Automotive History: The Studebaker V8 Engine – Punching Below Its Weight

Studebaker V8 engine

In 1951, plucky little Studebaker introduced its new ohv V8 engine, only two years behind the groundbreaking 1949 Cadillac and Oldsmobile V8s, and several years ahead of other competitors. Except for some fairly minor teething issues and a few inherent weak spots, it soon earned a reputation for durability and developed a loyal following among Studebaker fans. It certainly gave Studebaker a competitive edge at the time.

Although it looked fairly modern at the time of its birth, Studebaker’s conservative engineering resulted in a physically large and heavy engine for its displacement, and one whose performance potential was intrinsically limited. That served the typically older and conservative Studebaker buyer just fine, but it was a missed opportunity, as other brands took advantage of the rapidly growing interest in performance and its positive image to expand their sales, especially to younger buyers.

Much of the more recent literature available online about the Studebaker V8 tends to be written by its loyal fans, including this one at Hemmings modestly titled “America’s Best V8 Engine”.  We’re going to take a more objective look at this engine, including its strengths and weaknesses, its origins, and the various versions built over its fairly short fourteen-year lifespan (1951 – 1964), including the last-ditch attempt to inject some life into it. The Studebaker V8 may have come into the world a bit meekly, but it went out with a bang.


Studebaker V8 engine 1951

The creation of the Studebaker V8 had a clearly defined brief, which was laid out along with its engineering and design details in an SAE paper by company engineers Gene Hardig, T.A. Scherger and S.W. Sparrow:

The introduction of this engine was prompted by a desire to benefit humanity in general and Studebaker stockholders in particular. Specifically, the aim was to increase sales and profits by replacing a six-cylinder car with an eight that would cost less and yet have equal or better performance.

Once we get past the tongue-in-cheek desire to benefit humanity in general, there’s some useful information that helps explain the resulting engine, especially the last few words: yet have equal or better performance. That was a somewhat modest goal, to merely equal or better the performance of an aged flathead six engine (the Commander 245.6 CID six) that was a product of 1920s engineering.

And here’s another detail from that report that’s a bit surprising:

Hence a long look forward was in order. In that look we seemed to see what other observers have reported – the possibility of higher compression ratios and hence, smaller combustion chambers…the threat of small combustion chambers led us, somewhat reluctantly, to overhead valves.

“Somewhat reluctantly”? So presumably the first preference for an all new V8 engine was another flathead? Reluctant or not, it’s a good thing they went that route of ohv, otherwise it would have truly been a dismal dead end.

Realistically what happened was that Studebaker’s engineers saw the light when the 1949 Cadillac and Olds V8s appeared, with their compact wedge-shaped combustion chambers, overhead valves, hydraulic valve lifters, generous valve and port size, compact and lighter blocks thanks to shorter strokes and “slipper” pistons, and a slew of other advanced engineering elements. Eventually all American V8s came to adopt these key design aspects of the Cadillac and Olds engines; some sooner than later. Those that didn’t, like the Chrysler hemi and the Ford Y block, did so at their peril, and both were soon replaced by engines (Chrysler B/RB; Ford FE) that more closely followed the GM approach.

Studebaker wisely avoided such a major detour, as they wouldn’t have had the engineering budgets to fix it later like Ford and Chrysler. So they just picked the Cadillac V8 as the starting point for their new engine, which had benefited from extensive research from GM’s Kettering Labs. The evidence that the Studebaker V8 (right) was very deeply influenced by the 1949 Cadillac V8 (left) is all-too obvious. There are some differences of course, but the basic architectural similarities start right from nearly identical bore center spacing (Cad: 4.5625″, Stude: 4.50″) , physical size (these two images are not corrected for size), and even weight, with the much larger displacement (331 CID) Cadillac weighing 695 lbs to the Studebaker’s 650 lbs.

Cadillac even allowed a contingent of Studebaker engineers to visit and essentially copy its production facilities for the V8 engine, as Studebaker had no experience in that.

But although Studebaker largely copied the basic architecture, they failed to copy certain key elements that specifically gave the Cadillac many of its inherent qualities. So instead of scaling down the Cadillac in size, to their intended smaller displacement (232 cubic inches), they kept the block the same size. They chose not to use Cadillac-type slipper pistons, where part of the lower piston’s skirt is cut away allowing it to “hug” the counterweights of the crankshaft. This was a key design element that enabled a more compact and lighter block and reduce reciprocating weight. If Studebaker had used them, they would have been able to reduce the deck height of their block, save weight, and create a more compact engine. The Cadillac had a significantly longer stroke (3.63″ vs. 3.25″), and would eventually accommodate a 4.0″ stroke thanks to its slipper pistons, despite using the exact same rod length (6.625″) as the Studebaker.

