I’ve been writing about obscure North American special editions and forgotten limited-run models since way back in 2015. Though I’ve travelled extensively in the US and even lived there for a while, I’ve seen a grand total of zero of my featured cars in the metal. While putting together a Top 10 list for the next (perhaps final?) instalment – on the independent automakers, coming soon! – I stumbled across some photos I took of a Studebaker I saw at a Cars & Coffee. It wasn’t just any Studebaker, however – it was a rare ’55 Speedster.
Though I instantly recognized the car as a Studebaker when I photographed it, I didn’t realize it was a Speedster. This was a one-year-only model, serving as the flagship of the Studebaker line. A posher version of the ’55 President State hardtop coupe, the Speedster was the finest Studebaker one could buy and sat atop the regular President, Commander and Champion coupes.
It’s hard to overstate the visual impact of the ’53 Starlight pillared and Starliner hardtop coupes, popularly referred to as the Loewy coupes as they were designed by Robert Bourke of Raymond Loewy’s Loewy and Associates, the long-time design contractor for Studebaker. They were low-slung and fabulously proportioned, using the 120.5-inch wheelbase of the flagship Land Cruiser line instead of the regular Stude’s 116.5-inch span. Unfortunately, the slinky design of the coupe didn’t lend itself well to a conventional sedan and wagon derivative (it was never meant to – the coupes were intended by Bourke to be a separate line). The poorly-received sedan and wagon counterparts were one of Studebaker’s many missteps in the 1950s.
At the time of its debut, Studebaker was scrambling to keep up with the Big 3, in particular Ford and GM who were at the time engaged in a brutal price war. In the Loewy coupes’ debut year, Studebaker’s total production amounted to 169,899. Sales were down from the previous year due to a combination of fierce competition and production delays and in spite of unanticipated strong demand for the slinky new coupes. The following year was a bloodbath for Studebaker, sales crashing to 113,920 and finally jolting the company’s executives to realize something needed to be done. That turned out to be a merger with the more financially sound (at the time) Packard. Studebaker had rebuffed Packard’s advances before but was now practically beseeching them. We all know how that ended. Though it comes too late for Packard, there’s a moral to this story: whether you’re merging with another company or buying them outright, check their books!
A green-and-gold Speedster featured by Paul
During the dark days of 1954, Studebaker developed 14 Speedster show cars which were received positively on the auto show circuit. Painted in sunny two-tone Hialeah Green and Sun Valley Yellow, their appearance belied Studebaker’s financial hardships. The Speedster went into regular production later that year for the 1955 model year.
All of Studebaker’s passenger cars received an almost obscenely be-chromed front-end for ’55. Had the Studebaker coupe lost some of the design purity of the seminal ’53 model? Sure. The chrome-laden front bumper was a far-cry from the more modest mouth of the ’53. Studebaker was trying to keep up with the Big 3, whose cars seemed to be getting bigger and brassier (chromier?) with every passing year. Desperate to reach their break-even point, Studebaker slathered on the chrome for ’55 to try and keep up.
In Speedster trim, however, all was forgiven. The pert body remained but it was adorned with jewellery, including a chrome roof bar and a hood-length ornament with a gold fin, plus special Speedster badging. Take note, too, of the chrome-plated tailpipe extensions that mirror the shape of the taillights. Though I virtually never care for wire wheels or wire wheel covers – except, maybe, on something like a Jaguar E-Type – wire covers are present on the Speedster and don’t look half bad.
All Speedsters came in a tri-level color scheme. The featured Speedster is Shasta White over Pimlico Grey over Shasta White. Though the flashy green-and-cold combo is the Speedster’s most well-remembered color combination, this grey-and-white color scheme is much classier and more understated. Or about as understated a car can be with a great big chrome maw like these Studes.
The exterior was glitzy but the interior was the crowning touch on the Speedster. Just look at the quilted, genuine leather seats in Congo Ivory. The distinctive diamond motif was carried over to almost every other surface in the interior including the headliner, parcel shelf and door panels, which were upholstered in Pimlico Grey metallic vinyl color matched to the deep-pile carpets. The Speedster’s sporting intentions were communicated through the use of a 160-mph speedometer and an 8,000 rpm tachometer.
Like sitting inside a pineapple.
Actual performance modifications were few. The Speedster used the same 259 cubic-inch Passmaster V8 with a 4-barrel carb but added a dual exhaust system. Horsepower was 185 gross at 4500 rpm; torque 258 ft-lbs at 2800 rpm. Transmissions consisted of the Borg-Warner Automatic Drive or a three-speed manual, while all Speedsters came standard with power brakes and power steering. Sports Illustrated found the former to be startlingly over-sensitive and the latter to be “feather-light”, making driving the Speedster “akin to driving on ice”. The car was praised, however, for a comfortable ride and “head-snapping” acceleration.
