(first posted 9/16/2016) Is there a car that you learned about way after you should have? Is there a car that you have never seen in real life even though it is one that by all logic should have cropped up in your part of the world? For me, this is that car. And now, at long last, I have found one according to the Curbside Classic Rule Book – not in a sales lot, not at a car show and not in a junkyard, but in genuine, tarnished, real life, and at (or at least near) a curb.
I grew up around Studebakers. First, I was raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which is about ninety miles east of South Bend, where Studebakers of all kinds had been built since 1852. Second, my best friend’s father was one of the Studebaker Faithful, who drove one of several Studes as everyday transportation until well into the 1970s. At various times, I can recall riding in at least six different models owned by someone in Tim’s family, including Larks, an R2 Avanti, a Champ and two different 1964s. I knew about Hawks because Tim’s dad had traded a green one in when he bought the ’64 Avanti.
I knew that my father had owned a bullet-nosed Starlight Coupe in the mid 1950s and I knew about the beautiful 1953 Starliner because it was available at my local drug store as a model kit, which I eagerly bought, painted and assembled.
As I really began my descent into old-car-geekdom, one of my first mail-order book purchases was The American Car Spotter’s Guide 1940-1965 by Tad Burness. It was a simple oversized paperback with cars arranged by make and year. Each page was haphazardly stuffed with multiple pictures gleaned from period brochures and advertisements, along with handwritten notes pointing out things of particular interest. This book became my field guide, which I studied as hard as anything ever assigned at school. So hard that it eventually fell completely apart, requiring me to order a revised edition.
Much of the newer stuff was review for me. Common cars like Ford Galaxies and Chevy Impalas were easy to learn because life afforded so many opportunities to spot them out and about. With less common cars, I was able to brush up on the details, like the differences between 1955 and 1956 Oldsmobiles. I knew the cars but they were no longer common by the early 70s, so the book helped me pin down details of the various years.
But as I flipped through the pages in the Studebaker section, I was suddenly stopped cold. There were lots of pictures of Studes from 1956, 1957 and 1958, but how could this be? I could not remember ever having seen one in my life. Yet here they were in black and white. I knew the book had to be right, but how could I have completely missed these? I mean completely! And thus began my thing about these cars. I call it a thing, because I don’t know what else to call it. I was strangely drawn to these cars then and have been so ever since.
What was strange was that after getting the book, I started seeing many of the cars I had studied from its pages. Although they were quite uncommon by the 1970s, I could still spot the occasional Hudson Hornet, Fluid Drive Dodge or Lincoln Cosmopolitan sitting forlorn and forgotten behind some gas station or under a farmer’s tree. After I got my own car, I would frequent old junkyards where exotica like an old Frazier or a Nash Ambassador would rest in the mud. Because of my book, I knew what they were and was delighted to gaze upon them in real life, appreciating the little touches that the small black and white renderings from the Guide could not convey. But I never saw a 1956-58 Studebaker.
I eventually subscribed to magazines and went to car shows. I would see an occasional Lark, Hawk or Avanti, but never one of these products of a Studebaker swirling the drain before drawing one mighty last gasp of air with the ’59 Lark which allowed the lights to stay on in South Bend for a few more years. When I began writing for CC, I began to find some real rarities. I found both a Marmon Sixteen on the highway and a Lamborghini Espada in the parking lot of a Sam’s Club. But a locally-built late ’50s Stude sedan? Nope.
In recent years I have begun a voyeuristic relationship with these cars through a Studebaker fan site on social media, and was amazed at the number of these that are loved and appreciated by their owners. I will admit that they are not objectively beautiful cars, but I remain fascinated by the fact that they even exist.
Then on September 11th, Mrs. JPC and I were driving downtown to visit our middle son, who has begun the real life phase of real life. As we were negotiating the narrow downtown streets on the way to his apartment building, I suddenly spied The Shape. Studebaker fans will immediately understand The Shape, because it was the silhouette of every single Studebaker Sedan from 1953 through 1960. Those three jauntily backswept roof pillars were found on only one car. But Wait, there was more. I saw the long rear overhang, the speed lines flowing from the wheel openings, and almost stopped the car right in the middle of traffic. There, behind a rusty chain link fence in the back lot of some random business was this 1957 Studebaker Commander. Another of life’s checkboxes could now be checked.
We didn’t have time to stop at first, but after a visit and some dinner, there was still good light and I retraced our steps until I found it again. Sadly, there was a locked gate and a fence between me and my prey, but a cellphone camera can do a marvelous job of photographing a car through a chain link fence. Coincidentally, I had just been reading a book on Studebaker that I had found at my local Half Price Books, and the whole sorry chapter of the 1956-58 models zipped through my mind once again.
James Nance and his failed management of Studebaker-Packard in 1954-56. The desperate leap into the disinterested arms of Curtiss-Wright Corporation, which was for C-W President Roy Hurley “Heads I win, Tails you lose.” The high hopes for Vince Gardner’s 1956 restyle which was a sales disaster, then the two cut-rate restyling attempts which followed, each an even bigger sales flop then the model before it. When my kids were younger, they would form a big “L” from their thumb and index finger and hold it against their foreheads as they chided their siblings “Looooooser, you’re a Loooooooser!” In the world of the “cool kids” cars like Fords, Chevys and Forward Look Mopars, this car sort of wore one of those “L”s and so, in the eyes of many, did the dwindling pool of folks who bought them.
After reading the 1957 model preview we saw here yesterday, it is evident that even the automotive press at the time gave this car nary a second thought, as every single picture and virtually all of the discussion was about the sexy Golden Hawk. The magazine’s text may as well have said “Sedans? Yawn. I guess Studebaker is still making a few. But howabout that supercharged Golden Hawk!” Not that the company’s own advertising approached the cars any differently.
