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

(first posted 1/5/2012)     It’s one thing to be graced with the most beautiful and forward-looking design of its time, being no less than the forerunner of every personal luxury coupe to come. It’s quite another thing to know how to actually build it and capitalize on it. The 1953 Studebakers were the last real opportunity to turn the foundering company around. Rarely has the expression “to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory” applied more fittingly and painfully. If it weren’t for the sheer thrill these cars still impart sixty years later, one could almost wish that the whole sad episode had never happened. But it did, so we’ll just have to buck up or get out the kleenex.

Only Studebaker could have built these cars. The Big Three would have laughed at the idea of building coupes with bodies completely unique from their sedan counterparts. And with such European flavor too. Heresy! Maybe a token roadster, like the low-volume Corvette or T-Bird, but those were really just halo vehicles in their early incarnations. And GM and Ford could well afford to lose a few pennies on them.

Chrysler kept churning out exquisite coupes, collaborations between its styling head Virgil Exner and Ghia. Those that were actually built for public consumption were strictly for the 1%. Except for their very brief dalliance with the Nash-Healey, AMC stuck to bread and butter sedans and wagons. There wasn’t any Rambler coupe for many of those years.

So what was Studebaker thinking, literally betting the company on a low-slung, very European coupe? Richard Langworth, author of “Studebaker 1946 – 1966: The Classic Postwar Years” summed it up this way: “If in 1950, executives had decided to put Studebaker out of the car business within the next fifteen years, they could hardly have gone about it in a more efficient way”.

Jim Cavanaugh covered the first main postwar chapter in his 1949 Land Cruiser CC, when Studebaker enjoyed record sales and profits in the post-war buying boom. As that receded, Studebaker faced an enormous existential crisis: to compete directly against The Big Three, or carve out niches in the increasingly competitive market? Or better yet, both!

That decision was partly made when Raymond Loewy, who’s firm had the contract to provide design services to Studebaker, came across a design that Bob Bourke had been working on for some time. Bourke envisioned it strictly as a show car, something along the lines of GM’s Motorama dream cars. But Loewy latched on to it, as it fully embodied the primary values he had been preaching for decades: slimness and grace. And although no one denies Bourke’s authorship of the Starliner coupe, without Loewy’s tutelage, patronage and most of all his ability to sell progressive ideas to a conservative management, it would have just ended up as another page in his portfolio.

Bourke’s coupe sat on the extra-long 120″ wheelbase Land Cruiser frame, to give it additional sweep and a long and graceful tail. Perhaps an odd choice, since more typically coupes often sit, if anything, on shorter wheelbases than their sedan counterparts. The decision to do so would be one of many that would haunt the ’53 coupes. Aesthetically, it does feel a bit extended, and  I would love to see someone do a shorter version via photoshop.

Loewy designer Bob Koto was also invited to work on the development of the coupes, and he and Bourke shared one full-sized clay, each side reflecting their specific solutions to bringing it to fruition. Here’s a picture of Koto’s side. Loewy chose Bourke’s, and that part is history. But also just the beginning.

The coupe was a radical departure from the norm, especially for 1951, and Loewy fought an uphill battle in getting management approval. The board went back and forth, but Loewy’s vision for Studebaker espousing a decidedly European approach to design principles, which also reflected his mantra of smaller, narrower, and lighter, had powerful influence. Studebaker’s compact 1939 Champion, which Loewy designed, was the first, and all Studebakers since it were consistently narrower and lighter than the competition.

It also presented Studebaker with a fundamental challenge: to sell smaller cars for more money. Studebaker was very lazy with their union negotiations, fearful of confrontation and strikes, and keep the old-school chummy atmosphere. This led to Studebaker having consistently higher hourly and unit costs than the Big Three, ultimately perhaps the single biggest contribution to their demise.

In light of Studebaker’s market position, and the crushing ability for the Big Three to flood the market with discounted cars (as it did in 1953) Loewy’s hard sell for the ’53 coupes certainly carried some logic. If anything, Studebaker’s mistake was to not embrace the coupes more fully. It might have been hard to imagine that personal coupes would come to be the best selling cars in the land, as the dominance of the genre, and the Olds Cutlass Supreme showed so convincingly in the seventies and early eighties. But then drivers have always fallen for the allure of something more stylish and expressive than a dull sedan. That was already known in 1953, as it was in 1933 and 1973.

