1949-1956 Studebaker Trucks

As envisioned in the studio in late 1945, the 1949 truck would have had fenders flowing into the doors. See more classic truck pictures.

On April 28, 1948, nearly 1,300 dealers, salesmen, and special guests arrived at Studebaker's recently acquired 1 million-square-foot truck assembly plant for a sneak preview of the company's new commercial car line. Not only did they get to view an impressive array of sparkling new trucks in various capacities, wheelbases, and body types, but they were also treated to a tour of the giant facility to see how trucks were made. It is safe to say everyone came away from the day's event full of optimism that the future of Studebaker's truck business would be as bright as the reputation of early Studebaker trucks.

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Studebaker, of course, was a pioneer in the field of commercial transportation. Its world-famous wagons, built between 1852 and 1920, made hauling history by moving generations west during America's great migration period, and served just as admirably as workhorses for farm families and city merchants. In 1902, Studebaker unhitched the horsepower from the front of the wagons and built its first self-propelled truck energized by an awesome array of electric batteries. The company marketed its first gasoline-powered truck in 1912, the Flanders delivery car.

A year later, the Studebaker badge replaced the Flanders and, by 1917, the company had in its lineup half- and one-ton chassis with delivery, stake, express, and combination passenger and express bodies. The Great War interrupted truck production and it wasn't until 1925 that Studebaker re-entered the market with a line of buses, ambulances, and funeral cars on the Big Six chassis.

One year later, the company was the world's largest producer of buses and could claim to control 35 percent of all the ambulance and funeral car business in the United States. Early in 1928, a Studebaker-built Erskine was introduced in either a screenside or panel delivery and, shortly thereafter, similar bodies became available on the Dictator chassis.

In the early Thirties, Studebaker expanded its truck offerings to include models from half- to two-ton capacity, the most interesting of these being a half-ton model called a "boulevard delivery" on a 114-inch-wheelbase Dictator model GL chassis and the 1933 Studebaker-built Rockne humpback deluxe delivery on a 115-inch wheelbase. Studebaker continued to try to find a niche in the truck market with the novel cab-forward models introduced in 1936, and even tried selling a few diesels.

One of the most intriguing offerings during this era was the 1937 half-ton model J-5 that Studebaker called the Coupe-Express. It featured passenger-car styling, a full steel body and double-walled box, and all the passenger-car amenities. Perhaps, above all, it was arguably the most attractive pickup on the market. Moderate initial success prompted Studebaker to continue the car-based half-tonners into 1938 (K-5) and 1939 (L-5), but sales lagged as, respectively, only 1,000 and 1,200 of these latter two models were built.

In 1940, Studebaker used its new Champion as a base for creating a unique pickup coupe and sedan delivery. The former was a standard business coupe with the trunklid removed and replaced with a small pickup box; the latter, a two-door sedan with the rear seat removed and sheetmetal blanks fitted over the rear glass.

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Studebaker Trucks in the 1940s

In January 1941, Studebaker introduced a completely new line of trucks it called the M-series. Available in four models from half- through two-ton capacity, it found nearly immediate acceptance from buyers and would fill the lineup as Studebaker trucks throughout the 1940s.

The half-ton model, referred to as the M-5, was perhaps one of the most ingeniously designed vehicles of all time. Despite its distinctly truck look, most of its principal components were taken from Studebaker passenger cars. Among other things, this included the engine, transmission, instrument panel, hub caps, bumpers, and wheels. What made it especially unique was the fact that the running boards were interchangeable from right to left and the fenders were interchangeable front to back. While this was not immediately noticeable to the casual observer, it saved the company many thousands of dollars in tooling costs.

The M-series cab, with minor modifications, was used on the nearly 200,000 6 x 6 and 6 x 4 military vehicles Studebaker produced for World War II. After the war, production of the M-series line resumed through March 1948.

The design work on the new 1949 line was done principally by Robert E. Bourke, who is perhaps better known for his styling of the beautiful 1953 coupes and hardtops. Bourke was hired by Studebaker in 1940 and soon became close friends with Virgil Exner, who was then in charge of Raymond Loewy's design staff at Studebaker. Though Bourke was engaged in military work in South Bend during the war, he and Exner often got together after hours to work on Studebaker postwar projects.

