The 1939-1940 Studebaker Champion was a roll of the dice in a market Studebaker had misjudged before. It wasn't enough for Studebaker's two leading executives to have rescued the company from ruin during the Great Depression; Harold Vance and Paul Hoffman had bigger, farther-reaching aims than that. Introducing the Champion was one way to realize them.
"Resolved that the program . . . for bringing out a new model passenger car in the low-price field be, and hereby is, approved." So said the Studebaker board at its meeting of April 26, 1938. It was a seemingly simple decision, taken at the behest of president Hoffman and board chairman Vance, yet it amounted to a 90-degree turn for the 86-year-old company, which had started life making farm wagons.
In fact, this action would prove one of Studebaker's most important to date, one that would bring new vigor to the struggling automaker, at least temporarily.
Harold S. Vance had worked his way up from the bottom, having started as a machinist's helper at the old EMF (Everett-Metzker-Flanders) company in Port Huron, Michigan, in 1910. When Studebaker absorbed EMF, Vance was promoted to purchasing agent, then to assistant treasurer. By 1926, he had risen to vice president in charge of manufacturing and engineering. In 1935, he was named chairman of the board.
Paul Gray Hoffman had taken a far different path to the top. Born and raised in Chicago, he started his career as a porter for the Halladay Auto Company in 1908, then began selling Studebakers three years later. Recognizing a large and mostly untapped market in southern California, he emigrated there in the early Teens and proceeded to strike it rich.
A hard worker and a natural-born salesperson, Hoffman amassed a sizable personal fortune by 1925 after establishing several profitable Studebaker outlets in the Los Angeles area. This phenomenal success prompted Studebaker president Albert R. Erskine to offer him the job of vice president for sales.
Hoffman's intelligence and business acumen put him a cut above Studebaker's other junior executives, and he was named president in 1933 when the firm was forced into bankruptcy (and Erskine committed suicide).
Learn how Hoffman and Vance saved the automaker on to the next page.
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Hoffman and Vance acted as receivers but would not hear of liquidating the venerable South Bend, Indiana, concern. Up against incredible odds, they worked tirelessly with the banks, vendors, the local labor force, and dealers to forge a new company. By 1935, Studebaker was victorious, and Hoffman and Vance were cynosures of the industry.
Despite the accolades heaped upon them, both men knew the company was perched on a slippery ledge. At the close of the 1935 model year, Studebaker clutched to a slim 1.4 percent of the U.S. auto market -- an all-time low -- after selling only 50,000 cars.
The figure was only two percent by the time Hoffman pitched the board in April 1938, when he noted that Studebaker needed at least a four percent share (approximately 125,000 vehicles per year) just to survive.
Management felt it wishful thinking to believe any share increase could be attained with only medium-priced products. Studebaker needed at least a small corner of the low-price market.
But as the directors learned, a new smaller car had been in the works for some three years, and a running prototype was being tested at the time they voted to proceed with production.
The story of this car's development begins in early 1935, when Hoffman gathered the engineering staff in his office. Most of those attending had been involved with Studebaker's two previous ventures into low-price territory, then largely ruled by the Big Three.
The first was the spritely Erskine of 1927-1930; the second was the even less successful Rockne of 1932-1933. Both these failures probably had less to do with the vehicles themselves than they did with poor timing, pricing, and marketing.
Seeking to avoid making the same mistakes again, Hoffman commissioned a survey by a marketing research firm called Facts, Inc., to learn what people wanted in an automobile -- and what they didn't like about their present transportation.
The results, tabulated from over 5,000 respondents, showed a preference for a full-size car with at least six cylinders, a comfortable ride, good operating economy -- and a price of only $600-$800.
In particular, the surveys showed that fuel economy had been a constant concern between 1935 and 1938, with close to 20 percent of respondents reporting it as their greatest disappointment. Indeed, one independent study calculated that the average driver in 1938 was achieving only 13.6 mpg.
So how to design such a car? Learn what Studebaker did on to the next page.
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Designing the 1939-1940 Studebaker Champion's Engine
Hoffman saw Studebaker as the venturesome independent. He recognized that low-priced offerings had become larger and heavier, thus blurring distinctions with medium-priced models.
One reason was the Big Three's tendency to engineer powerplants for low-priced cars so they could be easily enlarged for use in their medium-priced lines. That meant relatively large and heavy engines with chassis to match -- and a consequent reduction in operating efficiency.
With a smaller, lighter engine in a weight-conscious car designed exclusively for it, Studebaker might carve its needed niche in the low-price market.
