1956-1961 Studebaker Hawk


The 1955 Studebaker President was the glittering predecessor to the finned Hawks. See more classic car pictures.

Depending on whom you talk to, the 1956-1961 Studebaker Hawk was either a clumsy, cluttered continuation of the breathtaking "Loewy coupe," or a remarkably clever repackaging job that introduced the sporty personal car to Americans years before Lee Iacocca ever thought about a Mustang. Even Studebaker partisans are divided on these cars, which bridged the style and time gaps between the memorable 1953-1954 original and Brooks Stevens' deftly re-styled 1962 Gran Turismo Hawk.

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But most agree that it was horsepower and a continental flair that make these Hawks collectible automobiles today, not add-on fins and pseudo-Mercedes grilles. These low-slung, performance-oriented machines appeared at a time when Detroit was emphasizing bulk, chrome, and "road-hugging weight" -- and were thus completely out of step with contemporary values. But while John Q. Public mostly shopped elsewhere, a small group of discerning motorists learned to appreciate these cars. Their fans are still out there today.

Bowing in October 1955, the Hawk marked the end of the Loewy group's involvement with the design that had made Studebaker the industry's style leader three years earlier. Retaining the 120.5-inch-wheelbase chassis and basic bodyshell of the 1953-1955 Starlight/Starliner, the Hawk stood in sharp contrast to Studebaker's newly reskinned 1956 sedans and wagons, which still rode a 116.5-inch wheel base but looked far bulkier and more conservative.

The 1956 Hawk line was heavily advertised in popular magazines with splashy two-page spreads like this. The 1956 Hawk line was heavily advertised in popular magazines with splashy two-page spreads like this.
The 1956 Hawk line was heavily advertised in popular magazines with splashy two-page spreads like this.

Bob Bourke, the company's chief designer in the Fifties, stated: "Although I felt the 1956 Hawk series was an improvement over the heavily chromed 1955s, I still prefer the pure, clean appearance of the 1953s and 1954s." Actually, Studebaker's 1956 styling was quite understated for the time, but the Hawk looked like something from Europe. And unlike its predecessors, it bore no obvious styling relationship to other Studes at the front or rear. As Loewy's farewell to South Bend, the Hawk was striking, but it appeared only because Studebaker-Packard president James J. Nance had insisted on a full line of cars in all price ranges. For similar reasons, there were no fewer than four variations: Flight Hawk, Power Hawk, Sky Hawk, and Golden Hawk in ascending order of price, power, and plush.

On the next page, learn about the debut of the 1956 Studebaker Hawk.

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1956 Studebaker Hawk

Few Golden Hawks were sold in 1956, despite a look that enthralls many collectors today.
Few Golden Hawks were sold in 1956, despite a look that enthralls many collectors today.

The 1956 Studebaker Hawk had no fewer than four variations: Flight Hawk, Power Hawk, Sky Hawk, and Golden Hawk in ascending order of price, power, and plush. The lower-line Flight and Power Hawks employed the Starlight coupe body shell, and the upper-level Sky and Golden Hawks used the hardtop shell of the original Starliner.

As was by then becoming customary at Studebaker, numerous budget restrictions were imposed on the Hawk program. Though no one seems to remember the exact tooling costs, Bourke recalls that the restyle was carried out with very little money. The most obvious changes were in the hood, grille, and trunklid. Collectible Automobile asked him about his greatest disappointment in the 1956 design: "I wasn't pleased with the finalization of the decklid. I can only say that I just didn't particularly enjoy the shape of it, the way it kicked up in the back. It was overdone for what it was, and should have been cleaner in some ways."

There were other face-lift proposals, of course, but the one chosen was the one most obviously different from the 1955 look. The lower-line Flight and Power Hawks employed the pillared 1953-1955 Starlight coupe bodyshell, though some 500 pillarless Flight Hawks were also built, mainly for export sale. The upper-level Sky and Golden Hawks shared the pillar-less hardtop shell of the original Starliner.

Budget-minded buyers were attracted to the $1,986 Flight Hawk. Offered only with Studebaker's 101-horsepower 185.6-cubic-inch L-head six, it was fuel-efficient but underpowered, though some critics maintain it was the best handler in the flock because of its relatively light front end and lack of serious speed potential.

The Power Hawk was the least expensive V-8 version, carrying the firm's familiar 259.2-cubic-inch engine with 170 horsepower as used in the Commander series. Virtually identical in appearance with the Flight Hawk, it offered attractive looks and good V-8 go in the tighter pillared body, and was fine value at a list price of just over $2,100.

