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.
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
What a fabulous and rare car!!! The 38 model may be my favorite pre-war Studebaker. This was, I believe, the very first one to have some styling influence by Raymond Lowey’s firm. Those ultra-cool headlights were optional equipment. Those who refused to pay extra got round lights. This was the final year before the much smaller and lighter Studebaker Champion joined the lineup. It is unfortunate but these did not sell well at all due to a follow-up dip in the depression.
The engine in this car (enlarged to 245 cid in 1948) powered postwar Commanders through 1950 when it was replaced with the new V8. The old Commander six remained available in trucks through 1960 to augment the much smaller 170 cid Champion six and the V8s.
This would also be Studebaker’s last convertible until 1947, as it was discontinued when they redesigned the “big” Studebakers for 1939.
Indeed; what a gem. And a convertible too. And still with its Miracle Shift; I wonder how it is keeping that functioning?
The Loewy touches are unmistakable. And that shot with the locomotive was done to promote his work, as he did that one too.
I’d forgotten about those headlights; those are superb.
I bet it is simple compared to a lot of newer cars’ systems. I didn’t see the owner, and if I had I wouldn’t have known to ask about the Miracle Shift.
That’s a cool chain-of-ownership story, a distinctive car. Add me to the list of headlight admirers.
On eBay right now are plenty of ads, the glossiest being from FORTUNE magazine. There’s also this salesman’s manual; seller has helpfully scanned many of the pages within:
Uh-oh—-didn’t provide eBay URL: https://www.ebay.com/itm/1938-Studebaker-Inside-Facts-Book-Brochure-President-Dictator-Excellent-Original/273465591037?hash=item3fabd1c4fd:g:wv4AAOSwbtVZRwxG:rk:53:pf:0
Great find! Looking at those pages raises another question – pictures I saw online and the pictures in the book show a woodgrain finish on the dash. I wonder if this was originally woodgrain but was maybe painted to match the car when the rest of the car was sprayed. Unless they did painted dashes on the open cars? I have no idea whatsoever.
It looks like the centre and the right side of the dash have been painted, but the left side looks original.
Very cool and Ive read about it before one of the few sections of the Age worth bothering with in a library, one of the cars that have become rare worldwide but still alive in OZ.
Kevin Norbury did a great job with the back page car features.
Bah, read the sports section occasionally, Bryce! There’s a Greg Baum writes there, and at his best, he’s brilliant. And he may, or may not, be my oldest brother….
Interesting point about the ‘hill holder’ feature; virtually everyone has one now.
That Hill Holder remained a Studebaker thing for years – possibly all the way until the end. There was a valve in the master cylinder that held pressure on the brakes after the brake pedal was released. The clutch pedal was connected to that valve so that lifting the clutch pedal would release brake pressure.
I do not like those headlights. Perhaps I’m in the minority but I think the ’38 Stude looks better with the round lights.
The only problem is that it looks even more like a 38 Oldsmobile.
Similarity for sure! But something about that Olds looks awkward: is it the height of the grille? The high squarish ‘prow’? The spacing of the headlights? The high catwalks/flat fenders? Time has been kinder to the Studebaker’s style.
Here is the companion brochure shot of the base Commander with plain headlights.
I’m sure the fancy lights probably don’t work as well, but they certainly add some interest and a point of distinction to the car.
The Raymond Lowey factor is huge here for both the Studebaker and the locomotive. The Pennsylvania Railroad built only one example of the S-1 class 6-4-4-6 duplex steam locomotive; it was run at speed on a roller dynamometer at the 1939 World’s Fair, which I assume is where it was photographed with the Studebaker. Lower styled many locomotives for the PRR including the S-1.
I believe that’s a Pennsylvania K4. The S1 had more prominent, protruding leading truck. Also it looks like a Broadway badge in the front for the Broadway Limited.
It’s a Studebaker, so I like it already. It is such a seamless shape for the 1930s, the age where every household item from chairs to radios resembled big boxes. The only other 1930s Studebaker that I can think of that could rival this one would be the 1935 President. With it’s elongated grill that reminds me of the Devil’s whiskers, it looks so very sinister.
A few more images snagged today (mostly eBay):
Brochure (CA dealer sticker):
Another from FORTUNE (NYC?):
Jo sounds like a character! I’d love to see a photo of her, too!
What a sight, seeing this rolling down the streets decades later, piloted by a woman in a men’s suit with an ivory cane. I’m picturing Elaine Stritch for some reason.
Exactly my image too!