To handle the task, Hoffman tapped chief engineer Roy E. Cole, who had come to Studebaker from Chrysler's Dodge Brothers division in 1929. According to Harold Churchill, former engineering v.p. and a later Studebaker president himself, Cole was perfectly suited for the job, as "a lightweight economy car had always been a fetish of his."
Cole took a hand-picked group of engineers to Detroit, where they set up drafting tables in a dusty corner of the old EMF building on Piquette Avenue (a structure built by Henry Ford in 1904 that still stands today).
The reason for moving from South Bend was to avoid any pressure from those not directly involved in the project. The team had been given the proverbial clean sheet of paper, and it wanted no interference.
Freed from the constraints of designing an engine with room to grow. Cole's team, headed by Eugene Hardig, created a minor masterpiece: a flathead six of 164.3 cid that weighed only 455 pounds -- including transmission.
That was 155 pounds lighter on average than a comparable Big Three engine, yet the new design yielded only six less horsepower. Bore and stroke measured 3.00 x 3.83 inches. Compression ratio was set at 6.25:1.
Thoughtful simplicity was the essence of this engine. For example, the crankshaft not only had integral balance weights but also ran in four main bearings of 2.29-inch diameter, which meant 10-42 percent more bearing surface area per cubic inch than competitive engines.
The crank's rigidity eliminated the need for a weighty vibration damper, and all main and connecting-rod bearings were interchangeable steel-back Babbitt-lined types.
Despite its weight-saving design, the new six proved durable and flexible enough to be used in Studebaker's smaller trucks beginning in 1941. It then went on to power the M-29 "Weasel" personnel carriers that Studebaker built during World War II. In fact, this engine would persist in South Bend with only minor variations through the 1960 model year, after which Studebaker gave it an overhead-valve cylinder head.
Some years ago, John Bond, a former Studebaker engineer and later editor of Road & Track, observed that this was "one of the first engines of its era that would take 5,000 rpm for hours on dyno tests."
For more information on the development of the 1939-1940 Studebaker Champion, continue on to the next page.
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Developing the 1939-1940 Studebaker Champion Body
Having devised the required engine, Studebaker proceeded to build an automobile around it. As a first step, engineers purchased eight low-priced cars (four from the U.S. and four from Europe), disassembled each, and weighed the parts.
Attention was also given to each vehicle's unique features. The idea was not only to become thoroughly familiar with the competition but to find areas where significant weight savings could be achieved.
The result was a new chassis that was stiffer and stronger per pound than any previous Studebaker frame -- and 30-percent lighter than those of class competitors.
Its backbone comprised straight crossmembers arranged in the usual "X," but fully boxed at the center and unusually deep at 7.9 inches. Wheelbase ultimately emerged as 110 inches, just two inches less than that of the 1939 Ford and Chevy.
Front suspension was never in doubt: an improved version of the "Planar" independent system devised by Delmar G. "Barney" Roos and introduced with Studebaker's 1935 models. This involved a transverse semi-elliptic spring with 11 leaves clamped to the box section of the front frame crossmember.
Shocks were medaille double-action hydraulic units front and rear. Steering was by Rosstwin-lever gear with variable ratio (19.5 to 24:1). A 17-inch steering wheel also enhanced handling ease, as did needle bearing in the knuckle pins.
With their lighter powerplant, engineers could trim 46 pounds from the suspension, wheels, and steering without sacrificing ride, handling, or safety. The frame itself weighed 68 pounds less than the competitive chassis; the rear axle assembly was lighter by 33 pounds. In all, a savings of 357 pounds was realized on the rolling chassis and driveline, including some 80 pounds in unsprung weight (i.e., weight not directly supported by the springs).
There's an engineering axiom that says every pound of unsprung weight equals five pounds of sprung weight, so that 80-pound reduction actually amounted to about 400 pounds so far as ride was concerned.
In the meantime, Studebaker had secured the services of Raymond Loewy, the suave industrial designer who'd already achieved prominence with a client list that read like a Who's Who of American industry.
Though Loewy contributed to many of the designs emanating from his New WK studio, the sheer number of projects at any given time dictated that most of the actual work be done by talented subordinates. Loewy himself tended to function more as a "front man" with clients -- he could certainly "sell" a
design -- and is thus usually credited with work not solely his own.
The new low-priced Studebaker was no exception. Though typically termed a "Loewy" design, it was actually penned by Clare Hodgman, the head of Loewy's products division. In his book Never Leave Well Enough Alone, Loewy described Hodgman as "one of the country's foremost designers," one "gifted with a delightful sense of icy humor is the ideal traveling companion for those long stretches through the Middle West. . . ."
