Curbside Classic: 1949 Studebaker Land Cruiser – On Top Of The World

(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.