COAL: An Exaltation of Larks

Studebaker 1964 Lark Daytona conv

My family had an attraction to automotive orphans. Detailing the strange array of my father’s cars, which included a supercharged Kaiser Manhattan (destroyed towing my grandmother’s piano), a Hudson Hornet, 1961 and 1964 Studebaker Larks, a Borgward, a Vauxhall, and an Anglia; my grandfathers REO, my aunt’s Rhea’s Studebaker Scotsman, or my uncle’s Packards is beyond the scope of what I can do justice to here.


But  this familial tendency stuck well enough to have my father adopt (for $200 off at a local Pontiac dealer) a red 1964 Studebaker convertible six with three-on-the-tree manual transmission. The idea of a car like this had my enthusiastic assent, even though I would continue to use a 55 cc Suzuki for most of my personal transportation around town.The pictures added here are from the web, though honestly the are nearly identical to the original (obviously there was no “8” on the convertible fender)

Studebaker 1962 six engine

When it arrived in our garage in the late summer there was a noticeable misfire from the 170 CID OHV engine. Dad was a good mechanic and he determined this was due to a bad valve. Unfortunately the actual problem on disassembly turned out to be a cracked head (I discovered this was a common problem). When this arrangement worked it was supposedly good for 112 hp, and 102 mph at Bonneville (at least for Andy Granatelli and his team).

However, when it failed there was the problem of tracking down a usable replacement by a series of phone calls and personal leads all over the state of Connecticut (remember, there was a time before the internet). After actually tracking one down, a trip to a machine shop and a lesson in reassembly (borrowed a torque wrench) with my father the car was ready for its “first” run on Christmas morning.

The day was sunny, cold and snow free. Whoever had owned it before me had either terrible taste in cigars or had let something expire in there because the smell was (to put it gently) unique. This was a fine excuse to put the top down (manually, the electric  motors never did work) and drive around with the AM radio blasting WDRC. In the secular time I grew up in, this felt like the spirit of Christmas right up to the last corner, when a third-gear shift revealed there was no third gear anymore. No jimmying or double clutching could change that the transmission had effectively expired.

Needless to say, coming up with a Borg-Warner T96 transmission was another exercise in pre-internet ingenuity, and with the help of a local garage the car was running again after New Year’s (I didn’t drive cars for my own use much, so except for the cost it was no great inconvenience). My first real trip was to a ski area 30 miles away, which got me 24 MPG for the only time. It took a long time before I topped 70 and I actually dared 80+ while testing a mixture of gas ether and methanol we mixed up.

Studebaker 1964 dash -06

The engine/transmission combination was odd by modern standards in that first gear pulled like a tractor (I once beat a VW bug off the line for the first 10 feet), but given the engine torque, second gear was OK to start in if you played the clutch a bit. No tach, but an aftermarket vacuum gauge, although this was pretty irrelevant since the low RPM and tall 7.75×15 tires allowed fairly relaxed highway cruising with little chance of over revving. There were full gauges with red backlighting,  and reclining red vinyl bench seats. My classmates ribbing notwithstanding, this was a memorable first ride. Research at the time indicated that our particular combination (convertible six) included only 74 others like it, and recent research shows about 19% of this model are still on the road (most are V-8 powered).

Studebaker 1966 Cruiser Sedan. - 1image:

While I didn’t drive a car much for personal use, practicality  required a more serviceable vehicle for college commuting (motorcycle commuting in winter can be bit dicey). This got me into a 1966 Studebaker Cruiser (283 V-8, disc brakes and automatic transmission), which obviously wasn’t the fun of a convertible (well there was that Sly and the family Stone concert road trip), but nowhere near the work and a lot more reliable heat.

Studebaker 1966 Cruiser Sedan. - 2image:

It served me very well (a rocker arm squeak, stuck disc caliper and electronic ignition repair were the big items to fix over two years) and the parts situation stayed interesting. On a search for some (now forgotten) part I was directed to what was supposed to be a junkyard but only appeared to be a small group of men standing by a flooded pond. When I asked one of them directions he told me to wait and a minute later a scuba diver surfaced,cleared his regulator and asked me what I needed. He then submerged to return in five minutes with the answer “not here”(the yard was riverside and it was flood season).

Another time I found a pair of F-60 studded snow tires and got them mounted on the (probably inappropriate) stock rims and it served as the Police Department runabout while the stock cars were having chains mounted (Thanksgiving day–not a good time to get that done). I guess it’s best to be 18 when these sort of things happen…they seem like fun in retrospect.