Next up the ladder was the Sky Hawk, acclaimed by many as the best-looking of the bunch and powered by the 289-cubic-inch enlargement of the Stude V-8 introduced for 1956. The Sky Hawk wasn't cluttered up with chrome, and lacked what Bourke terms "those damnable fiberglass fins." Actually, it looked a lot like the 1953-1954 Starliner.

According to Richard M. Langworth in Studebaker: The Postwar Years, initial planning for 1956 envisioned continuing the limited-production President Speedster from 1955, with the same name and appropriate styling changes, at the top of the revised two-door lineup. It was also slated to have the 320-cubic-inch V-8 and Ultramatic transmission from the Packard Clipper and, possibly, a torsion-bar front suspension.

What emerged was the Golden Hawk, a no less ambitious amalgamation of corporate components. It was easily distinguished from the lesser birds by small fiberglass fins artfully grafted on over the rear fender seams, plus bright wheel arch moldings, wide-ribbed alloy moldings above the rocker panels, and a stainless-steel roof band similar to that of the 1955 Speedster. Many Golden Hawks left the showroom with the attractive Regal wire wheel discs first used on the 1953s.

But what really set the Golden Hawk apart was what had been shoe-horned in under its low, sloping hood: Packard's big 352-cubic-inch V-8 with a full 275 horsepower. The company touted this as the most powerful car in the low-price field for 1956, and even compiled a chart comparing the Golden Hawk with 15 other high-performance models for sheer muscle.

Go to the next page to learn about the 1956 Studebaker Hawk models' performance.

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The 1956 Studebaker Hawk Performance

A well-preserved 1956 Sky Hawk.
A well-preserved 1956 Sky Hawk.

The 1956 Golden Hawks with the Packard engines were capable of 120-130 mph speeds, but the heavy engine in the light Hawk body created some severe handling problems. Here we take a look at the 1956 Studebaker Hawk performance.

For the most part, road tests of the 1956 Golden Hawk showed about as much common sense as S-P had in stuffing the huge, overweight engine into the light chassis. As former Indy-winning race driver Bill Holland reported in the March 1956 issue of Speed Age magazine: "You may be wondering whether or not the car is hard to drive, or even if it's safe. I will say definitely that this automobile is not a compromise in any way between safety and performance. Just under five feet in height, the car has a center of gravity so low that it would be almost impossible to turn over. I put it through several controlled slides and found it recovered perfectly. It is balanced properly so that it can still be controlled with the steering wheel while it is sliding." Even more amazing was this: "I took the Studebaker over some bumpy, windy, hilly roads on the test grounds and found that I never once had to 'fight' it." No mention anywhere of the heavy front end and consequent ill-handling.

Tom McCahill had a more realistic assessment in the April 1956 Mechanix Illustrated: "The [Golden Hawk] is quite a nose-heavy car (because of its heavy engine), and it is almost impossible to make a fast-getaway start on any surface without encountering wheel spinning. I feel that if I'd shoved 200-300 pounds of sand in the trunk to equalize the weight distribution, my times would have been considerably better."

Motor Trend accurately described the handling as "strained when the car was thrown into a hard U-turn at relatively low (20-45 mph) speed. It was here that the heavy Packard V-8 made itself apparent, for the front end became sluggish as the stressed wheel rolled under."

Such comments are interesting for this writer, who can reflect on owning three 1956 Golden Hawks. The most unique was an all-black example undoubtedly set up for drag racing, with no power steering or power brakes, but carrying the three-speed/overdrive manual transmission and an outrageous 374-cubic-inch Packard Caribbean V-8. Though the previous owner claimed this engine was installed at the factory, we were never able to verify it. However, it wasn't unusual for dealers to substitute the standard induction system with a dual four-barrel manifold on the 352. We do know it was almost impossible to keep a clutch in this black bomb, for never did a Studebaker have so much sheer torque.

Our other two 1956s were much more mundane, and were equipped with the troublesome Twin-Ultramatic. Though we never ran either one flat out, those who tried it with similar cars spoke of speeds in the 120-130 mph range. Because of poor test conditions at Daytona Beach, tester McCahill wasn't able to see much over 120 mph with his car. Later he speculated that if conditions had been better, "it is my sincere belief that it would have just tipped 130 and stayed there as steady as the smile on the Mona Lisa."

On the next page, read about changes made to the Studebaker Hawk lineup for 1957.

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The 1957 Studebaker Hawk

The 1957 Golden Hawk was a much-improved car with its new supercharged V-8.
The 1957 Golden Hawk was a much-improved car with its new supercharged V-8.