By now I know that the 1957 model offered several improvements. For starters, the variable rate springs and variable ratio power steering were industry-leading features. The Commander and President lines also offered some pretty powerful V8 engines in a relatively lightweight body. All in all, these final “big” Studebakers gave their owners a very tough and long-lived car (if you could keep it from rusting to pieces under you.) I also know that “Studebaker Commander” was one of the great old names of the auto world, and that even at its low point in the late 1950s, it meant that you cared enough to get the great Stude V8 and were not one of the terminal cheapskates who skimped and bought either the deadly slow six cylinder Champion, or the deadly slow and terminally dowdy Scottsman. And if a guy were to pop for the President Classic, he could get a car that could, in its own certain way, make you proud to own a Studebaker. Kind of. But total sales of about 63,000 cars should clue you in to how the world of 1957 viewed new Studebakers.
At first, I was unsure if this particular car is the $1976 Custom 4 door sedan (of which 828 were built) or the $2,089 Deluxe 4 door sedan (one of 10,285) A little research confirmed that with its full-length side trim it is the Deluxe, so we are looking at the single model/body style which was the most popular Stude for 1957. I also know that it should boast Studebaker’s fine little 259 cid (4.2L) V8, which with its forged crankshaft and solid lifters always punched above its weight class. Because of the locked gate I could not tell if it had the Flight-O-Matic transmission or a 3 speed overdrive. Either way, it’s a good thing that its owner was not standing nearby as I might have tried throwing some money at him in an effort to adopt this poor neglected thing and take it home for some love.
For some final thoughts, I find the ’57 Stude a pretty handsome car for its era. I might have kept the lower lip of that front bumper from dipping quite so far, or perhaps made the dip wider a’ la the ’57 Thunderbird. I might have also done those speed lines on the fenders a little differently, but otherwise it is tough to fault the designers for the job they did to clean up the details on the nicely shaped ’56 model. This is particularly true given the minuscule budget they had to work with. And this car’s size, if a bit too small for a big car of 1957, would eventually come back into popularity by the mid 1960s and ’70s. But for 1957, I can see why this one was a big fat “No Sale” to most of America. A situation that would sadly, with few exceptions, continue right up until Studebaker finally had to close its doors in mid 1966. But with this sighting, my Car-Spotting life is almost complete. Now if I can just find that 1958 Packard . . . .
1956 Studebaker President (Laurence Jones)
1957 Studebaker Scotsman (Jeff Nelson)
1958 Studebaker Champion (Dave Skinner)
1957 Packard Clipper (Tom Klockau)
1958 Packard Hardtop (Tom Klockau)
The Studebaker Sedan’s Last Decade of Styling (J P Cavanaugh)
Nice write up JP. These were indeed invisible to most buyers, though you are right, the three back swept pillars are a unique profile from those times. AMC Ramblers and Studebakers were dying on the vine back then; and Packard was, for all intents, already dead.
I only recently realized that CCers are like Birders, each have their “life lists”.
The birder analogy is a good one — and it’s far more satisfying seeing a specimen in the wild than it is on display somewhere.
Congratulations, JPC, on your find. Great catch, and write-up.
Looking for 60 throw 67 Impala
Great find, JP! Nice write-up.
As a kid growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, I likewise knew about the other Studebaker offerings…Larks, Hawks, Avantis. One of my earliest Stude memories was the bullet-nosed model that I walked past on my way to kindergarten. In my model-building years, I whipped out a Loewy Coupe from our friends at AMT, although the stylish orange color I chose from the Testor’s lineup was more suited to the 70’s.
That said, I never paid attention to the 1956 – 1958 models. Heck, I don’t think I even knew they existed until an article in Hemmings a couple of years ago that featured a Scottsman. If memory serves, there was a Commander Wagon for sale in Albuquerque recently. Having an interest in wagons, I mentioned it to Mrs, JohnnyB but the response was less than encouraging…something like, “That’s an interesting car, but I remember the last project (1963 Volvo Amazon Wagon) you had. You puttered with it a bit, but never got around to fixing it up like you promised. I know how you are with projects.” Not having a good response to her unquestionably correct observation, I let the Commander go by without as much as an inquiry. Sigh!
Thanks, Johnny. Yeah, I have proven to myself that I am kind of the same way with project cars, and that it is best for all concerned that I stick with things that are a little more finished.
Truly a delightful find and the old girl looks pretty decent. Hopefully nothing nasty lurks on her underside.
In a sense, these remind me of the Chrysler B-body of twenty years later. Looking solely at the front end, it looks rather contemporary. Then, looking at the greenhouse area, there are strong aromas from a different era. But, like the B-body at Chrysler, Studebaker did a great job of melding it all together on their $0.35 budget.
Seeing one of these in South Bend (I think we did), and covering it here also, helps bridge a huge gap. Everyone knows about the bullet-nosed Studebakers and the Lark is more at the forefront due to its being newer. This is from the void in between and a clear ancestor to the Lark.
I also can’t help but wonder what efficiencies may have been found had Studebaker been able to consolidate their manufacturing instead of having a slew of buildings all over the industrial area of SB.
That comparison with the late 70s Mopar B body is a good on. This car was also nice and fresh from the back too, but with Studebaker’s unique way of doing bodies with bolt on rear quarters, changing the rear was a lot cheaper than with Chrysler’s unit bodies.
Wow! The rear inner wheel housing on that Loewy coupe/GT is huge! It’s ready for donks.
Some of the small Fords from the ends of their decade-long runs seemed the same way – 1979-80 Pinto, 1989-90 Escort, and to a lesser extent 2008-11 Focus all make their faceliftedness obvious in a 3/4 view.
It was very striking to me on the Escort as one was my Driver’s Ed car, but in retrospect it’s the late square-nose Pinto that’s a real headscratcher given how much new tooling went into it and how fundamentally obsolete it was – much more so than the 1981 Escort in 1989 and the 2000 Focus in 2008, or for that matter the 1953 Stude in 1957, the shift to FWD Golf clones had happened in the mid/late ’70s.
