow. Proceeded to get stuck on Son’s road in Syracuse. The neighbor fired up his 4-wheel drive; I found out I’m a bit too wide to get under the front and hook up the chain. Neighbor hooked us up and yanked us out, success again.

We tired ourselves out playing with the Grandkids and headed home slowly over roads still medium crappy and snow covered. It had warmed up to 18 degrees.
Boy, there's nothing as much fun as winter in Upstate NY but Florida on December 30th, priceless.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

My Chevelle

Our 1970 Chevelle Malibu Convertible
Murray and Joanne Stahl

Chevelle In Maine

It was March of 1987, an unusually sunny day in Rochester. We were driving down Spencerport road in the mid-afternoon and spotted a red Chevelle with a 4-sale sign on it. It must have been Kismet or maybe March madness for Joanne told me we should look at it! This was really uncharacteristic as she views cars; either old or new, in the same way that she sees a refrigerator. As long as it fulfills it basic purpose all is well, once it fails then it’s goodbye appliance. Still shaking my head about her actually wanting me to look at an old car we pulled over.

As it turned out the car was a 1970 Chevelle, Malibu Convertible nicely painted in Aztec red. The owner was a 17 year old kid (same vintage as car) who had gotten it from his dad; the original owner. He was in trade school and had made the car a school project. Everything was detailed, the top was new and the paint superb. The price was right and Joanne really wanted it so who was I to say no to another car. I did wonder, “who was this woman” as the car quickly became ours. By the way, it’s our only car registered to Joanne. At the time we owned a red 46 Dodge Convertible and we joked about our creating a red car club.

I think everyone who buys an antique car goes through what I think of as the “getting to know you” phase when the car first sets in your garage. We’ve all been surprised.
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In the Chevelle’s case it was all good, no unpleasant surprises. These young kids had done a great job on the mechanicals but a terrific job on the body. The car had always been garaged, never rusty and the paint was show quality lacquer, hand worked to a high sheen. As I write this we’ve added 35K miles to the 60 thousand we started with; the paint is now 24 years old and shows no bubbles from suspect preparation and is only checked in an area about 3 inches square.

My Chevelle in 1970 was Chevrolet’s answer to owning a convertible on the cheap. The car was originally sold with only a radio and automatic tranny. It had no power anything except for the top. No interior lights, no bucket seats, nada. On a trip to Lake Placid I had occasion to have to stop from 65 MPH. It was no fun; the original, undersized drum brakes w/o power assist had the braking power of an anchor, very scary. When we arrived home I was able to enjoy one of the underrated joys of owning a Chevelle or Corvette, Mustang or Model-A, all parts are available. I settled on a wrecking yard in NC that only dealt with Chevelle’s and was able to purchase original power brake and steering kits rebuilt and warranted. You can wait longer for parts on a modern car than you do with the popular marques, go figure. Most parts on my Studebaker are about as available as common sense in Congress.

In the twenty-three years we’ve owned this car it’s never broken down. Through 35 thousand miles there hasn’t even been a flat tire. The only incident was totally my fault. In a fit of madness I read the label on some million-mile antifreeze. I change antifreeze on all my cars every two years and I thought, hey, why not. Why not turned out to be a leak about two weeks later. The additive in the mix had eaten away most of the paper gasket between the block and water pump. As long as I had to remove the radiator I replaced the water pump, hoses, belts etc.. Once again the beauty of a popular marquee amazed me. The water pump for a small block Chevy was cheaper than the belts and right off the shelf.

We use the Chevelle as our tour car because it’s not as rare as our Speedster and is much more comfortable than our Vette which has just about enough storage space for Joanne’s purse. This year we drove the Chevelle to Nova Scotia, 3500 miles with about 800 of those with the top down, hoo-ray.

Studebaker Registries

To register your Speedster and some other Studebaker models go to this site:

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Studebaker's New V-8

Studebaker’s New V-8

Triumph and tragedy, An Independent Automobile Company’s quest to survive a change in it’s reality.

By: Murray D. Stahl
(Proud Owner of a Studebaker Speedster )

1951 Studebaker ad

In 1951 the Cadillac and Oldsmobile overhead valve V-8s were barely two years old. The handwriting was on the wall; an automobile company could only prosper with a modern overhead valve V-8 engine. Studebaker had been contemplating a V-8 for years. In fact after the war the new “coming or going” Studes had frames designed to accept a front or rear mounted power plant either V-8 or pancake 6. (D) (E)

It doesn’t take too much of a leap of faith to surmise that Studebaker began thinking of a V-8 as a marketing advantage right around 1948. It had to be a wakeup call when the upstart Kaiser-Frazer outsold Studebaker for a few months in 48-49 even though Studebaker sported a newly designed body style.