The biggest obvious difference above the block are the significantly smaller valves and ports in the Studebaker heads. This would become the defining feature of their cylinder heads right to the end, and inherently limit their performance potential.

Without going into all the technical details of their similarities (and differences), let’s just say that a Cadillac V8 intake manifold (and valley cover) will bolt directly to a Studebaker V8. That’s not just merely a coincidence. The ports don’t match up perfectly, but that can be fixed. It’s mainly done for show, such as this Cadillac Eldorado dual quad manifold (above) in a Studebaker pickup, since a stock or even moderately warmed up Stude V8 simply can’t use more than one modest size (∼500 cfm max) four barrel carburetor, due to the limited flow of its heads. But given the dearth of aftermarket manifolds (and other performance parts) for the Studebaker V8, it’s one solution if looks take precedence over actual function.

So despite being essentially the same size externally and weighing almost the same, the Cadillac had 50% more displacement to start with, and that was readily increased up to 429 cubic inches in its final form. The Studebaker would top out at 289 cubic inches, except for the specially selected blocks bored out to 304.5 cubic inches for the few R3/R4 engines. As to the decision of its initial displacement (232.6 cubic inches), here’s what the Studebaker engineers said in that SAE paper:

Eventually the conflict of desires was resolved by the selection of a piston displacement (232.6 cubic inches) approximately 5% less than that of the six cylinder engine that was to be replaced. Later, when the car was found to weigh about 6% less than its predecessor (due largely to using a shorter front end), we felt confident of meeting our goal of equal performance without sacrifice in fuel economy.

As Richard Langworth wrote in his excellent book “Studebaker 1946-1966”, “economy, in this exercise was taking precedence over performance”. Which is of course consistent with the image Studebaker had cultivated for some time; its cars were smaller and lighter than those of the Big Three, primarily for the resultant economy.

But the Studebaker V8’s weight (650 lbs dry/695 as installed) was not exactly in keeping with Raymond Loewy’s design mantra at Studebaker: Weight is the Enemy. The result is somewhat unfortunate, as every Studebaker V8 tends to feel nose heavy, given that the cars were inherently more compact and lighter than average. For example, a ’55 Commander sedan and a ’64 Lark V8 both had a rather unfortunate 60/40 F/R weight distribution; the longer wheelbase coupes improved that a bit, to about 57/43. That impacted traction as well as handling adversely.

The combination of the decision to use a Cadillac size block and the obsolete state of Studebaker’s foundry technology resulted in a big-block engine with small-block displacement. Undoubtedly it resulted in a very stout block, although that’s not inherently a requirement for durability. Studebaker did give its rotating parts generous bearing areas, which contributed to its reputation for a stout bottom end. The camshaft was driven by gears, not the typical timing chain. And Studebaker kept mechanical lifters, another conservative change, which meant a noisier engine and regular valve lash adjustment.

And contrary to popular myth, Studebaker’s forged crankshaft was hardly unique or exceptional. In fact, that was what everyone (including Chevrolet) used at the time, except Ford, who were the inventors of nodular cast iron crankshafts.

Despite the conservative engineering, the Studebaker V8 was far from perfect. It didn’t have a full flow oil filter until partway through 1962. Previous to that, it only used a bypass or partial flow filter. This was the same setup that the new Chevrolet V8 had in 1955 before it added a full flow filter in 1956. The lack of hydraulic valve lifters may be why Studebaker kept this system for so long, as mechanical lifters are not quite as finicky in this regard. The oiling system also sent tended to send too much oil to the rocker arm shafts as they wore, which could lead to oil starvation on the bottom end and low oil pressure problems. This rocker arm shaft wear was often the result of extended higher RPM usage, like high speed highway driving. The engine would pump too much oil to the top end of the motor and it couldn’t drain back to the pan fast enough. In mid-1961 Studebaker made some modifications to attempt to correct this problem. They used a smaller oil passage in the rocker arm shafts to restrict the oil to the top end and a large drain hole in the cylinder heads to get it back to the pan more quickly.

Studebaker V8s were also notorious for leaking oil in various places.

Let’s look at the various versions, chronologically:

1951 – 1954: 232.6 CID 120hp

The initial 232.6 CID version starting in 1951 and built through 1954 had a bore of 3.38″ and a 3.25″ stroke. Its valve sizes were a very modest 1.4″ for the intakes and 1.28″ for the exhausts, and the ports were correspondingly small too. The center exhaust ports were siamesed. It had a rating of 120hp @ 4000rpm (note: all hp and torque ratings in this article are gross), and 190 ft/lbs of torque at 2000 rpm (the outgoing six had a 102hp rating).

