Gear Head Tuesday: Robert Bourke and the Studebaker “Bullet Nose”

Gear Head


Robert Bourke (standing) with Raymond Loewy in a Loewy publicity shot.

“B-Squared,” well-attuned to my affection for Studebakers, sent me an e-mail with a story of the ’50 Studebaker “bullet nose.” That e-mail was the starting point for today’s “Gear Head” post. I don’t have the link back to the original article “B-Squared” sent, but I copy it as received below:

'50 Studebaker Champion

1950 Studebaker Champion Starlight coupe

The first year of the “bullet nose.”

Take your bullet nose Stude to any generic car show and try to keep track of all the bulls**t that know-it-alls sling about it.

Within 15 minutes you will be told that the bullet nose was the biggest mistake that Studebaker ever made and it drove them out of business. (The 1950 was actually one of their highest selling models in the entire history of the company.* They went out of the car business 16 years later. Labor costs and economies of scale made them get out of the car business).

Within 30 minutes you’ll be told that all Studebakers were powered by Continental Red Seal engines. (Studebaker built all of their own passenger car and light truck engines until the 1965 model year. They only stopped because their foundry was too large to operate economically with the small numbers of cars they were building by then. Kaisers and the Graham-Paige used the Red Seal).

Within the first 45 minutes, you will be told that the cars originally had a third headlight that was linked to the steering and the bullet is actually an aftermarket gizmo sold by Western Auto to replace the headlight when the linkage to the steering broke.

If you are really lucky, by the end of the first day you’ll be told that all Studebakers used Perkins Diesels. (Some of their heavy trucks did but never their cars and light trucks).

The 1950 Champion used the Champion 169.92 CID flat head six and produced 85 brake horsepower. The Commander used the larger Commander flathead six. Funny how that worked out. In 1951, the Commander six was gone; replaced by a spiffy new V8. The bullet nose feature ran for just two years but is probably what more people think of when they hear the name “Studebaker” than anything else.

* The 1950 model year saw Studebaker’s all-time high in production: 343,164 units, a figure the company had never seen before and never saw again.

1953 Studebaker

Robert Bourke’s masterpiece – the ’53 Studebaker Commander Starliner

The above e-mail is a jumping off point for how we got the “bullet nose” and along the way a few other Studebaker designs thanks to Robert Bourke who created the masterful ’53-’54 Studebaker Starliner.

Many people, myself included, have thought that the bullet nose was inspired by the ’48 Tucker, designed by Alex Tremulis. The Tucker and the ’47 -’52 Studebakers share a remarkable similarity in overall profile as well. “B-Squared’s” e-mail to me got me to digging into the design history of the “bullet nose” Studebakers. The upshot of this is that it now appears to me that Tremulis may have been looking at Bourke’s work rather than the other way around.


Above: ’48 Tucker; Below: ’50 Studebaker Commander


Below: ’49 Ford – the origin of the spinner dates to a 1940 sketch by Robert Bourke.


Another nugget I found is that while George Walker is often credited with (and happily took the credit for) designing the ’49 Fords, the fact of the matter is that landmark car was largely the work of Robert Bourke and Holden Koto, working at home on a kitchen table while both were on Raymond Loewy’s team at Studebaker. The genesis of both the “bullet nose” Studebaker and the ’49 Ford is in a Bourke sketch from 1940! The tri-star emblem used briefly on the ’53 Studebakers also has its roots in Bourke sketches from the early 1940s. After putting the tri-star on the ’53s, Studebaker was forced to make a running change on the ’53s eliminating the emblem after Mercedes-Benz (who at the time had a minuscule presence in the U.S.) objected that the emblem was too similar to their star – despite Bourke’s being upside down from M-B’s. Looking at these sketches, we see what a talented and visionary designer Robert Bourke was.


Above: a Robert Bourke sketch for Studebaker from 1940. The general shape of the ’49 Ford front clip is evident in this drawing. The “gunsight” hood ornament was used on the ’48-’49 Studebaker Champion and the ’49-’53 Studebaker trucks. Buick “borrowed” it for some of their cars in the ’50s.

Below: Bourke’s sketch for the ’49 Ford. The taillight design didn’t go onto the production ’49-’51 Fords, but the design was re-worked and used on the ’53-’54 Studebaker Starliners. Many years later, Cadillac used this taillight shape.


Below: the transition of Bourke’s idea for the taillights from the ’49 Ford to the ’53 Studebaker Starliner is seen here. The Starliner was originally to have been a one-off show car but quickly morphed into a design intended for production. In this sketch, the roof is flatter than as on the production car; the taillights were housed in a de-facto bumper and there was no rear seat.


Below: another Bourke sketch from the ’40-’41 time span. The genesis of the “bullet nose” is seen here as is the “tri-star” emblem that finally saw production on the ’53 Studebakers – until Mercedes-Benz made a stink about it.

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 1.11.05 PM

Below – another Bourke pre-war sketch with the same themes.Mercedes would have really objected to this version of the tri-star!


IMG_0246 (1)

Above: Bourke’s 1941 sketch of what became the ’47-’52 Studebaker Starlight. This sketch became the basis for the entire line of ’47 Studebakers. The overall shape, especially of the 4 door sedans, is similar to the ’48 Tucker. This is no accident as the Studebaker was intended to be a rear-engine car and the Tucker was rear-engined.

47 Champion Starlight


Add yours →

  1. I like dreams and sketches. I love seeing the older great ones restored. I would love to have a 1953 SL in mint condition to toodle around in.


  2. christofear 14/10/2015 — 18:01

    Excellent work, you’ve earned the right to have another slice of the pie for dessert! A side note, Studebaker did try a few Lark’s with a Perkins diesel in it as a offering to the taxi companies.


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