It was during this period that Kaiser had a dedicated team working on a V-8 headed by Paul Bastian with Harold Bullard and David Potter. They were far along on the design when the plug was pulled due to poor cash flow. It’s known that Mr. Potter presented his ideas to Studebaker. Today we would call the use of good designs found in various competitors engines “best practices” and there is no doubt that Studebaker built a stout V-8 design by picking and choosing from those best ideas. (K) (G)

Even then the Independents were fighting over a dwindling piece of the market share pie. (K) Studebaker probably saw a large portion of those K-F sales as coming out of their totals. The post-war market where you could sell anything you built was ending and all the independent automobile companies were faced with the same problem, succinctly analyzed by Bill Williams in a 1973 Special Interest Autos article:
“It costs as much for a small company to retool a new car as it does a big one. Chevy or Ford though can amortize that tooling over, say, a million cars while a company like K-F is lucky to produce a tenth of that. Now it’s true that it costs less to tool for a 100,000 car run than for a million car run but not enough less to make the lower run competitive.
Similarly, it costs K-F exactly the same to buy a one-page ad in Life as it did one of the big three. Again (they) could spread this per-car ad cost over perhaps a million cars, so for each car the ad costs, lets say one cent. But for a 100,000 car run that same ad cost K-F ten cents per car.”

The same daunting cost threshold faced Studebaker and all of the other independents. It’s not documented but it seems reasonable to assume that Studebaker was well aware of this cost-disadvantage versus the big three and saw their salvation as being a bolder kind of full line manufacturer. This would certainly explain their very bold, controversial and often-beautiful post-war car designs. It also fostered thrift; the 1953 bumpers were still being used during Studebaker’s end game in the mid-sixties; Chevy had 9 specific bumpers in the same period. They pioneered sliding roof designs and championed the use of Superchargers. The age old question, “Does adversity foster innovation and Excellence” comes to mind. There's no doubt they put themselves into an untenable position by not addressing the fact that their overall costs per vehicle were much higher than their competitors. High labor cost, sliding sales and an inefficient manufacturing plant constituted a perfect storm. High cost equaled low sales and profits that severely constricted funds for redesign or innovation. This circle of problems eventually doomed Studebaker even though their design talent fought bravely to break out of it. Studebaker's break-even point was hovering around 282,000 vehicles sold in a year.

Studebaker was a “full-line” Automobile producer with a miniscule market share. Their competitors enjoyed market shares as high as 55% while theirs was 4% at its high-point in 1950, sinking fast from there to well under 1% in 1954. I suppose Studebaker management could have thought that they could overcome their inherent, structural disadvantages and become a large enough company to survive and prosper but that only shows a triumph of hope over reality.

As the new V-8 was introduced Studebaker management was congratulating themselves on 1950 sales of 334,554 vehicles. It was a high water mark. Soon the company would be hanging on by their proverbial fingernails selling 82,000 cars in 54. A 66% drop in three years despite a “state of the art” engine and redesigned automobiles. The new engine was a triumph hitting all its design and quality benchmarks but it could not be the silver bullet Studebaker needed. In my opinion their basic business model was faulty.

For Studebaker to market a V-8 in 1951 was a remarkable achievement. Little Studebaker was the only independent to market a V-8 prior to1955, and even this great little engine was designed before anyone realized what a big deal the horsepower race was going to be. A case can be made that Hudson and Kaiser failed due to the lack of a “Modern” V-8. (K) Packard was late to the V-8 party and it certainly contributed to their demise. Nash, aka American Motors lengthened their life and shined themselves up for a sale with their own V-8.

The new engine offered more power and the additional benefit of greater economy as well. In the Mobilgas Economy Run of 1951 a V-8-powered Commander with overdrive managed a 28-mpg average from Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon via Death Valley. That beat the 1950 L-head Six Commander's mileage by more than four miles per gallon. As you look at the EPA figures for our modern full size cars take note of how few can match this fuel economy 50 plus years later.

New Studebaker V-8

Korean war restrictions and an abbreviated model year due to labor problems meant Studebaker couldn't approach its 1950 sales record. Production in 51 dropped to 268,565 cars, but V-8 Commander sales were a far greater proportion of overall sales than previously: In 1950 Commander sales were just 21 percent of sales, while in 1951 they more than doubled to 46 percent of the total. Thanks to this sales success, plus war production making trucks for the use of the military Studebaker rolled into 1952, it’s centennial, looking proud and strong due in no small extent to the new V-8.

