(first posted 5/31/2011) 1949 marked a special time in Studebaker’s history. That was the year that Studebaker Corporation was at its peak in profitability, with a net of over $27 million. The company from South Bend, Indiana would build and sell even more cars the following year, but it would never again make so much money. The company’s history in the 1950s and 60s is a story of desperation and decline. But in the late 1940s, Studebaker seemed to be the independent auto manufacturer with the brightest future.
Fat with profits from wartime production, Studebaker had been first to market with a new postwar design in 1947. The ’47 Studebaker had been a breakthrough design, and makes for an interesting story that is told very well in Richard Langworth’s well-researched book on Studebaker’s postwar years. As Langworth tells it, Studebaker was unique among automakers in that it lacked an in-house styling department. Instead, it relied upon Raymond Loewy’s design firm, which had a studio devoted to Studebaker work at the South Bend headquarters. Loewy’s relationship with Studebaker went back to the 1930s when he had styled the original Studebaker Champion. By the mid 1940s, he employed several talented designers in South Bend, including Virgil Exner, who had been one of his first hires for the Studebaker contract.
About halfway through the design process, engineering chief Roy Cole (who had no use for Loewy) recruited Exner to set up a secret second studio in his home to produce an alternative to the Loewy proposals. There were allegations that Exner received information that Loewy did not have access to, which ended up tilting the tables in Ex’s favor. The consensus is that the back half of the car is mostly Loewy, while the front half was all Exner. Loewy was furious and fired Exner, who went on to create Chrysler’s forward look a decade later.
But still, the car was a stunner when it hit the market in 1947. The 5 passenger Starlight coupe was particularly striking and was unlike anything else on the road at that time. And it was a very good car. Raymond Lowey’s design philosophy had been that weight was the enemy and the car was very light for its size. Tom McCahill gave the car a glowing review in an early road test. It was economical, responsive on the road and well built. Studebaker was on top of the world.
The postwar Studebaker came in 2 models. The 112 inch wheelbase Champion, with its relatively modern 169 cid 6, was an economical car that was still a good performer due to its light weight. The larger Commander was on a 118 inch wb and used a larger 221 cid flathead 6. The Commander engine was an oldie, going back to the early 30s, but was a sturdy engine with lots of torque. Both were mated to 3 speed transmissions with optional overdrive The manuals were also available with Studebaker’s unique Hill Holder. This feature would not release the hydraulic brakes until the clutch pedal was released, easing standing starts in hilly country.
The Commander series was led by the car seen here, the 123 inch wb Land Cruiser. This was Studebaker’s flagship – the Big Dog. It came only as a 4 door sedan, with all of its extra length in the rear doors (the ventpanes in the rear doors are the giveaway.) The Land Cruiser was also one of the first postwar cars to use a one-piece curved windshield, and was very luxuriously appointed.
Although 1949 model production would be down from prior years (118,345 passenger cars), Studebaker’s industry rank (8th, based on calendar year production of 228,402 cars) reached a high in 1949 that were never to be reached again. The 8th place ranking was no small accomplishment given that Studebaker offered a 3 year old design which was, by 1949, the oldest in the industry, and which had to do battle with brand new designs from across the big 3 plus Nash. Even though nearly half of that production figure consisted of 1950 models (likely owing to an early intro for the ’50 models), those were essentially unchanged from this car, save the bold bullet nosed styling and the availability of an automatic transmission. Remember that in addition to the 12 brands of GM Ford and Chrysler, the industry also consisted of Hudson, Nash, Packard, Kaiser, Frazer and Willys-Overland. 8th place had Studebaker solidly in the top half of producers in 1949.
I have always found the 47-49 Studebaker very appealing. The Starlight coupe was a beautiful car, but the Land Cruiser has always been more my flavor. The longer wheelbase makes its proportions the best of the lot. This is a long car – the wheelbase is only an inch shorter than that of a 68 Chrysler. It was, however, somewhat narrow for its size, even in 1949. I would certainly take one of these over the 1949 model of any of the other independents, and of many big 3 models as well. And you could tell people that you drive a Land Cruiser.
