Curbside Classic: 1950 Studebaker Champion – The Bullet Nose Hits The Bullseye

The 1950 Studebaker is proof that polarization works. From the day it arrived, folks immediately either hated it or loved it . Not surprisingly, traditionalists, conservatives and older folks were strongly in the first camp and those that loved change, new things and were younger were in the second camp. One might assume that polarization would cut one’s sales potential in half, but it doesn’t actually work that way. In Studebaker’s case — a fairly marginal player in the market — all they needed was for 5% of the market to go gaga over this wild new nose that had been grafted on the old body dating back to 1947.

And they did just that: 1950 MY Studebaker sales exploded, up 160% over 1949, to 343k units. That would stand as the all-time high for the former wagon maker from South Bend, Indiana. It was a welcome vindication for Raymond Loewy’s design group which had envisioned and proposed a deeply-sculpted bullet-nose front end for the 1947 model before that was snatched away by a more conservative Virgil Exner.

The 1947 Studebaker was a groundbreaking design, especially the Starlight coupe with its wrap-around rear window. It was one of the first all-new postwar designs along with the 1946 Kaiser and Frazer, and its relatively narrow body, light weight and overall styling theme were driven by Raymond Loewy, who had a design contract with Studebaker since 1936.

The origins of the 1947 Studebaker go back to the 1942-1943 period when Loewy and Associates was contracted to do advance design work towards a new post-war car. Undoubtedly there were many renderings and models, but this quarter-scale model by Gordon Buehrig shows considerable influence on the final design. The fastback was a hot item at the time, as the streamliner era was still going strong, but it was eventually dropped.

The story of how the final design for the 1947 Studebaker came to be has been told many times, although inevitably there seem to be different details depending on whose version one reads. It’s a contentious and complicated story, and I wasn’t there, but here’s the version we’ll go with today: In essence, credit for the ’47 Studebaker’s styling was hijacked from Loewy at the last minute by an alternate design from soon-to-be ex-Loewy stylist Virgil Exner. Engineering V.P. Roy Cole, who wasn’t a Loewy fan, enabled Exner by setting him to up in his basement to come up with an alternative final design. Through some back-door machinations that essentially fixed the competition, Exner’s proposal was the accepted one, but in reality it differed very little from the one that had already been largely developed by Loewy (above) except for the front end.

Exner, who was ambitious and had a very healthy ego, clashed and broke with Loewy because he felt he was not getting enough recognition. The other issue was stylistic: Exner favored more traditional and flamboyant design (he later became the father of the whole neo-classic movement).

Once Exner (on left, with Luigi Segre, Ghia’s chief designer) moved on to Chrysler and discovered the classic center rounded grilles and other design themes that were already popular in Italy at the time — thanks to his highly fruitful relationship with Ghia — he would revert to them repeatedly. Hey, that’s practically a bullet-nose!

Meanwhile, Loewy favored more avant-garde design,  willing to push the limits of what was going to be accepted in the market. That explains why Loewy’s designs tended to be polarizing, including the Avanti.

1962 Chrysler proposal

Of course Exner eventually went down that road too in the late fifties, as he became somewhat desperate to conceive a new design language to stay ahead of the competition after his ’57 Chrysler theme was getting stale. That resulted in the polarizing 1960 Valiant and 1962 Plymouth and Dodge ; that didn’t work out so well. A polarizing design can work for a marginal player — for a while — but not so much for a mainstream one. The Chrysler Airflow and 1996 Taurus are some other examples of that.

When Exner styled the front end of the 1947 Studebaker, he gave it a high and blunt nose; they had some flamboyant elements but rather lacked any truly coherent stylistic theme or inspiration, at least to my eyes. The Champion’s front end is the worse of the two: it looks like a melange of disparate elements, and not in an inspired arrangement. The details of the grille were supposedly the work of Vince Gardner.

The Commander’s front end, whose grille Exner did himself (according to Bob Bourke), is a bit cleaner and the grille openings are a bit more modern and understated, but the bumper is heavy and looks it’s mounted a bit too high, probably as dictated by Engineering V.P. Roy Cole. These front ends do not do justice to the rest of the ’47 Studebaker’s bold, clean, sleek and very modern body.