There’s two ways of looking at those specs. It was a fairly small displacement engine for the times, but for 1951, its output of .52 hp/ci was very competitive; somewhat above the initial 1949 version of Cadillac (.48), Olds (.46) and only slightly below the new 1951 Chrysler 331 hemi (.54).

But in terms of hp/pound, an important metric of efficiency, the Studebaker comes in last, with .18 hp/lb. The Chrysler hemi had .25, the Cadillac .23 and the Olds, .21.

But performance in the relatively light (3,065 lbs) Commander was considered good for 1951. Tom McCahill managed to flog a new Commander from 0-60 in 12.8 seconds with the manual transmission, and with Studebaker’s almost new Automatic Drive, 16.2 seconds when manually engaging Low and 18.5 seconds in Drive. Quite respectable for the time. McCahill was impressed (as he invariably tended to be), and incorrectly predicted that the Studebaker V8 would be the terror of stock car tracks. Not so.

In the 1951 NASCAR series of 41 races, the Olds 88 dominated with 20 wins and Hudson with 12 wins. But there was one competitor in 1951 driving a Studebaker, Frank Mundy, and he managed one win at Mobile, AL. But there were no further wins in subsequent seasons for any Studebakers, and Mundy later switched to an Olds. NASCAR continued to be dominated by Olds and Hudson until 1955, when Chevrolet’s new V8 made immediate inroads. Why was the big flathead Hudson so successful against the ohv V8 Olds? Its optional Twin-H power (dual carb) engine was rated at 170 hp. If the Olds V8 had been available with dual carbs or a four barrel carb, it undoubtedly would have been even more dominant. Stock cars then really were essentially stock.

If the Olds only made 135hp initially, only 15hp more than the Studebaker, why was it so immediately embraced by the hot rod crowd?

The same applies to the Cadillac, seen here in a 1952 Allard K2. The answer in both cases, as well as the Chrysler hemi, is that although their initial production versions were tuned very mildly, their inherent potential due to their better breathing heads was recognized instantly. That is the sole key to high performance, and it took no time at all for tuners and racers to realize that. Already in 1952, this Cadillac-powered Allard K2 was making 250hp, and in 1953, 300hp.

And the production versions of the Cadillac and Olds engines quickly shot up in their power output too. By 1952, one year after the Studebaker V8 came out, the Cadillac 331 was rated at 190 hp, and by 1955, it was up to 270 hp, or .82hp/ci. And power increased further in subsequent years for both the Cadillac and Olds.  And of course the Chrysler 331 hemi quickly increased its power too, to 300 in 1955, for .91 hp/ci. The 1950s horsepower war was on, and by increasing carburation with dual quads or tri-power, the inherent potential in the better breathing heads of these engines quickly left the Studebaker V8 in the dust.

This was brought home with the superbly styled 1953 Studebaker coupes, a revolutionary, a “European style” low-slung sporty coupe shepherded by Raymond Loewy. It could have been America’s first personal sports coupe a lá Thunderbird, but its performance was blunted by the little 120 hp 232 V8, which failed to live up to the coupes’ racy looks. The ’53 coupes weighed 100lbs more than its tall predecessor, the result being that it was slower:  R&T got a manual-equipped version from 0-60 in 14.9 seconds (two seconds slower than the ’51), and MT’s test of an automatic yielded a best time of 16.9 seconds. Top speed was 95.7 mph, also a bit less than the 98.36 mph McCahill managed with the ’51 sedan. Even the venerable Chevy 235 six was making 115hp in ’53 and 125 hp in ’54.

No wonder Studillacs were the hot thing: swapping in a same-sized but almost twice as powerful Cadillac V8 was relatively easy and highly satisfying, yielding a genuine American high performance coupe the likes of which had never been seen before. Several outfits made them, Bill Frick being the most prominent one. A CC vintage review of one by Tom McCahill is here. The lack of a higher-output V8 in the “Loewy Coupes” was a greta missed opportunity, as they could have been priced significantly higher and bolstered Studebaker’s image and profit margins.


1955: 224 CID 140 hp

By far the rarest Studebaker V8 (other than the R3/R4) is the 1955 224 CID “Pace-setter” engine. It was only offered for the first half of the 1955 model year as the base engine in the Commander series, before being dropped mid-year along with the old-style windshield. It is essentially a short-stroke 259 (below), sharing the same 3.56″ bore, but with a quite short 2.81″ stroke. Studebaker had been toying with the idea of reducing the V8’s displacement down to some 200 cubic inches in order to replace the aging flathead Champion six, and apparently this was the compromise solution. Thanks to the somewhat bigger valves and ports of the heads it shared with the 259, volumetric efficiency was improved and output was up, to 140 hp at a higher 4500 rpm; torque was up a bit too, to 202 ft.lbs @2800 rpm. And thanks to its short stroke, this is the smoothest-running of all of the Studebaker V8s. Compression ratio: 7.5:1.