Wasn’t just the small Fords. the 87-93 Mustangs had the late 80s aero nose with the boxy 79 body, 98-11 Crown Vic’s used the 92-97 Grand Marquis body, and the 96-97 thunderbird had Ford’s ovoid theme applied everywhere except the aging aero 89 body.
The Tad Burness books were a huge part of my automotive education! I used to pore over them sucking up all the details, sort of like a graphic novel for cars! I don’t remember how I got my first Car Spotter’s Guide, but I did ultimately find a great automotive mail order bookseller: Classic Motorbooks in Osceola Wisconsin. I used to love getting their catalogs in the mail, and their wares formed the foundation of my birthday and Christmas wish lists!
Oh boy, did Classic Motorbooks ever get a lot of my teenage money. And with the exception of my original Spotters Guide, I still have every one of the books I bought.
Another Tad Burness fan…may he rest in peace…as gradeschooler, I bought a copy of his “Auto Album” (which I think had reprints of newspaper features he did over the years, drawings of old cars and a little background on each car)….I think it stopped at 1962 or so (probably bought from Scholastic Book Services in 1966 or so)…I gave my only copy to my nephews, the glue on the cover was gone and the pages started becoming unglued from age, so I think they probably threw it out. I never saw most of the cars he covered (since it went back to 1899, that’s why) but it gave me a good appreciation for the automotive landscape before I was born. Likewise, I’ve never really spent any time with Studebakers, which were scarce even though they were still being made up until I acquired the Auto Album…but at least I knew they existed, like a lot of the cars listed in the Album…such as the 1960 Edsel which was “scarce” according to Burness (there was no entry for the 1961 DeSoto, which I’d also guess was pretty scarce, but at least I’d seen one of those in real life, unlike the Edsel). Living in the rust belt during most of my formative years probably also explains why I never saw any really old cars, and a “hole” in my automotive exposure…I’ve seen some odd cars, but comparatively fewer old cars, in my time.
Another Tad Burness fan here. I got his Auto Album book from a Scholastic Book Services book fair in grade school. I loved that book almost as much as my older brothers Playboy magazines.
And another fan here. I avidly cut out his old car features from the newspaper and stuck them in a scrapbook. I bought my first Guide in college, and perused it in the tram on the way home. I think the conductor had to tap me on the shoulder when we reached the terminus that day. 🙂
JP, I liked this piece a lot, and could identify with several parts of it. What for you was the American Car Spotter’s Guide was my first, c. 1987 edition of the Encyclopedia Of American Cars, 1930 – 1980. Even though I cherished and tried to take care if it, I used, studied and referenced it so much (like you, perhaps more than some school-assignrd reading) that it was raggedy, dog-eared and falling apart within four or five years. That was my most prized tome – one I had to replace in 2003.
About your fascination with this handsome Stude, AMC cars had the same effect on me once I realized how many there were that I had never seen or heard of. I became borderline-obsessed with the ’74 Matador coupe around the 8th grade and was determined to own either one of those or a ’71 Javelin SST.
I have also almost caused a car wreck by spotting a cool or rare car while driving somewhere and needing to slow down, stop or pull over. 🙂
Splendid find. Though my neighborhood has lots of ’60s and a few older cars, I haven’t seen ANY of this generation of Stude. Not even the Hawks.
The mysterious one-time appearance of a ’39 Champion last week might herald a South Bend Trend, but I doubt it.
Even having grown up in the MIdwest (less than 200 miles from South Bend), 50s Studebakers were conspicuously absent from car shows. I’ve seen a late 30s Dictator in the flesh, a bullet nose ‘Baker, and a few Larks and Hawks but the cars that were supposed to be the “mainstream” models it was as if they simply disappeared.
I, too, am fascinated by anything Studebaker regardless of how uncompetitive they were for their last 10-15 years, simply because you didn’t see many of them, and when you did, they stuck out like a sore thumb!
Of course the Avanti was and is one of my dream cars to this day. Sadly, I’ve never had the opportunity to ride in one. I liked the Hawk, too.
Great that you found this car. If not for the greenhouse, the ’57 was still moderately competitive, especially with Chevrolet. Certainly as a ’56. This car is another case where the wagon looks better. The sedan C pillar is an acquired taste.
Maybe not a beautiful car, but restored, this car would still be eye-catching in a positive way.
It’s neat that you were steeped in Studebaker as you were, there scarcity ensures that there are not many able writers on them as you.
I probably would not have been aware of the brand if not for a neighbor having a ’63 Lark sedan until 1971 or so when he replaced it with a Vega. Our neighbors were teachers, and always had a big Chevy coupe as their “good” car in the garage, and something on the small side would be parked outside. Thanks to that experience, I’ve spotted the occasional Lark for decades. I’ve never seen a big Stude in the wild.
Surprisingly, I’ve seen a couple of nicely restored Studebaker trucks in the wild in the last few years. One was recently coming at me in traffic, and thanks to your writing, I was able to spot it as a Studebaker from some distance.
Wow great find out in the wild! The only place I’ve ever seen one was at the old Studebaker Museum (when it was still in the former dealership building across the railroad tracks from the factory). It really isn’t a bad looking car except for the oddly shaped window and thick pillars in the rear door that just look awkward.
Like other here one of the first books I ever purchased in first grade at the Scholastic Book Fair was Tad Burness’ Auto Album.
Great car and great writeup JPC.
However, I think you should inquire about the car, a man of your stature in life needs a Studebaker. Never mind the condition, I’ve also found that as I’ve gotten older auto restoration is easier in some respects.
For instance the motion of writing a cheque is less physically taxing than the motion of wet sanding an entire car, if you get my drift.
I’m another Tad Burness fan, I got the two book set from my Uncle but I think I gave them away at some point.
Agreed. I can so see JPC behind the wheel of this one, giving the spurs to the 259 V8 and learning to appreciate the joys of overdrive!
Anyway; there’s nothing really to do with this one; it’s in perfect shape. This is CC after all; it wouldn’t be right if it were any nicer than my F100 or Jason’s Galaxie.
