(first posted 5/31/2011) Am I dreaming, or was this car really built? It’s hard to believe, given what a radical front end this was, and still is. The all new 1947 Studebaker was dramatic enough, the first new post-war car after the Kaiser-Frazer. Its styling originated in sketches by a young Robert Bourke in 1940. The end result was sadly compromised, due to the turf battles fought between the Virgil Exner/Roy Cole and Raymond Loewy/Bob Bourke factions. The ’47 – ’49 front end is lackluster, and if that was Exner’s doing, good riddance.
But Bob Bourke was given the green light by Loewy to do an airplane inspired bullet nose for the 1950 refresh. And the 1951 cleaned up that protruding nose a bit further. The 1951 Studebaker Starlight coupe has been in my fantasy garage since I first laid eyes on it. And thanks to CC Cohort Contributor paulvaranasi, here’s a few superb images of one of my all time favorite cars.
Just to refresh your memory, here’s how the Exner-designed 1947 front end looked, on the Commander: rather conventional, given the rest of the Stude’s bold new body, especially the wrap-around Starlight coupe’s rear window and long tapering tail.
Obviously, this mildly customized ’51 Starlight has had the its front bumper removed. Just as well, as this car is rather unique in that it seems to have been styled without any thought of a bumper whatsoever. The whole front end is a free-standing sculpture, with a degree of depth and and dimensionality that could only be ruined by the crude attempt to hang a bumper from it.
Here’s the proof: there’s just no way bob Bourke really had a bumper in mind when he styled this dramatic bullet-nosed front end. The crude protrusion that carries the bumper a half-mile ahead is a painful foreshadowing of the 5 mph cow-catcher bumpers that appeared in 1974.
There’s a (relative) modern corollary to the ’51 Studebaker Starlight, and in several ways. Dick Teague’s 1974 AMC Matador coupe has always reminded me of Bourke’s Starlight coupe, primarily in the handling of the equally bold front end styling and its relationship to its protruding front bumper (rightfully missing here).
Teague handled the very difficult 5-mph bumper in the most masterful way of the whole industry. Rather than even pretending to integrate the bumper into the bodywork, Teague just hangs it out there, like a free-floating member barely attached at all to the front end, which was clearly designed without a bumper at all. That’s why both of these cars just beg to have the bumper ripped off them…they were merely mandated appendages. Nobody in Detroit was taking this approach, once again showing the independent spirit of the…independents.
Bourke’s brilliant new front end finally did the equally stunning Studebaker middle and tail full justice. Needless to say, the Starlight coupe is the crown of Bourke’s creation. Although by 1951 the basic body design was getting quite long on tooth in Detroit’s ADD tick of the clock, the Studebaker was finally made whole, and is one of the most compelling post war cars ever, on any continent.
The Studebaker was also innovative in its packaging, significantly more compact then The Big Three’s cars of the times, especially their new 1949 models. The shorter-wheelbase Champion, like this one, was powered by a 170 cubic inch (2.8 L) six making 85 hp. That was a small engine even for the times, but then the Champ only weighed some 2600 lbs. This car really is the spiritual predecessor to the Rambler, which came along to champion the “compact” banner a few years later.
Bob Bourke’s all-new 1953 Starlight coupe was of course the second act of the Loewy/Bourke/Studebaker double-play. We’ll save that for another day. But between the ’51 and the brilliant ’53 there was one more year to fill the gap, and the ’52 redesigned front end (above) was highly unfortunate indeed, in my book anyway. I almost hate to even sully up this post with this profoundly compromised design, obviously a precursor to the ’53s, and referred to as the “clam-digger” by the Loewy stylists. Oh well, you can’t win them all.
CC: 1949 Land Cruiser – On Top Of The World JPCavanaugh
CC: 1953-1954 Commander Starliner Coupe – Star Light, Star Bright PN
Says a lot about the respective dynamics of my grandfather and my mother that this was his preferred car in the 1950s, and that she didn’t like to get picked up at school by him. To this day, she calls Studebaker’s cheap.
I don’t think the ’52 Stude is bad looking; I like it better than the rather dull ’47-’49 front clip and it provides continuity for the stunning ’53.
Also, that Matador looks really sharp without the bumpers – the foglights in the mounting points look like they’re meant to be there.