I came across this car on a recent trip to South Bend, Studebaker’s former headquarters. Although this car is on a trailer, it is no trailer queen. Instead, it claims to be an honest 38K mile original survivor that is looking for a good home. $3800 will buy this one and a parts car in the same color (but presumably not the trailer, also equipped with Stude hubcaps). Original Studebakers are getting hard to find, even in South Bend. Particularly ones allowed to sit outside on a rainy spring day. This car makes me a little sad. Most of Studebaker’s postwar history is kind of depressing, with an occasional flash of brilliance. Very few remember Studebaker’s glory days, when it could produce a car good enough to stand up against one made anywhere. This is one of the survivors from that bygone era. This makes it count for a CC in my book.
Studebaker was unique in that era in that its special car with a unique name was a long-wheelbase four-door sedan rather than a two-door hardtop or sedan. That particular shade of turquoise is one that I don’t remember seeing on any other car either, but it was pretty popular on Studes.
Our neighbor had a goat-vomit green Champion 2-door sedan that he’d quit driving for some reason; I bought it from him for $25, washed and waxed it, and mounted a Ford starter button in an unused hole in the dash (I didn’t like the starter button under the clutch pedal), drove it a few times, and sold it for $65 or $75 – can’t remember for sure. I don’t think I ever even put gas in it. This was when I was still living at home, in 1960 or 1961.
I also found and bought a 1951 Starlight coupe body-on-frame that had been chopped. The guy left the angle of the A-pillars the same and simply cut off the top of the windshield. The vent windows were frameless so he just cut the top of those too, and moved the B-pillars forward, so the door glass didn’t even need to be cut, just not rolled up all the way. His project foundered when he couldn’t figure out what to do about the wraparound rear window. I ended up never doing anything with it either, as senior year in college for a chemistry major became more time- and energy-consuming than I had expected.
Great article, J.P. Do you do this for a living? Maybe you should.
You are very kind Karl, but I have a day job as a lawyer. With one kid in college and two more coming up behind him, my personal break-even point is a little high to think about making a living writing about old cars, much as I enjoy it.
At 38k thats a near new car
Weelll, maybe. I can’t help but remember when a co-worker heard about a 23,000-mile 1940 Buick sedan. It turned out that the car lived up five miles of first-gear road from the highway, and had sat in the yard with all the windows shut tight in the western Washington mountain climate for five years. Low mileage or not, it was a goner. That 1949 Land Cruiser looks to me like its owner more than once had trouble finding the garage door, and it has the typical rust starting in a couple of places too. I’d want it to be in pretty decent mechanical condition and without interior water damage before I’d think about it…but I’m getting older and lazier, ymmv.
A few dents and a bit of rust dont matter hell it aint been far enough even in low gear to wear out the power train and suspension would still be good body work is easy to repair but yeah I cant do upholstery so that would need to be intact but still an easy car to revive
I saw lots of these in the St. Louis area when growing up – and they seemed to rapidly disappear, too.
Question: on the Champion coupe, I am assuming the back side window behind that massive B-pillar did open/roll down? In the days before A/C, that would’ve been very necessary.
Actually, I believe that those windows were fixed. You raise an interesting point that I had never thought of. One more reason to go with the Land Cruiser, wouldn’t you say?
Absolutely. And that’s the sole reason I will not buy a coupe nowadays, at least until they place a rear side window switch or crank in my warm, live hands!
nah. you want the style over 4-dr stodge. you want air? get the convertible.
Surprisingly, a lot of automakers who had in-house styling studios turned to outside design firms, particularly before WW2. In particular, both Ford and Chrysler relied a lot on Briggs (which had absorbed LeBaron in 1927, and had a lot of in-house stylists). Briggs designers did the ’35 and ’36 Fords (attributed to Phil Wright and Bob Koto, respectively) and the ’35 Chrysler Airstreams (also Phil Wright), and the Lincoln Zephyr originated as a Briggs project to court more Ford business. Even after the war, it wasn’t uncommon to turn to out-of-house teams. George Walker, Joe Oros, and Elwood Engel were technically consultants to Ford until 1955, and of course Nash commissioned Pinin Farina in the early fifties.
There were soooooo many pop culture jokes about the late-forties Studebakers. My favorite is a Jack Benny parody of the Bogart film Dark Passage, in which plastic surgeon Frank Nelson suggests that to change Jack’s appearance, he could put his glasses on the back of his head and make him look like a Studebaker.