Gaaaa! I think I just found an online ad for this one, but from the Columbus Ohio area, so who knows how long ago.
Sadly, it has gotten the dreaded 350/350 transplant, which sort of eliminates much of the car’s charm in my eyes. And yes, the checkbook is a marvelously versatile tool which, much like a hammer, is always better when you have a bigger one. 🙂
I found you a better one, just sent a PE.
Always happy to help someone else in their suffering 🙂
You could replace the 350 with a 283 and say it’s a test mule for the ’66 models. Just saying…
And Paul is right; if your Studebaker were perfect it just wouldn’t be right. Headliners held up with safety pins, broken and drooping nameplates, and rear doors with bad hinges are an unspoken requirement.
I was exposed to a more than average amount of Studebakers in my childhood thanks to my spending part of each summer with Mennonite farm families. The Mennonites clearly had a thing for Studebakers; the family I stayed with had a pickup, and the old man they bought the farm from, but who stayed on, had a ’56 or ’57 (I’m somewhat embarrassed I can’t remember which) four door like this, but of course the base version in a light gray/very off white. When I came back to visit in 1968, he had replaced it with a 1965 sedan.
And it wasn’t just this family; Studebakers were clearly over-represented among their community. A fair number of sedans from ’53 up.
Congratulations on this find. But I hope it takes you a while to find that Packard, as I’d hate to see you retire afterwards, having crossed off all the cars on your “To Find” list.
I, too, had a copy of the Tad Burness book, which I used until it was literally falling apart. A vendor at the Carlisle shows had a copy for sale until a few years ago…in retrospect, I should have bought it.
My high-school driver education teacher had one of these Studebakers, although I believe that his was a Champion. It was dark gold with a black-and-white interior, and served as his daily driver in the late 1970s. The strangest feature was the “Cyclops Eye” speedometer that can be seen in the brochure rendering of the instrument panel.
One problem with these cars was the small details – the strip between the doors, and the side vents on the front fenders – that were dated by this point. Those tell-tale features made the car look “old” to people at that time.
Jim, stop dithering and buy a 50s Studebaker. It’s going to eat at you until you do :^) Based on my memories and feedback from parents and grandfather (52 Champion) the 47-52 generation was much more satisfying for it’s time, than the later offerings.
I seem to be a bit older than many here, and I imprinted on Studebakers at an early age (the ride home from the hospital in 53 was in a 51 Champion), so I always noticed them in the 60s: the Scotsman that lived on Q Ave well into the 60s, the 64 Wagonaire on 9th St, the red 64 sedan that nearly whanged the back of my Aunt’s Ambassador when I was learning to drive in 70, the late 50s Hawk that zoomed in the opposite direction on 6th St one evening, the herd of Studebakers running around Columbus, Ohio when I lived there in 71-72, including an uber rare 66 and the middle aged couple in an Avanti that swept down a freeway offramp as I stood waiting for the signal to change.
And of course, there were the 56 Commander and 60 Lark that my parents had when I was more aware of my surroundings than I was on that sunny fall day in 53.
Road tests of the day praised the 56 design, particularly for the trunk. The 53-55’s short and low rear deck devastated trunk capacity. When the Hawk was introduced in 56, one of the changes was a higher, squared off, trunk lid to provide a tiny bit more room.
Why did the 56-58 generation sell in such small numbers? As you said, Studebaker was perceived as circling the drain and few want to undertake the parts and service issues, and plunging resale value, of an orphan. Additionally, to put it kindly, the driving experience left something to be desired. The interiors were, by then, uncompetitively narrow, for a “full size” car, Studie’s obsolete cam and peg steering was horribly heavy and slow (my dad commented how the Commander “drove like a truck”) and the general ambience of riding in our bottom trim Commander was primarily noise (not entirely a bad thing thanks to the thrum of the 259). I had several occasions to ride in a 58 Fairlane in the very early 60s, and the Ford was in a different world of refinement compared to the Commander.
The Lark, on the other hand, was quite reasonable. The little flathead six didn’t make the nice noises of the 259, more of a wheeze and whir instead, but Studebaker had improved the suspension and, while retaining the cam and peg steering, reduced friction in the mechanism by 40% (both changes introduced in 57-58) Dad still beefed about the Lark being nose heavy, but a much more pleasant drive than the 56.
Overall, Studebaker willed itself to death. When Fred Fish married one of the Studebaker daughters, he brought in the bankers, with Goldman and Lehman both having seats on the BoD. Why did Erskine keep paying out dividends when the company was losing money? Ask Goldman and Lehman, who were major stockholders. After the war the company was fat with war production profits. Harold Vance begged for a serious capital investment program. “nope” said the bankers on the board “we want to give away those profits in dividends”.
Studebaker never built a car wider than 71 inches because the paint booths and ovens in the body plant could not accommodate a wider body. When Packard closed in Detroit, consideration was given to moving the tooling to South Bend, but the cost of revising the line to accommodate the 5″ wider Packard body was exorbitant. The $3.5M spent on the Packardbaker was peanuts in comparison.
Temptation department: this Commander State was auctioned in Auburn two weeks ago.
Hey JP, I also live in Fort Wayne, and previously lived near State and Anthony, where there was always a complete but worse for wear silver 58 Studebaker parked curbside in the neighborhood, in all it’s tacked-on double headlights and tailfinned glory. The girlfriend fell in love with it.
Perhaps you can cross another year off your list sometime.
HaHa, a great idea. I live in Indianapolis now, but get back to FW from time to time. I know exactly where State & Anthony is, so maybe next time I come back, I can cruise the area on the way downtown to Coney Island. 🙂
On YouTube, there is a guy doing a series he calls 1958 Studebaker Rescue. Being in Texas, he doesn’t have to worry a lot about rust, but I am getting some vicarious joy watching him bring his 58 Commander sedan back to life.