The first Studebaker V-8 started out at a modest 120HP; four years later they gained 46% more power to 185HP on the 55 Speedster. This was accomplished without raising the compression ratio; they did it by tweaking their over-square engine design, slightly expanding the bore, shortening the stroke. Adding a four-barrel Carburetor and split manifold exhaust. (D) An analysis shows that a typical long stroke engines pistons travel 40-odd miles up and down for every 100 miles of automobile travel. In a modern short-stroke engine like the new Studebaker each piston will cover only 29 miles over the same distance. (H) Everything else being equal the less distance a piston travels, the less wear it generates.

When the stroke is shortened the incoming air-fuel mixture has a good deal less velocity through the valve ports; that lengthens valve life and reduces engine noise. In 1955 the little engine that could went from 232 Cubic inch displacement to 259 and boasted a better power to weight ratio than any US automobile save the Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe. It would eventually reach it’s zenith at 289 cubic inches. (H) (E) (J)

The application of forged cranks, rods and pistons along with the high alloy cast blocks promised durability not usual in a low priced car. The use of timing gears instead of chains cost more but assured trouble free, high mileage engines. The designed in full pressure oiling gave the engine state of the art lubrication. “All Studebaker blocks were seasoned; they were cast and painted to inhibit rust then set outside for two cold South Bend winters.” (C) This allowed the block to pre-stress before machining. It was this “seasoning” that held their crankshaft and cylinder bores true, free of stress and was a major reason for high mileage longevity. It was a very unusual practice in all but high-end vehicle engines.
(B) (C)


Hop-up magazine in their 1953 manual of new engines by Gene Jaderquist said that the new Studebaker V-8 so closely follows the Cadillac V-8 in it’s general design and appearance that with the valve covers removed only an expert could tell them apart. All the outside dimensions are within 3/8 inch of each other and the intake manifolds are interchangeable. The valving is similar but for a ¼ inch extra length on the Studebaker. On the Studebaker their rod and main bearing area exceeded the Cadillac by 22% and the little Studebaker V-8 made .515 HP per cube to the Caddy’s .484. (A) Studebaker was the only early adopter of a
V-8 to use solid lifters. With a modified cam they reached 7000RPM in testing with these lifters. (O)

Studebaker had hoped to reduce cost by shortening the engine footprint, which would allow a shorter and lighter car. They were successful; the V-8 powered car came in at 215 pounds lighter and 10 inches shorter than the six cylinders it replaced. Due to the extraordinary cost of developing a new engine from scratch and tooling it for production the design had to allow for the near certainty of much higher Compression and higher cylinder pressures. Their design gave the new engine a lower end tough enough to handle any loads the foreseeable future would likely demand. (B)

Studebaker engineers had planned for compression increases by securing each cylinder Head with 18 bolts; six bolts surrounded each cylinder. This allowed for extraordinary head sealing that virtually eliminated Cylinder head leakage even when subject to the pounding of a supercharger or turbine. To put it in perspective; “late model Mopar, Ford small block and Y-blocks have 10 head bolts, a Buick V-6 (stage ll) has 14.” The very durable, long-lived, Chevy small block V-8 has 17 bolts to Studebaker’s 18. (E)

A small engine to start and it stayed small but only the Chrysler, using a very expensive to build hemispherical head technology, produced more HP per cubic inch. (E)

The trend in fifties engine design was to thin wall casting however Studebaker once again took a different path. They elected to go with a heavy wall casting that would accept large overbores. Few automobile manufactures could boast a possible .187-inch overbore. Even with that enormous overage the castings piston walls remained about as thick as a Chevy V-8 thin-wall block at standard. (C)

In a fit of hyperbole, Tom McCahill, the dean of auto test drivers called the little engine fitted to a relatively light body “nitroglycerine stuff.” Perhaps he was just peering into the future. The little mouse-motor began life as a 120HP weakling but grew to a 335HP production engine by the end of its life. (L) A definite tribute to the robust design. Even Consumer Reports when road testing the new engine praised it for running “quietly and smoothly.” It’s unusual that they praised an engine during this era. (N)

The new 1951 Studebaker V-8 had a built in durability beyond its rather bland, early vitals:
Type: OHV V-8, Seasoned iron block, iron headsDisplacement: 232.6 cubic inchesBore x stroke: 3.38 x 3.25
Solid Lifter valve train
18 Bolt Heads, 6 bolts/cylinder
Forged crank, rods and pistons
Chromed piston ringsCompression ratio: 7.0:1Horsepower @ rpm: 120 @ 4,000Torque @ rpm: 190-lbs.ft. @ 2,000Fuel delivered through a Single Stromberg two-barrel downdraft carburetor

The US automotive industry in 1951 sold 5,338,435 new cars, including the 1000 millionth. Most models were 'carry-overs' from 1950 with the customary annual facelifts. Only Kaiser-Frazer and Packard's 1951 models were entirely new. Ford and Plymouth introduced their first hardtops in a catch-up effort to match the GM hardtop convertible coup. Hardtops had become very desirable fashionably resembling convertible coupes except that the tops were metal and could not be folded down.