In 1957 my dad managed to pick up a 46 stude. I think it was a champion. Endured a lot of ridicule while driving that sick turkey. It endures in my memory now because most people never had a studebaker, let alone as a first car. Sick as mine may have been, there was an old guy drag racing one of these that he had engineered a twin turbo on the OHV V8. I think it was a 51. I was real happy when we scraped the money together to get a 46 chevy. It lasted longer than it had a right to.
If you think these are nice, you’ll LOVE the 1953 Starlight Coupe.
I had a 1949 Studebaker Champion in the 50’s, and I believe it had a crank in the trunk, to start the car. Anyone remember the crank?
People remember different things but I had a 46 and do not remember any setup for hand cranking the engine. I know that I didn’t have a crank.
I owned a 1949 Studebaker Champion too but I sure do not remember a crank for that car. It had a starter under the clutch. I can remember a crank for a Model A Ford only.
I’m shocked. I was just surfing the web, and came across this article about this Studebaker, the same exact Studebaker that i just bought. I already have it running after two days of working on it.
It is a real beauty.
I am jealous – I was really aching to go look at it, but with two kids in college at the moment, there is no budget for it. I first saw the car on a trailer in South Bend (the piece you read), then just recently on CL and did a followup here: https://www.curbsideclassic.com/blog/cc-follow-up-1949-studebaker-land-cruiser-going-my-way/.
Good Luck with it. If you ever get it to a point where you would consider showing it off, I would love to do a more detailed piece on the car. Either way, you have yourself a really great car there. Good Luck!
Congrats on the fine purchase!
If you’re not already a member, don’t forget to join the national Studebaker Driver’s Club and the local Michiana Chapter! You’ll need the advice and resources
(Along with Studebaker International, right there in the old truck plant So. Bend).
Our family drove a 1949 Landcruiser to California from Minnesota. What a great car. It had over-drive and got about 25 plus miles per gallon if I remember right. This was in 1953. There was plenty of room for 4 adults and 1 small child plus all of our luggage.
Sounds like all the car most people could possibly want.
A fine piece on a fine, but mostly forgotten car. My uncle had a ’47 Champion that he drove until 1963, when he traded it in on a new Rambler Classic. I always thought it was a wierd looking car, but he drove it 16 years without much trouble. The starter under the clutch pedal was one of its little quirks, along with air vents that popped out of the front fenders.
1949 may have been the peak for the independents, as they still had enough leftover war profits to produce modern, desirable cars that could compete head to head with the big three. Sadly, by 1954 or so funds for new models became scarce and price wars between Chevy and Ford made these expensive in comparison. This, and a large dose of mismanagement, basically put put the kibosh on the independents.
Oh what might have been if George Mason’s vision of transforming the industry into a big four, with the addition of his new American Motors of Stude, Nash, Hudson and Packard, had ever come to fruition. But Mason died and his dream vanished. Too bad. Some interesting cars vanished as well.
The starter under the clutch pedal was one of its little quirks,
Actually, that’s a good idea. Prevents the engine being started in gear. Now manual shift cars have a government required “safety feature” that prevents the starter running unless the clutch is pressed.
…along with air vents that popped out of the front fenders.
My folk’s 56 had those vents. The passenger side one was also the air intake for the defroster and heater, so it had to be kept open in the winter. There was an inner door you could close so the winter blast didn’t hit the passenger’s feet. The driver’s side was just a fresh air vent for the footwell. The lever that operated it was spring loaded so it would snap open or closed firmly. Every once in a while, the gas station attendant would lean against that door when he was cleaning the windshield and the door would snap shut like a mousetrap.
what’s a gas station attendant?
Come to Oregon. You’re not allowed to pump your own fuel there. I prefer to do it myself, so I always get gas in Vancouver unless it’s so low I won’t be able to get home.
” what’s a gas station attendant? ”
More or less a dinosaur these days , it’s where many of us older Gearheads began , filling the tank with Ethyl , washing the windows , checking under the hood and so on , all for .27 Cents the gallon .
New Jersey too.
“…filling the tank with Ethyl ”
Poor Ethyl! Why doesn’t she ride inside with the rest of the folks? 😉
Ethyl is just that kind of girl!