Studebaker’s story is so sad. They could have done so much more with this body style to clean it up and modernize it. What was up with that center strip between the doors, and the little vents behind the wheels and the heavy door frames? None of the designers there really seemed to have an “eye” for what was visually attractive. Did these ’57-’58s have the same willowy frame problems as the ’53s?
They really spent $3.5M on the Packardbaker, and that was the best they could do? Now that’s really sad!
It is my understanding that the frames used a heavier gauge of steel beginning in 1954, which was a big improvement. I don’t think of any of these in the same category as a bank vault, however.
…that center strip between the doors… the little vents behind the wheels…the heavy door frames
That is how cars were designed in the 50s.
The center strip between front and rear doors was common, and a spot that frequently highlighted shoddy big three build quality as it was an extra opportunity for misaligned trim.
The 56-57 Thunderbird also had those little doors behind the front wheels. On a Studebaker the door on the left is an air vent for the driver’s footwell, while the one on the right is both a footwell vent and, in the winter, when you closed the door on the inside, provided air for the defroster. Other makes had a pop up door at the base of the windshield.
The heavy window frames on the doors were, again, a common styling element of the time.
As Jim said, they used a heavier gauge steel in the frame starting in 54. Studebakers were still structurally weak. Road tests into the early 60s commented on squeaks in the cars as they were driven over uneven pavement as the body flexed. As our 56 neared the end of it’s life, my dad said he could feel the car flexing, though I suspect the large amounts of structure the car had lost to rust contributed.
There was nothing fundamentally wrong with Studebaker styling. The problems lay in the Board’s refusal to invest in the company, which lead to obsolete platforms that did not provide a competitive driving experience and obsolete plant and equipment, which drove production costs up.
This was our 56, late in it’s life, after the white over light blue two tone paint had disappeared under large amounts of bondo and an Earl Sheib paint job.
The rear of our 56. I prefer this to the 57’s rear. The trim piece missing from below the left taillight was the victim of mom backing into a frozen snowbank one dark evening. When she got her 64 Rambler, she made sure it had backup lights.
The exhaust pipe on the left is a fake. The Commander’s 259 had a single exhaust, but having the exhaust pipes come out through the bumper was a thing in the mid 50s, so Studebaker put a 5″ long piece of pipe in there to make it look symmetrical.
I last spotted one of these…in my garage about a month ago. I “accidently” bought a ’57 Champion Deluxe 4 door on eBay in the winter. I put in a low bid not realizing that the seller can lower the reserve right before the end of the auction. Turns out it was actually in pretty good shape, Flat 6, 3 speed overdrive, 44,000 original miles and remarkably rust free for a Canadian car. It had been sitting outside since 1968 though, interior was dry rotted.
I had big plans for it but unexpected expenses hit again, so it went up for sale. Despite being 1 of 8313 built (and certainly less built in Hamilton, ON) , rarity does not equal value, especially with a car that needs a new everything. I sold it about a month ago, pretty much breaking even.
My impressions of the car are a that it’s like a Soviet take on a ’57 Chev. It looks similar but it’s a bit off. There’s many differences under the skin however. As Steve mentioned above, the car is quite narrow, but other than that roomy inside with a huge trunk. Mechanicals are dated, not only the glacially slow flat 6, but kingpins, under floor master cylinder and under seat heater.
The guy I bought it from was the son of the second owner, his Dad was one of those guys who bought $100 used cars and ran the until he broke something. In this case he blew the head gasket running straight well water for coolant in the summer. The one thing that I always wondered about was, who bought this thing new? They were obviously cheap, but cheap enough to ignore Studebaker’s imminent death? They were probably older Studebaker die-hards.
Love that Cyclops-Eye!
Oh Nelson, you’re breaking my heart. If you had that car up on EBay, I think I might have seen it, or maybe I saw it around the time you were buying it. That copper and black color combo may be my favorite on these. But I am quite certain that a project of that intensity has no place in my life right now.
Yeah, she was on eBay for a while. I love the colour combo too, there’s a pic on Wikipedia of a restored car in the same combo, it looks great.
Breaks my heart too but you gotta do what ya gotta do sometimes. Funny thing is I have lots of time to work on it and a proper garage, the money part is the problem. At least I can say I’ve owned a Studebaker now though.
My big problem is that when someone posts a picture that looks like you did, I see something else.
Just a bit of elbow grease to bring the shine back in that paint. I think the guy I bought it from actually had that in the ad.
Maybe it’s knowing the fate of Studebaker and tepid success of these model years but whenever I look at the front end of a 57 I can’t help but see a forlorn expression in the sheet metal. Indeed of all the Studebakers I think of when I think of when thinking of the waning years of the company these pop into mind more than anything. The Larks to follow had an appropriately blissful optimistic face. Past the front end they aren’t half bad looking, dare I say they’re actually elegant if it weren’t for a few details.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in the flesh either, but being my age ANY Studebaker I encounter is likely to be the first and only. They may have been more common at a time than the 57s but the initial 53-55 loewy coupe inspired sedans that preceded these, particularly the 2 door with the clear not-rear doors, have always been on my wish list. those were truly frumpy, despite being the obvious bones for the more attractive (to my eye) 56-57s and 59 Larks
Even here at the end of the world Studebakers were a popular car long ago a friend has the new and used sales sheets from a local garage that dealt in multiple brands and Studebakers feature often but that is in the 20s/30s. By the time the subject model appeared they were almost a forgotten brand walking the route to school in the early 60 with Dad we used to see three Studes, they looked different so I asked what they were none were 57s the newest was a Hawk the other two were a 49 and a 38 and later I discovered a school friends parent had a truck but thats it that brand evaporated from the landscape, now days collectors are finding the very few later cars sold over here and are restoring them the only last Packardbaker appeared on a classic NZ car page on facebook last week.