In an interview with Dave Crippen in the eighties, Bob Bourke winced when he talked about these cars — he thought the front end was too gimmicky. I see his point, but I agree, it gives the front end something interesting to do to match the tail.
I hate to veer off the subject–but that Matador is stunning! You’re right–cropping the bumpers transforms it. Very cleverly, the owner put square fog lights in the cutouts for the bumper supports. The brilliance of simplicity, and the simplicity of brilliance. It looks like they were always there.
One of my best friends in school was given one of these by his father as a punishment for wrecking his first car. He hated it, and we all made fun of it. If only we would have had a little vision….
Just don’t hit anything with it! Finding sheet metal for that car might make the needle in the haystack look easy.
I really liked that Matador too. Like the Stude, it’s even better looking without the bumper.
What caught my eye was Matador’s big circles in the front and rear, as well as the full wheel cutouts. One could do a study on the circle as a design element in postwar cars.
Compare the ’51 Stude’s front end with the ’49 Ford. Ford taillights from the mid-50s thru the mid-60s were a brand hallmark. Exner’s 1st-gen Valiant and ’62 Plymouth I liked a lot. That mid-70s Matador. Always the sealed beam headlights of course, especially after 1960 when a mid-to-high-end car had singles, like the mid-70’s Monte Carlo.
Boring square headlights in the eighties and nineties, and no circles neither.
Cars roll on wheels, wheels are circles, so there’s something compelling about circles in car designs.
Or am I just odd and eccentric?
Must admit I always thought the 51 Stude looked grotesque. The “bullet” nose just looks ridiculous, and the back window of the Starlight seems to be different just for the sake of being different. I’m not saying I don’t like the green custom job, but the original car never impressed me, though it must have impressed the Rover company in England as the contemporary P4 model seems to borrow some off the styling.
I would agree with Buick6 that the ’52 was an improvement.Obviously the ’53 was in a different league.
I’m suprised they didn’t try some type of bumperettes for the 51. Something like the ones sported on 70 1/2 Z/28.
Just like everyone else, I’m a bit taken by the Matador sans the I beam up front! Looks like a different car.
I still remember the first 51 stude i ever saw it really looked different to any thing else around had to ask my dad what it was but it stuck in my mind even now I can picture it blue no bumpers orange primer on the lower body exhaust exiting under L/H door mudgrip tyres and rough looking.It was a well used example owned by someone just getting by but the style has always seemed good and unique The rear deck treatment is sitting in my carport I still like it and my old 59 Hillman cleans up well without bumpers they add nothing but weight.
Same here, and the one I saw was a Starlight – which just accentuated its differentness. When I got home I tried to describe it – and Dad knew immediately what I’d seen. Utterly unmistakable. But the one I saw was maroon, and very shiny – obviously somebody’s pride and joy.
I will admit to being a stick in the mud, but the bulletnose 50 and 51 never did much for me. Although the 52 is a bit heavy, I always preferred it to the bulletnose.
I will also acknowledge that they sold quite well, though probably aided by the fact that the company offered an automatic transmission in 1950 and a V8 engine in the Commander and Land Cruiser in 51.
Paul, you are also spot-on about the Champion. It could be that a big reason for the failure of the early 50s compacts (Hudson Jet, Kaiser Henry J, Willys Aero and even the early Rambler) was that the Studebaker Champion was already there, doing everything that the new compacts could do, only more economically. The Champion only weighed about 2600 pounds and was about the same width as the later Valiant and Falcon. Even with a 6 inch longer wheelbase, the Champion outweighed the 1960 Valiant by less than 100 pounds. Even through the 50s, the Champion was lighter than and got better fuel mileage than the Rambler. Champions of the late 40s were said to be good for 30 mpg if driven easily.
Your photo of the 74 Matador sans bumper is interesting. Upfront, this car was never my thing. Taking off the bumper purifies the design, but I always considered the back half of the car to be the bigger liability.
Some where in my memory is that these cars did well in economy runs with o/d transmissions
As is probably obvious by now, I do have a thing for the odd and eccentric!
