CC Missed: 1958 Studebaker–The Last President

Around 2014 or 2015, I saw a 1958 Studebaker in gold and white parked at a local repair shop.  At that time, I had not yet heard of Curbside Classic, and I didn’t get a smart phone with a camera until 2016.  Ever since then I’ve been hoping that the Studebaker would return, so I could get some photos and maybe do a post on it.  Never happened.  So I did an online image search, and found what looks like the identical car (which it may or may not be).  So we’ll use these photos as a “stand-in” for the car I actually saw.  We’ll call it “The fish that got away.”

First I want to say that I really kind of like these ’58 Studebakers.  I like the fins and the sleek over-all look, accented by the swooping crease over the rear wheels, and those headlight pods that shoot forward into the wind.

“Yeah, but the greenhouse is the same as the ’53 model!”  That doesn’t bother me one bit.  I think it looks good on this car.  A lot of cars carried over tooling from previous model years (VW being the most notable example).  In my mind, the designers at Studebaker-Packard did a fairly nice job keeping their products up-to-date (given what they had to work with and a very limited budget).

When I walked around this Studebaker, its gold paint and gleaming chrome sparkling in the sunlight, I thought it looked really rich and smart looking.  I like this “smiling” front end.  It looks eager–“ready to go!”   In fact, I like Studebaker’s face better than that of its main competitor–the ’58 Chevy.  The Studebaker smiles, the “Frankenstein” Chevy looks mean:

Two of those four parking lights are fakes, by the way.


Of course, Studebaker gets a lot of criticism for its tacked-on headlight pods designed to accommodate double headlights, which were de rigueur in 1958.  However, the stylists gave the pods a graceful teardrop shape, straight out of the late ’30s “streamlined-moderne” pattern book.  S-P described them as “distinctive jet-type nacelles” which “stamp [this model] with the fine car elegance it merits.”  A special piece of bright metal was created to form a continuation of the sleek side molding.

The ’57 Mercury (one of the first cars with “quad” headlights) used similar pods, and no one seems to complain about those.  (Maybe because Mercury slathered more chrome on theirs!)

Seats on this top-of-the-line President look pretty lush:

However, the dashboard seems kind of plain, considering the era:

The “Flight-Style” instrument panel features a “Magna-Dial” rotating drum speedometer, similar to those found on some cars of the ’20s.  Here it has been made futuristic by making it look like a 1950s TV screen.  Switches are of the “modern aircraft type”.  (Photo is of a lower-priced ’58 Champion).

The 1956 version of the “Cyclops Eye” speedometer is even cuter!  (That robin’s egg blue/green color was everywhere in the ’50s!)


Here’s the 1957 version.


The backup light pods remind me of the ’60 Mercury and Comet.

The Studebaker 289 cubic inch “Sweepstakes” V-8, 210 or 225 HP, depending on carburetor.  That oil filter is so easy to get to!

I have this advertising insert from the December 8th, 1957 issue of the New York Times.  Its 16 lavishly illustrated pages describe in detail all of the 1958 Studebaker-Packard offerings.

The President hardtop looks sensational (in this picture).  Studebakers and Packards are “Design Leaders!”


If you only read this booklet, it would never occur to you that S-P was in such bad shape in 1958.  “THIRTEEN NEW STUDEBAKERS . . . FOUR NEW PACKARDS– FEATURE STYLING PLUS CRAFTSMANSHIP!”

Studebaker President 4-door sedan: $2639.


The ad copy is nothing but exuberant confidence and optimism:

S-P seemed to cover the whole market, from bargain-basement economy (the Scotsman) through the various Studebaker lines (Champion, Commander, President), plus Packard (which now competed with lower-mediums like Pontiac, Dodge, Mercury, and Edsel.)  There were the sporty Hawks (Studebaker and Packard versions) plus station wagons.  Mercedes was priced at or above Cadillac/Lincoln/Imperial.  It’s interesting to compare the lowest version of the basic body with the highest:

1958 Scotsman:  $1784.


1958 Packard:  $3212.


S-P was the American distributor for Mercedes-Benz motorcars.


The title of this post is “The Last President” because it was.  It was also the last Commander, the last Champion, and the last year for the Packard name on automobiles.  Sadly, despite all the “happy-talk” from the S-P marketing department, Studebaker and Packard sales were well below expectations.  1956 was poor, 1957 was worse, and 1958 was unsustainable.  Only 44,759 Studebakers and 2,622 Packards were made;  this while Chevrolet and Ford each produced about a million cars the same year!

Hey–somebody actually bought one! Boy does that salesman look happy!


Since prospects were typically buying just one car for themselves, they would naturally select what they considered the best car in its price class.  Studebaker was competing with Chevrolet (which was all-new and had a high-quality reputation);  Ford (offering a heavily-revised version of its very successful car of 1957);  and Plymouth (which had excellent riding and handling qualities and many admirers of its Forward Look wonders).   Given the competition, Studebaker seemed not quite up to snuff.  Any unique advantages Studebaker may have had didn’t mean much to most people.  Plus, in 1958 the Horsepower Race was full-on, and all of the Big Three’s low-priced lines now had big, all-new high-compression V-8 engines available with well over 300 cubic inches, while Studebaker’s top V-8 had “only” 289.  Automotive testers found the Studebaker driving experience mediocre compared to the Big Three leaders’.

Here’s what Consumer Reports had to say:

It turns out that Studebaker sold more cheap Scotsmans than expected.  Given that, and the fact that the compact Rambler was booming–this lead to an idea:  Take the basic Studebaker body, chop off the long hood and trunk, and voila–a new compact . . . the Lark!  The scheme worked, and Studebaker sales rebounded for 1959 and ’60 to about 120,000 units per year!  Well, you can’t argue with success, no matter how short lived it was.

While the ’58 Studebakers (and Packards) were finny, jazzy, and sharp, the new Larks were stubby, rounded, and dull.  Quad headlights, considered so necessary in 1958, have been dropped.  And the Larks were not “more car for the money,” but less.  While the 1958 Studebaker price range (sans Scotsman) was about $2189 to $2695, the 1959 Larks ranged from $1925 to $2590–not much different from the full-size cars of ’58 (except for stripped Lark models at the bottom end).

But I suppose a Lark would appeal to someone who didn’t want a “big” car;  maybe someone who lived in a narrow, congested area or only had a small garage or tight parking space to put a car.  Or someone who was really concerned about gas mileage.  Maybe some people thought it was cute/lovable.

S-P made a wise move with the Lark.  Instead of being a little fish in a big pond (competing with the Big Three), be a big fish in a little pond (just competing with Rambler and a few imports).

Even so, I would take a ’58 Studebaker (and yes, even one of those “over-the-top” Packards) over a Lark any day.  I think they’re nice looking cars–well made (better than average repair incidence, according to Consumer Reports);  totally unique, with a lot of ’50s “swoosh”.  The 289 V-8 is supposedly an excellent engine.  The last full-sized Studebaker–I think that’s significant.  But it’s been 7 years now–will I ever see one again?

Actually, as a kid I used to see one (a ’57 model, slightly different) on the 1970s TV show Chico and the Man.  It was owned by Louie the garbageman (Scatman Crothers, at left).  Louie regularly brought the Studebaker in to Ed’s garage for service, but only Louie had the “magic touch” and was able to start it!  (It wouldn’t start for anyone else but Louie.)  Ever have a car like that?