Curbside Classic: 1953456789601234 Studebaker ChampmanderStarhawk – The Ultimate Kit Car

[If we needed more proof of the CC Effect it was in full force this week when, with zero coordination between two editors on two continents, we see two complementary versions of the iconic Studebaker Loewy coupe.  We have already considered the pristine 1955 President Speedster that was brought to us by William Stopford on Tuesday.  Now let us examine that car’s slightly scruffy alter ego. – JPC]

We all know kit cars.  You know, those things that involved buying a fiberglass body to pop onto a worn-out VW chassis so that you could turn it into a dune buggy or a 1934 Frazier-Nash.  But there is a different kind of kit car, one that allows you to mix and match parts from many years and models.  I would suspect that such a kit car was never more easily made than from one of these Studebakers.  And what kind of Studebaker is this?  I have no idea.  Not that it really matters.

Johnny Cash had a hit song in 1976 called One Piece At A Time.  The lyrics told the story about a fellow who got a job in a Cadillac factory and built his very own Caddy out of pilfered parts brought home over many years.  The song always brought to mind a Frankenstein-style of mismatched parts that was a Cadillac in nothing but the source of the disparate pieces.

We who know cars laugh at the idea that a guy could bring home a hood from 1949 and a pair of doors from a 1961 and mate them all to an engine from ’54 and the dash from a ’69.  Those things just didn’t fit together like that.  Had Cash’s song involved a guy at the Studebaker plant the song’s premise might have had more basis in reality.

It is well known that Studebaker’s last really new product was introduced for the 1953 model year.  The sedans are little-remembered but the “Loewy coupes” are unforgettable.  The hardtop (K body) was the real seductress but the C body coupe with the fixed pillars was its more practical stablemate.

Also well remembered is that this body morphed into the Hawk line in 1956 and finally into the Gran Turismo Hawk of 1962-64.  Only in that last iteration was the hardtop roof the sole offering.  In every other year the C coupe made up the bulk of the sales and was the lone choice in the grim years of 1959-61 when the Lark became the golden child of the Stude lineup.

I thought of that Johnny Cash song when I found this car.  First off, I cannot recall the last time I saw a Studebaker C coupe out in the real world, so when I saw the unmistakable rounded rump in the parking lot of a hardware store I simply had to turn around and get a closer look.  At first I tried to figure out whether it was a ’53 or a ’54.  And did it start life as the basic 6 cylinder Champion or the V8 Commander.  Studepeople know that the dashboard will tell the story . . .

but not here as this was clearly the dash and interior trim from a ’62-63 G T Hawk.

I finally decided that this car was a 57.  Not a 1957 (though it could possibly be) but a Heinz 57 in the way that a mongrel mutt of a dog could be described.  And I also decided that this was a good thing.  After all, what other car offers so many options for customization on a budget?  We recall the old AMT model kits that were sold as “3-in-1”, allowing us to build the car stock, custom or competition (or varying mixtures of the three).  These StudeCoupes offer many more varieties than AMT ever dared to offer.

Let’s see.  If we start with the basic shell and frame, I count four major front end themes, . . .

. . . six fairly distinct rear end varieties . . .

. . . OK, maybe seven, . . .

. . . and six different dashboard treatments.  Six and V8 engines of various sizes and configurations from mild to wild mate to manual and automatic transmissions with not much more than a good socket wrench set.  This has to be at least “57 varieties” right here, not even touching color and trim. The guys who retrofit old cars with the ubiquitous Chevrolet 350/350 drivetrain have to fire up the old welding torch but not the customizer who stays all-Stude.  Just collect your preferred parts and bolt them on.

At least the door handles are all the same.

I have seen plenty of beautiful, authentic cars that are either original or careful restorations.  I have also seen lots of these things online with various combinations of parts.  I have never seen a C coupe with all G T Hawk lower metal, but I would imagine that such a thing would be possible.

But back to this car.  What is it?  I have no earthly idea.  If I had to guess, I would start with a ’53-54 model based on the majority of the body panels.  But it could also be a ’55 with the older hood to replace the unloved “fishmouth” front.  It could also be a ’57-61 with the older-style scalloped doors and finless rear quarter panels.

Because bolt-on quarter panels.

I had so hoped that the owner would finish his shopping before I had to leave so that I could get some backstory and a real identification on this car, but no such luck.  The “lazy S” insignias on the wheel spinners tell me that the owner has some brand loyalty (despite the Ford seats). I would have loved to have learned what was powering this one-car Studebaker collection.  The third pedal, the column shift and the dual exhausts make me hopeful that this one is motivated by 4 barrels and 289 cubic inches of the kind that once grew only south of the Indiana-Michigan state line.

If I were forced to pin this one down, I would call it a ’53-54 with a ’62-63 GT Hawk interior, a Lark steering wheel hub and a powertrain of unknown provenence.

Oh yes, and ’62-64 Hawk taillights astraddle the ’53-55 decklid.

Really, with the probable exception of Volkswagen, I cannot think of another car (certainly a postwar American car) that allows such easy mixing and matching between the pieces from twelve separate model years.  And VW never offered anywhere near the variety in that span.

If Silver Hawks were valuable we would see an awful lot of “tribute cars”.  But they are not valuable.  I think the rule is that any Studebaker C coupe is the second-lowest value of any given year or series.  The only way to make a Studebaker less prized to collectors would be to add two more doors or subtract two cylinders.  And while the K hardtops get the love, those in the know argue that the added structural support of this C body makes the thing a lot easier to live with on anything other than the smoothest road surfaces.

I suppose it is possible that the owner actually lived the Johnny Cash song and assembled this car out of parts nabbed from the old South Bend works over the span of a dozen years.  And if so, the good news would be that the statute of limitations expired a long time ago while this good-natured mongrel is a long way from being roadkill.


Further Reading:

1953-54 Studebaker Commander Starliner – Star Light Star Bright (Paul Niedermeyer)

1955 Studebaker President Speedster – Look What They’ve Done To The Starliner (Paul Niedermeyer)

1955 Studebaker President Speedster – Star(Luxury) Liner (William Stopford)

1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk – It’s A Sign (Tom Klockau)

1960 Studebaker Hawk – Rock Bottom (J P Cavanaugh)

1962 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk – A Beautiful Death (Paul Niedermeyer)

1962 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk – Irrational Exuberance (J P Cavanaugh)