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1950-51 Studebakers

The appearance of the Studebaker causes an immediate reaction in the minds of most persons: They either like it or have a positive distaste for it. It is not for us to state whether or not the lines are good or bad from an esthetic point of view; however, they do possess strong originality.

--Walter Woron, Motor Trend (June 1951).     

The topic of today's presentation is the most popular Studebaker in the company's entire history. More of these cars were sold in just two model years--343,164 in 1950 and another 268,565 in '51--than any other design of wheeled vehicle produced in the company's entire 112-year history, from the first six ox-power 1854 Conestoga convertible to the last 1966 Cruiser sedan. It played a starring role in one of the most beloved family films of all time, and because of this it's the car most people who aren't car buffs think of when they hear the word "Studebaker." It's also a perennial favorite of every flavor of car nerd, from hot-rodders to restorationists. You could say that this Studebaker is number one on the charts--with a bullet.

Bullet nose, that is.

"Big old jet Studebaker/Don't carry me too far away...."

The "bullet nose" Studes of 1950 and 1951 were styled by two of the greatest automotive artists of the era, Virgil M. Exner (of "Forward Look" fame) and Robert Bourke. Mr. Exner's part in the story came first. He was the lead stylist on the team which designed a completely new range of Studebakers for the 1947 model year. The '47s used an "envelope body" design with quarter panels and a full-width body in place of the separate fenders and narrow bodies of 1930s designs--somethimg that, up until then, had been seen only on a few prewar show cars, and some wartime concept art. Studebaker's advertising proudly proclaimed that it was "First by far with a postwar car!"--South Bend had put the "car of the future" into production a year or more ahead of Detroit and the other independents (with the arguable exception of Kaiser-Frazer).

The '47 Studes came in four variations, a two-door sedan, a four-door sedan with rear suicide doors (including a stretched "Land Cruiser" submodel), a "Starlight" coupe with a dramatic wraparound backlight, and a convertible. There was also a prototype "woody" station wagon shown at some "preview" PR events, but it was not put into production because of lumber shortages caused by the postwar housing boom.

Beneath the sheetmetal, the chassis was standard practice for the time: an independent front suspension and a solid axle on leaf springs aft. The prime mover was either the "Champion" 170 cubic inch 80 HP flathead straight six, introduced in 1939, or a bigger (245 cubic inch) 102 HP flathead straight six, used in the upscale "Commander" models, which could trace its mechanical ancestry back to the 1932 Rockne.

The Starlight coupe's styling...

"So unique it's patented!" ...was a little too dramatic for some people's tastes, and there were jokes about how hard it supposedly was to figure out whether it was going forward or backward, but in the postwar auto boom the Starlights and their sedan and droptop cousins sold about as fast as Studebaker could stamp them out.

By the middle of 1948, most of the other carmakers had come out with their own trendy new postwar envelope body designs. While the cars were still selling well, Studebaker management understood that they needed to freshen the styling to stay competitive. To save tooling costs, it was decided to rework the '47 original by giving it a new "front clip," rather than to design a completely new car.

The first attempt at a restyling resulted in a hideous creature which Studebaker wisely did not put into production. The job of designing a better front end then fell to Robert Bourke, who worked in Raymond Loewy's South Bend branch office and had been one of Mr. Exner's assistants on the design team for the '47. Mr. Bourke had been sketching airplane-themed car designs since before the war. and now he picked up those design elements, stepped to the plate, and swung for the fences.

Mr. Bourke's bullet-nose design is said to have been specifically inspired by the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, and one good look at the airplane...

This is one of the YP-38 prototypes undergoing testing in all you need to confirm that theory.

1950 2-door sedan

The forward-thrust headlight pods and the central "bullet" with its chrome "spinner" are perfectly synchronized with the lines of the '47 body, and look especially good on the Starlight coupe. The new front end completely transformed the look of the car, a rather impressive feat when you consider that the rest of the 1947 sheetmetal was completely untouched. The only significant styling change aft of the cowl was a new set of tail lights.