You find some great stuff Paul its still out there I even tripped over a 59 Vauxhall Victor still in the wild and original they were good cars but they rusted so fast GM taut the Italians with those. You find the unusual that I rarely see You guys didnt export everything but NZ imported almost anything that ran so I do see some oddball cars about, ever heard of the Trekka youd love it, keep up the great work
Of course the Champion had a second childhood as the Lark. Same weight, same wheelbase, same success. Wikipedia’s Lark article says the Champion was the Lark’s direct inspiration.
When I was little we had a ’55 Champion. (Before that a bathtub Nash. Odd and eccentric runs in my family too.)
In ’61 Dad looked hard at the Lark, but we got a Ford Sunliner convertible instead. Much cooler car, I was thrilled, but it didn’t last.
Studebaker sales in 1950 and 1951 may have been aided by the Korean War. Buyers were understandably concerned that the government would order a shutdown of civilian automobile production, as it done for World War II, which had ended only six years earlier. Many people rushed to buy new cars before any shutdown (which, of course, never happened). This extended the postwar sellers’ market until 1953.
Unfortunately, Studebaker debuted its stunning new 1953 hardtops and pillared coupes just as the sellers’ market ended. Ford then started its infamous “blitz,” Chevrolet responded in kind, and the independents were pretty much wiped out by 1954. Even Chrysler went into a tailspin, with production dropping by almost half for 1954.
And while there was not a total shutdown of civilian production during the war, there were federally imposed caps on production, based on prewar levels, as well as draconian restrictions on consumer credit (if I recall, you had to have at least 30% down and finance over no more than 18 months on a new car).
Add in the fiat X/19 to the *obviously* better off W/O the front bumper club.
Does anyone else see shit tons of ’55 Chrysler 300 in the ’47 Stude’s front end?
Exner has to be the most varied designer ever…sometimes conservative, and sometimes WAY out there.
Is there a biography of him I wonder? I’d probably read it.
BUMPERLESS boat tail Rivieras. Absolutely stunning.
This story of front end designs ruined by bumpers brings the mid 70’s GM A- bodies to mind. Having seen the prototypes using an older flush mounted sstyle integrated bumpers as originally planned gave these cars a dramatically different sleek front end. Most dramatic example were the LeMans’. Google a pic of an old Can-Am and mentallly remove the bumper. Those last minute federal bumpers made many an automotive stylist yearn to quit the industry and get jobs designing toasters. Anything was better.
Dad’s 4 Door Navy Blue Champion and his friend’s Yellow Convertible.
Coupla thoughts from Johnny come lately… The first family car I remember was a 2-door ’50 Champion, so I’ll never be real objective about the bullet nose. I thought other cars ought to have them, too! The second family car was a ’54 Champion 2-door coupe, obviously more gorgeous than any neighbor’s car on the street.
Was the ’50 designed with no thought to the bumper? Perhaps, but practicality did raise its ugly head. Originally, the bumper brackets were hidden inside tubes. However, the effect of the deep crease between the fender and the hood was that of a sluiceway — hit a good, deep puddle at speed, and those vacuum-operated wipers just couldn’t clear the windshield. Add some mud to that puddle…
So the ’51 closed some of the gates with that panel. Would it have looked better fender-to-fender? Eh, probably not much, but it should have improved forward vision on wet days.
Never cared too much for the ’52 until I finally saw how the front end presaged the ’53. But otherwise the ’52 didn’t have much to distinguish it from other makes — everybody intro’d a hardtop that year.
As for the Starlight backlight, that was first offered in ’46. “First by far with the post-war car” was the company’s slogan, but the wag on the street could be counted on (or so I’m told) to deliver this hilarious line: “Which way is it goin”?” with hand clapped to forehead.
Finally, turning to the photo of the yellow convertible, that color was named “Tulip Cream,” a name nearly as lovely as that color in gorgeous.
I have looked at a lot of these since this piece first ran. Our own Jason Shafer described these to me as the 57 Chevy of Studebakers, in that they are the ones that everyone seems to love (to the point where they overshadow most of the others).
If I had to choose, I prefer the 50 model with the smaller painted grille and the twin air intakes on either side of the bullet. These did not use the huge bumper pan, but two painted tubes instead. It seems to me a cleaner look than the 51 with its much bigger chrome grille.
Indeed I submit it is!
Non-car people seem to automatically picture a ’57 Chevrolet when a ’50s era car is mentioned. In turn, if it is narrowed down to “Studebaker”, this is what seems to come to mind – “you mean that car with the bullet nose?”