The automobile companies had made an agreement that all work on civilian vehicle projects be shelved during the war. Since Exner was not employed by Studebaker but by Loewy and Associates, he felt in a very strict sense that he was not violating the agreement. Using this rationale, he and Bourke managed to get a jump on the industry by having full-size clay models ready for management approval shortly after the war ended in August 1945. The revolutionary new 1947 model passenger cars, introduced with much fanfare in June 1946, beat the Big Three out of the box by more than two years.

Truck design work was not ignored either. Photographs from 1945 of full-size clay mockups of what became the 2R-series truck clearly indicate that the general design concept was well advanced by then. The only significant body change made on the production models was the elimination of the fender-line door crease. Hub caps were also refined and a larger, more "trucklike" front bumper was adopted.

That the truck had to wait nearly 2-1/2 years before being introduced is understandable in view of the logical preference given by management to the new passenger cars. It was also a time of severe materiel shortages brought about by labor problems at many of Studebaker's major suppliers.

Studebaker dubbed the new models the '49ers. The entire line had been completely revamped, as the tall vertical grille and sharp angles of the M-series gave way to a wide, bold, horizontal grille with the cab and fenders presenting a rounded aero shape. In contrast to the M-series, relatively few passenger car parts were used on 2Rs. Those that were included the headlight rims (rotated 180 degrees), hub caps, and hood ornament.

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1949 Studebaker Truck

The 2R5, shown here as a 1951 model, would persist for five years from its 1949 launch.
The 2R5, shown here as a 1951 model, would persist for five years from its 1949 launch.

The wheelbase of the new 1949 Studebaker truck was 112 inches and the bed length was 6 1/2 feet. At a road weight of 2,840 pounds, it was lighter by an average of 400 pounds than its five principal rivals. This gave it a maximum allowable payload of 1,760 pounds, or 620 pounds more than a comparable Chevrolet. Front suspension consisted of lever shocks in conjunction with the two 40 x 1.75-inch eight-leaf springs. Lever shocks were used in the rear with nine-leaf springs of 51.75 x 1.75 inches. A progressive-type rear spring was also available at extra cost, a Studebaker exclusive.

Frame side members were seven inches deep and featured a reinforcing "K" member at the front. Full box-section cross members fortified points of stress. The 18-gallon gas tank was mounted horizontally amidships between two frame rails.

The engine was the 169.6-cubic-inch Champion L-head six, which had been introduced in the spring of 1939. It was by far the lightest engine in the truck field, yet at 80 horsepower, it produced more horsepower per cubic inch than any of its competitors. Studebaker called it the Econ-o-miser, and for good reason. In the Champion passenger car, it consistently beat out all rivals in supervised mileage contests. The engines were equipped with a vacuum-operated automatic spark control and incorporated an octane selector to adjust the timing to correspond to the octane rating of the gasoline.

When coupled with the standard three-speed transmission and 4.82 rear, it could deliver in excess of 22 mpg at a 40-mph average. Even better results could be expected if one opted to spend the extra $93 charged for optional overdrive (another Studebaker exclusive in the truck field).

A 2R6 with a larger, more powerful engine became available for 1950.

On April 11, 1950, Studebaker announced it would make available its 245.6-cubic-inch "Hy-Mileage" powerplant in the half-ton pick-up. This versatile engine was a direct descendent of the one designed for use in the 1932-1933 Rockne. It was later used in prewar trucks as well as the Dictator and Commander car lines. After the war, displacement was increased from 224 to 245.6 cubic inches; it was used in the 1947-1950 Commanders and all of the larger trucks.

To differentiate the new model from the Champion-powered 2R5, it would be referred to as the 2R6. The additional $50 cost would seem to be justified inasmuch as the increase in horsepower (102 versus 85) and torque (201 pound-feet versus 133) was substantial. Studebaker, however, did very little to promote the 2R6 and sales of it were slow.

