Studeophiles would like to add the 1937-1939 Studebaker Coupe Express to the long list of Studebaker "firsts" in the auto industry. This, however, would not be entirely accurate, since pickups based on passenger cars go back to the very infancy of auto production.
After dabbling with light-duty trucks for many
years, Studebaker joined the field again when it
introduced the 1937 Studebaker Coupe-Express. See more classic car pictures.
By the late 1930s, some automakers were beginning to make greater distinctions between their cars and their light trucks. But Studebaker, which was just entering the light-duty field, was one of those that kept close ties between them.
It's more than a car! It's more than a truck! It's the brand-new_." This advertising hoopla could have referred to the Studebaker Coupe-Express for 1937, except for the fact the catchphrase was actually taken from an ad for the first Ford Ranchero exactly 20 years after the Coupe-Express was introduced.
In fact, most light-duty commercial vehicles built prior to 1935 utilized passenger-car chassis and front-end sheetmetal, and Ford's 1931 Model A DeLuxe pickup -- with its bright trim parts and pickup bed integrated with the cab -- came closer than anything to blurring the car/truck line in the early 1930s. Indeed, Studebaker was somewhat late in joining the ranks of builders of pickups.
While Studebaker did make a fair number of light-commercial vehicles between 1911 and 1917, it ceased commercial-car production as the U.S. entered World War I. It wouldn't be until July 1925 that Studebaker reentered the commercial-car field with the introduction of the Big Six bus chassis.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Studebaker made only feeble efforts in the light commercial field with its 3/4-ton Dictator screen-side express and panel (1927), an Erskine 1/2-ton delivery (1928), and boulevard delivery on the Dictator chassis in 1930.
In 1933, the company produced a very limited number of "hump back" deliveries in the economical Rockne line. A single Rockne prototype pickup suggested that the company was considering this as a possible production option, but, the entire Rockne line was soon dropped.
There would be no more light-commercial vehicles available from Studebaker for the next four years, though the company continued to expand its large truck line during the mid 1930s. By 1937, Studebaker was offering four different truck chassis ranging from the smallest, a J-15 1 1/2-ton model on a 101-inch wheelbase, to the largest, a J-30 four-ton model with a 166-inch wheelbase.
However, without a light-duty offering, Studebaker could not lay claim to being a full-line truck producer. The introduction of the J-5 Coupe-Express in January 1937 would fill that void. In the next section, learn how the Coupe-Express was developed.
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1937, 1938, 1939 Studebaker Coupe-Express Development
No one can say with certainty who came up with the idea for the 1937 Studebaker Coupe-Express. At the time of its introduction, James R. Hughes was director of the Studebaker body-engineering department, and Paul Auman headed up the experimental-body division.
It is certain that both men were involved in the project, though the idea could have originated with someone in sales or perhaps president Paul G. Hoffman, an ardent truck proponent, or even board chairman Harold S. Vance.
It appears that the cab was created using a four-door sedan as a base -- the width of a Coupe-Express door is identical to that of the four-door sedan. The doors won't interchange with a sedan, though, since the upper rear portion is squared off on the four-door and rounded on the Coupe-Express. Still, some manufacturing economies were realized by virtue of the similarity. The cab body for the Coupe-Express was also used by all the larger conventional-cab trucks in the line from 1937 to 1940.
The Coupe-Express got its name from the fact that it had three-passenger coupe seating and an "express" body, express being the common term at the time for what we now call a pickup. This type of vehicle had long been popular in Australia, where these utility vehicles came to be called "utes." Generally, however, the utes were modified from actual coupe bodies.
Unlike many late-1930s pickups, the 1937 Studebaker
Coupe-Express pickup bed did away with cargo
boxes and tailgates with visible ribs, stampings,
and overhanging flare boards.
While the Coupe-Express was not a unique concept from a styling standpoint, it was certainly unique for its stylishness and its amenities, the likes of which had never before been offered by any other manufacturer.
The all-steel cab was insulated, and fully lined and upholstered in cloth (like that used in Dictator-series cars) or imitation leather. Genuine leather was also available in dark blue or tan for an additional $12.50, or maroon, bright red, light gray, dark green, or light blue for $25. Mohair was a $5 special-order option.
Other appointments also included a full three-passenger seat with adjustable back, passenger-car instrument panel and gauges, a roomy glove compartment with lock, and Hancock rotary door latches. Other built-in features included a warm-air defroster, ashtray, armrests, vent wings for controlled ventilation, and interior lighting. In short, it possessed every practical convenience familiar to passenger-car owners.
