Curbside Classic: 1941 Studebaker President Skyway Cruising Sedan – The Ex President

Could the 1941 Studebaker President be the most obscure car from the late pre-war years?  It could very well be, which is a shame.  While “Every Car Has A Story”, this one tells several.  And they are all good.  So those of you who often tune out the pre-war stuff, stick around because I think you will like this one.

If there is a car from the years leading up to WWII that is more obscure than the 1941-42 “big Studebaker” I would like to know what it is.  Automotive history has many oft-told stories that most of us can recite by heart.  From Henry Ford and his monoblock V8 to the thrilling Chrysler Forward Look of 1957 (and GM’s panicked reaction to it for 1959) there are great tales to tell.  It could be argued that the Studebaker Corporation provides more than its fair share of those familiar yarns.  Which could be this car’s biggest problem.

Most older readers knows that the 1939 Studebaker Champion burst onto the scene to create an alternative to the “low priced three” – and that may have saved the company in the process.  And then there is the famous story about the company being “First by far with a postwar car” with the groundbreaking 1947 line that put Virgil Exner on the map (and off of Raymond Loewy’s payroll).

This car, however, slots right smack between those chapters and has been overlooked as a result.  We here at CC have a dwindling list of cars that have not received their fifteen minutes (or more) of fame and the Studebaker President from before WWII is one of them.

In 1927 the line-leading Studebaker Big Six (as in 354 cubic inches big) split itself into Commander and President trims.  The next year the Big Six morphed into the Commander while a new President 8 was king of the hill.

The Studebaker 8 was a marvelous engine.  Aficionados of pre-war engineering are well familiar with Delmar G. (Barney) Roos.  We wrote a bit about him from later in his career when he changed the fragile Willys Whippet four cylinder engine into the famous Go Devil four that powered so many Jeeps in inhospitable climes around the world from 1942 and beyond.

In the 20’s, however, Roos had become Chief Engineer of Studebaker following stints at Locomobile, Marmon and Pierce Arrow.  He would hold that role from 1926 until he left in 1936.  His President 8 was an inline design initially displacing 312.5 cubic inches (5.1 L), enlarged to 337 cid (5.5 L) in 1929.  A 1931 redesign made a jump from five to nine main bearings – something few straight eights other than Packard employed.  Even the great Dusenberg 8 employed only five main bearings to support its long and heavy crankshaft.

The President of that time was a first-rate automobile that could stand toe to toe with anything in its general price range.  And it was expensive, priced about ten percent above Buick’s flagship 90 series cars.

This big straight 8 powered Studebaker’s five-car Indianapolis 500 racing teams in 1932 and 33.  In that 1933 race half of the fourteen cars to finish the five hundred mile race were Studebaker-powered, a record that still stands.

Sadly, the automotive President died not long after actual company President Albert Erskine, who committed suicide as the company slid deeper into the red.  As the company entered receivership (the state law equivalent of a bankruptcy reorganization) the 1934 President got a demotion when it took on the smaller 250 cid (4.1 L) eight that Roos had designed for the 1929 Commander series.  Also a nine main bearing design, it was still a good, if less powerful, engine in a car that was now priced (and powered) roughly in line with the mid-level Buick 50 series).

In one final parting gift before Roos left Studebaker’s employ  (OK, other than the design of the little Champion six that would power cars until the bitter end) he designed the unique-to-Studebaker “Planar” semi-independent front suspension that combined a transverse leaf spring which served as each wheel’s lower mounting point with an A arm and shock absorber which located the upper suspension to the frame.  This arrangement survived on Studebakers through 1949 and on two wheel drive Willys Jeeps through 1955.

The next big story involves two of the most famous automotive stylists out there – Raymond Loewy and Virgil Exner.  Upon its successful exit from receivership in 1935, Studebaker was ready with a new 1936 line which included the low-ish priced Dictator, the mid-range Commander and the flagship President.  Industrial designer Helen Dryden is credited with the 1936 Studebaker, she being one of the very first women in that male-dominated field.  That same year Studebaker hired a bigger name in Raymond Loewy & Associates, which got the contract to do Studebaker’s styling work beginning with the 1938 cars.  Loewy then hired Dryden to do interiors and shortly thereafter lured a young Virgil Exner away from his promising start as chief stylist for Pontiac.

