Truckstop Classic: 1960 Studebaker Champ – Just Needs Some Fresh Horsepower

(first posted 7/6/2011)    No, this multi-hued Studebaker Champ is not trying to be artistic. Its cab appears to have been stitched together out of a number of junkyard Champs (Anderson Bros. is a truck junkard, after all). And rather appropriate, because Studebaker stitched the Champ together out of the body dies in its junkyard out back, more or less. Sounds a bit harsh, but as we’ve seen over and over, when it comes to the dying years of the independents, necessity is the mother of desperate acts of cobbling up things from whatever one has on hand. Or can beg from someone else. Now this particular one is also missing some major 20th Century components, but fear not, this Champ has a very viable future in the 21st Century indeed.

So what exactly did Studebaker cobble up with its new for 1960 Champ? Well that depends on which pair of glasses you’re wearing. Now I’m not exactly famous for wearing my rose-colored glasses very often, but I’ll humor you and slip them on for a paragraph or two:

The Champ is often held up as a prophetic pickup, inasmuch as it has a genuine passenger car cab, conveniently borrowed from the Lark, which itself was of course nothing but a 1953 Studebaker sedan with its front and rear ends drastically shortened. Strictly speaking, the Lark wasn’t a true compact; more like a stubby mid-sized car. Which of course explains how its front half fit so handily on Studebaker’s 1949 vintage frame. Ooops; the glasses are slipping already.

Yes, although some claim the Champ to be some brilliant marriage of passenger car comfort and truck utility, their glasses are rosier than mine. The reality was that Studebaker’s 1949 vintage truck cab was hopelessly out-of date looking by the late fifties (1959 model above), and Studebaker couldn’t afford the dies for a new one. Presto: the front half of a Lark four-door sedan with a new rear panel fit quite well on the old chassis. And there was nothing particularly passenger-car-ish about the ride its solid horse-wagon front and rear axles afforded. But that’s the essence of the Champ; what you see is what you get: a 1949 Studebaker truck with a shortened 1953 Studebaker sedan cab.

But Studebaker called it “all-new”. And these very-well dressed folk seem mighty impressed indeed!  Why not? And what else was Studebaker to do, given their plight? And folks bought it, metaphorically and literally; at least for a year (probably not the suits in the picture). The “all new” 1960 model created a nice little bump in sales, but that began to quickly crack in 1961, starting with the cylinder heads.

The 1960 models still had the old 170 and 245 CID flathead sixes, as well as the 259 and 289 V8s. But for 1961, the little six got a new OHV head, and it was problematic. It did bump power from 90 to 112 hp, but its rep got bad quicker than it accelerated the Champ to thirty.

The other thing the 1961 models sported was a fashionable new “Spaceside” beds, which obviously didn’t fit the cab at all. That’s because the beds came courtesy of Dodge. There was no way Studebaker could afford a new bed. Now the Champ really was a Frankenbaker. Or Studodge. Or Lardge. Or?

Just for historical perspective, Studebaker made a fairly full line of trucks until its end in South Bend, but the larger ones still used the old cab. The biggest of them, like this E 45 (picture by CC Cohort Dave_7), used Detroit Diesel engines and could haul a semi trailer full of new Larks and Champs.

Now before we take a closer look at this Champ, let’s also just consider the front end styling similarities of our two Curbside Classics today.

Well, the actual Lark’s grille was a didn’t have those bars, but a textured inset even more like the Valiant. Worth pondering, and remembering that the Lark came out just one year before the Valiant. I’m not implying cribbing; design ideas are never created in a vacuum, and this was a popular theme, especially with Virgil Exner at Chrysler and Duncan McRae at Studebaker. There was plenty of cross-pollination of ideas between them. (Update: turns out my speculation was right on the money: Here’s out full story on how that came to be)

So that’s been the good news about the Champ. Or was it the bad? Depending on your point of view, the bad/good news is that this one is not even complete; it’s more of what you would call a glider kit.  A peek through those bars show that the engine compartment is bare. It’s not a problem; it’s an opportunity! Here’s the chance to update the Champ for the 21st Century. What shall it be? An Ecotec turbo four and transmission from a Solstice/Sky? A biodiesel from a??

The interior is really ready for a modernizing update; look how open and airy it feels, like taking down the interior walls of an old house. Just hang an LED panel from the cowl, put in some modern buckets, and cover the rest in some mod organic material, like woven hemp. A bamboo strip floor will complement nicely. This truck is just waiting for a fresh new start and some creative thinking.

But those power train choices are already so late 20th Century. We need to really put on our futurist hats, and the future is embedded in this very Champ.

Yes, this Champ has a genuine Studebaker bed out back. Now that should inspire something: this bed is the very last direct descendant of what made Studebaker successful in the first place;

Wagons, the animal-powered kind. Starting in 1852, Studebaker grew to become the largest manufacturer of wagons in the 19th century.

Well, what else? It’s back to the future: a horse drawn Champ! It will be the darling of Eugene, when it shows up every Saturday morning at the Farmer’s Market with a load of fresh organic vegetables from the local farms.