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1952 Studebaker

1952 Studebaker Starliner

The 1952 Studebaker Starliner was clearly the most important design innovation of the year. "I don't know why it took so long to get into production," Loewy said. "We had made scale models before, and quite attractive ones, as well as dozens of renderings." The reason was probably that management didn't consider a hardtop necessary, nor did it see the need for a station wagon until it was proven by the drubbing Studebaker took from rivals who had both.

The hardtop 1952 Studebaker Starliner was the company's great success of the year.
The hardtop 1952 Studebaker Starliner was the
company's great success of the year.

If top management had failed to see the competitive need for a hardtop, people on the street saw it all too clearly, and responded by snapping up well over 200,000 1951 Chevy Bel Airs and 1951 Ford Victorias combined. "There were endless arguments from the Sales Department to the effect that [a hardtop] was necessary in order to present a full line to meet the competition," former engineer Otto Klausmeyer said in 1975.

Of course it paid off: Studebaker built 26,667 Starliners in 1952, and the 1953 version was a classic (the Milestone Car Society declared it a Certified Milestone Car long ago). With its jaunty lines, the 1952 Starliner reintroduced factory two-toning at Studebaker after the lapse of a full decade.

Except for the disappearance of the three-passenger Champion coupe, the rest of the line was pretty much a repeat of the traditional Studebaker model mix. Champion sixes came in three trim levels (Custom, DeLuxe, and Regal), Commanders in two (Regal and State). Two-and four-door sedans and coupes rode a 115-inch wheelbase, while the Commander Land Cruiser featured wider rear doors and a 119-inch span between the wheels.

It had been this way since 1951, when the Commander had been reduced from its previous 120-inch stretch to match the Champion and save money -- a short-sighted economy, considering the public's demand for longer, bigger cars.

While the Champion was powered by an underwhelming 85-horsepower flathead six, the Commander boasted Studebaker's fine new V-8 engine -- a definite plus, though quite small compared to other V-8s. At 232.6 cubic inches, it was even smaller than the 245.6-cid, 102-bhp Commander six it replaced, but boasted 18 more horsepower.

The V-8 was small, explained engineers Gene Hardig, T.A. Scherger, and S.W. Sparrow in a Society of Automotive Engineers paper, because of the desire to reduce vehicle length. It was a "V" because that configuration gave the turbulence characteristics best suited to high compression. (Experimental pistons that came up flush with cylinder tops could deliver 9.0:1 compression; domed pistons squeezed out a fantastic 14.0:1!)

The high-efficiency 120 bhp ohv V-8 engine in this 1952 Studebaker Starliner gave the company an advantage over the competition.
The 120 bhp ohv V-8 in this 1952 Studebaker Starliner
gave the company an edge over the competition.

"The threat of small combustion chambers led us, somewhat reluctantly, to overhead valves," the engineers continued. Overhead cams were also considered, but discarded as too costly. Displacement could have been more. More cubic inches meant more power, of course, but would adversely affect economy -- and economy was given priority over performance, perhaps foolishly, given the preferences of car buyers in the 1950s. One good result was an over-square bore and stroke of 3.375 x 3.25 inches. As time proved, the engine was capable of being enlarged to over 300 cubic inches, and would be in 1964.

Still, what Studebaker had in 1952 was the only low-displacement, high-efficiency V-8 in a mass-produced American car, a benchmark for which the company deserves quite a hand. It wasn't until 1955 that Chevrolet produced its own outstanding small-block V-8 (265 cid).

Combined with its excellent automatic transmission option, a V-8-powered 1952 gives the lie to the occasional claim that Studebaker lacked top-flight engineers. In fact, it had them in abundance.

To see what the Studebaker engineers developed for the 1952 Commander V-8, continue on to the next page.

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