To assure a comfortable carlike ride, it had two-stage rear springs (a first on a light-commercial vehicle). The front suspension was a conventional I-beam suspended by elliptical leaf springs and tubular shock absorbers. (Price sheets sent to dealers in 1937 also mention the availability of "planar" independent front suspension for a $20 charge, though it is not known if any J-5s were so equipped.)
The engine was similar to the Dictator Six, an L-head design of 217.8 cid. In Dictator cars, it made 90 bhp, but for the Coupe-Express, it developed 86 bhp at 3600 rpm and generated 161 pound-feet of torque. The prominent features of the Dictator engine included a positive full-pressure oiling system, aluminum "heat dam" pistons, steel back bearings, balanced counterweighted crankshaft, combination air cleaner and carburetor silencer, Fram oil filter, and positive crankcase ventilation.
The engine was also equipped with an automatic choke control and fast idle, a manifold heat-riser valve, automatic spark control, and automatic temperature control via use of an inline thermostat. (To test for reliability, one of Studebaker's engineering requirements called for engines to be run for 50-hour periods with the throttle wide open.)
A three-speed transmission was standard, but performance and economy could be enhanced by the optional overdrive, which listed for $44.50 -- also a first for a light-commercial vehicle.
Next, get more details on 1937 Studebaker Coupe-Express design features.
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1937 Studebaker Coupe-Express
It is obvious from the 1937 Studebaker Coupe-Express's smart appearance that Studebaker stylists gave considerable attention to the design of the cargo body. Its sleek sides and unbroken contours blended perfectly with the cab and gave the vehicle a well-integrated appearance. The round-cornered, flanged sides were unobstructed by bolt heads or overlapping metal seams.
The floor was raised in alternate rows so that loads could be more equally skidded and to provide finger space under packages or crates. The floor was made of 16-gauge steel and the underside was reinforced at 17-inch intervals with flanged channels running crosswise. Stake pockets were provided in the flare boards at the four corners to accommodate stake sides or tarpaulin top covers, both of which were available as extra-cost options.
Door length and trim details for the 1937
Studebaker Coupe-Express were shared with
Dictator four-door sedans.
The tailgate even added to the unity of the design. It was of double-wall construction, like the sides, and its smooth, unadorned appearance gave trailing drivers no clue as to the vehicle's identity. When lowered, the gate was supported by two leather-covered adjustable chains. The lowered gate provided 18 inches of additional bed length, and was flush with the box floor and only 26 inches off the ground for easy loading.
For safety, the 18-gallon fuel tank was placed in the rear, away from the passenger compartment. This necessitated placing the spare tire in the right fender well. This presented no particular production problem, since the companion Dictator model was available with either single or dual sidemounts. On special order, a Coupe-Express purchaser could opt for the sidemount on the driver's side or dual sidemounts. A two-piece metal spare-tire cover was also available at $7 extra.
Standard color on the Coupe-Express was black, though it appears most purchasers opted to pay the extra $10 for one of the six additional colors available: Glacier Park Gray, Beverly Blue, Bermuda Blue, Cardinal Red, Forest Green, or Chrome Yellow. Evidence from company records suggests additional colors were also available on special order.
The purchaser of a Coupe-Express could further personalize his new truck with a wide array of options and accessories. Nearly everything available to the passenger-car purchaser could be ordered for the J-5. In the cab, two different radios were available with either cowl- or running-board-mounted antennae. Also offered were a clock, heater/ defroster, cigar lighter, visor mirror, right-hand interior sun visor, visor glare deflector, and horn ring.
For the exterior there were driving lights-chrome or painted-fog lights, spotlight, and fender lights; chrome wheel discs or trim rings; license-plate frames; license-plate jewels; grille guard; fender guides; and exhaust deflector.
Production of the J-5 began at South Bend, Indiana, in mid-January 1937 and continued through early July, with 3,125 units assembled during that period. Another 375 were assembled in the company's Los Angeles, California, assembly plant. How many of those 3500 J-5s were Coupe-Expresses is unknown, though: The chassis was also the basis for the Suburban, Studebaker's wood-body station wagon. Production of all J-5 vehicles were tallied together, but it would probably be safe to estimate production of the pickup in the neighborhood of 3400.
Whether the Coupe-Express was a sales success depends on one's expectations. The March 17, 1937, issue of the Studebaker Accelerator, the company's employee magazine, reported, "Studebaker's new Coupe-Express is proving exceedingly popular, orders following its announcement having exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic sales department estimates. Orders received during January totaled 1,100-more than 300% over the tentative quota established for January by Truck Division officials."
Changes were on the way, however. In the next section, find out what was new for the 1938 Coupe-Express.