Poor Studebaker. With no investment in product they just kept recycling old design elements. The basic body design, roof ,cowl, doors, was carried on from the eary 50’s through the demise of the Lark. Although the Lark looked pretty good for the time. I think the lack of resale value really hurt back then because most buyers traded in their old cars every three or four years for a new one. Nowadays many buyers keep their cars for as long as 7-10 years before trading up, they are aware that the value has dropped to almost nothing. I saw a nice Gran Turismo Hawk at a car show last year. This final finless restyle is the best looking in my opinion. I would definitely love to have one.
Steve: I am with you: brought home in a 50 Studebaker bullet nose starlight 2 door. Warped me for things automotive from the beginning.
I think that yes, I would have been the target audience for one of these in 56-57. The Scotsman has my name all over it, but maybe a 6 Cyl Commander Deluxe would have been the ticket if I wanted to throw money around. I would be that crazy uncle driving a Studebaker until the late 70s.
It’s going to happen anyway, but with a Saturn instead of a Studebaker.
JP: thanks for sharing this. I love these cars and you scored !!
“but maybe a 6 Cyl Commander Deluxe would have been the ticket”
I’m sorry sir, but the Commander only comes as a V8. Perhaps I can show you one of these fine looking Champions over here, which are just like the Commander this year, but have the six cylinder engine you are looking for.
Born 40 years too late for a career in Studebaker sales. 🙂
LOL. Thanks for that, JP. The money is burning a hole in my pocket.
Nice write-up of an obscure Studebaker, JP! On the 1956-’58 Studebakers as a collector car to own, here’s some perspective: I had a ’57 President Classic for seven years in in late ’80’s-early ’90’s. On the plus side, they’re still relatively cheap to buy once the right one comes along. That right one is not only the MY styling details that appeals the most but the best condition one can find. These are NOT cars to buy in rough, rusty condition then sink the family fortune into restoring. Find the best one you can afford, then maintain and enjoy it, making significant investments in it only if you intend to retain and enjoy it for a long time. These are not now nor ever will be in-demand collector cars. They weren’t twenty-five years ago and they still aren’t.
Of the qualities of the cars themselves, as noted, in addition to being uncompetitively narrow by the mid’-’50’s, they were structurally deficient given their ladder frames and lightweight body structures compared to their contemporaries. These are not solid, quiet cars to drive or ride in, they are noticeably flexible on rough road, transmit a good deal of road and suspension noise. One might be able to refine some of this with an application modern sound-deadening materials. Ride is quite smooth on good roads in the 120.5″ wb President Classic (in my opinion the model to pursue), a bit more harsh in the Champion/Commander 116″ wb models. Studebakers tended toward hard springing, in general. Steering, non-power assisted in my ’57, was easy enough when moving. Braking, taking into consideration the four wheel drums, correctly adjusted, worked well, always keeping the bumper space and stopping distances in mind (as with any car so equipped).
Although decently assembled, aspects of the finish and trim reveal the S-P financial distress of those years: areas usually painted body color such as the trunk interior, underside of hood and decklid were left in gray primer. Looking up under the dash, the underside of the cowl was just surface-rusted bare metal! Upholstery quality is in a word: cheap, both fabrics and vinyls. Rust in the rear edges of the front fender (Studebaker-dicitis) and over the headlights are a common problem, as are in the body mount frame outriggers. Typical of the period, there are no inner fender liners so the mud and water thrown can start the rust in those areas. Floorboard frequently are rust perforated, especially in the driver’s position.
On the positive side, as a group they are mechanically robust, generally easy to work on and maintain (the splined rear axles are a pain to remove the brake drums from), with excellent parts availability from multiple vendors and great club support. The automatic transmissions, beginning with 1956, are the same Borg-Warner unit Ford and AMC were using. In driveability, a 289 with automatic is pleasant, set up to start off in second gear for smoothness. Better would be teamed with the manual shift and overdrive. For the best performance capabilities, seek this latter combination in a 1956-’57 President 116″ wb four door sedan, these are two-year-only models. Forget the ’56-’57 President two door coupe, at 1,914 1956’s and 836 1957’s, they’re rare and usually expensive when they appear. The preceeding applies to Commanders too, though two door coupes are more plentiful and cheaper.
Of the six cylinder Champion: you must be a person of patience to drive one, willing to let that 185 ci under-powered engine do its work, helping out with gear shifting when needed. They will return good gas mileage with overdrive when driven correctly. An automatic-equipped Champion is a real flat-lander choice, not the car for hilly or moutainous regions. Champions in very nicely preserved condition turn up as they were typically bought by conservative older folks who took good care of them. They can be a pleasant Sunday car.
If I haven’t put you off these yet, select the year, the model and the equipment you’d like best then start the search. Be picky, don’t buy the first one you find unless its unusually good. Go inspect even the ratty, overpriced cars just to education yourself what to look for in problems and what to run away from. When you do finally find the best one for the price, you’ll know it and then act. Good luck in your search and show it to us when you get it.
You should go to U TUBE and check out THECORVETTEBEN. He is a young man who restores old cars. He is currently restoring a 1958 Studebaker Commander.
Great write-up. I’ve got this 56 in my garage right now. It’s a great little car. I would write a story about it, but it seems the 56-58 sedans have already been given nice feature stories here. Good job!
Haha, there can NEVER be too many features on 50s Studebakers. 🙂
One we have not had is one written from the perspective of living with it as an owner, 58L8134’s great comment above notwithstanding. It would make a great “My Curbside Classic” piece, if you were ever inclined.
The Studebaker Commander – the AMC Matador of its day.
Update: Shortly after this piece ran in September, the car came up on my local list of craig. It turns out to have a Chevy 350/THM transplant. An unsuccessful one, as it turns out, because the seller says the engine is shot. Which ruined my interest in the car. If I have to scare up a stray Stude 259 and convert the thing to a 3 speed/OD, it is going to have to be on a nicer car than this. Or one much cheaper than the $2k the seller has been asking (after dropping his price from $6k).