Buyers paid dearly for the Speedster’s unique combination of luxury and performance. Its list price was $3,253, around $800 more than the next coupe down in the Studebaker range. That meant it was just $200 cheaper than the more powerful Buick Roadmaster Riviera coupe, the second most-expensive Buick. The Chevy Corvette with its newly optional V8 cost $2,934, the new Ford Thunderbird just $10 more. Neither were as practical as the Stude but they were more convincing as “sports cars”, to which the Speedster was often referred, the Speedster looking merely like a flossier version of a regular Stude hardtop coupe. Those preferring luxury over performance might have been tempted by the stunning new ’55 Chryslers, the Windsor Deluxe Nassau coupe undercutting the Speedster by a few hundred. And for those whose tastes were more beer than champagne, even the priciest and flashiest ’55 Chevy was around a grand cheaper.
Though the Speedster’s production numbers consisted of only 2,635 units by the time the last Speedster was produced late in 1955, Studebaker’s overall sales numbers had seen a modest uptick to 138,742 units. Early build quality and chassis flex issues with the Loewy coupes had been mostly resolved by ’55. Unfortunately, Studebaker’s problems were only getting worse – their financials were shaky and rivals had had a much better ’55. And unfortunately, though they were beautiful, the Loewy coupes just weren’t meeting Studebaker’s expectations.
Though the Speedster was a one-year-only model, its replacement – the Golden Hawk – was one of a family of new “family sports cars”. Actually, the ’56 Hawks weren’t really new as they were merely a more extensive refresh of the same ’53 body. But fledgling tailfins aside, they seemed almost a return to the European design ethos conceived by Robert Bourke. Fortunately, the essence of the coupe’s design meant it aged like a fine wine and lent itself well to some clever refreshes. Regardless of whether it wore a giant chrome maw, a Thunderbird C-pillar, or a huge Mercedes-esque grille, Robert Bourke’s underlying design still looked great.
Finally, one word of advice. If you’re visiting car shows, just photograph everything. Sometimes you won’t realize what delightful delicacy you’ve found until much later.
Photographed July 2018 at Cars & Coffee in Coorparoo, Queensland, Australia.
Concours Classic: 1955 Studebaker President Speedster – Look What They’ve Done To The Starliner
Curbside Classic: 1953 & 1954 Studebaker Commander Starliner Coupe – Star Light, Star Bright
Curbside Classic: 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk – It’s A Sign
CC Capsule: 1958 Packard Hawk – Last Flight of a Once-Proud Bird
Curbside Classic: 1962 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk – A Beautiful Death
Damn Bubba, that’s one hell of an under bite!
Rare car, Ive seen exactly one trimmed like that in McGraths hill NSW and there were several Stude coupes in that area and no not all at the same adress, Cool cars Ive always like Loewys designs, probably why Ive got one from Rootes Group.
Yeah, that 55 front end is an acquired taste. But otherwise, these are really cool cars. This one, the Packard Hawk and the 57 Golden Hawk 400 are probably the most luxuriously trimmed versions of the whole batch.
What you call green & gold is what most Stude people call Lemon Lime. I think the lemon lime and the pink/white/gray are the most iconic color schemes on these, though I like this gray/white. There was also a black/white offered.
I have always wondered about their strategy to blanket the market with this car. A 6 cylinder Champion hardtop started at $1901. I have to wonder if sharing a showroom with the cheap version hurt them in trying to play in this league. Also, 185 horsepower was not exactly competitive with the big Buick and Chrysler. The 56 Golden Hawk at least brought some serious power to the table. In the end, it’s fair to say there was absolutely nothing else like it in 1955.
The colors aren’t quite right but Lemon Lime could almost pass for a John Deere edition.
In the end, it’s fair to say there was absolutely nothing else like it in 1955.
I can appreciate the attempt at building a high trim version of the coupe, but this one is pretty baroque, and not in a good way.
And yes, a ’55 Chevy Bel Air with the 180 (or 195) hp V8 for a thousand less shows why.
The price of the Speedster wasn’t out of line for its equipment, but the brand wasn’t competitive at the price point. Like Cadillac v Lincoln/Imperial, it was almost irresponsible to spend Buick money on something other than a Buick. Buick was a good and good looking car (until Buick overproduced its facilities in the mid 50s and shipped a lot of substandard cars) with plenty of social kudos and a good trade value in three years. Why rock the boat?
Yes, it hurt that you could buy a stripped Champion economy car (when that meant *really* stripped) for much less.
The basic tooling already existed, and the same body was available in the lower price lines, so the additional sales generated by the Speedster were most likely pure gravy. Which Studebaker-Packard desperately needed in 1955.
I bet those fog lights take a beating in a parking lot!
Studebaker was too small a manufacturer to keep up with the Big Detroit Three. Kenosha eventually couldn’t do it either. GM, Ford and Chrysler were doing too many things right. They made their own breaks. They had enough dough to cover up annual challenges.
