Curbside Classic: 1957 Studebaker Commander – Eureka!

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Is there a car that you learned about way after you should have?  Is there a car that you have never seen in real life even though it is one that by all logic should have cropped up in your part of the world?  For me, this is that car.  And now, at long last, I have found one according to the Curbside Classic Rule Book – not in a sales lot, not at a car show and not in a junkyard, but in genuine, tarnished, real life, and at (or at least near) a curb.

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I grew up around Studebakers.  First, I was raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which is about ninety miles east of South Bend, where Studebakers of all kinds had been built since 1852.  Second, my best friend’s father was one of the Studebaker Faithful, who drove one of several Studes as everyday transportation until well into the 1970s.  At various times, I can recall riding in at least six different models owned by someone in Tim’s family, including Larks, an R2 Avanti, a Champ and two different 1964s.  I knew about Hawks because Tim’s dad had traded a green one in when he bought the ’64 Avanti.

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I knew that my father had owned a bullet-nosed Starlight Coupe in the mid 1950s and I knew about the beautiful 1953 Starliner because it was available at my local drug store as a model kit, which I eagerly bought, painted and assembled.

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As I really began my descent into old-car-geekdom, one of my first mail-order book purchases was The American Car Spotter’s Guide 1940-1965 by Tad Burness.  It was a simple oversized paperback with cars arranged by make and year.  Each page was haphazardly stuffed with multiple pictures gleaned from period brochures and advertisements, along with handwritten notes pointing out things of particular interest.  This book became my field guide, which I studied as hard as anything ever assigned at school.  So hard that it eventually fell completely apart, requiring me to order a revised edition.

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Much of the newer stuff was review for me.  Common cars like Ford Galaxies and Chevy Impalas were easy to learn because life afforded so many opportunities to spot them out and about.  With less common cars, I was able to brush up on the details, like the differences between 1955 and 1956 Oldsmobiles.   I knew the cars but they were no longer common by the early 70s, so the book helped me pin down details of the various years.

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But as I flipped through the pages in the Studebaker section, I was suddenly stopped cold.  There were lots of pictures of Studes from 1956, 1957 and 1958, but how could this be?  I could not remember ever having seen one in my life.  Yet here they were in black and white.  I knew the book had to be right, but how could I have completely missed these?  I mean completely!  And thus began my thing about these cars.  I call it a thing, because I don’t know what else to call it.  I was strangely drawn to these cars then and have been so ever since.

Photo by Jim Grey

Photo by Jim Grey

 

What was strange was that after getting the book, I started seeing many of the cars I had studied from its pages.  Although they were quite uncommon by the 1970s, I could still spot the occasional Hudson Hornet, Fluid Drive Dodge or Lincoln Cosmopolitan sitting forlorn and forgotten behind some gas station or under a farmer’s tree.  After I got my own car, I would frequent old junkyards where exotica like an old Frazier or a Nash Ambassador would rest in the mud.  Because of my book, I knew what they were and was delighted to gaze upon them in real life, appreciating the little touches that the small black and white renderings from the Guide could not convey.  But I never saw a 1956-58 Studebaker.

 

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I eventually subscribed to magazines and went to car shows.  I would see an occasional Lark, Hawk or Avanti, but never one of these products of a Studebaker swirling the drain before drawing one mighty last gasp of air with the ’59 Lark which allowed the lights to stay on in South Bend for a few more years.  When I began writing for CC, I began to find some real rarities.  I found both a Marmon Sixteen on the highway and a Lamborghini Espada in the parking lot of a Sam’s Club.  But a locally-built late ’50s Stude sedan?  Nope.

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Photo source: Oldcarbrochures.org

 

In recent years I have begun a voyeuristic relationship with these cars through a Studebaker fan site on social media, and was amazed at the number of these that are loved and appreciated by their owners.  I will admit that they are not objectively beautiful cars, but I remain fascinated by the fact that they even exist.

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Then on September 11th, Mrs. JPC and I were driving downtown to visit our middle son, who has begun the real life phase of real life.  As we were negotiating the narrow downtown streets on the way to his apartment building, I suddenly spied The Shape.  Studebaker fans will immediately understand The Shape, because it was the silhouette of every single Studebaker Sedan from 1953 through 1960.  Those three jauntily backswept roof pillars were found on only one car.  But Wait, there was more.  I saw the long rear overhang, the speed lines flowing from the wheel openings, and almost stopped the car right in the middle of traffic.  There, behind a rusty chain link fence in the back lot of some random business was this 1957 Studebaker Commander.  Another of life’s checkboxes could now be checked.