Thanks for the update, I had been wondering about that. I really hope you can find an appropriate car in 2017…
Funny you mention that. Also shortly after this piece, a Champion flat 6 motor and tranny out of an early 50’s truck came up for sale on a local Facebook page of all places. Freshly rebuilt runs fine, and super cheap. The guy was doing the opposite with his truck, swapping out the flat 6 for the usual SBC. I can feel most of you cringing from here.
That motor really could have sped up the resto, although I’m sure it still wouldn’t be a quick (or cheap) restoration. Constantly perusing auto classifieds isn’t always a good thing.
I think the only big Studebaker from this era I have ever seen in metal is a Scotsman that is/was in a funky little restaurant roadside attraction located between Deadwood and Sturgis SD. The place has a small replica Studebaker dealership complete with said Scotsman and some Hawks. Even new, the Scotsman must have been a forlorn sight sitting among its contemporaries. Painted bumpers, hubcaps and trim in the era of chrome and glitz. Other posters have criticized the styling features like the 3 part B pillar. That was pretty standard fare for all US built sedans of the time. The thing I can’t understand is the scalloped fender areas behind the wheel wells. They sure didn’t improve the looks of the car. I think their only benefit they could serve would be to provide a seam line to graft in new metal or bondo when the original lower fenders rusted out.
This Scotsman has a chrome bumper. Maybe an extra cost option? In the basement of the Studebaker museum in South Bend. By 57, I doubt most people were buying Studebakers for their looks. The Scotsman did play a very important role. It actually sold, in some quantity, and gave management the impetus to develop the Lark. Thanks to the Lark, Studebaker made a profit in 59. It’s first profit since 53.
Anybody remember the TV show “Chico and The Man?” Louie the garbage man (Scatman Crothers) would bring in his ’57 Studebaker occasionally. No one else could start it–as I recall, only HE had the magic touch! I’d like to see those TV clips again.
The commenters here state that the ’57 Studebakers were harder riding, noisy, and not too solid. I’m wondering–did the Packard versions drive more luxuriously? I believe they had more insulation, nicer trim, and bigger wheels and tires. Imagine paying Packard (OK, Clipper) money and getting something that felt cheap and unrefined. Has anyone driven one?
How good was the quality and the ride on a `57-58 ‘Packard’? Ask the man who owned one.
The ’57 & ’58 Packards drive and ride, have the refinement level found in the ’56 President Classic. There was little more done to give them a medium-priced car feel, mostly a recycling of the ’56 President Classic interior as well as “Packard-ized” styling to create the look. “Luxury” was only implied by the name, these were aimed at the medium-priced segment occupied by the Clipper heretofore. At almost $700 more than the ’57 President Classic on which it was clearly based and now with the taint of “soon-to-be-an-orphan” aura hanging over it, most shied away from taking a chance on one.
Understand that these cars were created an extremely financially distressed situation with S-P directed under the C-W joint management agreement. The development came together in six-eight months, was primarily intended to keep a Packard on the market to satisfy dealer contracts and retain some portion of the customer base in hopes a real Packard might be developed in a model year or two. Projections for sales were between 4K-6K units; they sold 4,809 cars between the 3,940 Town Sedans and 869 Country Sedans. Analysis showed they were the most profitable cars in the ’57 S-P line at $382.00 unit profit per car.
The next year was another matter, even with an attractive new hardtop,
‘contemporary’ styling and brash new supercharged Packard Hawk, too much was against it, the marque dying unceremoniously on July 25, 1958 after 2,622 were assembled.
For those who commented on their long-lost Tad Burness books when this piece first ran, I noticed that Amazon is taking pre-orders for My Dad Had That Car: A Nostalgic Look at the American Automobile, 1920-1990, by Tad Burness and Matt Stone. It’s scheduled for release in May 2017, and can be added to a Wish List if you don’t want to pre-order at the current price:
It’s not the same as the old Scholastic Book Club paperbacks of simple line drawings of old cars, but for some of us it might “scratch the itch,” so to speak.
I am the current owner of the car. It does have the 350/350 auto swap under the hood. Frame is in great shape. floor pans have been patched over the years. Last owner caught the rear seat on fire welding something in the trunk. Other than that she’s pretty solid. all the doors line up and close perfectly perfect. I drive for Mayflower and when I have an empty trailer I’ll pick up some winter projects. This was one of them. If anyone has any questions on it or are interested in it i might be willing to let it go. It needs motor work or a swap and I haven’t had the time due to my other projects (1959 GM PD4104, and a 1973 GMC Astro). You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or Text/Call 317-478-2790.
Forgot to mention, She’s titled as a Custom and according to a VIN search I did on the classic car database she came up as a ’57B Custom Sedan” as well.
I have just stumbled across your page on Stude Commanders, and thought you might appreciate a short history of my experiences with one back in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) Africa. I bought a pink running car for 90 bucks, took out all the glass, welded the doors, put in a roll-cage and oval-track raced it successfully for nearly 3 years back in the early seventies. I took out the original tranny and dropped in one from a Stude pickup that had the shifter on the floor. I have quite a few photos if you are interested. I now live in Canada. If you like I could zip up the photos and send them to you once I have your email address. Rgds. Rob Ecob
I Hope the chance come my way again to tour the studebaker museum. My first car having been a 62 lark. Fascinating history there.
Girl who went to school with me got dropped off by her mom every day on the circular driveway in front of our school at in a well cared for ’56 President. Always thought the ’56 and the ’57 were beautiful cars with the higher end trim. Always preferred the relative narrowness too. Would have liked to see these carried over for another couple of years or so with maybe stacked head lights in the dual mode. Rambler did well in the late ’50’s and early ’60’s by continuing to build on smaller platforms. Early Lark was too stubby.
What’s missing in those ads showing the ’57 Stude lineup? No convertibles at all, and no pillarless hardtops except in the Hawk series. That was tantamount to turning away thousands of customers even before they got to the dealership door. Plenty of buyers who walked into a Chevy showroom to check out a flashy Bel Air convertible ended up buying Two-Ten sedans, to be sure — but they weren’t going down the street to buy Studebakers. In 1958, they introduced a very attractive two-door hardtop, with a Mopar-esque roofline, but by then it was too late.