When I was in the Army National Guard back in the eighties our quarter-ton utility trucks (the M151 pseudo-jeep) had the starter under the clutch pedal. I can remember when cars could be started in gear, from personal experience. When I was 6 or 7 I was playing around in my father’s 1950 Ford and didn’t realize the starter button was “live” all the time. I pushed the button, the car jumped forward (it was in low) and we almost knocked down the back wall of the garage. Fortunately no damage to the car or the garage.
What irks me about Studebaker is how they ran down market.
In the 20s and 30s, they produced a solid mid to upper market product
After the war, they lead with the Champion. All their models had the same styling. Commander and Land Cruiser were little more than stretched Champions with engine and trim upgrades. In 51-52 and 56 on, they didn’t even bother with the stretch. My parent’s 56 Commander was nothing but a Champion with the 259 V8, for a $112 premium over a Champ. Dad hated that car, commented that it “drove like a truck”.
So, they threw away their premium reputation and tried to compete with Ford and Chevy, with a tenth the volume, higher pay rates, because management would always cave rather than take a strike, and an ancient, inefficient factory complex. Many of the buildings in use until 63 dated from their horse and buggy days before 1900. The stamping plant was next door to the final assembly line, but the stampings had to go to the body plant two blocks north for assembly, then the bodies hauled back down those two blocks to final assembly.
The company had fallen a long way from when Erskine committed suicide when they went bankrupt in 33, to the lying weasles that conned Packard into buying the wreck.
Pic: view of South Bend complex from the west. long multistory buildings at right center are final assembly and shipping. Stamping plants are just to the west of assembly, nearer the camera. The body plant is the tall building at left center.
I went to the Stude museum in the 80’s when it was in one of the remaining buildings before they moved to downtown South Bend. The building was somewhat rough, practically had pigeons flying around. I seem to recall fearing for the preservation of some of the cars there but the new museum is great.
Problem was that their big President models were dying before the war as well. The Champion was considered to be the car that saved the company and kept it around long enough to start getting those war contracts. The Champion is usually forgotten in the discussion of postwar compacts, but in my estimation was a major factor of the failure of those cars. The little Champion was was a very economical small-ish car for a reasonable price.
The standard rap on the independents was that they didn’t have a modern V8 engine. Studebaker was right there with Chrysler with a new V8 in 1951. They did much of the engineering work (with Borg Warner) on the DG automatic transmission that was their proprietary design. They engineered a mechanical power steering system . 8th place in sales in 1949 had them ahead of about 1/3 of the brands from the Big 3, and every one of the other independents.
Which other independent had 2 brand new cars out (its second and third new postwar model) in 1953? It is also not often understood that the 1953 line was not one but two almost completely independent models – the Loewy coupe was a completely different body from the standard models. This shows what a big flop the standard 53 models were. In addition to the things you point out, sales tanked almost immediately and even with modern powertrains, things started to unravel quickly.
The Champion was considered to be the car that saved the company
Studebaker went downmarket during the depression, just as Lincoln, Chrysler, Cadillac and Packard all had cheap models. The Champion, introduced in 39, was what finally pulled the company out of bankruptcy, where it had operated since 33.
By the 40s, the other premium brands were getting rid of the cheap models. LaSalle and Zephyr gone before WWII. DeSoto killed in 60. Packard was trying to spin off Clipper as a seperate brand when it died in 56.
A downmarket product from a premium brand was the right move in the 30s, but not in the prosperity of the 50s.
The little Champion was was a very economical small-ish car for a reasonable price.
By the mid 50s, the Champion was not a small-ish car. It rode on a 116″ wheelbase, the same neighborhood as the Ford and Chevy. Where the Champ was shortchanged was under the hood. The 1939 85hp engine could not move that large a car at reasonable speed. Around 55 or 56 the Commander was outselling the Champ, being the same size but with the V8.
Studebaker was right there with Chrysler with a new V8 in 1951.
One wonders, considering how lame the Champion 6 was, if Studebaker would have been better off just dumping it and advertising their cars as “the only low priced cars with a standard OHV V8”
They engineered a mechanical power steering system .
Which was a failure and pulled from production at the last moment due to it’s excessive noise.
This shows what a big flop the standard 53 models were.