The little Studebaker V-8 came to market during these most difficult years for America's independent auto manufacturers. While the biggest problem was most likely Henry Ford II glutting the market with new cars in a vain effort to catch and pass Chevrolet. The Ford sales blitz put enormous pressure on the smaller companies unable to absorb large losses to sell cars. The old proverb, “when elephants dance the mice tremble, comes to mind. Another problem was the market's embrace of the V-8 engine, which required costly tooling and design changes beyond the capacity of most of the smaller automakers. Studebaker was the first independent to come out with a V-8 and even this great little engine was designed before anyone realized what a big deal the horsepower race was going to be. (F)
Proud Moments at the birth of their V-8

In the end this small, century old company showed great daring when it bought out the very first OHV V-8 made by an independent automaker. The proof of their determination was the high quality design for their new V-8. This was quickly born out as the new engine found it’s way into 1951 Commanders. There was only a single, small recall and total warrantee costs were appreciably lower than the decades old six it replaced. A very early spate of cam failures was quickly addressed and did not dim customer confidence.
Photo taken at the Studebaker International meet held in September 2008 at Lancaster Pa. by author

The innovative, lets try anything, spirit Studebaker fostered sometimes veered off course. Borg Warner made Studebaker automatic transmissions and along with Studebaker designed a mechanical power steering unit. It was powered through a belt and featured a series of clutches. (M) While touted as simpler than every other manufacturers hydraulic power steering it was discontinued mid-year 1953. The real world found it very noisy and impossibly complex. Road tests late into the model year still talked about it’s unavailability so it seems it only wasted design funds, not warrantee problems. It was very close to still-born. (O) To my eye it looks complex to the point of a parody of a simple design.

Once GM had dropped their small block V-8 bomb into the automobile marketplace the hoary old long stroke, low power flat-head engines everyone had in their sale brochures looked old fashioned and no amount of innovative styling risk could change that perception.

Back in the day carmakers reveled in different; why in 1930 the Cadillac division alone made a V-8 a V12 and a V16. Customer choices abounded. By 1950 General Motors was offering customers the choice of a flathead six or eight cylinder car (Pontiac); an overhead valve six (Chevrolet & GMC), an overhead valve V-8 (Cadillac & Olds), an overhead valve straight eight (Buick) and all kinds of permutations of 2, 3 or 4 speed automatic transmissions. That’s five dramatically different engine designs just at GM. Ford countered with a flathead V-8 or flathead four along with a late arrival overhead valve six. Chrysler hid their head in the sand, completely ignoring any V-8 or overhead valve configuration until 1951. They had done very well with essentially the same flathead six and eight cylinder engines for 25 years. Chrysler also hedged their bet with a semi-automatic transmission that retained a clutch pedal like it was a security blanket in a Charlie Brown cartoon. The marketplace had punished Chrysler in the thirties for an innovative and bold body design and they only seemed to shed the fear of failure with the Hemi developed concurrently with the Studebaker V-8.

These were only the major companies; independents like Packard had marketed wonderful straight, flathead sixes, eights, V12s and V16s. The Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg consortium flirted with front wheel drive and manufactured engines that are still usually considered works of art. Franklin made great air-cooled engines for their expensive cars long after conventional wisdom deemed them too noisy and suitable only for lawn mowers. Crosley and Chevrolet briefly sold “copper” engines that had a lifespan about the same duration as a fruit fly’s.
In an era when drivers routinely tinkered and repaired their vehicles people were fiercely loyal to cars and engines they were familiar with. Once you mastered a flathead the prospect of working on an overhead valve engine was daunting. Change is scary. You could peg people as “Chevy” or “Ford” guys. To my Dad anyone admitting to being a “Studebaker” guy was as far out there as a quarterback wearing a dress. He was an “Olds” guy but willing to humor friends loyal to other makes as long as they were GM makes. When my older brother opened a British sports car dealership it was like finding out his kid was a commie. In those days car ownership was like joining a religious sect except that you could argue about it and argue they did.