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1938 Studebaker Coupe-Express Styling
In a November 19, 1937, sales bulletin introducing the new 1938 Studebaker K-5 Coupe-Express, a statement attributed to vice president George D. Keller said, "The Coupe-Express, introduced by Studebaker last season, promptly established itself as the most outstanding commercial car on the market. Its beauty, performance, ease of handling, and adaptability fully bore out its designation as a new type, two-purpose vehicle."
From this, we can gather that Studebaker was pleased with the sales. The relatively high price of the Coupe-Express was its major liability. A standard Ford or Chevrolet could be purchased for roughly 20-25 percent less. There is little question that the Studebaker was a higher-quality vehicle, with superior styling and amenities, but for a nation not yet completely recovered from the Great Depression, the additional cost was a major factor in steering many buyers elsewhere.
Nineteen thirty-eight represented a year when many automakers introduced new bodies, Studebaker among them. It was also the year that the famous French-born industrial designer Raymond Loewy was first credited with a Studebaker design. (Fashion expert Helen Dryden was given credit for the interiors, though some feel her contribution may have been limited to the selection of fabrics and colors.)
Beverly Blue was one of six color options available
for the 1938 Studebaker J-5 Coupe-Express.
In what some consider a rather uninspiring year in general for auto styling, Studebaker was more than pleased to accept the award for "Best Designed Car of the Year" from the Magazine of Art.
Of course, Studebaker's sales promotion department attempted to exploit this honor to its fullest with one of its biggest advertising campaigns ever. Despite its best efforts, however, Studebaker sales for the year dropped to 41,504, down from more than 70,000 the previous year. The reason for this had nothing to do with faulty engineering, design, or customer dissatisfaction, but that 1938 was simply a dismal economic year.
Despite its significant decline in sales, however, Studebaker actually increased its market share from 1937 to 2.19 percent, since the rest of the industry was hit badly, too.
Interior appointments of the 1938 Coupe-Express were nothing short of luxurious when compared to the competition. Of course, passenger-car refinements prevailed and this meant that gray flat-cloth upholstery was standard, with leather fabric available at no extra charge. For those who preferred to go first class, genuine leather was available in black, dark blue, or tan for $16 extra, or in medium maroon, light gray, light green, or light red for $29.50.
The instrument panel was completely redesigned, with gauges conveniently clustered in front of the driver and easily viewed through the 18-inch three-spoke wheel. By the way, the instrument panel design for '38 was the same on all passenger cars, which was not the case in previous years.
The dash was perfectly symmetrical, which not only added to visual appeal, but also made it a simple matter to convert to right-hand controls for the overseas market. Also, clear Lucite covered the instrument cluster. Studebaker was probably one of the first to use this material.
Other standard amenities on the K-5 either not available or offered as extra-cost options on other trucks included the extra windshield wiper, Hancock rotary door latches, vent wings, armrests, adjustable seat, and built-in defroster outlets. Then, too, there was a long list of extra-cost accessories, many not available on any other trucks.
The shape of the truck cab for 1938 was distinctively different than its predecessor. For more on the 1938 Coupe-Express's chassis, continue to the next section.
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1938 Studebaker Coupe-Express Chassis and Engine
As with the bodies, the chassis was also completely new for the 1938 Studebaker Coupe-Express. The X member in the 1937 models did not cross but was welded and riveted to a box-shaped centerpiece. The new frames did away with the centerpiece and made each leg of the "X" an unbroken line from one side of the frame to the other, making it more rigid and also lighter. The engineers claimed the new frames to be 5.5 times stiffer and 52 pounds lighter than in the previous year.
The 1938 Studebaker Coupe-Express was redesigned
and reengineered, gaining an inch in wheelbase
within an improved frame that was lighter,
yet more rigid.
To provide better balance and place sedan rear-seat passengers ahead of the rear axle, the engine was moved about five inches forward in the chassis. For the Coupe-Express, this also meant moving the cab forward by a like amount. This, in turn, increased the distance from the back of the cab to the rear axle and provided a box 5.5 inches longer than that used on the '37 J-5.
Though the increased length of the Express body could be used as a selling point, there was a drawback, and that was the mounting of the side-mounted spare tire.
All Coupe-Expresses came equipped with the spare tire mounted in the right front fender as standard equipment. When the cab was moved forward, however, it decreased the distance from the door to the front axle, making it difficult to provide the necessary clearance for the sidemount without raising it up some six inches. That is why the 1937 sidemount nestles rather comfortably into the fender, while those on 1938s and 1939s rise in a rather ungainly manner above the line of the hood.