One novel feature exploited by Studebaker's advertising was "lift the hood accessibility" to the engine and instrument panel. Indeed, there was no longer a need to stand on one's head under the dash to reach wiring, gauges, and dash lights. Simply lift the hood and all this became easy to reach and service. Engine components were also within easy reach "without fatigue or even standing on tip toes" because of the truck's low fenders and wide-opening hood.

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1949 Studebaker Truck Features

1951 models had new tube shock absorbers in front; this 2R5 bears the extra-cost chrome front bumper.
1951 models had new tube shock absorbers in front; this 2R5 bears the extra-cost chrome front bumper.

While trucks had never been known for their comfort, the 2R-series of 1949 Studebaker trucks included features that made significant strides to rectify this shortcoming. While it could still not make claims of a "boulevard ride," the new cab and chassis combination was a cut above the competition. The capacious cabs featured a 55-inch-wide "adjusto-air" bench seat covered with durable vinyl and adjustable to three positions.

Other creature comforts included vent wings, dual windshield wipers, steering-post gearshift, right and left sun visors and arm rests, a cab light that operated automatically with the door, and dual foot-controlled ventilating air scoops -- the last five of these features being unavailable on any competitive make.

The air intake vents were located on the right and left of the grille, and two tunnels channeled liberal volumes of air to the passenger compartment through outlets at knee level on the firewall. The air scoop on the left also acted as an intake for the climatizer, supplying fresh outside air to the optional heater and defroster units.

Extra-cost options included a four-speed transmission, windshield wiper booster, hill holder, chrome front bumper, painted rear bumper, dual horns, passenger-side rearview mirror, radio, directional signals, fog and spot lights, grille guards, cigarette lighter, and tailgate and side-loading steps, to mention but a few.

Studebaker heavily promoted the new truck in nearly every medium available in 1948. This included newspapers, magazines, radio, and direct mail. To encourage showroom traffic, it had 1/30-scale promotional models of the pickup and deluxe heavy-duty stake varieties made in white metal by National Products of Chicago.

The combination of the new Bourke design, the wide array of unique features, and the active sales campaign coupled with a very strong sellers' market made the 1949 2R5 trucks the best-selling light trucks in the company's history. As a result of this success, Studebaker decided not to mess with a good thing. It continued the R-series line through 1953 with only some rather minor running changes, such as a shift to tubular front shocks late in 1950. (Since there were no major alterations made, Studebaker arbitrarily chose a serial-number demarcation to delineate one model year from another.)

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1954-1955 Studebaker Truck

The 1953 model marked the end of the 2R's run.
The 1953 model marked the end of the 2R's run.

By late 1953, Studebaker realized it would have to make some changes. The 2R series line had been in production for five years and had become dated, and would be spruced up for the 1954-1955 Studebaker truck line. In addition, the market conditions had changed and sales were lagging badly. The fact is the truck division had become stagnant. Though the reasons for this are somewhat unclear, it may have been the result of president Paul Hoffman's departure, which ironically came just as the 1949 trucks were being introduced in May 1948.

Hoffman was a strong proponent of the truck division and without his support and encouragement, it quickly fell on hard times. Additionally, Studebaker was struggling in its automobile division.

A proposed model-N car, scheduled for production in 1952, was scrapped after hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent on it, and all-new 1953s were rushed into production with near-disastrous results. Sheetmetal stampings on the coupes and hardtops could not be fit properly and by the time this was worked out in January 1953, public enthusiasm had begun to wane.

As a result of management's failures, the new 1954 truck line did not get under way until February. The half-ton pickup models were designated 3R5 for those powered by the Champion six and 3R6 for those with the 245.6-cubic-inch engine.

The two most visible design changes were the one-piece curved windshield and the restyled ivory-colored grille featuring four horizontal openings. Headlights were set into the grille with small parking lights positioned below. An oval "Studebaker" nameplate was placed at the back edge of the hood on both sides. Bumpers and wheels were painted ivory, and unadorned moon-shaped chrome hub caps, borrowed from the 1950 Commander passenger car, were used.