It was into this difficult environment that Studebaker blew into the market with its own overhead valve V-8 in 1951. The new engine displaced a diminutive 232 cubic inches while pumping out 120 horsepower. The relatively lightweight Studebaker bodies allowed this V-8 to climb quite high on the performance charts for 1951 with acceleration and top speed figures close to the Oldsmobile 88. The year preceding the new V-8 was very mixed; industry production at 8 million set a record while Studebaker production at some 334,500 units was up 9.7%. Despite the increase in sales profits only rose 1% as Studebaker settled their labor dispute with a contract that would forever haunt them. (F) Whenever revenues rise by 10% while profits only eke out a 1% increase the differential poses a problem. A case can be made that this was the start of Studebaker’s demise. Studebaker's break-even point fluttered around 282,000 vehicles sold in one year. Soon the company would be hanging on by their proverbial fingernails, selling 113,920 total vehicles in 1954. It got worse when 30% of Studebaker's big dealer network abandoned them by 1956. By 1956 sales had cratered to only 85,401 cars, by 1958 it was only 79,301 vehicles. The grim reaper could be clearly seen silhouetted on the horizon. (F) The new engine placed Studebaker in a more competitive position than the other independents but it alone could not negate their horrid cost situation and the botched launch of the new design in 1953.

The Olds and Cadillac V-8 had started an avalanche. One by one, almost every other American manufacturer brought out its own OHV V-8 engine; Chrysler and Studebaker in 1951; Lincoln in 1952; Buick and Dodge in 1953; Ford and Mercury in 1954; Chevrolet, Pontiac, Plymouth, and Packard in 1955; and even AMC in 1956. Each of those engines had its own peculiarities, but they were all in the mold of the Oldsmobile and Caddy V-8. The overhead-valve V-8 would dominate the American industry well into the 1980s, resulting in some staggeringly powerful engines whose output has only recently been surpassed.

So here it was, Studebaker had their V-8 and had just signed on to produce a line of low, swoopy, clearly gorgeous coupes in 1953 that would forever be called, “Loewy coupes”. The designers had viewed this car as a low production kind of “halo” car. It seemed that no thought had been given to just how it would look as a higher more truncated sedan. It looked small and unusual and sold poorly. One of the basic facts of automotive life is that designers love working on convertibles, coupes and sports cars; it’s up to the adult supervision to bring them back to reality. The four door family sedan was the cash cow of all “full line” automobile manufactures; it remains a mystery how the mesmering glow of the pretty coupe design had made Studebaker management lose sight of that basic business fact. A sampling of road test, new model introduction articles showed almost no interest in the sedan, they seem to be rarely even mentioned. (P) (O) (Q) They wanted an innovative, bold design to yank them from their sales doldrums but instead they piled on another layer of problems. As Stated by H.L. Mencken, “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”

By 1954 they had stumbled into a merger agreement with Packard that closely resembled two drowning men reaching for a single life preserver. As they merged both companies were losing fearful amounts of money struggling with disappearing sales, obsolete plants and a high cost structure.

In my opinion Studebaker’s demise could have been predicted and avoided by a more intuitive management in the early fifties. In 1950 they had money, a shiny new V-8 ready for launch and many choices for a new car design. They chose the path to continue as a “full Line” manufacturer. They were the only independent with a full line of trucks and heavy defense work. Given that, it should have been possible for management to look into the future a bit and see that the defense work would wane, the competitors could compound “economies of scale” and their labor costs were outrageous. Insight into the future to plan and react is the definition of good management. Others usually handle the day-to-day operational decisions; foresight is what management is paid for and this is where Studebaker stumbled badly.

With our benefit of hindsight we can fantasize that an early move into a high-quality, niche player situation may very well have worked. Porsche, Aston Martin, Morgan and even Avanti Motors come to mind. The key would have been recognizing the confluence of problems they would face early on. As Charles Darwin famously stated, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to Change.”

I can visualize (Ok dream) of a Studebaker company in the fifties that actually analyzed it’s situation and realized that it had very rarely exceeded it’s breakeven point in revenue from vehicles excluding the military business. Since 1941 an almost constant level of military vehicle contracts had propped it up. Could they possibly have thought they would always get the contracts? In my dream they decide to become a high-quality, low volume niche manufacturer, it would require them to shed truck, sedans and most of their unwieldy dealer network. It would be difficult but so was trying to market the awkward conversion of the Lowey coupe to a four-door sedan. The Avanti, Hawks and Speedster showed their design expertise was greatest in specialty, essentially niche automobiles. A breakeven point of 40 to 60 thousand highly styled, high quality autos would seem doable while an every two year cycle of complete redesign of a full product line on dwindling revenues proved to be “a bridge to far” for them. There was that brief window when they had the money. Porsche with their 911, Leyland with the Mini and the seemingly timeless Avanti show that a great design, if properly exploited, remains viable far into the future. The key seems to be “design character” that is able to transcend time. It doesn’t have to be a high-end vehicle, it just has to be true to it’s intended use. The Volkswagen beetle was designed as a high-quality, inexpensive and extremely durable automobile. It was produced virtually unchanged for many decades and became a legend. On the other side of the spectrum sits the Porsche 911; a costly, high-quality, state of the art piece of rolling art that proves that if form follows function then design continuity works. Porsche and Volkswagen didn’t tinker with the original purpose of the vehicle, enhancements were complementary to the original theme be it performance or thrift. The Gran Turismo was a wonderful effort but came to market well after the buying public had tired of the many years of Studebaker struggles. I wonder what would have been had a Sherwood Egbert and Brooks Stevens surfaced early on. They seem to have “got it.”