Although the Studebaker Hawk didn't quite hit 20,000 sales for 1956, it was one of the more successful products from a company that was sliding ever closer to extinction. Falling sales, inept management, and a growing cash crisis are the reasons the Hawk line was trimmed to just two models for 1957: a revised Golden Hawk and a new pillared Silver Hawk, replacing the three lower 1956 offerings.

New chief stylist Duncan McRae added larger concave fins made of metal, eliminated the old sculptured contour line on the body-sides, and modified taillamp assemblies. The Silver Hawk sported a simulated air scoop on the hood and full-length chrome side moldings. Changes specific to the Golden Hawk included a fiberglass hood overlay that concealed a hole pre-cut to provide clearance for the new supercharger.

Substituting a blown version of the 289 for the heavy Packard V-8 made a world of difference in the 1957 Golden Hawk, mainly because it took 100 ponderous pounds off the front end. At the same time, engineers exchanged the Packard automatic for the more reliable Borg-Warner unit that Studebaker marketed as Flightomatic.

Though the 1957 Golden Hawk had the same amount of raw horsepower as the 1956, it was down on low-end pull because of fewer cubic inches and lower compression. The supercharger was a variable-ratio centrifugal unit by McCulloch, driven from the crankshaft.

This like-new 1957 shows the handsome lines of an almost forgotten performance machine from the Fifties. This like-new 1957 shows the handsome lines of an almost forgotten performance machine from the Fifties.
This like-new 1957 shows the handsome lines of an almost forgotten performance machine from the Fifties.

In normal driving the blower just loafed along, producing only 1-2 psi pressure in the intake manifold. Pressing the "go" pedal triggered a solenoid that widened the supercharger pulley, causing a spring-loaded idler arm and pulley to pull the belt to the base of the widened supercharger pulley V. This greatly speeded up the impeller -- to about 30,000 rpm -- thus producing up to about 5 psi manifold pressure, though you could start to feel it build from as little as 2,300 engine rpm. The compressed mixture was forced through a Stromberg two-barrel carburetor totally enclosed in a balanced-pressure chamber.

All Hawks acquired finned brake drums for 1957, and Twin Traction limited-slip differential, first released on the 1956 Packard, was optional with any V-8. The Silver Hawk was powered by the old reliable L-head six as standard, with normally aspirated 210- and 225-horsepower versions of the 289 available at extra cost.

As you might expect, the 1957 Golden Hawk had much improved handling compared to the 1956, though even the lighter Studebaker engine was heavier than it should have been for its size. Test reports were far more favorable, and it seemed motor noters were finally coming clean with their true opinions of the 1956.

Behind that bold radiator grille is a powerhouse of an engine that was capable of eating 1957 Chevys for lunch. Behind that bold radiator grille is a powerhouse of an engine that was capable of eating 1957 Chevys for lunch.
Behind that bold radiator grille is a powerhouse of an engine that was capable of eating 1957 Chevys for lunch.

A late arrival for 1957 was "the ultra-smart" Golden Hawk 400, appearing in time for the spring selling season. Studebaker's finest car that year, it is unquestionably the rarest model of this generation. Priced nearly $500 above the standard Golden Hawk, the 400 featured hand-buffed top-grain leather upholstery in white or tan. If the car was two-toned -- and most were -- the air intake ports flanking the grille were painted to match the contrasting color on the fins' concave surfaces. Although exact production has yet to be established even now, it is thought only 200-300 of these cars were completed.

Continue to the next page to read about 1958-1960 Studebaker Hawks.

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The 1958, 1960 Studebaker Hawk

The curious 1958 Packard Hawk featured highly unusual styling and leather-padded exterior "armrests."
The curious 1958 Packard Hawk featured highly unusual styling and leather-padded exterior "armrests."

As the 1958 Studebaker Hawk was rolling around, S-P's financial situation was precarious, so both Hawk models were carried over with only minor alterations. Air conditioning was available for the first time, and one-inch smaller (14-inch-diameter) wheels lowered ride height slightly.

A surprising new variation on the Hawk theme debuted to replace the previous 400: a Packard Hawk, with unusual front-end styling that some described as "the old duckbill." Again the work of stylist McRae, it was inspired by Roy T. Hurley, president of Curtiss-Wright Corporation, which was then a management consultant to S-P. Hurley was said to have been fond of a Maserati 3500GT bodied by Allemano, and ordered up a Hawk with a similar nose for his personal use. S-P managers saw this car and, amazingly, decided to put it into production with the Packard name attached.

