Gear Head Tuesday -“Chris-to-Fear’s ’55 Studebaker Champion

Gear Head

Uncle Tilden - '55 Studebaker Champion

“Uncle Tilden” – an original, unrestored ’55 Studebaker Champion owned by “Chris-to-Fear,” painted in Tilden Grey and Windsor Blue.

“Chris-to-Fear” is a frequent contributor to “Jerry Mander” and to “The Friday Funnies.” A California resident, he lives in the San Francisco East Bay Area and also has a home in the Gold Country of the Sierra Mountains. In addition to being a long-haul driver for UPS, he volunteers one day a week on the restored WWII Victory Ship, Red Oak Victory. currently docked in Richmond Harbor, near where it was built in the Kaiser Shipyards. He owns “Uncle Tilden,” an original, unrestored ’55 Studebaker Champion, the subject of this “Gear Head Tuesday” post.

Red Oak Victory

S.S. Red Oak Victory – one of the very few (2?) surviving WWII-era Victory ships

In addition to “Uncle Tilden,” Chris-to-Fear owns a ’52 Studebaker 2R5 pickup truck, a ’59 Studebaker Lark VI, a 1960 Land Rover 88 Station Wagon and a ’66 BSA A65T Thunderbolt motorcycle. Clearly he likes the Studebaker Champion six cylinder engine as all three of his Studebakers are powered by this rugged little six which made its debut in the original 1939 Studebaker Champion. Now “Chris-to-Fear” tells us about “Uncle Tilden:”

I bought my Studebaker in the summer of 2000 through an ad in the local Studebaker Club from a man named Carpenter who lived in Pleasant Hill and had lost his indoor storage for the car. I examined the car, and realised that it was completely 100% original and had never been apart or molested, and knew that if I let it go I would hate myself for the rest of my life, so I bought it for $2500.00.

The history of the car is that it had been assembled at Studebaker’s plant in Vernon, California, sold at the Ben A. Begier dealership in San Leandro to a little old lady, and had spent most of its life in the Orinda – Lafayette – Moraga area until she passed, then it was bought by Mr. Carpenter, who then let his daughter drive it while she was attending the University of the Pacific. Then it went into dry storage for about 20 years before the storage was lost, then I bought it with 64,000 on the clock, making me the car’s third custodian.

Since taking possession, I have rebuilt the engine, the transmission, brakes and suspension. The engine has hardened valve seats & matching exhaust valves, and has been balanced. The dynamo & starter motor have also been rebuilt. Someday when I get enough money to sit still, I’ll have the interior re done. This last October, the odometer turned over to 100,000 miles for the first time as I left town for a trip to Eureka, California. At this moment the car has 103,240 miles on the clock.

Studebaker, following the lead of Chrysler, Ford and General Motors, opened an assembly plant in Southern California in 1938 – not long after its Great Depression brush with death, having survived going into receivership, by-products of its purchase of money-hemmorrhaging Pierce-Arrow and the Depression.

Despite the Depression, Southern California had become a big market for the car companies, and the “car culture” was already ingrained in its population. Automobile racing became a popular local sport during the 1910s. Many engine-based manufacturing companies, particularly those in aeronautical engineering and airplane manufacturing, opened large-scale facilities in Long Beach and Los Angeles. The aeronautics industry complemented and to some degree fed the Southern California car culture.  A strong connection between automobile production operations in Detroit and Los Angeles was established in the 1930s. Even today, many car companies have design centers in Southern California.

Studebaker Vernon plant

Aerial view of the Studebaker assembly plant in Vernon, CA (above), a 1938 Studebaker ready to roll off the Vernon assembly line (below).

Studebaker Vernon plant

The Vernon Studebaker plant, also known as the “Los Angeles Plant,” supplied Studebakers to dealers throughout the West, including Alaska and Hawaii. The plant occupied over 400,000 square feet, doing final assembly of components shipped from the main production facilities in South Bend, Indiana.

As Studebaker’s woes mounted in the 1950s, the Vernon plant contributed to Studebaker’s high overhead costs as operating in California has never been an inexpensive proposition. Today, the only remaining automobile assembly plant in California is the Tesla plant in Fremont, housed in a plant built by and originally jointly operated by General Motors and Toyota.

In the late 1930s, Studebaker’s Vernon plant was building slightly more than 150 cars a day. This number ticked up considerably in the 1950 model year when Studebaker built more than 300,000 cars, a number it had never seen before or ever saw again. Both the South Bend and Vernon plants were underutilized. In the horrible year of 1956, the Vernon plant was shuttered on the 8th of June, just 18 days before Packard closed in Detroit. At the time of closure, Vernon was assembling some 60 cars a day.

We’ve seen how Studebaker missed an opportunity to really “wow” the market in 1953 when they decided not to build their sedan line based on the stunning new Robert Bourke-designed Starliner/Starlight coupe body, instead choosing to build at foreshortened version using many inner panels that originated in the much taller 1947 Studebakers.

