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1952 Studebaker

Bourke's Studebaker

Having stated all that was wrong with the famous old company and its products in 1952, it is well to state what was right with Bourke's Studebaker. The 100th Anniversary Studebaker was a highly developed car, and its styling was probably the best balance of radical and traditional in its seven-year design generation.

The 1952 Studebaker Starliner's grille was designed by Bob Bourke.
The 1952 Studebaker Starliner's grille was
designed by Bob Bourke.

Wisely, probably, in view of surveys suggesting that the public had grown tired of it, Studebaker dropped the bullet-nose styling that had so strongly impacted people in 1950-1951, but did not return to the conventional high, blunt hood of the 1947-1949 models.

Instead, the 1952 featured a low, sloping hood and a neat scoop-type, semi-divided, six-tooth grille created by Robert E. Bourke, chief of design for the Loewy Studios in South Bend. Some wags affectionately called it the "clam-digger" front end.

Also new were the headlight bezels (which still incorporated the parking lights), larger front bumper guards moved further outboard, smaller bumper guards flanking the front license plate, hood medallion, hood ornament, and front fender-top ornaments (standard only on State Commanders). Up back rode a new deck lid handle and "hooded" taillights. Dashboards were changed only in trim details. Convertibles got a larger "vinylite" rear window, and both the ragtop and Starliner hardtop could have optional leather upholstery.

Design-wise, Bob Bourke was the best thing that had ever happened to Studebaker. Arriving with the Loewy team before America entered World War II, he had participated under its then-chief Virgil M. Exner in the creation of the radical 1947. After Exner left the Loewy Studios to become its freelance competitor, Bourke eventually rose to head Loewy's team, which won the design assignment for the 1950 bullet-nose face-lift, as well as the 1952 Centennial models.

The interior of the 1952 Studebaker Starliner was roomy and comfortable.
The interior of the 1952 Studebaker Starliner was
roomy and comfortable.

Under Bourke, most significantly, came the elegant and beautiful 1953 Studebaker Starliner and Starlight coupes, undoubtedly the finest American automotive design of the 1950s. Raymond Loewy, that far-seeing judge of talent, specialized in selling the designs of men like Bourke. Delighted with management's acceptance of the Loewy Studios' designs over the hated Exner's, Loewy left Bourke largely alone to conjure up the 1952 face-lift and the dramatic 1953 -- and we're glad he did.

Given Studebaker's modest budget, even for face-lifts, the prototypes for the 1952 model were developed along conventional methods: alter the front end or rear fenders, but leave the basic bodyshell alone. Bourke wanted to get rid of the bullet-nose, even though its public acceptance still seemed solid: "Remember," he said, "the 1952 was designed two years in advance, so we were kind of feeling our way. I spent considerable time with chief engineer Gene Hardig, developing revised seating and interior dimensions from existing production chassis and lowering the roof to give the automobile a chance to end up with relatively good proportions.

"Four of my designers were given a free hand in creating their concept of a new body form, sketching and then building quarter-scale clay models. At the same time, I worked on my own quarter-scale model, developing two different concepts, one on each side. Mr. Loewy at this time left the States to visit his various design offices in other countries, and I was given a completely free hand to proceed with the car's development. The workload at this time was fantastic: We had design development programs covering standard bread-and-butter cars, sports cars, as well as truck programs -- all with deadlines looming."

If you hold a finger over the hood emblem and mascot on the 1952 Studebaker, you can clearly see Bourke's ideas for the 1953 model developing in that low, beautifully curved, sloping hood. Undoubtedly, this was a quantum leap, design-wise, from the short-lived bullet-nose concept.

When asked if the bullet-nose disappeared after just two years because of the reaction at the sales level, the late Raymond Loewy responded, "Yes, [1952] was a typical facelift, and most welcome as it made it possible to lower the bonnet. I always objected to a high hood." So even its greatest exponent could see that the bullet-nose had to go. Its elimination as a product identifier was a good thing: It would not have done the all-new 1953s much good.

The sporty Starlight coupe, with its 1947-style panoramic backlight, appeared for the last time in 1952, largely unchanged from previous models. A more radical version was considered, featuring a very low side window, integral rear fenders, and door handles faired neatly into a body crease molding. It remained in the running until quite late, but was finally axed as superfluous for 1952.

The reason was that management was now thinking in terms of hardtops, and coupes based on them. Thus, the first production Starliner hardtop appeared as part of the 1952 Centennial lineup. For more on the Starliner, continue on to the next page.

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