It’s fantasy but remember the Avanti soldered on for 30 plus years despite chronic under funding. The new V-8 was sorely needed but it certainly couldn’t solve all of Studebaker’s problems.

As this is written it appears that our remaining US auto manufacturers have fallen behind their peers in cost control and innovation forgetting the history of their own industry. The buying public in its group Knowledge is able to discern what is the better product. A sales salvation isn’t possible without having the better product. Its very sad that our current Automobile manufactures have lost sight of how to provide the overall value that their customers demand (R)

The final days of Studebaker saw some wonderful car designs created on budgets that wouldn’t fund a door handle design at GM. The Speedster, Hawks, Lark, Gran Turismo and Avanti were tributes to what I think were the best designers in Detroit. They consistently updated the aged designs and produced many timeless and distinctly different cars. Everything they worked on was based on a design at least 13 years old.

The little V-8 was able to run at 147.36 MPH for 50 Kilometers. The Supercharged Stude V-8 set 72 new USAC records IN 1962 including 118.33 MPH for 500 kilometers and a top speed of 153.48 MPH. Heady stuff for a lark. (F) (D)

Studebaker failed, as most companies do, from management failure compounded by a lack of understanding of the company’s situation. In their death throes they created milestone designs that turn heads today. The failure of Studebaker is constantly reviewed because of the recognition of what could have been. A management with vision could have made them into a niche contender, an icon. In 2008, many decades since the doors closed, the Studebaker Drivers Club (SDC) is the largest and one of the most active single Marquee clubs. That’s a great tribute to their design skill and just plane pluck.

(A) 1953 Hop-up magazine manual of New Engines by Eugene Jaderquist and Griff Borgeesen

(B) The Studebaker V-8 engine; a presentation by E.J. Hardig, T.A. Scherger and S.W. Sparrow at the SAE Summer meting on 6-7-1951

(C) Engine Report, Studebaker V-8 by Classic Auto Restorer, February, 1997

(D) Total performance Independents by Richard Datson

(E) Studebaker Extreme Duty Engine Book by Richard Datson, (1995 edition)

(F) Studebaker, the complete history by Patrick Foster

(G) Road Test Comments on the McCulloch Supercharger, Motor Life, August 1955 article on Supercharged Speedster

(H) Popular Science, November, 1954

(J) Special Interest Autos, SIA #51, June 1979

(K) The last onslaught on Detroit by Richard M. Langworth

(L) Ultimate American Engine Data by Motorbooks

(M) Speed Age, April 1953, America’s First Motor racing Magazine

(N) Consumer Reports, March, 1955

(O) Speed Age, September, 1953

(P) Fortune Magazine, Automobile Topics, February 1953

(Q) Popular Science, February 1953

(R) The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

My Speedster in the New York Times

Try this Link:

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Speedster & President helpful articles listing

Speedster and President model of 1955; Significant Books, essays, magazines and Articles

This is my list of what I’ve found helpful in trying to understand the Automobiles of the fifties and Studebaker’s place in the marketplace. My main interest is in the Speedster since I have always admired its look and general, factory hot-rod demeanor. I realize it’s not complete and would appreciate any additions that I’ve missed to add to it.