I'll confess to having somewhat mixed feelings about the bullet nose myself. Half the time, I look at it and think it's perfect; on other occasions, it seems to be crying out to me for a three bladed Hamilton Standard constant speed propeller. When my son and I toured the Studebaker Museum in South Bend with Virgil Exner, Jr., Mr. Exner told me that his father wasn't particularly fond of these cars. The elder Mr. Exner liked the idea of forward-thrusting fenders, he liked the idea of a bullet-shaped nose, he just didn't think they both should be on the same car at the same time.

The '50 Studes may have been polarizing--the detractors gave them such endearing nicknames as "torpedo nose" and "two-row corn picker"--but the aggregate public reaction was overwhelmingly positive.  They hit the showrooms in August of 1949, and by the end of the first day, dealers were telegraphing South Bend with enthusiastic reports:

Showroom crowded to capacity.

Public acceptance best ever.

Huge crowds, all agreed Studebaker still leads the way.

Showing a definite flop, showroom holds 100 people, needed room for 500!

Legend has it that one West Coast dealer, nervous about how the public might react to the new front clip, put potted plants in front of all of the cars in the showroom to camouflage them! The potted plants were surely gone by nightfall.

This is an example of the Land Cruiser.The popularity of the '50 Studes was also enhanced by their mechanical and financial improvements over the '49s. The engineering department took advantage of the restyling to rework the front suspension geometry to improve the ride, add sway bars, and switch from lever-action shocks to the newfangled "tube" type on the low-priced Commander series. (Because it used the larger straight six, the Commander and its super-sized Land Cruiser submodel rode on a longer frame, had slightly longer front sheetmetal, and kept the older style shocks.) Simultaneously, the bean-counters managed to cut the base MSRP of a new Champion sedan to $1,487, making it price-competitive with the entry-level offerings from Ford ($1,424), Chevy ($1,482), and Plymouth ($1,371). In March of 1950, a de-contented Champion Custom trim level was added to the catalog, knocking the starting price down to $1,419.

Automatic DriveAnd then it got even better. In April, Studebaker introduced the "Automatic Drive" as a $201 option on the Land Cruiser, and soon after made it available on all models. This was a fully automatic 3-speed transmission using a lockup torque converter and planetary gears, engineered in a joint effort by Studebaker and Borg-Warner (who referred to it as the "Three Band" or "DG 250").

From the perspective of today's automotive world, where computer-controlled automatics of once-unimaginable efficiency are all but universal, it's a little hard for us to appreciate just what a big deal the Automatic Drive was. Immediately before it was introduced, the only automatic transmissions on offer to retail buyers in North America were GM's Powerglide, Dynaflow, and Hydra-Matic, and the Packard Ultramatic.

The "slip-n-slide Powerglide," a $159 option for Chevrolets, was an unbelievably crude contraption. I've driven a '50 Chevy with a Powerglide, and to describe the acceleration as "sluggish" is an insult to slugs. The "Dynaslush," unique to the petit bourgeoisie Buick brand, relied on the torque converter alone for acceleration, making a V-8 Buick's performance almost as excruciating as a straight-six Chevy's. In contrast, the Hydra-Matic and Ultramatic were masterpieces of the engineering arts, but were available only on upper-middle class Oldsmobiles and patrician Cadillacs and Packards.

So here you have Studebaker introducing an autobox which is the mechanical and functional equal of the Hydra-Matic and Ultramatic, priced competitively with them, and available on even the humblest cheapskate Champion Custom. It was such a good transmission that Ford, which was then still several years away from developing an automatic of its own, asked Studebaker if it could supply Automatic Drive trannies for Ford's 1951 models. Studebaker turned Ford down, missing out on what could have been a very profitable relationship.

By the end of the model year, the South Bend plant was working three shifts, and Studebaker's satellite factories in Hamilton, Ontario and Los Angeles were running at capacity. The company had 25,000 employees, the most in its postwar history, gross revenue of $447 million, and a $22.5 million after-tax profit.

