Car Show Classic: 1938 Studebaker Commander Convertible

Wandering around the Winton Historic races I found many extraordinary vehicles, and this one obviously struck me as something exceptional.  You just know some vehicles have a back story, and this one doesn’t disappoint!

Before we get to the owner, the car has an impressive story itself, starting with its name.

It turns out that 1938 was the year Studebaker’s six-cylinder model (alongside the eight-cylinder President) changed from being named Dictator, back to the pre-1935 Commander.  In a way it is surprising that Dictator was ever considered a Good Idea for a model name, but changes in 1930’s world politics quickly ruled it out.

The engine is a 90-horsepower 226 ci (3.8L) flathead six, and it has an interesting one-year-only Miracle Shift for the manual gear box.  This was purely intended to relocate the shifter and still had full manual operation – a bunch of Bendix switches and solenoids used vacuum pressure to operate the gearbox.  It was predictably troublesome and was replaced by a conventional column shifter.  Another innovative feature was an automatic hill holder –  when stopped on a gradient a bearing would roll backwards and hold pressure in the brake lines.

This car was sent to Australia for display at the Sydney and Melbourne motor shows, where I’m sure the styling would have drawn quite the crowd, before the start of WW2 in 1939 interfered with its presumed intended return to the USA.  Just 19 Studebaker convertibles were built in 1938 – I wonder if this very car is the one in the publicity photo above?

I found an article about the car that I think was originally in The Age newspaper’s weekly car section from about 15-20 years ago (rather than the 2016 date on the web page), which gives some history of the car.  It is still wearing its original registration plates, and was owned for decades by a lady who lived in Jolimont Terrace in East Melbourne – overlooking Yarra Park and the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

This is the view from the end of the street today.  The current owner Graham lived next door to Isabelle “Jo” Anderson who was by then in her late 70s – and still driving!  She must have been quite the character, because she usually wore three-piece men’s suits with a beaded beret, and carried an ivory cane.  She also apparently slept with a loaded derringer under her pillow, and is known to have carried hay bales in the car for her animals on her farm just outside Melbourne in times of drought.

Graham took on maintenance of the car and when Jo got too old, driving her to church on a Sunday.  His father bought the car when Jo moved into a retirement home over 30 years ago now, and Graham bought the car from his father 15 years later.  Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any trace of Jo Anderson online, let alone a picture.

It has less than 100,000 miles on the clock and is unrestored, with only some maintenance work having been performed (including the not-quite-matching paint touch-ups).  The indicators (turn signals) are a sensible addition for communicating with modern drivers – even basic trailer type units.  Yes, they could be more elegant, but are part of the car’s history now.

The Miracle Shift lever can be seen just to the left of the steering wheel – a side benefit seems to be no need to convert for right-hand drive!  Note the wear mark on the outside top of the door from the driver’s arm – all the doors had these, and would seem a shame to ever repaint the car and remove the signs of use and enjoyment.


Further Reading:

A Tour of the Studebaker National Museum: Part 1 – Before World War II

Curbside Classic: 1970-72 Rambler Hornet – No That Is Not A Typo!

Car Show Classics Historic Winton Main Display Area Part Two (plus 6 other posts linked in that one)

Other Studebaker content on CC