I own the following magazines, books and articles.
--Turning Wheels, May 2000; The back cover picture and write-up on Page 12 is my Speedster.
--Studebaker, The complete History by Patrick Foster (Motorbooks (2008)
--Nostalgic Cars, July 1988, (pages 32 & 33)
--Special Interest Autos, June 1979, (Cover, page 34 to 41 and page 65)
--Turning Wheels, May 1978, Speedster Road test , Article on the “South Bend secret Speedster”
--Hemmings Motor News, March 2006, (Page 20 to 24 & cover)
--Motor Life, June 1955, Speedster Drivers Report (pages 36, 37, and 61)
--Turning Wheels, February 1994 (Pages 6 thru 21) My own Speedster and text with picture on page #11
--Collectible Automobile, October 1998, (Page 42 thru 51) My Speedster featured on pages 48 & 49 with text and four pictures of it.
--Collectible Automobile, February 2000, (Pages 8 thru 21) Speedster article pgs.20, 21
--Motor Trend, November 1954, (Pages 11 & 12, with 54 to 59) On President model.
--Motor Life, February 1955, (Pages 34, 35 and 66 on only the President model)
--Motor Trend, December 1954, (Pages 22 & 23) Great article on competitors engines on pages 24 thru 28.
--Car and Parts, March 1983, (Page 26 to 29) on President Model.
--Car Life, February 1955, (Page 23 to 25 on President model only)
--Motor Trend, March 1955, Speedster ad page 3, (President model on pages 24 and 25, Champion article on pages 20 and 21)
--Speed Age, April 1953, Road test of 53 Commander
Consumer Reports, March 1955, (Commander model, pages 124 thru 126.)
--Studebaker Buyers Guide, By Richard Langworth published by Motorbooks. Speedster covered on pages 87 thru 89.
--Turning Wheels, May 1980. 1955 Economy Run article, 1953 road test, Mechanical Power Steering article.
--Turning Wheels, May 1986, Automatic Transmission development article.

The following Books, magazines and articles listing is of known, maybe seen but not owned by me.
--Car Collector, March 1989 by Dennis Adler
--Bob Bourke Designs for Studebaker , 1984 by J.B. Enterprises
--Automobile Topics, October 1954
--Automobile Industries, October 1954
--Automobile Industries, December 1954
--Auto Age, 1954
--Auto Age, February 1955 (road Test)
--Auto Album by Ted Burness
--Studebaker, The complete Story, Tab Books, 1981 by Fred Fox
--Cars Magazine, 1955, reprinted in June 1979 Turning Wheels
--Consumer Reports, May 1955
--Science & Mechanics, December 1954 Cover and article
--Turning Wheels, June 1982, pages 3 to 13 by Fred Fox
--Chiltons Motor Age, October 1954
--The Studebaker Century. Printed by Dragonwyck, written by Richard Langworth
--Automotive Engineering, April of 1981
--Motor Trend, September 1955, Champion only
--Studebaker, The postwar years, Motorbooks, R. Langworth, 1979
--Car Life, magazine, May 1955, “The Studebaker Speedster”
--Motor Life magazine, “South Bends secret Speedster” December 1954, reprinted in the May 1978 TW, (I have the TW)
--Motor Trend, September 1955, Studebaker Speedster, reprinted in January 1976 Turning Wheels
--Popular Science, May 1955
--Popular Science, November 1954
--Turning Wheels, January, 1976
--Turning Wheels, June 1979

Thursday, December 4, 2008

My Corvette

Black MariahThis is my "Black Mariah". A triple black 1964 Roadster, 365 HP born on September, 22nd, 1963 (Ist month of 1964 Manufacture) Fast fun in the Sun !

Friday, November 21, 2008

Speedster Stuff

I own a very nice 55 Speedster, a 64 Corvette Roadster and a 1970 Chevelle Convertible. In my checkered past I've owned Ford Model As, Hudsons, An MG or two, Austin Healeys, Hillmans, Volkswagons and a 46 Dodge Convertible Coupe. I enjoy all cars from Classics to Hot-Rods, it's all good and all fun.

On this site I will try to answer questions on Studebaker Automobiles but especially 1955 Speedsters. I have lots of information on speedsters and will be posting info on this blog. A lot of it is independant research in Magazine articles from back in the day while some is from the awesome Studebaker Drivers Club forum.

My Speedster

The life and times of Suzy Studebaker

A while ago I decided to write about my favorite car, Suzy Studebaker. Those who know me best realize that I like all old cars while the car I’ve coveted forever is my Studebaker. I have loved the lines of the “Loewy” coupes since I was a teenager and they were new.

A little history is in order. When I was 15 my best friend was 18 and had a shiny new 55 Chevy, we street raced every night as kids in the 50s were wont to do. It was a Studebaker Speedster that consistently beat us. Through the intervening years I flirted with MGs, Austin Healey’s, Hudson’s, Chevy’s and Mopars but always the “Speedster” lurked back in the lizard part of my brain.