Without the exterior styling, the Starliner would have been a flop as it was apparently pretty miserable to drive. Road tests in 53 heavily criticized it for poor ergonomics (look at how low the speedo and other insturments were mounted) poor handling, noise and shoddy build quality. My folks’ 56 had the ergonomic problems solved, but still didn’t drive well.
This is our 56 at it’s end of life. The only thing that still worked was the 259
“the Loewy coupe was a completely different body from the standard models. This shows what a big flop the standard 53 models were”.
Weren’t the chassis and powertrain essentially carried over from the 1947 models?
Leave it to Studebaker to design a 2-door coupe that was on a longer wheelbase than the bread-and-butter 4-door sedan, with the latter having scrunched-up styling in the rear that only helped to emphasize the disparity.
This looks to be the present day site of the old Stude factory in South Bend. The streets seem to have been changed, but that big building remains.
Regarding starting in gear:
My 1996 Cherokee would let yo start in gear, so eithrr it’s a more recent role, or light trucks were exempt. I recall someone telling me that it was a feature for off road, so when rock crawling you could start it in gear so it didn’t roll backwards. Never tried it but it sounds plausible.
My mother started our 67 Saab wagon in gear in the garage exactly once. Luckily minimal damage.
My 1996 Cherokee would let yo start in gear, so eithrr it’s a more recent role, or light trucks were exempt.
My 85 Mazda did not require the clutch being depressed. In the late 90s I had it in a quick oil change place. When the attendant asked me to start the engine so they could check for leaks, he was surprised that it started without pressing the clutch as his car had the safety feature.
My 98 Civic had the safety feature as well.
Actually, it’s pretty routine to depress the clutch at start, so the starter doesn’t have the drag of the trans when it’s turning the engine.
Its an anti moron feature for people used to automatic trans that have had inhibitor switches since for ever, always put the trans in neutral to start or depress the clutch.
Studebaker put their starter under the clutch long before anyone had ever even heard of an automatic transmission. It was what was then a ‘fancy
technology’ move, circa 1936.
My 86 Jetta and my niece’s 89 Jetta have no clutch safety switch. Her replacement 96 Tercel had one, but it failed and was bypassed when I found out a replacement is fifty dollars. I gave her the option to replace, she never started the 89 in gear so decided to go for the free fix. Mom had a 47 to 49 Champion before I was born, she always said it was the best car she ever owned, and loved the hill holding feature. I never heard her mention the clutch pedal start switch, a feature ahead of it’s time and a good idea. Many cars at that time had a floor switch for the starter that would work without the key and if the car was in gear. A really unsafe design. She had the overdrive transmission, and often wondered why cars stopped coming with that option, at least most Amercian cars.
Not sure what this tells us about when or why but my 95 4Runner has a clutch bypass button on the dash. And yes, it does have to do with being able to start in gear in some off road situations. Don’t remember if I read that in the manual or some blog.
I am no off-roader, but I recall reading that it can be useful to bump a vehicle along with the starter when you need to do some precision moving of the car.
The bright past…
First saw one walking to school with my Dad asked what sort of car is that he of course knew and gave me a rundown on it, Ive never forgotten the blue Stude with the primer patches and howling diff same colour as this one originally, and I later figured out the reason my Dad knew about its axle maladies he had prepared the account for the owner on cost of repairs, the car actually belonged to a classmates Dad and he later told us they were getting a new used Vauxhall the Stude went for wrecking.
Here’s a road test of a 1939 Studebaker Commander from a December 1938 issue of Autocar (UK). Seems to have been available in a RHD version, and made a good impression.
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Thanks for this. I always enjoy reading vintage road tests. I keep forgetting that those late 30s Studes used an independent front suspension that made use of a transverse leaf spring.
this is was my father’s studebaker. he shot this in about 1954 with his argoflex. i believe it’s a ’52 champion coupe but i’m no expert. it was before my time but i do remember him talking fondly of that car.
here’s the car:
That would be a 1951. The 52 was similar, but lost the bullet nose in favor of a more conventional look.
I love these history lessons about cars I know little about. As always a good read JPC, thanks.
” I’d rather fix than switch ! ” .
” Ask the Man who owns one ! ” .
Sales slogans .
Safe as milk; that’s a ’51.
