1952 Studebaker

Studebaker's centenary was celebrated in 1952, marking 100 years of excellence for the blacksmiths-turned-automakers.

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The 1952 Studebaker commemorated the company's 100th anniversary.
The 1952 Studebaker commemorated the company's 100th
 anniversary. See more pictures of Studebaker cars.

When Queen Anne saw the completed Cathedral of St. Paul's in 1710, she told the architect, Christopher Wren: "Sir, I find your cathedral awful, terrible and amusing." The Queen meant to convey, by the understanding of those words at the time, that Wren's masterpiece was awe-inspiring, imposing, and moving -- just about the way we regard St. Paul's 285 years later.

Several decades have gone by since the "shovel-nose" Studebaker made its debut, yet a lot of people today might regard it as awful, terrible, and amusing, which wouldn't have been understood by Queen Anne.

But if semantics have changed, so have automotive values. By the standards of 1952, this car was a fitting tribute to its maker in Studebaker's centenary: one hundred years since Henry and Clem Studebaker had pooled their worldly wealth of $68, set up a blacksmith shop in South Bend, Indiana, built three covered wagons, and started putting America on wheels.

For most of their first half-century, of course, Studebakers were horse-drawn. The firm's "Conestoga" wagon came to be an intrinsic symbol of the opening of the American West.

Studebaker wasn't the first company to build automobiles, not even in the United States: it was still churning out wagons, shays, flyabouts, and buckboards when the first Duryea hit the road in 1893, the first Oldsmobile in 1896-1897, the first Ford in 1903.

Nevertheless, it was of some note, and certainly worthy of celebration, that by the mid-twentieth century Studebaker was the oldest company in the transportation business -- the oldest, indeed, by nearly 50 years. That was something worth shouting about. That shout was conveyed by the 1952 Studebakers.

Though the front of the 1952 Studebaker was new, the rear remained largely unchanged.
Though the front of the 1952 Studebaker was new,
the rear remained largely unchanged.

One supposes the venerable firm could have done better. Could not the company that had brought us the innovative Electric, the magnificent Garford, the great President Eight of "Style and Stamina," and the memorable postwar Starlight coupe have conjured up another milestone of automotive progress to celebrate its centenary? Did Studebaker not have, in the Raymond Loewy Studios, the best industrial design team in the business? Weren't Studebaker engineers, like Eugene Hardig and Harold E. Churchill, models of their profession, who had only just given America the first modern small-block V-8?

The 1952 wore a new front end, but from the cowl back the body was dated. In retrospect, Studebaker should have made 1951 the centennial year -- it was the true hundredth year of business, after all -- and used the then-new small-block V-8 to celebrate the milestone event. By comparison, 1952 offered no development approaching its importance. Unfortunately, the timing was off.

After World War II, Studebaker had opted to get a jump on the competition with a brand-new design and thereby be "First by far with a postwar car!" Instead of running along happily with prewar bodies for three years like everybody else, management scrapped the 1942-style Skyway Champion in May 1946, only seven months after it had appeared, and by June was selling a dramatic 1947 model, the most original and daring shape to come from the industry since the Chrysler Airflow.

With its low, lithe stance, pointed tail, and acres of glass (especially the Starlight coupe with its huge wraparound backlight), the 1947 Studebaker was unlike any other automobile, including the brand-new and allegedly up-to-date Kaiser and Frazer. Unlike the ill-fated Chrysler Airflow, it sold like hot-cakes. But there was a problem.

Despite the dramatic model change-over for 1947, Studebaker, like most independents, didn't have the resources for the three-year design cycles common with the Big Three. Studebaker couldn't seriously face-lift the new body until 1950, and required six or seven years to amortize and replace the main body (from cowl to tail).

The 1950 "bullet-nose" model looked radical, but was strictly a cowl-forward facelift. Studebaker had planned an all-new car, dubbed "Model N," for its 100th Anniversary year, but other expenses got in the way.

Besides the 1950 frontal lobotomy, there was the switch from the transverse leaf-spring "Planar" front suspension to conventional coil springs, an "Automatic Drive" transmission option for Commanders and Land Cruisers in 1950, the tooling expense of a new V-8 engine for 1951, and war materiel to be produced for the government for the expanding Korean "conflict."

Strapped to the limit, management put off the all-new car for a year. This was an indication of the trouble the carmaker was in. For more on Studebaker's decline, continue on to the next page.

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In a sense, it was just as well that Studebaker's decline forced them to postpone their planned all-new 1952 models, because 1953 was a much better year for selling cars.

The 1952 models, like this Studebaker Starliner, needed record sales to stave off financial disaster.
The 1952 models, like this Studebaker Starliner,
needed record sales to stave off financial disaster.

Korean War shortages had put the government into an allocation mood and, starting in 1951, Washington actually stipulated how many cars could be built by each company. Although its allocations purposely favored the independents, there were only so many cars they could build, since the scarcity of raw materials such as chrome and steel also kept a lid on production.