Unfortunately there are no existing pictures of the front end of Loewy’s final design proposal for the ’47, but there is general consensus that it was rounder, sleeker and bolder than Exner’s, and there’s considerable evidence to suggest that it had a bullet nose (or “spinner nose” as Bob Bourke, who was its champion, called it), or something close to that.  This rendering by Loewy’s group (most likely by Bourke) from 1945 clearly shows the bullet nose, in a form that is essentially identical to the 1950 version.

Early work on the 1950 restyle — by the Loewy team headed by Bob Bourke — assumed that the body would be totally new. Not surprisingly, that wasn’t in the cards for Studebaker even after three years, the common lifespan of most Big Three bodies.  The ’47-’48 cars had been fairly successful by Studebaker standards, and although profits were relatively good, there were dividends to pay and there wasn’t enough left over to justify a completely new body.

In retrospect, if it had been known that the old body was to have soldiered on past 1949, it would have made more sense to do the bullet nose for 1949, as that was the year the big Three unleashed their all-new postwar cars. That probably dented Studebaker sales some in ’49, despite the post war market frenzy.

For a while there at least hope that the existing body would have its high cowl lowered, as the Loewy bullet nose was really designed for a lower hood. But in the end, that hope evaporated too; even a contoured bumper to properly relate to the contours of the bullet nose turned out to be too expensive.


That explains the rather contrived bumper sticking out on two support tubes, not unlike the solution Dick Teague would use on the Pacer and Matador coupe twenty years later.

Exner was still at Studebaker during the development of the ’50 models, and he again submitted an alternative front end. No pictures exist; not surprisingly, according to those that saw it, it too was more conventional and blunt. But now Exner did not have the benefit of an unfair advantage; the famous Studebaker bullet nose would not have existed if Exner had unfairly won out again.


That’s not something I want to contemplate. These bullet nose Studes have been some of my favorite cars since I discovered them as a kid, even if they were ten years old by then. Or did I see one on the streets of Innsbruck in the 1950’s? Quite possibly so, which might explain my intense fascination with them.

Of course it really needs a proper spinner propeller to seal the deal.

The bold sculpture of the bullet nose cannot be fully appreciated with its bumper in place; here’s a couple of shots of a ’51, which was slightly different than the ’50, and not for the better.

This is pretty radical stuff from a somewhat stuffy manufacturer. The deeply sculpted front end and the lack of a conventional grille were way ahead of their time. Loewy would de-emphasize the grille on future Studebakers, including the ’53 and eliminate it on the Avanti.

One thing the new 1950 front end did not fix was the awkward exposed cowl section between the front fenders and the front door. This was an expedient but aesthetically unfortunate compromise on the new 1947 body, as Studebaker body-building engineering apparently did not have the skill required to do without it, as it made the fitting of the front fenders to the rest of the body and doors significantly easier. This was done commonly in the pre-war era, when old-school front fenders typically ended before the front door.

1941 Cadillac 60 Special

Cadillac did away with that in 1941, when the front fenders first extended into the front door. By 1942, this worked its way across the whole GM family including Chevrolet, as Fisher Body had perfected the technique. Studebaker would keep that exposed cowl through 1952, and when it finally disappeared in 1953, it created one of the significant issues that affected production of the ’53 cars, as the front fenders would not align properly with the cowl.

Studebaker also still used an antiquated exposed center B-pillar — all the way through 1962 (1961 shown)— something that had been eliminated on other American cars quite some years earlier; the 1941 Cadillac already didn’t have one, it was gone by 1948 on the Hudson, 1949 on Ford and GM cars, 1951 on the Kaiser-Frazer, 1952 on the Nash and by 1953 on the Chryslers. Studebaker finally said goodbye to it with the 1963 restyle.



The tapered bullet nose now properly complemented the long tapered tail. One explanation for its length was that Studebaker had given serious thought to a rear-mounted air cooled flat six, a la Tucker in early development. Loewy had suggested that Porsche even design a whole new chassis and drive train for the ’47 Studebaker (Porsche did later build a complete rear engine prototype in 1952). Or maybe it was just semi-serious thought; sounds wild and fun, but it was just as well they let that and a few other radical proposals go. It might well have resulted in an even earlier death for Studebaker.