The instrument panel was all new and featured round gauges. Strangely, some items standard on the earlier 2R series were extra-cost options on the 3R. These included the right-hand sun visor and arm rest, and the door-activated dome light. No significant changes were made in the mechanical components of the truck. Because of the short eight-month production run and general decline in business, sales of the 3R5 and 3R6 dipped to 2,700 and 1,620, respectively, making these among the rarest postwar Studebaker trucks.

The new 1954 Studebaker trucks, dubbed the 3R, had a single-pane windshield and other changes.

The biggest news for the 1955 models was the introduction of the Studebaker "Econ-O-Miser" V-8 in the half-ton line. This 224-cubic-inch overhead engine had been first used in the 1951 Commander and had proven quite reliable. With the standard two-barrel carburetor, it was rated at 140 horsepower; with the optional four-barrel ($18), power jumped to 160 horsepower. The eight-cylinder trucks, designated as model E7, were available with the optional automatic transmission for an additional $219. The E7 also had dual electric wipers, a pushbutton starter (with automatic transmission), and a three-spoke dished steering wheel.

The old Champion six got a boost in power by virtue of a 3/8-inch increase in stroke, which raised horsepower from 85 to 92 in what were now known as E5 models. The Commander engine was still available as an E6 model, though most were sent overseas. The standard rear axle ratio for all half-tons was changed to 4.27:1, with 4.09 and 4.55 gears optional.

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1956 Studebaker Truck

New features on 1956 2E-series trucks included a revised hood and triangular parking lights.
New features on 1956 2E-series trucks included a revised hood and triangular parking lights.

The most significant appearance change for Studebaker's 1955 truck was in the large one-piece rear window, which, at 465 square inches, was 40 percent larger than on previous models. In addition, the Studebaker name was emblazoned across the entire width of the hood and headlight rims were enlarged to accommodate the parking lights. A new V-S hood ornament graced the trucks so equipped, while a red "S" was used on the sixes.

External door sun visors were made standard equipment on the line in an apparent effort to make the cabs appear wider. Taking a cue from the public, which in 1955 was buying 80 percent of its new cars in two-tone combinations, Studebaker offered its half-ton in Shasta White and Cherokee Red with a "passenger car" interior trimmed in Shasta White.

The 1956 Studebaker truck got a new name, "Transtar." Though the basic styling dated from 1949, several significant changes were evident. A new, more rounded hood with a large, open "Studebaker" nameplate in the front was the most obvious.

Several new two-tone paint combinations were offered in an eye-catching pattern that distinguished it from anything else on the road. The "Transtar" name was placed on the front edge of the doors. Eight-cylinder models had a V-8 emblem on the back edge of the hood. A "DeLuxe" cab option was offered at $31.82, and those so equipped had the word DeLuxe below the Transtar nameplate.

The pickup box was widened by three inches for 1956, necessitating a new tailgate and rear tread. For the first time, an eight-foot box was also made available on the half-ton. The electrical system was changed from six-volt positive ground to 12-volt negative ground and key starting was adopted. Prior to this, all standard-shift models had the starter button under the clutch. A limited-slip differential, which Studebaker called Twin Traction, was a $26.52 option (the first time any manufacturer had offered this option on a truck). Engine options were essentially the same as in 1955. The 1956 trucks were designated as 2E models.

The R series trucks introduced with such fanfare in the spring of 1948 were the best-selling line in the company's history. In 1949, Studebaker truck registrations were at 5.73 percent of the industry, which was an outstanding accomplishment for the South Bend independent. The trucks were competitively priced, handsome, economical, and had numerous features not available on any competing make. They were a perfect fit for the dealers in small rural communities where truck sales represented a significant portion of the business.

Regrettably, despite all of these encouraging factors, Studebaker was unable to maintain its momentum. Management's lack of a serious commitment to the truck division and market forces beyond its control resulted in a precipitous drop in Studebaker's competitive position. By 1959, Studebaker accounted for approximately one-half of one percent of total truck registrations.

Though Studebaker would continue to find a small niche in the truck market through the 1964 model year, all truck production ceased when the company closed its doors in South Bend in December 1963. The minuscule sales were not adequate to justify production during the last two years of the company's life in Canada.

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