It’s well know that the ’53 coupes suffered from horrendous production problems and delays, as well as build quality issues. Doors wouldn’t open or close, there were huge panel gaps, Studebaker’s notorious rust issues were worse than ever, and behind the scenes, there were logistical production nightmares. Studebaker was simply not prepared to build two distinct cars, and it was the coupe that suffered disproportionately.

The reason being because the 1953 sedans were really not all that different under the skin from their predecessors. Which may have helped them avoid some of the build issues, but it created a whole other set of even bigger problems. They were essentially afterthoughts, and it showed. Instead of being original creations in their own right, a dollop of coupe styling cues were grafted unto a rather dumpy and charmless body. And their very weak sales reflected that. It didn’t have to be that way.

I’ve been in contact with former Studebaker (also Ford and Chrysler) designer Bob Marcks, who has forwarded me these sketches of how he thought it could have been done, with the sedans sharing the coupes’ bodies, resulting in (relatively) minor differences in the doors and roof. Given the coupe’s long wheelbase, there certainly would have been enough room to accommodate the extra door handily. In fact, it rather looks almost more balanced than the coupe.

Bob even had a model built from the sketches, the Starliner sedan. Nice.

I’ve always felt Studebaker got these two cars backwards, but then Studebaker used to be known for their coming-going issues. This long-wheelbase sedan, and a slightly shortened coupe might have been the real solution. But then everybody likes to armchair Studebaker to death.

Marcks also has some pithy insight on some of the many production (and other) problems with the ’53 coupes.:

First, Studebaker had let the unions write a contract which made the cars substantially overpriced; so they weren’t competitive for value. To compensate, the company took quality shortcuts: too much friction in the steering mechanism, weak frames, small brakes and other minor weaknesses.

Even worse, to reduce the initial tooling expense, they listened to an engineer who had a radical plan for reducing tooling costs.  New dies for body panels are very expensive, to make a fender, for example, you can’t take a flat sheet of steel and stamp out a fender.  It has to be done progressively; bent slightly, then into another die to bend and stretch it further and so on until the final die produces the final shape.  Bend too quickly and the steel wrinkles or even splits.

A so-called “expert” persuaded Studebaker that he could save them tooling money by eliminating certain progressive dies.  In a word, his plan was a disaster; he miscalculated and couldn’t produce panels which didn’t wrinkle and split.  New dies had to be produced hastily and production was delayed.  Orders couldn’t be filled, so customers, momentum and profits were lost forever.  The public wasn’t aware of behind-the-scenes problems; the appearance was that the new Studebaker wasn’t popular.

So the outcome was a nightmare, and one that Studebaker never really recovered. In 1952, coupes made up some 27% of production. Studebaker assumed that would roughly continue. With the new coupes that changed to about 50%, by far the highest take rate for coupes in the industry. And that’s with production snafus. As Loewy had warned, the dull ’53 sedans not only didn’t ride the coupes’ coattails, they utterly fell into the gutter.

The result was a double disaster. And one which forced Studebaker into increasingly desperate measures to survive, the first being the ill-advised “merger” with Packard, which did nothing for Studebaker, and killed Packard. The only thing that kept Studebaker alive as long as it did was the little bounce it got from the 1959 Lark.

Yet “Loewy coupes” are clearly the prophets of the whole personal coupe market that was to sweep the land just as the last of the Studebaker Hawks were going extinct. The 1958 Thunderbird was the opening salvo in that massive wave, but a bit too pricy for the mainstream buyer.

The Corvair Monza, another eventual failure, definitively proved that Americans’ appetite for sporty coupes was very substantial. And the hunger for the Mustang was almost insatiable. But the T-Bird, Monza, Mustang were just the bookends.

When John DeLorean re-invented the 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix as a luxury/sporty mid-size coupe, and a quite affordable one, the formula that came to dominate Americans’ driveways was perfected. And what was that formula again? A mid-sized sedan frame extended to accommodate the longer hood and revised seating position, all done for the resulting long, low and sweeping good looks. Exactly the same formula as the ’53 Starliner coupe.

[The featured car is a 1954]