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How Studebaker Works

1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940 Studebakers
By 1938, the Studebaker Commander was available only with a hardtop.

"Potato" shapes were evident for 1936-37, as most everywhere else, yet Studebaker managed a handsome, individual appearance. Offerings in both those years comprised 116-inch-wheelbase Dictators and Presidents that rode 125-inch chassis.

For 1938 styling, Studebaker executive Paul G. Hoffmann hired Raymond Loewy, the brilliant industrial designer who'd created the 1932-34 "Aero­dynamic" Hupmobiles. This first of many Loewy projects at South Bend produced a prominent prow-type radiator with pod headlights snugged in between it and the fenders, plus GM-style "catwalk" trim on some models.

Those offerings involved a revived Commander Six with five body styles, a replacement for the departed Dictator on a slightly longer 116.5-inch chassis. The same platform supported four State Commander Eights, while a newly abbreviated 122-inch chassis appeared under four State Presidents. The 1939 models had headlamps moved out into the fenders and more horizontal grillework to match.

Though Studebaker earned a respectable $2 million for 1936, profits slimmed to just $812,000 for '37, followed by a deficit of $1.76-­million in recession-plagued 1938. But things improved markedly in '39, when model-year car production jumped nearly 50 percent to almost 86,000. From there, it went nowhere but up until the war.

The big reason for this roaring success was the cleanly styled Champion, available as a new economy coupe, club sedan, and four-door Cruising Sedan on a 110-inch wheelbase. Pitched in the $660-$800 range, it cost only $25-$40 more than the "Low-Priced Three."

Though carefully weight-engineered by engineering VP Roy Cole and project chief Eugene Hardig, the Champ was no less substantial than a Commander or President. Its new 164.3-cid L-head six was smaller than rival engines and made less power -- 78 bhp initially -- but the Champ delivered comparable performance because it weighed an average 500-600 pounds less.

Though no match for a V-8/85 Ford, it would run up to 78 mph -- equal to or better than Chevy, Plymouth, and the Ford V-8/60. Mileage and durability were fantastic.

With all this, the Champ scored nearly 34,000 model-year sales despite its midseason debut, lofting Studebaker back up to seventh in the industry with total 1939 car production just short of 86,000. Coupled with the much-reduced break-even point of 75,000 cars wrought by Hoffman and Vance, South Bend earned $2.9 million.

You don't mess with a savior, so Champ changes for 1940 were limited to finer grille bars, sealed-beam headlamps per industry practice, new Custom DeLuxe trim, and a second coupe with rear "opera seat." Series production nearly doubled for the model year, hitting 66,264.

Commanders and Presidents returned with wheelbases and engines unchanged in 1938-39, but lost their convertible sedans, leaving each with a coupe, Cruising Sedan, and two-door club sedan; Commander still listed a business coupe as well. Front ends were more Lincoln-like than Champion's, with sharper prows and a split, roughly heart-shaped vertical-bar grille. Presidents sold for about $125 more than comparable Commanders, which ranged upward of $200 above the Champs.

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