For those interested in aesthetics, however, Studebaker offered a plain fender in place of the sidemount and deducted $4.25 from the price. (Omitting the tire also provided another $9.75 allowance.) Incidentally, right-hand-drive export models had the sidemount on the left side.
The 1938 Studebaker Coupe-Express was powered
by a 226-cid six that made 90 bhp.
Though the basic engine remained unchanged, the bore was increased slightly, raising displacement to 226 cubic inches. Ratings for horsepower (90 bhp) and torque (173 pound-feet) were up, too.
Another significant engineering objective for 1938 was the elimination of the floor tunnel over the transmission case. Road-clearance requirements made it impossible to lower the transmission; aesthetics and aerodynamic considerations discouraged raising the body. A smaller transmission might accomplish the objective, but this would sacrifice strength and reliability.
The solution was to toss out tradition and simply rotate the transmission by 90 degrees, thereby putting the shifting fork on the side of the case rather than the top. Though the transmission gears, shafts, and other associated parts remained essentially the same, the modification required a number of changes in shifting levers, forks, and ancillary parts.
An option available on the entire line of passenger cars and the K-5 was a vacuum-assist gearshift control. It provided for fingertip shifting via an eight-inch lever mounted just below the instrument panel. By removing the shifter from the floorboard, it allowed for real three-passenger comfort. It is doubtful that many Coupe-Expresses were ordered with this $30 option; none with it are known to have survived.
Of course, Studebaker's overdrive and free-wheeling transmission was also available in 1938 for $44.50. The rear-end ratio was the same as the previous year, 4.55:1 (optional 4.82:1), but with overdrive engaged, the final-drive ratio was a comfortable 3.29:1. To illustrate the engine-saving potential of the overdrive, consider that engine rpm at 50 mph was 2730 without overdrive, but 1818 with it engaged.
Whereas most of the 1937 models utilized the standard I-beam front axle with elliptical springs, all 1938s were equipped with Studebaker's exclusive planar suspension. Advertised as "the most trouble-free wheel suspension in automobile history," it featured a 48-inch-long leaf-type transverse spring made of silico-manganese plates 2.5 inches wide.
In the Commander and Coupe-Express, the spring contained 14 leaves, which were packed in grease and then wrapped in thin metal. When properly lubricated according to factory recommendations, the springs and other front suspension components gave reliable service and a comfortable ride.
Next, find out whether major changes were on tap for the 1939 Studebaker Coupe-Express.
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1939 Studebaker Coupe-Express
Since the entire Studebaker passenger-car line got new bodies and chassis for 1938, there were no major changes planned for 1939 Studebaker Coupe-Express.
Despite this, the Raymond Loewy design team managed to give the 1939 line a completely new look. This was accomplished principally through restyling the front sheetmetal and bright-work. Prior to this time, Studebaker grilles stood narrow and tall, accentuating the overall height of the vehicle. Now, for the first time, two separate diecast grilles were mounted in the fenders, which emphasized the width of the car.
Features such as bumper guards, dual taillights,
external mirrors, and a spare-tire cover were
extra-cost add-ons for the 1939 Studebaker
Helping in the overall effect was the positioning of the headlights, newly mounted in the fenders. A chrome-plated diecast molding that included the "S" emblem extended from the hood to the bottom of the fenders. On the sides of the hood, a single stainless-steel molding extended from near the nose back to the cowl and was carried on to the rear edge of the door. The hood was opened by way of a handle that also cleverly served as a hood ornament. It blended in well with a molding that ran the length of the hood.
From the cowl back, the 1939s were identical to the 1938s. In fact, the cabs used for new L-5 Coupe-Expresses were leftover 1938s, as evidenced by the fact they used the K-5 instrument panel. As a result, the Coupe-Express could not adopt the one big new sales feature emphasized by Studebaker in 1939 -- the climatizer. This new device featured a built-in underseat heater and integral defroster system. So successful was this general design that Studebaker continued to use it for more than 20 years.
The 1938-style dashboard prevented the
1939 Studebaker Coupe-Express from getting
the new "climatizer" system.
The cargo box, tailgate, brake light, bumpers, and guards were all identical to those used on the 1938 K-5. The chassis and engine were also basically unchanged, though there were some minor alterations made.
For 1939, one could order a heavy-duty front spring, which would provide an additional inch of road clearance, or a super heavy-duty spring, which would give an extra 1.75-inch clearance. The heftier springs were 25 percent and 27 percent stiffer, respectively, than the standard spring, and were supplied with covers, which the standard spring was not. Price for this option was $2.40.