From 1950's record of 268,099 cars built during the calendar year, Studebaker produced only 222,000 in 1951, which was below its National Price Administration quota, and would churn out only 161,520 for 1952 -- 35,000 less than the break-even point. (Actually, in terms of model-year production, the 1952s outnumbered the more celebrated 1953s, but for reasons germane to the 1953 product, not the cars on these pages.)

Hindsight tells us that the decision to rush a brand-new design to dealers in 1947 was a serious marketing misjudgment in the long run. The handsome 1947s sold very well, true. But the fact was that in the seller's market of 1947, anything on wheels sold well, and again in 1948, and yet again in 1949.

Clearly, Studebaker should have bided its time, gotten its labor and other overhead under control, and then launched its first all-new postwar car alongside the Big Three in 1949. That's because by the end of 1949 the country's immediate need for cars had been met, and competition had returned to the industry with a vengeance.

Left with an independent's typical extended amortization period, Studebaker had to make do with face-lifts -- when management was eventually convinced a styling change was necessary. The 1948-1949 models were hardly changed at all. The 1950 cowl-forward restyle was more radical, but went out of fashion fast. The company also lacked the money -- or at least the managerial impetus -- to expand its range of body styles.

Although Studebaker did finally produce a "hardtop convertible" in 1952, it was the last major American car company to offer one, and it waited until 1954 to add a station wagon (and then only a two-door), a body style that exploded in sales as makers replaced the old "woodies" with all-steel construction.

The 1952 Studebakers, like this Commander Land Cruiser, just couldn't compete with the Big Three.
The 1952 Studebakers, like this Commander Land
Cruiser, just couldn't compete with the Big Three.

Waiting so long to create the two most popular new body styles of the decade gave a jump to the competition, which hurt sales almost as much as the concurrent price wars between Ford and General Motors. Studebaker dealers were left with old-style cars, not enough new body styles, and prices hundreds of dollars higher than its Big Two competitors, General Motors and Ford.

Adding to Studebaker's woes were an antiquated plant that management had failed to modernize with defense profits after the war, and an aggressive labor force that was always given everything it demanded by Studebaker's pro-labor chairman, Paul G. Hoffman. Those two factors contributed to a towering 200,000-unit break-even point by the early 1950s, a time when dealers just weren't capable of delivering enough sales to sustain it.

This isn't just hindsight, either. Several business journals of the day saw disaster shaping up, and warned against it publicly, but Studebaker's top managers, who had saved the company in the Depression, failed it in the Revival. Within two years of its Centennial, Studebaker would be bought by Packard, to march down a fatal road that ended in oblivion scarcely a decade later.

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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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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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The 1952 Studebaker Commander V-8 boasted several innovative features in addition to its popular engine.

The 1952 Studebaker Commander State was powered by a 120 bhp ohv V-8 engine.
The 1952 Studebaker Commander State was
powered by a 120 bhp ohv V-8 engine.

Studebaker's three-speed automatic drive had been introduced in mid-1950 as a $201 option, a cooperative development of South Bend and the Detroit Gear Division of Borg-Warner. It combined a cork friction clutch with a conventional hydraulic torque converter and planetary transmission -- complicated, but in practice one of the best automatics ever developed.

In Drive, the gearbox provided two automatically shifted forward gears, starting in Second and then up-shifting into Third. Downshifting from Third to Second was possible at speeds lower than 50 mph by flooring the accelerator. Low gear, primarily for fast take-offs or engine braking, had to be selected manually.

Two important features unique to this transmission were independent air cooling (eliminating dependence on the engine's cooling system) and its anti-creep "Hill Holder" device. The latter used an electric solenoid valve that retained pressure in the rear brake lines after they had been applied, with the engine idling and the transmission in gear. Returning one's foot to the accelerator pedal released the solenoid, and thus the brakes. The feature had also been available on manual-shift cars since the 1930s (standard on 1952 Commanders), with the release switch linked to the clutch pedal.

Performance of the Commander V-8 varied from road test to road test. Motor Trend recorded a 0-60 time of 17.16 seconds in a four-door with overdrive, while veteran Tom McCahill got to 60 mph in just 12.7 seconds in a similar car (he had done it in 12.8 seconds for Mechanix Illustrated with a 1951 overdrive Commander).

With Automatic Drive, McCahill's 1951 Commander was slower: 16.2 seconds. Top speed came in at just under 100 mph for both Motor Trend and McCahill. By comparison, two 1951 Champion six convertibles that McCahill tested were much slower: 0-60 in 23.1 seconds with Automatic Drive, 17.6 with stick shift, and a top speed of 82-85 mph.

1952 Studebaker Commanders performed well in gas mileage tests.
1952 Studebaker Commanders performed well
in gas mileage road tests.

Gas mileage, as might be expected, was above average. In fact, in the 1951 Mobilgas Economy Run from Los Angeles to Grand Canyon, a Studebaker Champion, Commander V-8, and Land Cruiser V-8 -- all with overdrive -- finished first, second, and third in actual gas mileage to lead a field of 26 cars entered in "standard classifications."