It’s not quite a Starlight coupe, but I find the two door sedan with its sloping B-pillar more attractive than the 4-door. As to what’s under the skin, the 113″ wheelbase Champion had the little 169.6 cubic inch flathead six that was first designed for the 1939 Champion. It was smaller than most American sixes at the time, almost exactly the same as the Rambler’s 195.6 inch six. Power was upped to 85 hp for 1950, and it was a well regarded engine, one that would rev happily to 4000 rpm and was durable as well as economical.

This Champion has the optional Borg Warner overdrive behind the B/W three-speed gearbox, enhancing its economy as well as acceleration, as the O/D came with a higher (numerical) rear axle. With a curb weight of only 2,695 lbs, the Champion performed quite adequately for the times and delivered superior fuel economy.

The Commander came with the 232.6 cubic inch big six under its longer nose, rated at 102 hp. The 1950 also had a new front suspension, now with coil springs and telescoping shocks instead of the transverse leaf spring. It improved handling and steering.

A new automatic transmission “Automatic Drive” built by Borg-Warner’s Detroit Gear Division was introduced mid-year.  Its full story is in a CC post here. At $210 dollars, it was pretty expensive; about 30% more than the Chevy Powerglide, but it was rather ambitious with its “locked” high gear, improving efficiency.

Unfortunately, the rather drab interiors did not live up to the flamboyant exteriors. Loewy was frustrated by Studebaker’s very conservative bent in regard to the interior design, colors and fabrics. Studebaker was behind in this regard, especially compared to Kaiser-Frazer.

The instrument panel only has a bullet in the center of the speedometer as a minor concession to a bit of flair. I sat in this car briefly, and its interior proportions suited me quite well, given that I prefer narrow and tall over low and wide.

These Studebakers are narrow cars. Although technically six-seaters, that would require six very trim folks who were very comfortable with body contact. The Champion was essentially a compact, despite its 113″ wheelbase. The  120″ wheelbase Commander used the same body except for a longer front end, so it was no roomier. The top of the line Land Cruiser had a 4″ stretch in the rear compartment for extra leg room, but it was just as narrow as the Champion. That was the narrow reality of these Studebakers.

So how was the bold and polarizing new bullet nose Studebaker accepted by the public? Richard Langworth’s book on Studebaker’s Post War Years (which was the source for the B/W images in this post) has this tidbit: “‘I don’t like this car at all’ a banker friend told him (President Harold S. Vance) at a press review, ‘but my twenty-year-old daughter loves it.’ Vance, aged 59 replied: ‘I don’t care what you old folks think.'”

It’s worth noting that Loewy had been harping about the growing importance of the youth market for some time, so apparently it was having an effect. That would certainly be the case with the 1953 coupe.

Yes, the 1950 was a smash success, for Studebaker at least, which had never even hit 200k in annual sales, even in its best pre-war years. The 1950 model broke through the 300k barrier, with a total of 343 units sold, or a 5.2% share of the market. 1950 was a very good year for the industry, up 28%, but Studebaker’ 160% increase outpaced that by a huge margin.

Studebaker had ambitious plans for the 1950s, expecting to capture five or more percent of the growing market, and substantially expanded its production and assembly facilities to accommodate the expected growth. Having built several new plants shortly after the war (some of which were never put into use), Studebaker had a capacity to build up to 450k cars and trucks per year. Obviously that turned out to be wildly optimistic. But it’s not hard to see why in 1950 that seemed like a very real possibility, although that was still very much in the post war catch-up boom. That would change all too soon.

1951 saw only detail changes in styling, but the big news was the new V8 engine. We’ve covered that engine and its development in detail here, but a few key highlights are worth repeating. It was very heavily influenced by the 1949 Cadillac V8 and had almost the same external dimensions and weight but was significantly smaller in displacement, with 232.6 cubic inches. Its excessive weight in relation to its displacement was the result of limitations in Studebaker’s foundry technology, as in not being able to cast thinner walls. As a consequence, the relatively light Studebakers with V8s tended to be nose-heavy, to the detriment of handling. But it was something of a bold move to build a new V8 in 1951, the same year that Chrysler’s hemi V8 first appeared and years before some other brands got new V8s. The shorter V8 meant that now both the Champion and the commander shared the same 115″ wheelbase and body.