About 10 years ago the hidden urge was again triggered when I say a 3 tone Speedster at a show south of Syracuse NY. Now any car guy knows that the wacky yearning for a specific automobile is inherently nuts but impossible to ignore. A few weeks of unsuccessfully trying to fight off this urge and I placed an ad in Hemmings. The ad read simply, “Wanted a Speedster in good to excellent condition.” I know, I know it’s really stupid to advertise. Your essentially saying I want this so bad that I’m seeking you out. It’s akin to knocking on the door of a house and asking if they would please sell it to you. As luck would have it my ads were never answered but, but (feel the suspense building) a Speedster found me. In a conversation with my friend Jerry, a long time AACA Studebaker fan, about my search he told me of a friend of his in Maryland that had just decided to sell his Speedster and hadn’t yet advertised it.

We had a fitful series of letters and phone calls about the car. The Gentleman selling the car didn’t understand me any better than I understood him. I would ask about how it drove on tour and he would talk about the room full of trophy’s the car had won. I asked about spare parts and he said the mechanics had always found whatever he needed. The car was a very good, well-maintained car that he had restored to a high standard. At the end of the day it was mine.

In 1998 my friends began asking if I was going to reclaim my AACA Senior at the “Special Nationals” in Amherst, NY. I was eventually convinced that it would validate the cars value and Suzy Studebaker didn’t let me down.

Suzy Studebaker now resides permanently in Rochester and enjoys the many AACA tours, Cruise nights and Hot-Rod shows in our Upstate area. It’s become my wife, Joanne’s favorite collectable which is a kind of bonus. When we take it for a few days to events like the “Syracuse Nationals or the Studebaker regional ” it still manages to stand out in that sea of different cars. We live in an age of sameness, different is unusual, different is nice.

Suzy Studebaker has now reached middle age well beyond that 50 years old milestone. Born in early 1955 in South Bend Indiana she has seen a half-century of automotive life. Dressed in an elegant black and white color scheme she can remember when she was chosen to represent her Studebaker family as a model in their ads. How proud she was that all these ads were for “Studebaker-Packard.” It’s difficult to be young in a hyphenated family born half black and white but she really wanted to fit in even though she was seen as a “special” model. She was always much closer to the Studebaker side than the pedigreed Packard’s. Her swoopy, low, European lines just never quite meshed with the elegant behemoths commonly found under the Packard Cormorant. Suzy had been styled as a very low, luxurious touring coupe with a fashionably long front and rear deck; she knew that she was a trendsetter. It was always apparent that someone had to leave the corporate nest! It wouldn’t be the pretty Coupes.

She was wild from the start, beginning life with a high horsepower engine and full instrumentation encased in an engine turned dash replete with a bevy of aircraft type switches. Independent Road tests by “Motor Trend” clocked her at 125 MPH and 0 to 60 in 9.4 seconds. This was heady stuff in 1955 on bias ply tires. Her given name was “Speedster” and she tried hard to live up to it.

Of course she was always a bit of a brat, quick to flaunt her prominent front-end and slim, swoopy figure. Many of her siblings sported wild paint combos while her sedate black and white outfit was classy and formal. She knew that having a standard transmission and electric overdrive set her apart from her 2215 siblings with their slushy automatic drives. Alas, after a half-century only 119 of her siblings are thought to still exist.

Her pretty, leather upholstery and wire wheels were industry trendsetters for their time but her high cost of $3253 put her firmly into the mid-priced society whirl. At her coming out party she was quickly dubbed as “Studebaker’s Factory Hot-Rod.” There was an early rivalry with the pretty little white Corvette from Detroit but Suzy Studebaker was clearly the class act with many different color combos and a potent V/8 capable of easily showing her skirts to that fiberglass hussy. Imagine the little Corvette, so quick to drop her top, thinking that her hoary six-cylinder anchor could launch her into the “in-crowd.”

At “fifty” Suzy Studebaker can look back upon a life of service, first as a family sedan shepherding the kids to and thro. After a period of inactivity and neglect Suzy received a freshening restoration and entered the “show car circuit.” At first it was exciting being looked over and judged but too soon the excitement turned to boredom. After all how many awards and trophies can a girl use? Meandering across the country in a closed trailer for yet another judged event just didn’t get the old Girl’s juices flowing. A total of 187 miles in 12 years let her greases harden. Was there no end to this sterile existence?

In 1997 at 42 years of age our Suzy began yet another new life as a “Driver.” It started suddenly as the new owner drove her home on the interstate from Maryland to New York. What a hoot, back on the road again. On the interstate those new cars didn’t attract anywhere near the attention that the pretty coupe did.

At fifty Suzy’s rear sags a bit and she could certainly use a small bit of cosmetic work (who couldn’t) but now she commingles with Hot-Rods and feels young again. Its fun watching people smile at Suzy’s flirty, swoopy, lithe lines.

Lets raise a glass to Suzy Studebaker, A Factory Hot-Rod, Hoo-rah.