[first posted 6/1/2011]
Desperate times call for desperate measures; and sometimes the result is nothing short of spectacular. The Studebaker Gran Turismo coupe manages to be quite stunning, despite its obvious shortcomings from having been cobbled together on a shoestring in six months. But then a substantial part its appeal is precisely because it is very much compromised and imperfect. It’s certainly a car that The Big Three would never have built; more like something from Bristol. That’s the morbid joy of Studebaker’s final decades, cars that only a dying maker could and would have built.
The GT Hawk did little to change the inevitable outcome of the Studebaker Death Watch, but then it probably would never have been created under other circumstances. There’s nothing like staring death in the face to focus the last remaining creative forces and take exceptional risks. Along with the Avanti, the GT Hawk is Studebaker’s gran farewell gesture. Gone indeed, but hardly forgotten.
In 1961, Studebaker was in a very desperate time indeed, having never really recovered from the 1953 fiasco. The daring “Loewy” Starlight coupe (above) was originally intended to be a show car only. But Loewy convinced Studebaker to put it in production, despite sitting on a substantially longer wheelbase than the sedans, which demanded a massive investment that the independent car maker could ill afford. Undoubtedly the most remarkable piece of styling to come from America in the fifties, it was a deeply influential and seminal piece. And the biggest nail in their coffin.
Not surprisingly, the ’53 Coupe overwhelmed Studebaker with assembly challenges and delays, and finally hit the market just as Ford and GM launched a massive market-share war by overproducing and heavily discounting. Rather than buying share from each other, it had the effect of severely damaging the remaining independents. The poor build quality of the ’53 Studebakers only added to its woes.
The Loewy coupe morphed into a low-volume sporty coupe, the Hawk, having sprouted an upright grill and the ubiquitous fins.
As one can see in the Hawk above and this shot of the GT Hawk, the 1953’s distinctive air intakes are still there, but now dominated by that bright new nose. Of course, that was hardly the only thing. The 1953’s whole body shell is still very much in accounted for in the GT, which by the standards of Detroit at the time, was ancient by then. All the more to enhance the appreciation of the ’53’s original lines, and the remarkable adaptation of it here ten years on.
The Hawk was a formidable performance car in the fifties, especially in 1956 with the 275 hp Packard 352 V8, and the later supercharged 275 hp Studebaker 289 V8. It foreshadowed the compact sporty muscle and pony cars of the sixties, but sold only in small numbers.
By 1961, the compact Lark’s brief day in the sun was over, having been eclipsed by the assault of the Big Three’s compacts. And the Hawk was painfully obsolescent comapred to the T-Bird. Noted industrial designer Brooks Stevens was hired in 1961 to do a six-month crash redesign of the Hawk and Lark models, with a minimal budget. By grafting a Pininfarina Florida/Thunderbird-like square roof unto the old hardtop Loewy coupe, a cleaned up rear end, and a dramatic wrap-around instrument panel, Stevens injected a remarkable amount of new life into the aging coupe. And the GT Hawk has become a modern classic.
Now here’s the remarkable thing about this particular car: it was bought by its owner Luke when he was in high school. And it was his daily driver for six years. He brought it back to life after sitting in a barn for ten years, and it now has over 213k miles clocked on its original engine, the 225 hp four-barrel 289. It now awaits his return from a PhD in Mechanical Engineering in Michigan before its ongoing improvements resume. But it’s still very much a runner.
Luke gave me an exciting ride in this still sprightly GT. Weighing some 3200 lbs, the old 289 backed by a four speed stick had no problem living up to its name. With its narrow but long body, it reminds me somehow of a mid-western take on the theme that Bristol has been playing out for decades in England, still to this day.
Perhaps the Avanti was the wrong car to revive after Studebaker’s death? And call me crazy, but from the rear especially, the GT reminds me also of the Citroen DS. Visually, that is, since the Studebaker’s ride is about as far away from the floating “goddess” as possible.
The long, willowy frame of the Loewy coupes was a problem from day one, even though it was reinforced early on. These cars, especially the hardtops, are structurally challenged. The doors need a little help finding their way home, and speed bumps are not its friend. But once inside, a unique perspective opens up. The GT not only doesn’t look like a typical Big Three car of the times, it feels even much less so one sitting in it. It’s remarkably narrow, the cowl is high and close, and your feet disappear in front of you in shallow, long tunnels. It feels extremely European.
The dash is a brilliantly clean, functional affair with those classic round gauges scattered on its three planes. GM did a fine job copying it for its 1970 Camaro, among others.
Everything about the GT has a very low-production, almost hand-made feel to it. Exposed fasteners are on display, inside and out. Or does hand-made evoke the wrong image; cobbled-up perhaps?
The GT is not exactly Bristol when it comes to fit and finish. But then, Bristol has been doing the same basic car for decades. The sheer number of stainless steel trim pieces on the exterior alone helps explains why Studebaker couldn’t really make any money on this car.
The 1962 Gran Turismo came with a $3095 sticker($21k adjusted). That was low enough to attract some 8k buyers, which along with the restyled Lark, gave Studebaker its last little sales uptick before the final death spiral. There was no way to keep its giant South Bend factory running with sub-100k annual production output.
The GT died along with the Avanti when the plant was shut down in 1964, and Lark production shifted to a smaller Canadian plant for the last few pathetic years. Barely 15k GTs were made in total, but it was a very lovely swansong indeed that Studebaker sang for us.
(thanks Luke, for the invite and ride)