This was the firm's first Studebaker commission, so Hodgman labored mostly in New York, but the success of this project led to other contracts, and Loewy eventually set up a special studio in South Bend.
Learn about the Champion's final design touches in the next section.
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1939-1940 Studbaker Champion Final Design Touches
Chassis and engine work were nearly complete for the 1939 Studebaker Champion when Hodgman got the assignment, so he proceeded with dimensions and other important "hard points" firmly in mind.
Studebaker management wanted nothing radical, just a conservative, "lightweight" design that would sell well. Hodgman came through with an attractive, contemporary body boasting several features not found on other low-priced cars.
For example, he omitted running boards (which saved another 33 pounds), and further cleaned up appearance by using concealed door and trunk hinges. The interior was designed for installation of the "Climatizer," Studebaker's heater/defroster system that put the heating unit below the driver's seat so as not to reduce leg room.
Following the lead set by engineering, the complete body, including fenders and all hardware, ended up 125 pounds lighter than the competition's, yet it looked just as substantial.
To build the new car, Studebaker installed more than $3 million worth of new equipment and tooling during 1938. That impressed technical journal Automotive Industries, which ran a 16-page feature on the new "state of the art" manufacturing operation and lauded the firm for its "flexibility of thinking and courage to explore new fields of activity."
Engineers were equally busy testing four prototypes built with older-model Studebaker bodies at a cost of $60,000 apiece. Each was driven in excess of 100,000 miles at the company proving grounds and also on highways throughout the Midwest before being completely disassembled and checked for wear or damage.
Of course, the search for potential "bugs" took time, and it combined with the extensive plant retooling to delay the new car's introduction from fall 1938 to April 1939. Ironically though, that worked in Studebaker's favor, as dealer used-car inventories were by then exceptionally low. Then, too, the new model wouldn't have to share the spotlight with other 1939 Studebakers.
It remained nameless until quite late in the game, referred to inside the company as just the "X-model." Studebaker had polled its dealers when naming the Rockne (after the University of Notre Dame's famous football coach).
We're not sure that happened with the new low-priced 1939, but we do know that "Champion" wasn't decided upon until mid-January of that year. The board was definitely not involved, so the choice most likely came from Hoffman or someone on the executive board.
It was a natural in any case. Though used generically, Champion had been seen in Studebaker advertising since 1928, when the firm embarked on its campaign to rewrite the record books for speed and endurance. Its full-line 1935 catalog, for example, was titled "Studebaker Champions."
But the last-minute selection left no time for the legal staff to register "Champion" as a trademark, so the name wouldn't appear on the cars themselves until the 1941 models, which wore it on their hoods.
To learn about the success of the 1939 Studebaker Champion, see the next section.
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1939 Studebaker Champion Success
Three Studebaker Champions were assembled on January 30,1939, followed by a single car on February 8, 23 the next day, and finally 24 on February 10. All were four-door sedans painted Morocco Gray.
The production line was then shut down and virtually everyone in engineering was given a car and told to drive it at least 10,000 miles. Among them was Ray Sharp, now over 90 years old and still a South Bend resident.
Ray recalls driving his Champ out to Omaha, Nebraska, and returning in a blizzard (which likely explains why he still remembers how well the Climatizer worked). Sharp and most other staff had nothing but praise for the new car. With this one last seal of approval, a satisfied chief engineer Cole gave the go-ahead for full production.
By the time Champions arrived in force, Studebaker's advertising department, under vice president George Keller, had turned out thousands of press kits, news releases, photographs, film-strips, and banners. Time, Business Week, Popular Mechanics, and Fortune magazines all gave the newcomer an unusual amount of ink. Fortune alone ran a nine-page feature in its April issue.
In the meantime, Studebaker commissioned a professional film titled "Ahead of the Parade" to be shown at theaters across the country as a short subject. On the airwaves, Richard Himber and his "Studebaker Champions Orchestra" trumpeted the new model on 96 radio stations three nights a week. Not since the Ford Model A had a new car received so much publicity.
But it had the desired effect, and Studebaker dealers soon had more floor traffic than they'd seen in years. Some even complained they couldn't keep their demonstrators off the street.
Paul Hoffman reported to the board in April that "demand for the Champion continues to exceed the capacity of the plant working on a single shift basis." The next month he happily told directors that "public reaction has exceeded our expectations."