"Wow! I coulda had a V-8!"For 1951, Studebaker replaced the Champion's flathead straight six with a new overhead valve V-8. Mechanical engineers had known for decades that placing the valves at the top of the cylinder allowed for better airflow ("breathing") than the side-valve arrangement. Overhead valves driven by overhead cams were found on the "Liberty" aircraft engine designed in 1917 and Duesenberg straight eights of the '20s and '30s, and nearly every combat aircraft engine that flew in World War II had either overhead cams or pushrod overhead valves--yet flatheads had persisted in use for mass-market automobiles, mostly because they were simple and easy to produce.

That all changed in late 1948, when GM introduced two new OHV V-8s for the 1949 model year, the 135 HP Olds "Rocket V8" and the 160 HP Cadillac 331. Studebaker was aware that GM had new V-8s under development, and the engineering department had been working on its response well before the GM engines hit the streets.

That response was a 233-cubic inch engine producing 120 HP and 190 pounds of torque, the first OHV engine produced by one of the "independents." It was an engine with a lot of growth potential, and after a decade of steady improvements evolved into the terror-inducing R-series Avanti engines of 1963 and 1964. Of more immediate importance was the fact that it was significantly more powerful, and more compact, than the Rockne straight six it was replacing.

Since the V-8 was shorter than a straight six, there was no longer any need for the Commander to have a longer frame than the Champion. For 1951, all Champions and Commanders, except for the stretched-out Land Cruisers, rode on the same wheelbase, using the 1950 Champion frame and the same front sheetmetal. This allowed Studebaker to rationalize its parts supply and operate its assembly plants more efficiently.

It also made driving a Studebaker Commander into a more interesting experience. In a review published in the January 1951 issue of Mechanix Illustrated, Tom McCahill, who was sort of the David E. Davis of his day, wrote that the V-8 "transforms the maidenly Studie of recent years into a rip-roaring hell-for-leather performer that can belt the starch out of practically every other American This is the brochure for the '51 Mobilgas Economy on the road." The car clocked in at 12.5 seconds from 0-60. This is not exactly "hell-for-leather" by modern standards--a Prius could outrun it--but in 1951, there were very few cars that could have done the 0-60 dash in under 20 seconds.

Besides being pretty badass for 1951, the Commander was also shockingly economical. In that year's Mobilgas Economy Run, a Commander with a manual overdrive transmission managed 28 MPG coast to coast, coming in second--0.62 MPG behind the winner, a Studebaker Champion. That's pretty "rip-roaring" fuel economy for a full-size car with a V-8, even by today's standards.

There were fewer '51 Studes sold than '50s--largely due to materials shortages imposed by the government on account of the Korean War--but a much higher proportion of them were the more expensive (and profitable) V-8 Commander. It certainly looked like Studebaker was on its way to becoming as big as one of the Big Three.

Actually, the '50 and '51 model years were Studebaker's high water mark. In less than 15 years, it would be out of the car business entirely. There were many factors contributing to the decline--high labor costs, inefficient production facilities, the 1954 GM-Ford price war, and more than a few bad management decisions--but even in some of its darkest days, its designers and engineers showed the same creative genius as they did on the 1950s and 1951s.

Go to any Studebaker gathering, and you'll see quite a few bullet noses. Some are works in progress,...

IIRC, the owner had just finished the mechanical work and was about to start on the body.

...some are museum-grade restorations,...

Drool, drool, slobber, covet, WANT!...and quite a few are customizations of varying degrees.

There's probably a requirement written into the Hot Rodders' Procedural Manual & Code of Ethics that the first step for all '50 and '51 Studebaker builds is to take off the front bumper. At that point, some people leave the sheetmetal intact and confine the modifications to things like new rims, bucket seats, and the inevitable Chevy smallblock. That's what was done with this convertible, and the result was very Lust-worthy.