One might wonder if Studebaker wouldn’t have been better off building a new modern six, given that Studebakers were on the light side. The six cylinder Champion was essentially a compact. Compact cars sales exploded starting in 1957, by which time Studebaker had been adding excessive length and weight in an effort to compete against the ever-larger Big Three full-size cars.

Meanwhile Rambler was on a tear with their compact line, the great majority of which had sixes.  Studebaker suffered for lack of a modern ohv six and even tried to buy Rambler’s, to no avail.

The new V8 was not without teething problems. According to an interview with Studebaker designer Bob Bourke, it suffered from serious camshaft durability issues:

“that (1951) Studebaker had a V-8 engine, and it was a catastrophe. They had a terrible time. They kept eating up camshafts and millions of dollars. Studebaker never ever gave any of the customers any problem. If they had made a mistake, they’d carry it to the ground and replace it forever. So, I think, it cost them, at the time, about 4 million dollars to get it straightened out, and they repaired the cars all over the country.”

1951 sales dipped from 343 to 269k units, but that was still 4.5% of a smaller market that year, due to Korean War restrictions. And of course it’s quite possible that that exciting new bullet nose was starting to lose its punch, especially as the year wore on. The latest fad and fashion quickly become stale.

1952 marked the centennial of Studebaker’s founding, and all-new cars were to be part of that massive celebration. A number of design directions were explored, with these Model N concepts being the most full developed. They still had the bullet nose.

There was also this coupe by Burke and Koto, quite obviously based on the old taller body shell but substantially modified to look lower and more modern.

It was all for naught, as curtailed production because of the Korean war didn’t justify the massive investment. An all-new Studebaker would have to wait for 1953, for better or for worse.

Instead, the existing body got another new front end. Obviously it anticipates the coming ’53’s front end, but Loewy had already recognized that the bullet nose’s time had come and gone. That idea had originated back in 1945 and now Loewy favored low sloping hoods for better aerodynamics, visibility and a more modern look. It’s a legitimate move for those reasons, and certainly less polarizing.

Hardtops were the hot new thing along with station wagons. Studebaker pulled the trigger on the former for 1952, even if it was just for one year. Station wagons had long been proposed and advocated by Loewy on the ’47-’52 body, but the tooling expense was considered too high. Meanwhile Rambler went he other way, dropping its hardtop coupe in 1956 and was making hay with its compact wagons. 1956 was also the year that AMC passed Studebaker in sales, for good.

We’ve covered the highs and lows of the ambitious new 1953 Studebakers here, so our story mostly ends here.

I found these three cars sitting near a busy corner in Eugene last week. This is my first street sighting of an Avanti, and it’s a preferred round-headlight version ’63 at that. I’ve already written up the Avanti, and between the 1950 Packard and ’50 Studebaker, my attention strongly gravitated to the latter, no disrespect to the Packard. But as noted earlier, I’ve always had a major thing for them. I will write up the Packard eventually.

I rather assumed they were for sale given their location, but there was only this one modest sign on the Packard’s window. They all looked to be mostly original cars in what appeared to be good driveable condition. I called the number and talked to Jerry, the owner. He confirmed that assumption, and I was somewhat tempted to arrange a drive in the Studebaker. But…realistically, it’s not what I really need in my life right now.

He told me that the asking price for the Champion is $10k, $25k for the Avanti, and I want to say $13k for the Packard, but I might have remembered that wrong; maybe $15k? Jerry seemed like a very pleasant guy, and if any of you are interested, do give him a call at 541-514-9486. These cars deserve loving homes.

Related CC reading:

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

Automotive History: The Studebaker V8 Engine – Punching Below Its Weight

Automotive History: Studebaker’s Automatic Drive (Borg Warner DG150/200/250) – Advanced, Efficient, But Too Expensive In The End

Curbside Classic: 1953 – 1954 Studebaker Commander Starliner Coupe – Star Light, Star Bright

Curbside Classic: 1963 Studebaker Avanti – Flawed Brilliance