This enthusiastic reception was earned with only three body styles: four-door Cruising Sedan, two-door Club Sedan, and three-passenger coupe (designated W, F, and Q, respectively). All were available in Custom and DeLuxe versions. The former came with a single windshield wiper, sun visor, and taillight.
DeLuxes had each of these in duplicate, plus woodgrain finish on the instrument panel, white "phantom" steering wheel, pile-weave carpets, broadcloth upholstery door kick pads, pull-type door armrests, assist cords, opening rear-quarter windows on the four-door, front spring covers, generous chrome appointments on dash and door panels, and stainless rocker panel moldings.
The Champ had major selling points in its optional overdrive transmission and "Hill Holder," the only low-priced car to offer these features in 1939. The OD was a real gas and engine saver well worth its modest $45 cost, giving a final-drive ratio of just 3.19:1 in conjunction with the standard 4.56:1 rear axle.
The Hill Holder, as its name implied, kept you from rolling down inclines while the clutch was depressed. Studebaker had pioneered this feature for 1936, and it was a bargain on the Champ at just $8.50. Other popular accessories included Climatizer ($28.70), Phiico in-dash radio ($37.50), and clock (by New Haven, $9.75).
Learn about the 1940 Studebaker Champion in our final section.
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1940 Studebaker Champion
Because of its late start, the 1939 Studebaker Champion had only a short 5 1/2-month model run, production ceasing on July 28, 1939. Even so, a creditable 33,905 were sold, of which 20,754 were Customs. With that, the Champ accounted for no less than 60 percent of Studebaker's model-year sales, which ended a smashing 86.7 percent ahead of the 1938 figure.
Calendar-year sales were even more impressive, Studebaker gaining 94 percent against 41.4 percent for the industry as a whole. Equally welcome, the company added 1,506 new dealers in 1939 and hired nearly 2,000 new workers in South Bend.
The balance sheet showed net sales of $81,719,106, a stunning 87-percent gain in just one year. By any measure, the Champion was an unqualified success.
Studebaker was understandably loath to tamper with that, so changes for 1940 were principally cosmetic, though sealed-beam headlights were obvious, as on most American cars that year. A four-piece grille returned with more vertical and horizontal "teeth," door handles were integrated with the belt moldings, and bumpers were given more contour, but that was about it.
There were some interesting new body variations, however. Studebaker had experimented with small folding rear "opera" seats for very late 1939 coupes, and the idea returned for 1940 as a $35 "opera coupe" option. This was actually a dealer-installed kit that added a small fixed rear seat to the normal three-passenger coupe. The kit was supplied by Edwards Iron Works of South Bend (which sold it to Studebaker for $30 list).
Edwards also came up with "ambulance coupe" and "slumber coupe" packages. The latter consisted of a rear seat that could be laid flush with the floor to form a makeshift bed. The ambulance coupe had a folding back seat and a small stretcher for loading an injured person flat through the trunk aperture. The package cost $125, complete with cot and mattress.
The most involved conversion for the 1940 Champion coupe was the "coupe delivery," or "pick-up coupe." This involved a cute cargo box measuring 31 inches wide and 18 inches high that could be slid into the trunk cavity as needed (the trunklid was furnished loose). There was even a tailgate with stamped-in "Studebaker" lettering. The box sold for just $25 in black, $26.50 if painted another color.
Edwards also did a few "sedan delivery" conversions on 1940 Champs. These were Club two-doors fitted with coupe floorpans and no rear seats to allow carrying the spare tire horizontally thus leaving maximum interior space for cargo. Also serving utility were painted metal blanks instead of glass rear side windows and fiberboard on the rear inner sidewalls from floor to ceiling.
All this added just $36.50 to the cost of the regular two-door. For another $28 you got a partition with a sliding door and a drawer.
The Champion turned in the best overall mileage regardless of price class, recording 29.19 mpg, excellent for the day. (The other two Studebakers also won their classes for the second year in a row, the Commander notching 24.72 mpg, the President Eight 23.4.)
In partial recognition of both its popularity and economy, the Champion was selected to pace the 1940 Indianapolis 500, Since there was no Champ convertible, a DeLuxe two-door (finished in Champion Maroon) earned the distinction of being the first closed car ever to pace the annual racing classic.
Back in the all-important sales race, the Champion almost doubled its 1939 volume, ending the 1940 model year in late June at 66,624 units (including more than 7,000 assembled at Studebaker's Los Angeles plant). That added up to over 100,000 sales in just two years, and it was only the beginning.
Hoffman had gambled 4.5 million dollars on the Champion, but it obviously more than paid off. At long last, Studebaker was struggling no more.
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