Auto-Biography/CC Outtake: Studebaker R Series Pickup (1949-1953) – Near Death Experience

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I’ve got a soft spot for these Studebaker pickups, despite the fact that one tried to kill me once. They were the most advanced pickup design-wise in 1949, with Studebaker taking the bold step of widening the cargo box a bit and eliminating the running board for the bed, which made it look pretty sleek for the times. 


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I wrote about it before, but the Mennonite family with whom I used to spend parts of each summer had a Studebaker truck just like this. It had been a tow truck in its first life, with some kind of modest wrecker lift installed in the bed, so it was pretty tired, and old by about 1963, when this incident happened.

I always rode in the bed when Mr. Yoder had to go somewhere in the truck, standing up right behind the cab on the driver’s side, with the wind in my face. On day, we came to a T intersection on the gravel road, with two curved sections , and I assumed we were going straight, since there was no discernible decrease in speed. But Mr. Yoder threw the Studebaker into the curved right turn, at a pretty good clip, and I started flying out of the bed, with nothing to grip on the Stude’s smooth roof. As I came down and around the side of the cab, my left arm caught hold of the big West Coast style mirror that had been mounted for the truck’s work as a wrecker. If it hadn’t had that big mirror, I would have flown out of the bed for sure.

I hung there, alongside the drivers open window, inches away from Mr. Yoder’s face, which hnow had a sheepish grin. The truck slowed down on the uphill just past the curve, and Mr. Yoder pulled over. A man of very few words, he simply said: The brakes are out. 

And not just suddenly; they’d been out for days, but that wasn’t really that much of an issue driving the mostly deserted and flat gravel rural roads of Iowa back then, to a neighbor’s place to get something. Or maybe into town for a new master cylinder.

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Ford Steering column and wheel

The following year, Studebaker’s very tired flathead six was in declining health, and Mr. Yoder babied it along, as the family finances were tight, as usual. One morning, Mrs. Yoder needed the truck to pick up something large. I’d never seen her drive the truck; she always drove the family sedans. But I watched her walk over to where it sat, near the barn, get in, and start it up with a heavy foot. The motor clattered and lunched, and a huge cloud of thick smoke soon ensued so that the whole front of the barn was barely visible. Mr. Yoder was not pleased.

He and I went looking for a replacement truck, and drove a couple of used ones, including a ’56 Ford with a 292 V8 that felt like a rocket to us both. Mr Yoder declined, and eventually found an old early ’50s Chevy sedan and cut off the back of it and built a home-made bed.

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I loved riding in the back of that old Studebaker; one of my favorite things out there along with driving the tractor. farm life can be a bit confining, and going into town or someone else’s place was always a welcome diversion. But it’s always preferable if the brakes are actually working.