As in previous years, the three-speed floor shift was standard, but Studebaker continued to offer its over-drive transmission, which for 1939 was again redesigned-and repriced to $47.50. Though not widely advertised, buyers could also avail themselves of the column shift for an extra $10.
The standard tire was a 6.00 × 16 four-ply, though options included a six-ply in the same size, four- and six-ply 6.50 × 16 tires, and a 7.00 × 16. Since the last would not fit in the front-fender well, trucks ordered with this option came without a sidemount fender.
As in the previous year, those who wished to special order their truck without the welled fender could do so. Records show that at least one domestic truck was equipped with a left-hand well fender.
Despite Studebaker's best efforts, Coupe-Express sales were relatively poor. Get sales details in the next section of this article.
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1937, 1938, 1939 Studebaker Coupe-Express Sales
Sales of the 1938 Coupe-Express were very disappointing after such a promising introductory year in 1937. A combination of factors, including the poor economic climate in 1938, led to a mere 1000 K-5 vehicles being assembled. Many were still in branch stock into 1939 and sold to dealers at special prices just to clear them out.
The Studebaker Sales Department pointed out that the base price of a similarly equipped truck dropped from $818 in 1938 to $733 in 1939. Safety glass was made standard equipment, as was the front bumper. A wide variety of accessories were also available, though most were the same as in 1938.
The 1939 Studebaker Coupe-Express suffered
disappointing sales figures.
A copy of the February 17, 1939, issue of The Studebaker Truck Division Newsletter called the Coupe-Express "the undefeated, untied, unscored upon, undisputed, all-time Champion of the Commercial Car League -- the only real two-purpose vehicle on the market."
Had Studebaker used this hyperbole more frequently in its general advertising, sales might have been more respectable, but the sad fact is they did not. Only 1200 L-5s found buyers in 1939, and that was about one truck for every two dealers.
There may have been another reason for the relatively poor showing. Many of Studebaker's dealers did not have a truck franchise and had little interest in, and knowledge of, the truck market. Therefore, most of these dealers were reluctant to order a unit for display. It should be remembered the Coupe-Express was Studebaker's first true pickup and its price was substantially higher than the offerings of the Big Three.
There can be little question that the Coupe-Express was a more-attractive, better-built, and certainly more-luxurious 1/2-ton pickup than anything else on the market. But, in the late 1930s, light-truck buyers were generally disinclined to be shopping for a luxury model. As had happened so many times in its long history, Studebaker built the right vehicle, but at the wrong time.
A little more than a year after the last L-5 moved off the assembly line, Studebaker introduced an all-new 1/2-ton pickup, which it called the M-5 Coupe-Express. It was styled along more conventional lines and, with an active and aggressive sales promotion campaign, it put Studebaker into the light-truck field to stay.
Move to the next section for selected specifications for the 1937, 1938, and 1939 Studebaker Coupe-Express.
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1937, 1938, 1939 Studebaker Coupe-Express Specifications
Here are selected specifications for the 1937, 1938, and 1939 Studebaker Coupe-Express models.
Though the front of the 1939 Studebaker
Coupe-Express was changed, the cab and
cargo box were carried over from 1938.
|1937-1939 Studebaker Coupe-Express: Selected Specifications
|Overall length (in.)
|Overall width (in.)
|Overall height (in.)
|Gross vehicle rating (lbs)
|Ground clearance (in.)
|Fuel tank (gal)
|Price, with cargo box ($)
||in line L-head 6-cylinder
|Bore × stroke (in.)
||3.25 × 4.38 (1937)
|3.31 × 4.38 (1938-39)
|Horsepower @ rpm
||86 @ 3000 (1937)
|90 @ 3400 (1938-39)
||6-volt, positive ground
|Cooling-system capacity (qts)
||13 (1937) 14 (1938-39)
|Engine-oil capacity (qts)
|Clutch and Transmission
||3-speed manual1, synchromesh, floor-mounted shifter2
||single dry plate
||underslung hypoid axle
||solid I-beam axle, elliptic leaf springs3 (1937) “planar” independent (1938-39)
||semielliptic leaf springs, two-stage
||tubular (1937) Houdaille lever-type (1938-39)
||4-wheel hydraulic internal-expanding drums
|Lining area (sq in.)
|Tires and Wheels
||6.00 × 164
|1Standard equipment; overdrive optional. 2Standard equipment; dash-mounted vacuum shift (1938) and column shift (1939) optional. 3Standard equipment; “palnar” independent suspension optional 4Standard equipment; 6.50 × 16 (1937-39) and 7.00 × 16 (1939) optional. 5 Steel spoke optional in 1937.
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