I’ve been writing about obscure North American special editions and forgotten limited-run models since way back in 2015. Though I’ve travelled extensively in the US and even lived there for a while, I’ve seen a grand total of zero of my featured cars in the metal. While putting together a Top 10 list for the next (perhaps final?) instalment – on the independent automakers, coming soon! – I stumbled across some photos I took of a Studebaker I saw at a Cars & Coffee. It wasn’t just any Studebaker, however – it was a rare ’55 Speedster.
Though I instantly recognized the car as a Studebaker when I photographed it, I didn’t realize it was a Speedster. This was a one-year-only model, serving as the flagship of the Studebaker line. A posher version of the ’55 President State hardtop coupe, the Speedster was the finest Studebaker one could buy and sat atop the regular President, Commander and Champion coupes.
It’s hard to overstate the visual impact of the ’53 Starlight pillared and Starliner hardtop coupes, popularly referred to as the Loewy coupes as they were designed by Robert Bourke of Raymond Loewy’s Loewy and Associates, the long-time design contractor for Studebaker. They were low-slung and fabulously proportioned, using the 120.5-inch wheelbase of the flagship Land Cruiser line instead of the regular Stude’s 116.5-inch span. Unfortunately, the slinky design of the coupe didn’t lend itself well to a conventional sedan and wagon derivative (it was never meant to – the coupes were intended by Bourke to be a separate line). The poorly-received sedan and wagon counterparts were one of Studebaker’s many missteps in the 1950s.
At the time of its debut, Studebaker was scrambling to keep up with the Big 3, in particular Ford and GM who were at the time engaged in a brutal price war. In the Loewy coupes’ debut year, Studebaker’s total production amounted to 169,899. Sales were down from the previous year due to a combination of fierce competition and production delays and in spite of unanticipated strong demand for the slinky new coupes. The following year was a bloodbath for Studebaker, sales crashing to 113,920 and finally jolting the company’s executives to realize something needed to be done. That turned out to be a merger with the more financially sound (at the time) Packard. Studebaker had rebuffed Packard’s advances before but was now practically beseeching them. We all know how that ended. Though it comes too late for Packard, there’s a moral to this story: whether you’re merging with another company or buying them outright, check their books!
A green-and-gold Speedster featured by Paul
During the dark days of 1954, Studebaker developed 14 Speedster show cars which were received positively on the auto show circuit. Painted in sunny two-tone Hialeah Green and Sun Valley Yellow, their appearance belied Studebaker’s financial hardships. The Speedster went into regular production later that year for the 1955 model year.
All of Studebaker’s passenger cars received an almost obscenely be-chromed front-end for ’55. Had the Studebaker coupe lost some of the design purity of the seminal ’53 model? Sure. The chrome-laden front bumper was a far-cry from the more modest mouth of the ’53. Studebaker was trying to keep up with the Big 3, whose cars seemed to be getting bigger and brassier (chromier?) with every passing year. Desperate to reach their break-even point, Studebaker slathered on the chrome for ’55 to try and keep up.
In Speedster trim, however, all was forgiven. The pert body remained but it was adorned with jewellery, including a chrome roof bar and a hood-length ornament with a gold fin, plus special Speedster badging. Take note, too, of the chrome-plated tailpipe extensions that mirror the shape of the taillights. Though I virtually never care for wire wheels or wire wheel covers – except, maybe, on something like a Jaguar E-Type – wire covers are present on the Speedster and don’t look half bad.
All Speedsters came in a tri-level color scheme. The featured Speedster is Shasta White over Pimlico Grey over Shasta White. Though the flashy green-and-cold combo is the Speedster’s most well-remembered color combination, this grey-and-white color scheme is much classier and more understated. Or about as understated a car can be with a great big chrome maw like these Studes.
The exterior was glitzy but the interior was the crowning touch on the Speedster. Just look at the quilted, genuine leather seats in Congo Ivory. The distinctive diamond motif was carried over to almost every other surface in the interior including the headliner, parcel shelf and door panels, which were upholstered in Pimlico Grey metallic vinyl color matched to the deep-pile carpets. The Speedster’s sporting intentions were communicated through the use of a 160-mph speedometer and an 8,000 rpm tachometer.
Like sitting inside a pineapple.
Actual performance modifications were few. The Speedster used the same 259 cubic-inch Passmaster V8 with a 4-barrel carb but added a dual exhaust system. Horsepower was 185 gross at 4500 rpm; torque 258 ft-lbs at 2800 rpm. Transmissions consisted of the Borg-Warner Automatic Drive or a three-speed manual, while all Speedsters came standard with power brakes and power steering. Sports Illustrated found the former to be startlingly over-sensitive and the latter to be “feather-light”, making driving the Speedster “akin to driving on ice”. The car was praised, however, for a comfortable ride and “head-snapping” acceleration.
Buyers paid dearly for the Speedster’s unique combination of luxury and performance. Its list price was $3,253, around $800 more than the next coupe down in the Studebaker range. That meant it was just $200 cheaper than the more powerful Buick Roadmaster Riviera coupe, the second most-expensive Buick. The Chevy Corvette with its newly optional V8 cost $2,934, the new Ford Thunderbird just $10 more. Neither were as practical as the Stude but they were more convincing as “sports cars”, to which the Speedster was often referred, the Speedster looking merely like a flossier version of a regular Stude hardtop coupe. Those preferring luxury over performance might have been tempted by the stunning new ’55 Chryslers, the Windsor Deluxe Nassau coupe undercutting the Speedster by a few hundred. And for those whose tastes were more beer than champagne, even the priciest and flashiest ’55 Chevy was around a grand cheaper.
Though the Speedster’s production numbers consisted of only 2,635 units by the time the last Speedster was produced late in 1955, Studebaker’s overall sales numbers had seen a modest uptick to 138,742 units. Early build quality and chassis flex issues with the Loewy coupes had been mostly resolved by ’55. Unfortunately, Studebaker’s problems were only getting worse – their financials were shaky and rivals had had a much better ’55. And unfortunately, though they were beautiful, the Loewy coupes just weren’t meeting Studebaker’s expectations.
Though the Speedster was a one-year-only model, its replacement – the Golden Hawk – was one of a family of new “family sports cars”. Actually, the ’56 Hawks weren’t really new as they were merely a more extensive refresh of the same ’53 body. But fledgling tailfins aside, they seemed almost a return to the European design ethos conceived by Robert Bourke. Fortunately, the essence of the coupe’s design meant it aged like a fine wine and lent itself well to some clever refreshes. Regardless of whether it wore a giant chrome maw, a Thunderbird C-pillar, or a huge Mercedes-esque grille, Robert Bourke’s underlying design still looked great.
Finally, one word of advice. If you’re visiting car shows, just photograph everything. Sometimes you won’t realize what delightful delicacy you’ve found until much later.
Photographed July 2018 at Cars & Coffee in Coorparoo, Queensland, Australia.