Curbside Classic: 1956 Studebaker President – Sadly Squared Up

(first published 4/20/2012)   Here we have another question of where to go between extremes. Normally it’s the retreat from extremes of excess when we think of cars from the 1950s. But when it came to where to move the ungainly Studebaker standard sedans of 1953, this was the boxy result.

There were few cars as stunningly beautiful right from the showroom floor as the 1953 Studebaker Starliner. All American manufacturers teased the public with dreamy, low-slung coupes and convertibles, but Studebaker was the only one to put a practical one into production.

However, something got lost in the translation of the dream into the reality of the bread-and-butter sedans. There seems to be more than just four inches of the wheelbase missing with the four-doors. The hood and the trunk being shortened to make way for the more upright passenger compartment makes the overall look puffy. The whole effect wouldn’t have been so bad if…well, if they didn’t have to share the showroom with show cars.

More radical two-toning for 1955 helped a bit. It gave the opportunity for the rear deck to look lower and not as ungainly in a contrasting color as it did in previous years (which meant lower-trimmed Champions still looked ungainly). But the heavy chrome bumper grille assembly that was all the rage elsewhere gave 1955 Studes of all stripes a very banana nose visage. It was like getting a reverse nose job.

Had Studebaker not been bleeding red ink as it merged with Packard in 1954, this is most likely what would have graced the showrooms in 1956 or 1957–a very 7/8 1955 Buick Century Hardtop coupe, with more refined details. But just like the dreamed-of 1957 Packards, these would never see the light of day.

Instead, the 1953 central bodyshell got squarer fenders both front and rear and, like the Hawk, adopted a larger grille (although the Hawk would go full-on-radiator style). And since wild two-toning was still the order of the day, the upper level President gave the public –a bird wing? A lightning bolt?–for customers to contrast color.

All in all, the results were handsome, not nearly as European and feminine as before, but compared with some quickly escalating questionable style choices (I’m looking at you, Pontiac, Mercury, Nash and Hudson) it was a pretty graceful face-lift of a chassis then in its 4th season.

But there were a bunch of limitations on Studebaker’s capabilities in 1956 besides the ability to completely redesign the bodyshell. Even years after the quality issues that dogged the 1953 cars, Studebaker could not shake the reputation of being only marginal in build quality. The tendency for just about all Studebakers to rust behind that fender vent didn’t help matters either.

And beyond that were a few marketing problems. The biggest disadvantage might have come at the lack of Hardtop models. Although the Hawks valiantly tried to remain style leaders, the four varieties on offer that year only came to about 20,000 units.

The varieties of Hawk, from the economical Champion 6-powered Sky Hawk to the Baby Packard Golden Hawk, were basically what the Squarebird would become to the Ford line-up–but from a manufacturer that could barely afford to keep the doors open, let alone rely on a specialty niche coupe that didn’t fully tap an emerging market to bring home the bacon.

In contrast, the standard line cars were roomier, but starting to be rather narrow by late 1950s standards, and priced a bit above the low-priced three. And you didn’t get much more than what you’d expect from your typical Bel-Air, Fairlane or Belvedere, although the President was well trimmed and had decidedly decent performance with the newly upsized Studebaker 289 V8 with up to 225 horsepower. With curb weights barely tipping the scales at 3,300 lbs, only the clumsy Borg Warner “Flight-O-Matic” got in the way of them being at the head of their performance class.

And it got worse, as more chrome was globbed onto the bodies and a badge- engineered Packard Clipper appeared in 1957. And then the “amateur Desoto Fireflite” look debuted for 1958.

Studebaker Lark 59 a

The 1959 Lark actually proved to be a reprieve from all the convoluted desperation that the former “almost” full-sized Studebakers had suffered with since the fall of 1952. All the more remarkable is that the Lark is nothing more than a shortened 1953 Champion, really.

So what was the point of this long dark age at Studebaker? Only in complete despair did they see their salvation in the Lark. But we can use 20/20 hindsight ’til the cows come home about the independent manufacturer that perpetually couldn’t see the forest for the trees, and look at their products and thank God that we never were in the shoes of Studebaker executives in the 1950s.

If not hell, it sure was purgatory.