In 1952, the Economy Run traveled from Los Angeles to Sun Valley, Idaho. A Champion beat out all regular-sized cars, averaging 27.82 mpg, while a Commander V-8 came in second with 25.60 mpg.

Whatever criticisms could be leveled at the 1952 Studebakers related to congenital weaknesses that had been part of the design since 1947: hazardous rear-hinged rear doors on sedans, a long-reach dashboard, a dash-mounted rear-view mirror that was dysfunctional with three passengers in the front seat, and brakes that were deficient when teamed with the V-8 (although they were self-adjusting).

But any summation of the 1952 Studebaker has to be a positive one. You could still buy a V-8 Commander for little more than $2,000: The old company, as Clem Studebaker had admonished it in 1852, was still delivering a little more than it promised.

Studebaker's centennial celebration was in full swing for 1952. For more, continue on to the next page.

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Nineteen fifty-two was a memorable year in South Bend, as it was Studebaker's centennial celebration. On February 16, the South Bend Association of Commerce put on a major celebration at Notre Dame University.

This 1952 Studebaker Commander served as the pace car for the Indianapolis 500 that year.
This 1952 Studebaker Commander served as the
pace car for the Indianapolis 500 that year.

Two days later, at 7:30 in the morning, the first Studebaker of the firm's second century left the factory amid much fanfare: a Champion four-door, Studebaker's 7,130,875th vehicle, according to William Cannon and Fred Fox in Studebaker: The Complete Story.

Studebaker paced the Indianapolis 500 race with a blue Commander convertible that was later given to winner Troy Ruttman, and held pre-race activities that would warm the heart of any Hoosier.

A huge Memorial Day parade was led by the Conestoga wagon that had carried John Studebaker west into Ohio from Gettysburg in 1836. That was followed by locally built varieties, including Abraham Lincoln's "last ride" carriage from 1865, and followed by an early Studebaker Electric, a circa 1910 Everitt-Metzger-Flanders (distributed by Studebaker), and gas-powered Studebakers through to the present.

Meanwhile, Stephen Longstreet authored a book, A Century on Wheels, and Studebaker itself published a softbound picture-book called 100 Years on the Road, and also passed out souvenir Centennial coins to its employees. Famed automotive journalist Floyd Clymer devoted the entire July issue of Automobile Topics to Studebaker.

"At the start of its second century, Studebaker is the oldest name in highway transportation in the world," said the Centennial Report to stockholders, "and the only automobile manufacturer with a history of performance that antedates the horseless carriage."

The company now had "the strongest world-wide sales and distributing organization in [its] history. The enterprise which Henry and Clem Studebaker launched in 1852 with faith and integrity has prospered in succeeding hands, and at the end of its first one hundred years is a strong, vibrant business organization well-equipped to take advantage of the boundless opportunity with which it enters its second century."

Even the addition of the hardtop 1952 Studebaker Starliner couldn't ensure the company's future.
Even the addition of the hardtop 1952 Studebaker
Starliner couldn't ensure the company's future.

The facts, alas, were somewhat different. In calendar 1952, Studebaker would produce only 161,520 cars, its lowest figure since 1947, when production hadn't yet built up to capacity. On sales of $585 million (more than 40 percent of that from government contracts), it netted a $14-million profit, a low percentage based on previous performance.

Production was hampered by some happenings not of South Bend's doing -- a national steel strike, for example, during the six middle weeks of summer. But there were other factors, distinctly Studebaker's own, that suggested trouble ahead.

Chairman Paul Hoffman, who had departed the company for the government by then, had left president Vance a legacy of labor troubles. Work standards on the 1950-1952 models were so poor, Vance said privately, that they'd lost $10 million for that reason alone. Vance blamed Hoffman for having created a poor labor climate and an unproductive workforce.

It was more expensive by at least 15 percent to build a Studebaker at South Bend than a Plymouth in Detroit. But many who knew him said that Vance was little more successful at taming the wild men on the shop floor than Hoffman had been.

Still, there were some signs of hope: The defense and truck businesses were up. But the future really didn't depend on Vance's statement to stockholders or even the whims of the labor force. The future depended on the upcoming 1953 Studebaker.

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1952 Studebakers were a hundred years in the making, marking the end of the automaker's first century of cars. Find weight, production, and prices for 1952 Studebakers in the chart below.

Champion (wb 115.0)
Weight (lbs.)
Price (new)
Custom 4d sedan
Custom 2d sedan
Custom Starlight coupe
DeLuxe 4d sedan
DeLuxe 2d sedan
DeLuxe Starlight coupe
Regal 4d sedan
Regal 2d sedan
Regal Starlight coupe
Regal Starliner hardtop coupe
Regal convertible coupe
Total Champion

Commander (wb 115.0); Land Cruiser (wb 119.0)
Regal 4d sedan
Regal 2d sedan
Regal Starlight coupe
State 4d sedan
State 2d sedan
State Starlight coupe
State Starliner hardtop coupe
State convertible coupe
Land Cruiser 4d sedan
Total Commander

Total 1952 Studebaker


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