Hawk sales slumped badly in 1960 as Studebaker dealers concentrated on the popular Lark compact. There were few appearance changes but many mechanical improvements in the Hawk's final years.

The focal point of the one-year-only Packard Hawk was its low, fiberglass hood and wide "catfish-mouth" grille. It also had distinction at the rear, where a trunklid borrowed from the 1953-1955 coupes was adorned with a simulated spare tire cover a la Virgil Exner's then-current Imperial. McRae told author Langworth in a 1974 interview that this model's curious exterior "armrests" were applied to "give the effect of interior overflow reminiscent of crash padding around the border of early aircraft cockpits." The interior was nearly identical to that of the 1957 Golden Hawk 400, but was offered only in tan. Ironically, this car was really less a Packard than the 1956 Golden Hawk had been, because it was powered by the supercharged Studebaker V-8 -- with Packard valve cover decals.

There would be no more Packards after 1958, and this was one in name only. There would be no more Packards after 1958, and this was one in name only.
There would be no more Packards after 1958, and this was one in name only.

All Packards, including the Hawk, disappeared for 1959, along with the old full-size Studebakers. The company now pinned its hopes for survival on the pert, compact Lark, built on a slightly shortened version of the 1953 sedan/wagon platform.

The Studebaker Hawk nearly died, too, mainly because of dismal 1958 sales (only about 8,230 units). What kept it alive was pressure from dealers, who wanted a companion model to sell alongside the Lark. The company obliged, but it had to cut its losses somewhere, so there was now only a single pillared Silver Hawk, available with a destroked 90-horsepower 169.6-cubic-inch six or the "small-block" 259.2-cubic-inch V-8 in 180- and 195-horsepower form. Air conditioning, power steering and brakes, and automatic remained on the options roster, but finned brake drums were no longer available and the six/automatic combo left the Hawk dreadfully underpowered.

Minor appearance tweaks included relocated parking lamps (from the front fenders to the side grilles), "Silver Hawk" nameplates on the fins, and the return of 15-inch wheels. Reclining front seats were a new option. Sales continued in the cellar, with 5,371 V-8s and only 2,417 six-cylinder cars built for the model year.

The 1960 edition didn't go on sale until February of that year, and was now simply called Hawk. Though styling was pretty much as before -- and looking quite dated -- there was good news under the hood, where the six was dropped in favor of the 210-horsepower 289 V-8 as standard. The 225-horsepower unit was optional. Performance buffs applauded the adoption of heavier-duty rear axle, transmission clutch, and cooling system, as well as reinstatement of the finned drum brakes. New options included split front seat, headrests, and tachometer.

On the next page, read about the Studebaker Hawk's final model year.

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The 1961 Studebaker Hawk

Studebaker announced limited production for the last of its winged warriors, but demand proved even more limited than the planned 6110 units.
Studebaker announced limited production for the last of its winged warriors, but demand proved even more limited than the planned 6110 units.

Many Studebaker Hawk devotees feel Studebaker saved the best for last with the valedictory 1961 model. The reason: first-time availability of a four-speed floorshift gearbox, supplied by Borg-Warner.

Appearance changes were few, and a company press handout described the 1961 Hawk as "retaining its classic 'gran turismo' sports car styling." Motor Life magazine thoroughly enjoyed its four-speed test car: "At or near sea level, we could lug out in high gear from very low rpm or snap into third for more rapid passing speeds."

Top speed was 120 mph "according to the car's instruments," thought the actual velocity was probably closer to 115 mph. Signalling the end of this line, Studebaker announced only 6,110 of the 1961s would be built, each carrying a special numbered dash plaque engraved with the buyer's name. As it turned out, demand was more limited than even that modest figure, and a mere 3,929 examples were built.

Of course, Studebaker wasn't finished with the Hawk, though it was finished with the finny 1956 styling. But even if it wasn't a success on the sales chart, this Hawk generation was undoubtedly influential. In fact, there's every reason to believe that Chevrolet took a good long look at it when creating the Corvair Monza, which set the pace for the buckets-and-console sporty car craze that was sweeping Detroit by 1962.

As we know, Studebaker fell in line with the more sophisticated Gran Turismo Hawk, which has tended to overshadow the earlier models for both historical interest and enthusiast esteem. But it's only a matter of time before the 1956-1961 Hawk achieves widespread recognition as a collectible automobile. If it suffers in comparison to other late-Fifties collectibles -- and it does in several ways -- it is because it was a Studebaker, the product of a company then on the ropes due to its unfortunate habit of being either a little too early or a little too late. In the end, South Bend's winged warriors were a little of both. They deserved better.

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