It is well known (at least among automotive history nerds) that Raymond Loewy did not draw cars.  As the “Big Name” stylist, he signed off on designs of those under his supervision and, and as the guy who cashed the checks from Studebaker, got the public credit.  But from 1938 on it was Virgil Exner who had day-to-day control of Studebaker styling, allowing him input late in the process for the 1939 Champion and more for the 1940 updates to both lines.

About those lines – it is not well-enough appreciated that the Champion shared virtually nothing with the much larger Commander and President.  Although, from the time of its mid-year 1939 introduction Loewy and Exner tried to maintain a family resemblance.  A more modern analogue would be Nash after the war when it built Ramblers in addition to the big Nash.  The difference was that the Champion even got its own engine.

And now we get to the new 1941 big cars.  Although there are some who have suggested that the 1941 program was a facelift of the 1938-40 cars, this is simply wrong – only the Champion was an update on a prior model.  The 1941 Studebaker Commander and President were all new bodies on mostly carry-over mechanical components (as was common for the era).  As such, these cars would be the first clean-sheet design opportunity for Virgil Exner at Studebaker.

Virgil Exner Jr. was interviewed at length in a 1989 session for the Automotive Design Oral History Project through The Henry Ford.  This is a very interesting read (and is found here) which confirms that the ’41 President and Commander were primarily Exner designs.  Exner even owned a ’41 President as his personal car, which Virgil Jr. remembered very fondly.

The Commander and President were very similar.  The differences were the lower priced Commander’s 119 inch wheelbase, which was significantly shorter than the President’s 124.5 inch span.  Also the Commander used a 224 cid (3.7 L) flathead six that dated back to Studebaker’s 1932 Rockne.  This is the mill that would see duty through 1950 in the longer wheelbase cars and through 1960 in trucks.  The President continued to use the Roos-designed 250 cid eight, which by 1941 was good for 117 bhp at a fairly lofty 4,000 rpm.  The President also offered a higher level of trim for its $130 price premium over the $985 Commander.

In a unique move, the new 1941 big Stude was offered in a truncated model lineup that was made solely of two distinct four door sedans.  There was the six window/suicide door Cruising Sedan . . .

and the four window Land Cruiser which featured front-hinged doors . . .

. . . unlike in this early brochure illustration that got the back doors wrong.  Each sedan style came in “Custom” ($1,115 for the President) and “DeLux-Tone” ($1,180) trim.

The styling of the Land Cruiser sedans bore an unmistakable resemblance to more expensive cars.  It was either a sleeker version of a Cadillac Sixty Special or a more formal rendition of the Packard Clipper.

There would be no two door sedan, no convertible and no station wagon.   And there was no coupe until midway through the model year when the “Sedan Coupe” joined the lineups.  The latter is interesting for sporting the first curved one-piece windshield in a U.S. volume production car.

The DeLux-Tone was notable for its unusual two-tone paint treatments that featured a second color for the roof and in a prominent side stripe that augmented the relatively thin-pillared greenhouse.  The stripe was supposed to suggest motion, but you can be the judge of that.  Exner Jr. recalled that both his father’s and Raymond Loewy’s personal Presidents were painted in a Tulip Cream and deep green two-tone.  He did not say which sedans they drove, but one would suspect the Land Cruiser, being the more expensive and stylish of the two.

It is possible that the DeLux-Tone was a little “out front” in its styling because in the middle of the 1941 model year Studebaker added the new Skyway series as the high-end trim on both sedan styles.  The Skyway series perfected the 1941 Studes (at least in your correspondent’s humble opinion) by ditching the contrasting color stripe and by adding fender skirts and rocker trim, along with the large fender-top signal lamps.  It is probably no coincidence that most of these changes echoed focal points of the stylish Lincoln Continental.  The ad above depicts the Skyway Land Cruiser while our feature car is the Skyway Cruising Sedan.

And about those Lincoln Continental influences.  Loewy was known to be a fan of the Continental, as he owned one himself that had been heavily customized, notably with the ’41 Studebakerish low and wide grille.  Could the Skyway have been Loewey’s attempt to tone down the original Exner concept for the car?  This would be a fascinating dive into history to know which stylist was responsible for which bits of these cars’ looks.  We know that Loewy retained ultimate control but we also know that Exner did most of the actual styling.

The grille design is particularly interesting.  Beginning with the 1938 Lincoln Zephyr, the styling trend was to move the grille lower and wider, away from the traditional upright shape of a radiator.  The ’41 Studebaker seems to have taken this trend as far as it would go.  Designs like the 1942 Cadillac (amd ’42 Stude, for that matter) would begin to move grilles upwards again as the sleek prow began to disappear in favor of a more blunt front end look.

