Thursday, January 31, 2013

Studebaker Speedster Development

How it became Studebaker’s 1955 Trendsetter

By: Murray Stahl (12-18-2008)(Rev. 1-31-2013)

The Studebaker Speedster was originally conceived as a show car but was 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 personal car market to match the competition. 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 an opening in the bruising automobile marketplace of the mid-fifties. It couldn’t afford a clean sheet of paper, all new design but it did have a very low, swoopy coupe that turned heads.

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 designs pioneered the long, low 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 looked short and stubby to most potential customers.

They sold more coupes than ever but couldn’t overcome the loss of the bread and butter, family sedan sales. The sum-total of these lapses severely impacted sales for 53 and 54. The Studebaker 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.

You don’t have to dive very deeply into psychobabble to see the dilemma of the smaller car companies like Studebaker. In 1954 Chevy, Ford and Plymouth sold 3.2 million cars to Studebaker’s 161,521. That essentially meant that you would have 20 neighbors with a Chevy, Ford or Plymouth before you found another Studebaker. That doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that Studebaker tried to compete across the board with the Champion in the low-priced field and Commander / President deep into Oldsmobile’s price range, all under the same name, Studebaker.

By definition a Studebaker owner was an outsider with a minority opinion. The human condition values conformance and buying a Studebaker or Nash et-al Independent branded you an outsider. It’s trite but “go along to get along” was a factor that determined many automobile buying decisions. If you purchased the type of cars your neighbor’s drove you were automatically validated, one of the gang, a regular guy. To be sure some cars thrive on different and quirky, think Porsche or even Jeep but they remained true to their niche reputations and didn’t suffer through a severely flawed product launch like the 53 Loewy coupes experienced. Studebaker never developed a niche place in the market where they could prosper; instead they tried to compete with GM across the board on GMs terms; an impossibility long term. (See “Jeep, the improbable survivor” at:

1955 was a year of changes for the industry and Studebaker. The 6 volt positive ground electrics and the 6 quart, V-8 oil sump were all in there last year. All wiring became vinyl coated, tires were tubeless across the board. 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. The industry became enamored with the wrap-around windshield; a mid-year change that proved very costly for Studebaker as they scrambled to incorporate the wrap-around look on their sedans resulting only in two car models that year and production chaos. 1955 was also the year of Studebakers merger with Packard; a star-crossed partnership akin to two downing men fighting for one life preserver. It was into this “perils of Pauline” sort of atmosphere that the trend setting Speedster idea was born.

For 1955 the sales department and dealers seemed to take charge of design. They needed better sales and thought that they knew the correct 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 sales loss on the sedan side. Everyone at the meeting was part of “overhead” so their untenable position as the industry 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. Studebaker, now (Studebaker-Packard) was a small company with a large company cost structure that needed major change in a hurry. A difficult position that was much easier to ignore than address.

Studebaker’s pro side was more nuanced and manageable. They would note that the three-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 at the table would smile as engineering outlined dual exhausts, four-barrel carburetion and various tweaks that would let their V8 realize 175+ horsepower. Horsepower sold in the fifties management now knew that keeping Studebaker’s V8 output so low amounted to a great lost opportunity.

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 have 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 was 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, and 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, let’s call it “Speedster.” So, as I imagine was the basic concept of the Speedster devised. It was now 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 its creation and I’m sticking with it.

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 would 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 model 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 but the staid Studebaker management had ignored performance as a sales tool post war.

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.

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 life 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.

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, could they have morphed into a niche player? 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 our recent past IBM shed its trademark hardware business and concentrated on software services; Corning glass sold off its house ware line and moved into fibre-optics; it can be done.
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 styling that approached fine art, 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.

I own the Speedster pictured on the sites home page. It’s a rather unusual Speedster with a manual transmission and electric overdrive (a Borg Warned OD); a manual transmission is unusual in a high end car even in 1955. The black-white-black color combination was only available in the last few months of manufacture and I find it elegant. Its pleasant to drive a car that still turns heads almost sixty years after its manufacture.