Spectacular designs (both good and bad) do stick in a person’s mind.
thanks for helping me figure out the year in this circa 1954 shot i have of my father’s studebaker. i now believe it’s a 1950 champion 2-door. i can’t figure out the trim level.
No, it’s a 1950.
We owned Studebakers, 48; 50; 54; 56;61 and the 64 was the last. The were fast if you connected the overdrive transmission with the automatic’s differential. My father traveled for a living and the gas milage was great, the top end was outstanding but exceleration sucked. The were roomy, easy to drive and park. The 64 I had in europe did very well against europeon cars. I liked the 55 commander V8 as its best engine. I worked for a Studebaker dealer for 2 yeears before I joined the Navy. I modified the 170 cuin six to develope 245 horse power and that is another tale. They were really very good cars. Better than any of the BIG Three.
I was brought home in a 50 Studebaker. Seafoam green, wrap around window, blanket on the front seat. Set the trajectory for my interest in unusual cars I guess.
The design has been one of my favorites since my earliest memory. It brings back Mom and Dad, Benicia CA and the house my Grandfather built there.
The folks moved on to a 53 Customline two door in the same color when we moved to Texas in 1960, another with a modest bullet in the front grille.
I’ve always loved Studebakers, just because of the warm memories I have from that 50.
I’ve always liked the 50 and 51 Studebaker Starlight Coupe. I had one when I was in the Air Force that got totaled on me. I’m trying to get one that’s just up the road from me. I think were starting to get close to a price I’ll pay.
My father’s first car was a 1951 Champion four-door sedan, which he sold to his parents when he bought a slightly used 1953 Champion Starlight. There are a few photos of their car in the family photo boxes.
From what I’ve read, while the 1950-51 models set sales records for Studebaker, their value as used cars dropped like a rock. Apparently the styling became dated very quickly. Loewy later claimed that the original plan was to lower the cowl in conjunction with the restyle of the front. Given the expense of changing the cowl, this is somewhat hard to believe. He claimed that the higher cowl, and resulting higher hood, ruined the overall effect.
Now that I look at it, even the ’47 Commander front end is a bit unusual. Stacked sets of long oval grille openings, each surrounded by a thin chrome moulding, with body colour clearly visible between them – and this at a time when everyone else was doing thick chrome bars over one big single opening. Elegant, no?
I agree, but then I am a fan of the 47-49 Commander/Land Cruiser in general. Compared to the huge swaths of chrome plating that pretty much the rest of the industry was using, this car is the picture of elegance and restraint.
I’ll take a Studebaker over a Buick or DeSoto of that vintage any day.
My Dad was 46 when he bought his first car, a 1950 Champion. Buying one’s first car later in life was not unusual for the times, for those having lived through the Great Depression and WWII.
I was brought home from hospital in the Stude in 1953, so my only memory is through a few pictures. The Champion was eventually replaced by a 1957 Chevy Belair.
Here’s the proud owner at the wheel of his new car:
And here’s my Mom posing in front of the Studebaker. She learned to drive in this car, mastering the column-mounted 3-speed shifter.
My Dad built a garage for his new car, to protect it from the elements. Unfortunately, it did not protect the car from the kid next door. Only three days after my Dad purchased the car, this kid thought it would be fun to pick up handfuls of stones in the driveway and throw them at the car – a story my Dad was still retelling 30 years later.
And finally, here’s my older brother and the Stude, parked behind the house. I believe this picture would have been taken when the car was brand new.
fantastic pics Louis
I once heard these cars compared to “two row corn choppers.” The top picture illustrates why the best.
I can see it. Here’s a two-row cornpicker being run by my dad, a little newer than the Studebaker, though.
Great call on Teague’s floating bumper.
My first car was a 46 stude, four door, flathead six, column shift. Obviously every young boys dream. However, it was cheap and served to get me and my sister to school. Prior to that it seemed they were the butt of jokes about not being able to tell if they were coming or going.
They were early with the ohv v8 and I had a friend who owned several. Those were hot but the first one that I thought looked good was the 53 although looking at the 52 it is better than I remembered. Good find and good story. The camera is better at recording the past than a geezers memory.