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We didn’t have time to stop at first, but after a visit and some dinner, there was still good light and I retraced our steps until I found it again.  Sadly, there was a locked gate and a fence between me and my prey, but a cellphone camera can do a marvelous job of photographing a car through a chain link fence.  Coincidentally, I had just been reading a book on Studebaker that I had found at my local Half Price Books, and the whole sorry chapter of the 1956-58 models zipped through my mind once again.

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Photo source: Oldcarbrochures.org

 

James Nance and his failed management of Studebaker-Packard in 1954-56.  The desperate leap into the disinterested arms of Curtiss-Wright Corporation, which was for C-W President Roy Hurley “Heads I win, Tails you lose.”  The high hopes for Vince Gardner’s 1956 restyle which was a sales disaster, then the two cut-rate restyling attempts which followed, each an even bigger sales flop then the model before it.  When my kids were younger, they would form a big “L” from their thumb and index finger and hold it against their foreheads as they chided their siblings “Looooooser, you’re a Loooooooser!”  In the world of the “cool kids” cars like Fords, Chevys and Forward Look Mopars, this car sort of wore one of those “L”s and so, in the eyes of many, did the dwindling pool of folks who bought them.

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After reading the 1957 model preview we saw here yesterday, it is evident that even the automotive press at the time gave this car nary a second thought, as every single picture and virtually all of the discussion was about the sexy Golden Hawk.  The magazine’s text may as well have said “Sedans?  Yawn.  I guess Studebaker is still making a few.  But howabout that supercharged Golden Hawk!”  Not that the company’s own advertising approached the cars any differently.

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Photo source: Oldcarbrochures.org

 

By now I know that the 1957 model offered several improvements.  For starters, the variable rate springs and variable ratio power steering were industry-leading features.  The Commander and President lines also offered some pretty powerful V8 engines in a relatively lightweight body.  All in all, these final “big” Studebakers gave their owners a very tough and long-lived car (if you could keep it from rusting to pieces under you.)  I also know that “Studebaker Commander” was one of the great old names of the auto world, and that even at its low point in the late 1950s, it meant that you cared enough to get the great Stude V8 and were not one of the terminal cheapskates who skimped and bought either the deadly slow six cylinder Champion, or the deadly slow and terminally dowdy Scottsman.   And if a guy were to pop for the President Classic, he could get a car that could, in its own certain way, make you proud to own a Studebaker.  Kind of.  But total sales of about 63,000 cars should clue you in to how the world of 1957 viewed new Studebakers.

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Photo source: Oldcarbrochures.org

 

At first, I was unsure if this particular car is the $1976 Custom 4 door sedan (of which 828 were built) or the $2,089 Deluxe 4 door sedan (one of 10,285)  A little research confirmed that with its full-length side trim it is the Deluxe, so we are looking at the single model/body style which was the most popular Stude for 1957.  I also know that it should boast Studebaker’s fine little 259 cid (4.2L) V8, which with its forged crankshaft and solid lifters always punched above its weight class.  Because of the locked gate I could not tell if it had the Flight-O-Matic transmission or a 3 speed overdrive.  Either way, it’s a good thing that its owner was not standing nearby as I might have tried throwing some money at him in an effort to adopt this poor neglected thing and take it home for some love.

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For some final thoughts, I find the ’57 Stude a pretty handsome car for its era.  I might have kept the lower lip of that front bumper from dipping quite so far, or perhaps made the dip wider a’ la the ’57 Thunderbird.  I might have also done those speed lines on the fenders a little differently, but otherwise it is tough to fault the designers for the job they did to clean up the details on the nicely shaped ’56 model.  This is particularly true given the minuscule budget they had to work with.  And this car’s size, if a bit too small for a big car of 1957, would eventually come back into popularity by the mid 1960s and ’70s.  But for 1957, I can see why this one was a big fat “No Sale” to most of America.  A situation that would sadly, with few exceptions, continue right up until Studebaker finally had to close its doors in mid 1966.    But with this sighting, my Car-Spotting life is almost complete.  Now if I can just find that 1958 Packard . . . .

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Further Reading:

1956 Studebaker President (Laurence Jones)

1957 Studebaker Scotsman (Jeff Nelson)

1958 Studebaker Champion (Dave Skinner)

1957 Packard Clipper (Tom Klockau)

1958 Packard Hardtop (Tom Klockau)

The Studebaker Sedan’s Last Decade of Styling (J P Cavanaugh)