Nice, nice....Others get a little more aggressive:

Chopped, dropped, and channeled.....I think it says something about the basic rightness of Virgil Exner and Bob Bourke's original designs that you can alter the proportions this radically and it still looks good.

"...What's so amazing that keeps us stargazing, and what do we think we might see? Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection, the lovers, the dreamers, and me."I've also seen Studebaker bullet noses, including fiberglass reproductions, grafted onto cars that are not Studebakers. At last year's SDC Ohio meet, there was a fifth-generation El Camino with a Stude nose. I don't have a picture of it, and if I did I wouldn't put it in this post and subject you to it. It was wrong--just,...wrong.

No discussion of the bullet-nosed Studes would be complete without mentioning the most famous and beloved bullet-nosed Stude of all time, the 1951 Commander two-door sedan which co-stars with Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear in The Muppet Movie.

A road movie crossed with a Road Runner cartoon, punctuated by pun barrages, with elements of Gilbert & Sullivan light opera, postmodernism, and a bit of fourth wall breaking thrown in for the sheer fun of it, the film follows Kermit on his cross-country journey to Hollywood to break into show business. Along the way, he is pursued by the villainous Doc Hopper, operator of a franchised fast food chain selling "French-fried Frog Legs," who wants Kermit for his spokes-frog--and won't take "no" for an answer.

Rather early on, Kermit ends up hitching a ride from Fozzie Bear, who is, naturally, driving a Studebaker. In order to give the puppeteers room to work in the scenes where Fozzie and Kermit are in the moving car, the controls were relocated to the trunk. The driver had a closed-circuit TV system with the camera in the Stude's nose so he could see where he was going.

Later in the story, Kermit and Fozzie meet up with the members of the flamboyant rock band Doctor Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, who repaint the Studebaker in a music video sequence.

The Stude is now in the museum in South Bend.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

The YP-38 photo came from Wikipedia. The ads are from John's Old Car & Truck Ads and the brochure collection at The Old Car Manual Project.


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I've always thought the front end looks cartoonish. Not like a real car should look like. Certainly not like a car from the 50's should look like. That said, I don't hate the look, it's just odd. I love the side profile of these cars, though I'd design with a slightly higher trunk line

My aunt had one of the bullet nosed coupes when I was boy and I loved going for rides in it with her as I always could pretend I was Buck Rogers on his way to defend the galaxy.

The father (a machinist, I guess) of one person I knew back in the '50's fashioned a propeller, which he placed on the famous "bullet nose." Apparently he had to rework it a few times to keep the balance right. My favorite, and that of many others were the Hawk models in the mid '50's.

I like them better with the front bumper in place, but to each their own.

I have to say I'm in the "meh" camp when it comes to these. Just too gaudy and, well, weird (and not in a good way) for my tastes. And the trunk line should be higher. But fabulously well done article, as usual.

The Starlight bulletnose coupe is sublime. It is probably one of the most perfect automotive art-for-art's-sake production car designs* ever. Ever. A 63-year old drivable automatic 28-mpg V8 is just icing on the cake.

(*Right alongside the shark nose Graham, coffin nose Cord, boat tail Auburn, 1st gen Toronado, and Avanti R1, with a few others.)

My grandfather worked for Studebaker during the 30's-60's. I have his 25 years of service pin, among others. He won an employees' drawing for a new 1950 Champ. I just found the picture of him getting the key from an executive on Christmas Eve, maybe the president of the company. He washed the car several times a week, careful to spray the undercarriage (South Bend salted its streets then), and we kids could ride in it, but no food, drinks, or horseplay allowed. He was on the design team, I believe. Our family always drove Studebakers until the bitter end when the quality of the vehicles really suffered a decline. I recall the gearshift of our Lark would stick, and I'd have to stop the car, open the hood, and shift the gears by hand. Still, a Studebaker was a classy-looking car.

Many don't know that more Studebakers were sold in the 50 and 51 years than any other time, I have had two of them still have a 51 Commander V8.

Has anyone ever mated up the front ends of two bullet nose four doors so it's hard to tell if it's coming or going??

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