I am also one of those odd and eccentric car lovers. Having been around a 1950 Studebaker Champion and a 1950 Ford since I was born I think I have a “you were there” perspective. The ’50 Ford was traded in on a new ’59 Chevrolet SW in ’59. The ’50 Studebaker was sold in ’62 to the next door neighbors when a used ’59 Rambler SW was bought. They kept it until ’65 or ’66 when they bought a ’64 Chevrolet, or maybe the Studebaker went off to college with one of their daughters, I wasn’t keeping track at the time. In the mid 60’s the Studebaker was a very old car for the times. The odd and eccentric in me likes the ’52 Studebaker better than the ’50-51 and especially the ’52 only hardtop which is my personal all time Studebaker.
Woohoo, Studie family pic night?
I in my fire engine, and dad’s 51 Champion.
Me, having a big day on the town…
Personally, the bullet nose never really impressed me. It’s identified with Studebaker, probably because of it’s oddness. I have seen both a VW and a Midas muffler TV ad that misidentified a 50 as a 49.
Personally, my favorite of that generation is the 52 hardtop.
Nice pics. I hope you don’t mind but I boosted the levels a bit.
Don’t mind at all, an improvement. Dad used a lot of Perutz film then, because it was cheap, and I remember him commenting how poor the negatives were.
The first and closest imitator of the bullet-nose was the VW KG. Both front and back. Because the KG’s front is lower, the bumper could be mounted proportionally higher, so it was less obviously protrusive.
The Type 3 carried on the shape in modified form.
A lot of cars went with an airplane front to one degree or another at that time. The most obvious was the Tucker. The Henry J and 49 Ford also had that jet engine intake look to them.
Then there were the cars with taillights that looked like jet or rocket exhausts.
Here’s a Lincoln with a headlight bezel that looks like a jet intake.
Here’s the VW “1949 auto show” ad that misidentifies a 50 Studebaker. Considering some of the other things being made at that time, the Studie, bullet or not, is a lot cleaner.
Picking up Jim’s point from 2011 about the Champion being the proximate cause of the failure of the other compacts in the early 50s, the Champion did not stay a compact either.
While the Champion had started out as a compact in 39, on a separate platform from the Commander and President, in 47 the company based everything on the Champion platform, lengthening it for the Commander and Land Cruiser, but keeping the same narrow compact car interior. That narrow interior increasingly put the Commander and Land Cruiser at a disadvantage in the market.
To compound the problems, they didn’t keep the Champion as a compact, as it grew longer and longer, but Studebaker did not keep pace with six cylinder engine development. By 55, the Champion was as long as a Ford or Chevy, but lacked the interior room of the big three standard size sedans, and only had a 185 engine, while the big three were running a 230, give or take. A 55 Champion plods to 60 in over 20 seconds.
Here’s a specification table for the 56 models. While the six cylinder Ford and Chevy have a power to weight ratio around 23, the Champion is next to last at 28.1. And while the Champion was grossly underpowered, it also ranked dead last for interior leg and hip room, yet it cost about $100 more than a Ford or Chevy.
Specs are pretty close to the Rambler, though. 🙂
Specs are pretty close to the Rambler, though. 🙂
Yes, I noticed that. The bottom line is, when Studie took a Sawzall to the Champion in 59 to create the Lark, the net effect was to cut down the outside sheetmetal to fit the interior and engine they had, to recreate a 1959 Rambler, but without the Rambler’s more powerful OHV engine, coil sprung rear axle or solid unibody construction.
Studie Model “N” mockup. Still experimenting with the bullet nose for 52. Notice the 49 Ford, with it’s bullet grill, photobombing.
That one bottom right is very interesting. Looks like a 70s GM greenhouse on a 1955 body. Sweet.
My grandfather’s first car was a 1950 Studebaker Champion, purchased used in ’52 or ’53. He didn’t need a car living and working in New York City (and couldn’t afford one anyway) but once my Mom was born and they started planning a move to the suburbs, one was necessary. Mom barely remembers the Studebaker so he may not have had it for all that long before it was replaced by a ’54 Ford, but what a cool way to start your automotive “career”.
My first automobile was a 47 Studebaker commander starlight Coupe in Burgundy. I think I paid $250 for it in the late ’50s. I followed up with a studebaker Lark Hardtop and eventually a candy apple red Avanti.
My beautiful ’50 Champion