One issue which the Skyway model did not address is the highly unique contour of the rear fender.  This is the feature that carries the burden of proof as to Exner’s hands on this design.  Virgil Exner became well known for his love of the classic wheel shape and this fender bulge follows the rear wheel’s contour.  Personally, it is my least favorite part of the design in that it visually shortens the car and detracts from the otherwise graceful shape.

Pardon my poor photo editing skills, but isn’t this better?  Then again, perhaps my opinion is influenced by being steeped in Harley Earl’s and E. T. “Bob” Gregorie’s concepts of what a 1941 car should look like.

Something else to note is that the styling of the six window Cruising Sedan with its relatively upright roof and its abbreviated deck followed the general shape of the ’39 Champion sedan more than a little.  This would have made the small inexpensive car the style trend setter of the lineup.  In this as in all things, Exner, Loewy and Studebaker marched to their own drummer(s) even then.

One note about this interior – is this not the most fabulous pre-war steering wheel you have ever seen?

Here is a better view.  Studebaker was nothing if not stylish in 1941.

This ’41 President Skyway Cruising Sedan is a rare car with only 6,994 Presidents of all styles having found owners in 1941.  I have not been able to locate a source that breaks out production by body style, but this $1,230 Cruising Sedan was the second-most- expensive Stude in the catalog that year, running only $30 behind the four window Land Cruiser version of the same President Skyway series.

The slightly cheaper six cylinder Commanders sold considerably better, at 41,996 units.  The little Champion, which started at just $660, was good for 84,910 cars, for total Studebaker production of 133,900, not counting trucks.  These may sound like low numbers but they were better than the independent competition.  Hudson moved 91,769 units (seven series’ and three wheelbases), and Nash was good for 80,408 (including the new economical 600 series).  Among independents only Packard’s volume models did slightly better, with around 53,000 units spread between the six cylinder 110 and eight cylinder 120, both of which were price competitive with the Commander and President.  Even with the prestige of the grand old Packard name that company outsold the big Studes by only about four thousand units.  Would the South Benders have sold better with a more conventional looking rear fender?  We will never know.

The eight cylinder 1941 President (with overdrive, no doubt) won its class in the Gilmore Economy Run, boasting of a 22+ mile-per-gallon trip from Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon.  And beyond being thrifty they were stylish enough to appeal to celebrities of the era, such as golfer Byron Nelson.

I have been trying to think of another brand-new 1941 design that had a shorter lifespan than this Studebaker.   After a total run of one and a third-ish model years (1942 vehicle production ran about five months) the President died.  Where every other relatively modern body came back for a postwar encore, the big Studebaker was toast.  Only Champions would find their way into dealerships in 1946.

At first blush, it is tempting to chalk this up as one of Studebaker’s unending series of management blunders.  After all, the postwar seller’s market would have guaranteed that the company could move every highly profitable President it could push out the doors.  Instead, Studebaker offered only the inexpensive Skyway Champion on its diminutive 112 inch wheelbase as the only 1941-42 car to make it back from the war.

Even considering that the new postwar design would not include an eight cylinder President, it is hard to imagine why the six cylinder Commander could not have been the car to carry Studebaker’s flag until the new cars came several months later.  But neither the Commander nor the President would see a return engagement.

The President name would return in 1955 for a final run at the top of the brand’s hierarchy (for a four year term, oddly enough) but that car would be a pale imitation of the last “real” President seen here.

Some U.S. Presidents had consequential terms and jump to the front of the line whenever history is the topic.  Others  have been largely forgotten.  Studebaker Presidents have had similar fates.  There are the pre-’34 cars that have become revered full classics and even the late ’50s models that are remembered if only because they served as raw materials for the final Packards.

The 1941 (and ’42) Studebaker Presidents were both excellent and fascinating cars, not least because they display some of Virgil Exner’s earliest work. But beyond that they offer a rare bit of variety from the prevailing styles and a package that combined good looks and high quality.  This is one President that everyone ought to be able to support.

Special thanks to Paul Niedermeyer for sharing these photos, which he took in San Mateo, California a number of years ago. I had been wanting to write about one of these but had not found an appropriate car to photograph.

Further Reading:

1938 Studebaker Commander Convertible Sedan (John875)

A Trip Through The Studebaker Museum – Part 1, Pre War (Jim Grey)