If you squint a bit this could easily be something from the big 3 (the 1956 facelift was clearly designed to make the car look less European and more Detroit, specifically GM). But don’t squint and the details mess things up a bit – the tiny front side window necessitated by the wraparound windshield added halfway through the 1955 model year, the thick, fully-exposed B pillar, the cut line that bisects the C pillar diagonally, the clunky vent doors behind the front wheels, the overly thick window surrounds, the narrowness of the whole car.
There was only one Studebaker in the neighborhood where I grew up, a dark blue ’64 Lark Cruiser across the street from my aunt and next door to a friend, but I never met the owner. They had it at least until my last year of high school (1983) and often saw it waiting at the light that led from the development to the closest main road as I walked or biked to school. I remain surprised to read here that Studebakers were considered dorky. I’d always thought they were a stylish if off-the-beaten-path choice. I mean, weren’t they styled by industrial-design legends like Raymond Loewy and Brooks Stevens? Didn’t the ’53 make the cover of Time mag and it and the Hawk still regarded as beautiful today? Wasn’t the Avanti about the sleekest car you could buy in 1963? So that ’64 Lark confused me; here was a Stude that looked utterly ordinary, much like a Falcon or Valiant or Chevy II or Rambler of its time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ’56-58 sedan either, though I did see a Hawk from those years a few years back (and a gorgeous red ’62), a black ’54 Commander sedan parked at a gas station for a few days, a 55 Speedster, several bulletnoses, and just a few months ago, a light blue ’63 Lark sedan driving the other direction. I’ve seen several Avantis but I think they were all post-Stude models.
Funny you should mention the ’58 Packard as being still on your list. When I was in my teens there was one a few blocks away from home. I’d walk past it on my way to the library. Never thought to take a photo; I was always being told how expensive film was. Then one day I noticed I hadn’t seen it for a while….
I wore out several copies of that American Car Spotter’s Guide. So many cool cars I’d never seen, alone with some less-cool ones that I had. And I totally agree with you on the Stude’s styling; that front bumper isn’t quite right. But it looks to me better than that hoary old ’57 Chevy so many Americans seem to almost idolize.
Oh, and that AMT ’53 Stude model? Of course! Have two…..
Forget about the Studebaker models, I am trying to make out the record label. I am a 78 rpm need. How long did they make them in Australia? I think 1957 was when the last ones were sold here.
JPC, I don’t know the answer. (The octagonal label with gold-on-red lettering is CBS Coronet)
I grew up surrounded by 78s (still am, can’t get rid of the things!). I’ve mentioned in passing before that Dad had a juke box factory when I was a little kid, but it folded about ’59-’60. Recession, aided by some faulty engineering, from trying to copy the latest American features in too much of a hurry.
But I was a little kid, and what did I know? I remember Dad (d.1989) saying we kept pressing 78s after most of the world had gone to 45s, as there were a lot of the earlier boxes still in service. The early boxes were pretty much indestructible, overengineered to take the dust of the outback. The later ones (pic below) that played 45s were not as well-built; which gave the company a bad rep.
One collector had been going to come and interview me to add to his website on the company (now gone) and collect some parts, but he died before he could make the trip. Look up “Musicola juke box” on Youtube and you’ll see some in action.
The only 78s that really interest me are from their very last years. 78s had been mostly phased out by about 1960 in the US, and a few years later in the UK. But a few corners of the world such as Argentina, Columbia, and the Philippines held out until the mid-’60s. Apparently the last place new 78s were made was India, where some British record labels sent their old 78 pressers, and where wind-up 78rpm record players that didn’t require electricity were popular. Shellac 78s were popular through the late 1960s there, and while most of the music on them is unfamiliar to Western ears, some most definitely isn’t. Me, I’d *love* a shellac 78 of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” with “Revolution” on the B side. There’s something all wrong, yet all right, about dropping the fat steel needle on the fast-spinning disk on your antique Victrola and hearing late-’60s hard rock blaring out from the grooves.
I just noticed the owner of the ’57 Stude weighed in here, and added an interior shot. That instrument panel must look really weird at night, with seemingly equal amount of red and green.
I agree that those late 78 rpm records are genuinely fascinating. They went to electrical recording starting about 1925, and the playback equipment was electrified as well, but otherwise the disc tech was pretty mature by maybe 1930.
I came across a modern 78 rpm disc made with a vinyl microgroove style, and the sound was quite good – I am not a recording engineer by any stretch, but I have understood that faster playback speeds allow for some superior playback characteristics, with the tradeoff being physical noise from the stylus on the disc an short playing time.
Apparently 78s were made until about 1980 in India in small numbers.
Although new mainstream shellac 78s disappeared in the US by the early ’60s, vinyl or polystyrene 10 inch 78s of children’s music and stories were sold here at least into the late ’60s, and I remember having a few around as a little kid (inherited from my older brothers). This was because when many parents bought new phonographs in the ’50s that could play the new LPs and 45s, they put their old 78-only record players in their kid’s room to give them something to listen to, creating a market for kid-oriented 78s for awhile.
I had not thought about the jukebox angle as a reason to keep the old 78 around longer, but it makes perfect sense.
The Studebaker sedan styling was always handicapped by their extremely clumsy handling of the C-pillar and the accompanying wrap-around rear window. How Studebaker screwed everything up in 1953 is extremely comical yet so, so sad. Coupes built on the long-wheelbase chassis. Sedan styling an afterthought plastered on bodies designed in 1949, and mostly on a shorter wheelbase than the coupes.
They spent a lot of money re-working just about every other area of the car over the years, but never touched the one thing that never quite worked in the first place, and which was the clearest clue to the casual observer that “this is a car that was designed in 1953”, or, actually, “this is a car that was designed in 1949 and butchered in 1953”.