Vintage Speed Age Track Test: 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk, Chrysler 300-B, Corvette and Thunderbird – Comparing “America’s ’56 Sports Cars”

In a recent post here with a 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk, CC’s Jim Cavanaugh left a comment about a 1956 Speed Age comparison where the Golden Hawk was faster than the Corvette. That somewhat surprised me, although the GH did have 275 hp to the Corvette’s 225, and had almost 100 more cubic inches (352 vs. 265). The Corvette was pretty universally acknowledged to be the quickest American car that year, and in subsequent ones.

So I found one at eBay and bought it. Was there something that favored the Golden Hawk in this comparison? Why yes there was, not surprisingly.

Speed Age requested that all four cars be equipped with automatics, for a fair comparison. Guess which one didn’t? The Golden Hawk came with a three-speed manual, and given the apparent inefficiency of the Packard Ultramatic, that made a big difference. And although the there was no specs given, that means it likely had a considerably lower final drive ratio. So it’s not too surprising it bested the Powerglide-equipped Corvette in the acceleration runs.

Let’s jump to that right off, since that’s what precipitated this. There’s two ways of looking at this; if the Golden Hawk had come with an automatic, based on six reviews of the GH with Ultramatic, the average 0-60 time was 9.5 seconds. That would have made it last in this comparison.

On the other hand, the average of several ’56 Corvette reviews with the standard three-speed manual was 7.4 seconds for the 0-60.

So let’s get that apples-to-oranges part of the comparison out of the way and move on to the other aspects.

Stock car driver Jimmy Reece was tasked with wringing out what Speed Age called “America’s Sports Cars”.  Jimmy starts out with acknowledging that except for the Corvette, these aren’t actually sports cars, but “sports-type cars”. The terminology of high performance cars other than genuine sports cars just hadn’t yet been fleshed out, and it never was, perfectly so. Reece did put the 300 in a special category, as he might well, as it was the only American car at the time to come equipped standard with what it took to be competitive on NASCAR’s high speed tracks (the lighter Chevrolet was the dominant car at the short tracks).

Reece found strengths and weaknesses in each of them; such as the Golden Hawk’s “blazing get-away from a standing start…and the T-Bird’s comfortable ride“. As noted, the GH was the fastest accelerating car of the four, but “it trailed the others in handling and cornering…was much too slow on steering and showed a tremendous amount of lean in even moderate corners. ” The 300’s handling was deemed excellent, and the Corvette’s “stable and firm“, whereas the Thunderbird had “a great tendency to ‘roll’ in tight turns.

The Hawk was powered by the big 325 cubic inch Packard V8, a one year anomaly, as in 1957 it used a supercharged version of Studebaker’s 289 inch V8, also rated at 275 hp. We have a vintage review of a ’57, and it’s interesting to note that although were rated at 275 hp, the ’57 was a fair bit slower, taking 9.3 seconds to 60, and 17.3 seconds in the 1/4 mile. It too had the three speed manual. My guess is that the larger displacement and naturally aspirated Packard V8’s torque curve was lower and more useful than the supercharged Studebaker engine.

But the Hawk’s acceleration was “spoiled by the fact that the car’s suspension is too soft for good handling and cornering.” The column-mounter gear shift didn’t help matters, nor the awkward foot pedals. I keep reading about how the low steering column between the gas pedal and brake pedal (still old-fashioned floor-mounted) hampered their use, with the operators feet getting hung up on the column.

On severe turns, there was a tremendous amount of body roll, causing the rear wheel to lift and break traction. On one severe curve, the roll-over was so severe that it placed a tell-tale black mark almost down to the white sidewall of the tires.”  The overly-slow steering only compounded the Hawk’s handling issues.

But the instrument panel came in for praise; what’s not to like about an honest machine-turned steel panel with round S-W gauges in it?

The ’56 Corvette had received a number of suspension improvements. “In city driving, the Corvette rides firmly but stiff, but once on the highway the stiff suspension and shocking was a boon to proper handling and cornering at high speeds.”

The Corvette’s engine, with dual four-barrel carbs, was praised for its ability to rev cleanly to an indicated 7000 rpm “without noticeable valve float or vibration…It seems to be sturdy enough“. And of course “it had a healthy sound“.

The styling changes for 1956 were generally liked, but the instrument panel showed deficiencies, with a way-too much tachometer placed too far off to the side. The racing-style steering wheel found favor with Reece.

Steering is fast, but not fast enough for competition. Some brake fade was evident in hard, fast corners, but not as much as most other cars. Both these issues (and others) were of course addressed with HD parts and components available optionally, or at Chevy parts counters.

The suspension revisions enhanced the Corvette’s feel, especially at higher speeds. It did tend to drift some in fast corners, “but it was a comfortable and secure drift that left me with complete control of the automobile, and I was able to handle it as desired by opening or closing the throttle.”  The Corvette was now highly competitive with the best European sports cars in handling, and superior in power.

The Powerglide came in for positive comments, and seemed quite up to the tasks required of it, even full-on out on the track. And of course it was a boon in city driving, with only a moderate penalty in performance.

Although the Thunderbird’s styling was very attractive, it clearly was more of a “family-type sports car“. The ride was much softer, resulting in excessive lean in corners. The power steering was difficult for this stock car racer to get used to.

The Thunderbird was third in the acceleration runs, thanks to its beefy and torquey 312 cubic inch V8. Its power characteristics were quite different than the Corvette’s high-winding engine: best times were achieved by letting the automatic shift at 4000 rpm; when held in Low to 4600 rpm, the time was not as good.

The Thunderbird, Corvette and Hawk all suffered from fuel starvation in fast corners, one of the specific things that the ’57 Corvette’s optional fuel injection was designed to address.

The Thunderbird’s soft suspension resulted in “considerable lean in the corners”, hampering its track times. Its interior came in for praise, and its brakes were quite good too.

Reece loved the 300; did he drive one in the races too? I’m guessing a sports car racer might have naturally leaned a bit more in the Corvette’s direction. But Reece did not like the power steering, which was too quick and light.

Although packing the most hp (340), the 300 was the slowest accelerating car of the four. That’s not too surprising, for such a large and heavy car; its forte was high speeds, the key to its domination of the long tracks at NASCAR that year. It was well known that a Chevy sedan was quicker than the 300 (or any other). A 205 hp version in a vintage review did the 0-60 in 9.0. That would have made it very competitive with the others in this test, and its handling was undoubtedly better than all except the Corvette, and on par with the 300.

Reece liked the push button controls for the two-speed Powerflite automatic. The big hemi sounded like a race car at idle, and rumbled at speed. “I was surprised with the way the car handled under severe cornering tests, even with power steering. I could feel very little body lean at all, if any. But the power steering “was ideal for parking“.

Reece concluded by saying that “America’s venture into the sports car, or sports-type car world has not been a lost cause.” That’s a relief. But in 1956, this was all still quite new stuff for mainstream cars. And of course it was just the beginning.


Related CC reading:

Vintage SCI Review: 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk – As Fast As The Chrysler 300C, And A Lot Cheaper

Vintage SCI Review: 1957 Thunderbird – Do We Detect a Wee Bit of Corvette Envy?

Vintage R&T Road Test: 1956 Chevrolet 210 205 HP – “The Hot One Is Even Hotter”

Curbside Classic: 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk–Twilight Pink