I do so love the car stories where the whole can be told. Superb piece, John.
For the benefit of the majority on CC from other places, the street referred to (Jolimont Terrace) overlooks a sporting ground next to the Melbourne CBD (now about 5 million people). That stadium is hallowed turf for locals and perhaps Australians generally, called the Melbourne Cricket Ground (or MCG). It is the site of the Grand Final in Australian Rules football each year (think Superbowl for Aussies), and is also the site of the first Test Match in cricket played between England and Australia in 1877. (Again, for those elsewhere, cricket is a gigantic world sport – think 1 billion Indians, for example – in most of the former British Empire, and many highly significant games have been played within sight of the former home of this Studebaker on Jolimont Terrace. Also, as it happens, a five minute tram ride up the road from me).
“The Age” referred to is the city’s 160 y.o. daily broadsheet (as was), a high quality piece now suffering, to the detriment of us all, the decline of most such enterprises. Those Kevin Norbury pieces were quite wonderful.
Cars of the ’30’s here were often a bit boring (taxation meant local body builds largely by Holden before they made their own cars), convertibles were rare generally, let alone Studes, let alone 4-door jobs, and for this ’38 4-door convertible Studebaker showcar not only to get stuck here (our British WW2 is ’39-’45, don’t forget) but then to be owned by a glamorous eccentric living in uninterrupted view of a national landmark and then for that same motor still to be unrestored – well, it all just defines living history for this local, it does.
There was something called the Electric Hand, which I think was available on Hudsons. I assume the Miracle Shift was something else?
What a lovely car, and background story!
Thank you for sharing!
Hi John875, I just found this site and your wonderful coverage of my car Primrose thank you. For those interested she is still running well and used fairly regularly. Re the Miracle Shift – it’s still working well – a simple design and is so easy to use- I have just adjusted its dash mount linkage for only the second time in about 30 years. The story I got from Studebaker was that the Miracle Shift was developed to encourage more female owners and drivers. You may have noticed all the 1938 advertising shots of the car are driven by women. Go girls and how lucky was I to meet the wonderful Joe Anderson who was one off them. Regards Graham
Dear Mr. White,
I’m trying to look for some more info about the 1938 Commander Convertible. As far as i know there are only two existing cars left. yours and the one from my father in law. it is located in the Netherlands and is now being restored. hereby are some pictures. you can email me at :email@example.com
Thanks for any info you have.
Sincerely Klaas Venneman, The Netherlands
Studebaker Commander Convertible 1938
Studebaker Commander Convertible 1938-3
Hi, I’m a West Australian relative of “Jo’s” the original owner of Primrose and I visited her at Jolimont Tc in 1970, she was just as Graham White described her “a class act with a unique style” She never mentioned the Derringer under her pillow but it sounds about right. She sported the Beaded beret and ivory cane and and a military great coat possibly belonging to her brother Air Vice Marshall William Anderson.
She said if I’d had more time we could have taken ‘Primrose out for a canter.’
She lived alone in that big old house and very much a product of the depression she kept the lights and heating off , hence the Great Coat, but she was constantly getting break-ins and one night she heard someone breaking the backdoor glass attempting to open it , with the lights still off she she yelled at him to go away but he ignored the warning so she “gave him what for ” with the cane. The police followed the heavy blood trail and found him a few blocks away in bad shape. She certainly was a fascinating lady with fascinating car.
I have a couple of photographs, that I took of this exact car back in around 1972 or 1973. I took the photos of the car parked in Williamstown (a suburb of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia). At time, I did not fully appreciate how unique this car was, but as a lifetime car enthusiast I did realise that it was anything but common.
I note that the Studebaker Museum in the USA has recently acquired an almost identical car but of course in LHD form.
Really something that Australia has this unique survivor.
Hi Carl – that’s interesting the US museum has recently acquired a similar car. Years ago Julien Studebaker ( the great grandson) came out to Australia and visited us to see the car. He had never seen one and wasn’t sure they actually built it in the US . He subsequently went back and searched company production details and confirmed to us that yes they built Qty 11 Commander (4 RHD) & Qty 8 President convertibles as show cars. Ours was sent out for the 38 Sydney/Melbourne motor show. I think via Lonsdale Motors as I have some paperwork. Studebaker US wanted to buy it then for the museum but we weren’t interested. She’s still here in Melbourne and looking forward to rolling around again this summer – now with my grandchildren in her. “ I wonder who’ll be driving her next? Regards Graham
Primrose in the move in Melbourne
Ready for Sunmer