Design Analysis: 1951 Studebaker – Way Out, In Front

(first posted 5/31/2011)   Am I dreaming, or was this car really built? It’s hard to believe, given what a radical front end this was, and still is. The all new 1947 Studebaker was dramatic enough, the first new post-war car after the Kaiser-Frazer. Its styling originated in sketches by a young Robert Bourke in 1940. The end result was sadly compromised, due to the turf battles fought between the Virgil Exner/Roy Cole and Raymond Loewy/Bob Bourke factions. The ’47 – ’49 front end is lackluster, and if that was Exner’s doing, good riddance.

But Bob Bourke was given the green light by Loewy to do an airplane inspired bullet nose for the 1950 refresh. And the 1951 cleaned up that protruding nose a bit further.  The 1951 Studebaker Starlight coupe has been in my fantasy garage since I first laid eyes on it. And thanks to CC Cohort Contributor paulvaranasi, here’s a few superb images of one of my all time favorite cars.

Studebaker 1947 Commander

Just to refresh your memory, here’s how the Exner-designed 1947 front end looked, on the Commander: rather conventional, given the rest of the Stude’s bold new body, especially the wrap-around Starlight coupe’s rear window and long tapering tail.

Obviously, this mildly customized ’51 Starlight has had the its front bumper removed. Just as well, as this car is rather unique in that it seems to have been styled without any thought of a bumper whatsoever. The whole front end is a free-standing sculpture, with a degree of depth and and dimensionality that could only be ruined by the crude attempt to hang a bumper from it.

Studebaker 1951 bumper

Here’s the proof: there’s just no way bob Bourke really had a bumper in mind when he styled this dramatic bullet-nosed front end. The crude protrusion that carries the bumper a half-mile ahead is a painful foreshadowing of the 5 mph cow-catcher bumpers that appeared in 1974.

There’s a (relative) modern corollary to the ’51 Studebaker Starlight, and in several ways. Dick Teague’s 1974 AMC Matador coupe has always reminded me of Bourke’s Starlight coupe, primarily in the handling of the equally bold front end styling and its relationship to its protruding front bumper (rightfully missing here).

Teague handled the very difficult 5-mph bumper in the most masterful way of the whole industry. Rather than even pretending to integrate the bumper into the bodywork, Teague just hangs it out there, like a free-floating member barely attached at all to the front end, which was clearly designed without a bumper at all. That’s why both of these cars just beg to have the bumper ripped off them…they were merely mandated appendages. Nobody in Detroit was taking this approach, once again showing the independent spirit of the…independents.

Bourke’s brilliant new front end finally did the equally stunning Studebaker middle and tail full justice. Needless to say, the Starlight coupe is the crown of Bourke’s creation. Although by 1951 the basic body design was getting quite long on tooth in Detroit’s ADD tick of the clock, the Studebaker was finally made whole, and is one of the most compelling post war cars ever, on any continent.

The Studebaker was also innovative in its packaging, significantly more compact then The Big Three’s cars of the times, especially their new 1949 models. The shorter-wheelbase Champion, like this one, was powered by a 170 cubic inch (2.8 L) six making 85 hp. That was a small engine even for the times, but then the Champ only weighed some 2600 lbs. This car really is the spiritual predecessor to the Rambler, which came along to champion the “compact” banner a few years later.

studebaker 1952 champion-regal-1952-1

Bob Bourke’s all-new 1953 Starlight coupe was of course the second act of the Loewy/Bourke/Studebaker double-play. We’ll save that for another day. But between the ’51 and the brilliant ’53 there was one more year to fill the gap, and the ’52 redesigned front end (above) was highly unfortunate indeed, in my book anyway. I almost hate to even sully up this post with this profoundly compromised design, obviously a precursor to the ’53s, and referred to as the “clam-digger” by the Loewy stylists. Oh well, you can’t win them all.



CC: 1949 Land Cruiser – On Top Of The World  JPCavanaugh

CC: 1953-1954 Commander Starliner Coupe – Star Light, Star Bright   PN