“Fat with profits from wartime production”. Studebaker made copies of the wright R-1820 Cyclone radial for the B-17 to meet wartime demand. The earlyy ones had the reputation of being far less reliable than the Wrights. Captain Robert Morgan of the Memphis Belle told his crew chief to never put them on his plane.
here’s a discussion ar alt.autos.studebaker:
NOT A ’49 BUT A ’52
An original Kodachrome slide I own photographed during practice/qualifying for the ’52 500. I love the composition of this photo taken from the grandstand looking down at the entrance to Gasoline Alley. Studebaker was the Pace Car that year.
Fabulous picture – there were some shots online of the Maui Blue convertible pace car, but when I was going through pace cars in my series on them, I never saw any shots of any other official cars. This Land Cruiser in the same color as the Pace Car is way, way cool!
As a young teen, I made a desk lamp using the chromed deck lid trim that holds the lock cylinder and licence plate light, and included the debossed ‘STUDEBAKER’ lettering. Exactly, as the one shown in the lead pic. The sheer weight, and robust build quality of that trim piece impressed me then. It seemed so outrageously overbuilt by modern standards.
I used to frequent South Bend for work trips, and did take in the Studebaker Museum there. This is a nice example of a great survivor – from 1949! Glad to see someone picked it up.
I posted the present day site of the Stude factory above, below AMC Steve’s post.
Heard of it from a few articles and now it’s on my bucket list.
Did your trips coincide with the era of the A-level Midwest League South Bend team being called the Silver Hawks?
No, never came across that one. However Silver Hawks may have been a better name to choose for the Seattle NHL team, than what they picked.
That big building in the picture has been redeveloped for use as a modern business facility. Thought it took well over 50 years, it is nice to see a good re-use of part of the site.
Besides the Studebaker museum, it’s also worthwhile to have a meal at the nearby Studebaker mansion, aka Tippecanoe Place.
In fact, besides South Bend, a very nice trip for any historical auto enthusiast would be to also visit the Fort Wayne area and see the Auburn-Cord-Dusenberg museum.
Is the Renaissance District the same as what they were calling Ignition Park a few years ago? Also built on an old Studebaker plant.
I thought 1950 bullet nose or ‘zee airplane’ was Studebaker’s high water mark with 320,884 sold.
My dad’s first new car was a ‘49 Land Cruiser – it’s pretty amazing considering he was only 19 or 20 when he purchased it. Never very brand loyal my dad never went back to Studebaker. He would usually buy an end of season special or a car that was a couple years old. He had stovebox 6 Chevy, ‘59 Plymouth, many Fords, ‘65 Buick V6 Special, AMC Hornet, VW Rabbit, ‘77 Olds Delta 88, ‘84 Pontiac Parisienne, and after several Windstars his last car was a Honda Odyssey (@90 he no longer drives). He also received a new Buick LeSabre every other year from ‘60-‘70, a ‘70 Ford Econoline & ‘71 Country Squire as company cars.
Was going to say the same – 1950 is sales peak according to most figures I’ve seen. Maybe they should have stuck with the bullet nose…
The Y-Body, Studebaker’s designation for their longer-wheelbase top-line sedan, essentially a lengthened standard-wheelbase W-body, persisted from 1947 through 1966. Through the 1958 model year, it provided Studebaker customers with something no other car in its price class did: the choice of a model with additional rear seat legroom. It proved to be very popular, accounting for 10% of annual sales throughout its run.
Conceptually, it was configured similar to the 1942-’47 Cadillac 60 Specials over the Series 62 wherein the additional length was added to the passenger compartment through unique doors, roof and floor stamping on the longer frame. Both the 60 Special and Land Cruiser fulfilled similar roles for their respective makers.
The long wheelbase role briefly decreased, then increased during the Lark era. For ’59-’60 the LWB sedan was only offered on the special taxi model, basically a low-end Lark with an extra four inches of wheelbase in the rear seat area. For ’61, a consumer long wheelbase sedan reappeared in its usual role as a top of the line sedan. It’s popularity convinced Stude to build all ’62 four door sedans with a long wheelbase. The LWB was further expanded for ’63 – not only did four door sedans all get it (blessed with mostly-new Brooks Stevens styling, but all wagons did too for the first time, with or without the optional third row seating, and with or without the retractable rear top. So from ’63-66, all four door sedans or wagons were LWB, all two-doors (coupe, hardtop, convertible) were short wheelbase.