We all love underdogs, but one of the reason we love them is because we know that eventually they will lose. Studebaker is one of those stories guys like us enjoy reliving.
Yes, they made good cars. But that wasn’t good enough. They could have made the best cars and still end up closing.
“wire covers are present on the Speedster and don’t look half bad.”
Gonna have to agree to disagree, but if I ranked things on a 10 point “bad” scale, the wheel covers would be about an 8, and the new chrome bumper/grille combo would be a solid 11.
I’d also say the side trim is not to my taste, but well executed, and overall the fundamental lines of the Loewy Coupe keep the entire package on the good side of the spectrum.
Those wires are interesting. I am trying to think of any other simulated wire wheels from around that time and none are jumping out at me. Oops, a quick bit of research indicates that they made a big splash on the option list of several GM and Chrysler divisions as well as Nash, K-F and Studebaker for 1953. I know they were not seen that frequently on Studes of 1953-54, but I think it is the same piece that became standard on the 55 Speedster. These are not my favorites, but as you say, the face of the car makes you barely notice the wheels.
It seems like there was a bit of a wire wheel revival in the mid 50s, and genuine wire wheels were available as (expensive) options on Cadillac and Chrysler, and surely some others. It is curious that when they tried to sell this car in such a rarefied price class that they would not source some actual wire wheels from one of the third party suppliers instead of the same not-all-that-expensive pieces that had been optional for the past two years.
This isn’t a super expensive car, tho it’s a crazy expensive Stude. It’s comparable to a junior series Buick Special or Century with similar equipment. Buick was the third most popular brand in 1955.
The Speedster’s base price includes equipment that was many hundreds of dollars of options on most Buicks. Auto trans, power steer, power brakes, power windows, radio, heater, tinted glass, etc. Any Buick with that equipment would be at least $3000.
Buick sold over 150000 Special two door hardtops and another 80000 Century s.
Wires were a $300 option on Buicks in 1955.
We had a ’55 Champion coupe when I was little. It’s the first car I really remember well.
Such a shame Studebaker spoiled its exceptional coupe with that massive chrome snout. The Speedster just compounds the error for me. Looks like someone got carried away with the JC Whitney catalog.
The front end looks way less garish without the redundant outboard bumper guard/lights that don’t even look centered with the bumper.
I’m torn whether it’s is actually less attractive than the later Hawks, which for me were more of an acquired taste with that big 1930s throwback grille/hoodline. The original 53 design is definitely the best, but I’m inclined to rank this second. It’s no worse than the 57 Chevy facelift.
The third-gen Taurus always looked like a ’55 Stude to me. Both fishfaces.
I can’t unsee this! Brilliant observation. I was going to post a comment about how the ’56 restyle effectively de-fishified the front end into something genuinely attractive.
Wow both even have the chrome horizontal divider in the grilles!
The Taurus look really is noticeable if the grille is painted body color… (preferably on a single tone car, and not this one.) I saw a black 55 with a painted grille at a show and really liked it, but the 2-tone on this car kinda ruins the effect.
55’s are my favorite year Studes, so I was glad to see this article here.
Another great piece, Will. That succotash-like paint job of the green-and-yellow show cars is a lot to look at, but I did like that you compared the interior to sitting inside a pineapple. (I’m dead – LOL.) Aside from the wild color scheme, I like how nicely finished the interior seemed to be.
I’ve long been a fan of the “Loewy coupes” since I read about one for the first time around age 14. I learned from your article that it was not Raymond Loewy, himself, who had penned the original ’53s models, but someone else (Robert Bourke) in his design firm.
As much as I tend to like the underdogs, I can’t imagine myself paying 10% over the cost of a new Corvette for one of these ’55 Studebaker Speedsters.
I have to agree with my learned colleague Mr Dennis. “It’s like sitting in a pineapple” is one of the funniest sentences ever written about a car on this site.
I can imagine the owner’s manual : Thank you for buying a 1955 Studebaker Spongebob…
Many Studebaker dealers were granted Packard franchises with the ‘merger’. The rather pricey Speedster at $3,253 could be in the same showroom with the ’55 Packard Clipper Custom Constellation hardtop at $3,076, which was the top of the Clipper line. Given the larger engine and many features standard on the Clipper, only the nice Speedster interior was much encourage to spring for the latter.
Back in 1996 when I attended the 100th anniversary of the American Auto in Detroit I saw the only Stude Speedster I’ve seen thus far, it was memorable because the lemon-lime car refused to start and was unable participant in a chronological parade. That was the parade I saw my first suicide door Eldorado Brougham too.
The ‘53 Starliner Coupe was so handsome it’s a shame it got ugly so quick, but it’s also remarkable that it maintained a contemporary look as it survived into 1964.