Performance appears to roughly comparable to the 232; one test of an automatic sedan yielded a 0-60 run of 17.40 seconds, with manually holding Low until 32 mph. The 224 was dropped when it was determined that a 259 with a higher (lower numerical) rear axle gearing achieved essentially the same mileage.


1955 – 1964 259 CID,  162 hp , 170hp, 180 hp, 185 hp, 195 hp:

For 1955, Studebaker made the first significant changes to its V8, resulting in the long-lived 259 CID version and the very short-lived 224 (previous section). The biggest changes were an increase in bore to 3.56″. Perhaps more importantly, the heads were revised, with somewhat larger (but still small) valves and ports. Intake valves were now 1.67″ and exhausts were 1.53″. This improved volumetric efficiency, resulting in higher torque and horsepower output. These heads would be used essentially unchanged through the rest of Studebaker V8 production, including the upcoming 289 version, except for variation in combustion chamber size to increase compression ratios.

Power ratings started at 162 hp for the “Bearcat”, the base V8 in the Commander starting mid-year 1955, and replacing the 224. This was a two-barrel, single exhaust version with 7.5:1 compression ratio. Hp: 162 @ 4500 rpm; torque: 250 @2800 rpm.

The President started ’55 with a 175 hp version (“Wildcat”), which had a four barrel carb. Hp: 175 @4500 rpm; torque: 260 @ 2800 rpm. CR: 7.80:1.

At mid-year, in addition to the new semi-wraparound windshield, the President series got a slightly more powerful 185 hp version, now called “Passmaster”. Studebaker’s naming department was keeping busy. Presumably it got dual exhausts to account for the additional 10hp.

Possibly the bump to 185 hp was to stay ahead of Chevy’s brand new V8, which arrived in 1955 in 162 and 180 hp trims, although a 195 hp version could be ordered later in the year. A comparison of the Studebaker V8 with the Chevy small block (SBC) is of course inevitable, as there were two similar sized versions (259/265; 289/283) and there are such decided differences.

Here’s a quick look at the two in cross section (not size corrected), with the SBC on the left. The SBC was the beneficiary of a few more years of advancement in both design and engineering as well as foundry techniques compared to the Olds and Cadillac V8s, but their influence can be readily seen. It is significantly more compact than the Studebaker, and weighs some 75 lbs less, thanks to thin-wall casting. But the most important difference is in the heads; it’s quite obvious from looking at these two that the Chevy’s valves are larger, and more significantly, its ports are substantially larger and designed to flow air with less resistance. This was the key reason the SBC was instantly adopted in the performance world as it required very little to unleash its vastly greater potential.

Already the very first ’55 SBC had bigger valves than the Studebaker (intakes 1.72″ vs. 1.65″), and that was just the starting point. SBC heads soon sprouted ever larger valves, the intakes growing to 1.82″, 1.94″ and topping out at 2.02″ in 1963. Even the very limited production Studebaker R3/R4 heads could only fit 1.875″ intakes, due to the inherent architecture of the Studebaker engine. There just wasn’t more room, in part because of the relatively small 3.56″ bore.

This difference in head flow capacity, which is the single biggest determinant in an engine’s power potential, resulted in explosive power increases for the SBC: 240 hp in 1956 (265 CID), and 270 hp (carbs) or 283 hp (FI) in the ’57 283 CID version. And they continued to increase in subsequent years, to 375 hp from the 1964 327.

In 1956, the Commander and Power Hawk’s standard 259 engine was rated at 170 hp @4500 rpm, and torque was 260 @2800. That small increase was due to an increased compression ratio to 7.8:1.  The optional 185 hp version had a four barrel carb and dual exhausts.

In 1957, compression ratio on the 259 was increased again, to 8.3:1, resulting in a bump to 180 hp for the two barrel version, and 195 hp 4 barrel version, whose torque increased to 260 ft.lbs at a higher 3000 rpm.

These two versions (180/195hp) were built through to the end of engine production in 1964, and were used exclusively in 1959, in the new Lark and Silver Hawk. In the compact and light Lark, the only V8 compact until 1961, they gave good performance; 0-60 times were in the 11-12 second range for the 180 hp version, and 9-10 seconds with 195 hp (with manual transmissions).

Next up: the definitive 289 CID versions:

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