The 1955 Studebakers were little changed from the Robert Bourke-designed cars of 1953. Wraparound  windshields were all the vogue in 1955. Packard got one, all the cars in the GM line had them as did Ford’s lineup. The wraparound windshield wasn’t as pronounced in the ’55 Chrysler cars as at GM and Ford, but almost every car builder – except Studebaker – fitted their ’55 models with a wraparound windshield. Shamed into a running change, Studebaker introduced their “Ultravista” windshield mid-year.

“Uncle Tilden” was built late enough in the model year to have the new windshield and vent wing design.

1955 Studebaker President (early)

Compare the windshield and vent wing on the early production ’55 Studebaker (above) and the late production car pictured below. Note the “catfish mouth” grille and the “butter knife” side trim on both the early production and mid-year versions.

1955 Studebaker President Ultravista

'55 Packard Four Hundred

A wraparound windshield, as seen on this 1955 Packard Four Hundred, was a “must have” design feature. Studebaker did the best they could with the time and funds at hand to emulate this look with their “Ultravista” windshield introduced mid-year.

There was no money at Studebaker for a vast re-design in 1955, and anyway, the newly combined Studebaker-Packard was working on the all new design, slated for 1957 introduction, which would see the two makes share many components. Thus the ’55 Studebakers received only a face lift from the ’53-’54 models.

Stylist Robert Bourke wanted to keep the changes to the ’55s to a minimum. Backed up by his boss, Raymond Loewy, Bourke argued for a simple face lift and proposed a mesh grille insert at the front, even having his personal ’54 Commander Starliner fitted with the mesh grille he proposed. (The changes he made at his own expense to his Starliner included a “check mark” on the side and fins that prefigured what he did on the ’56 Golden Hawk.) But management would have none of it! They wanted CHROME! Lots of CHROME! Thus the infamous “catfish mouth” grille of the ’55 Studebakers along with the “butter knife” side trim on the Presidents was born.

Bourke's restyled '54 Commander

Above: At his own expense, Bourke re-styled his personal ’54 Commander Starliner to include changes he proposed for ’55. He had the car fitted with the mesh grille. The sides include a “check mark” and small fins that prefigure what he did on the ’56 Golden Hawk. He also installed a set of very nice wire wheels.

Below: a sketch by Bourke showing a squared-up hood and wide grille. Note the shape of the parking lights – they are very close to the production ’55 units. Overall, this design would have met Bourke and Loewy’s goal of keeping the ’55s clean and clutter free. It wasn’t to be. Management wanted CHROME!

\Bourke sketch for changes for '55

So “Chris-to-Fear’s” Champion has the “catfish mouth” grille, but also note the “jet wings” on the side. Aside from being a result of management’s call for LOTS OF CHROME on the ’55s, the “jet wings” cover up another mistake Studebaker made with the sedan bodies introduced in 1953. The two door sedans, instead of getting a rear fender panel that ran from the tail lights forward to the “B”-pillars, were fitted with an insert where the rear doors went on the four door sedans. The resulting visible seam further blemished the looks of the Studebaker 2 door sedans. The “jet wings” not only added a splash of CHROME to the sides, they cover up the blemish caused by the seam where the door would have gone had the car been a four door.

53 Champion 2 door sedan

Above: ’53 Champion 2 door sedan. Note the seam in the side of the car below the “C”-pillar where the door would have gone had the car been a 4 door. The car looks better in the ad than it did in real life. Below: The “jet wings” on the sides of the ’55 two doors covered up this unsightly seam as seen here on “Uncle Tilden.”  The chrome spear between the “jet wings” is exactly the same piece as used on the ’53-’54 models.

Uncle Tilden 1

As noted in “Chris-to-Fear’s” account of “Uncle Tilden,” the car was sold new by Ben A. Begier Studebaker on East 14th Street in San Leandro, in the San Francisco East Bay area. After Studebaker closed, Begier became a Buick dealer. As a result of the GM bankruptcy and the general shakeout of car dealers resulting from the 2008 recession, Begier became a used car dealership only, having given up the Buick franchise. However, they still own a nifty Studebaker tow truck!

Studebaker tow truck

The Ben A. Begier dealership owns a Studebaker tow truck similar to this one. I wasn’t able to get to San Leandro to get a photo of it, nor was I able to find a photo of it on the internet.

A couple of miles north of the Begier dealership on East 14th Street is another relic of California’s lost auto assembly industry, the former Durant plant. When Billy Durant lost control of GM, he started another company, naming the car after himself. One of his assembly plants was on East 14th Street on the Oakland-San Leandro border. Today the remaining buildings of that operation are a condo and shopping complex, Durant Square. When Durant folded, GM picked up this plant and in the 1960s assembled Ralph Nader’s favorite car, the Corvair, there. (snicker)

Durant plant

Billy Durant built this plant on East 14th Street to assemble Durant cars.

“Chris-to-Fear’s” ’55 Studebaker is a remarkable car. “Uncle Tilden” is sixty years old and is still wearing his original paint. “Uncle Tilden” runs well and reliably enough that he transported “Chris-to-Fear” from the Bay Area to Eureka and back, a round trip of some 550 miles. Studebaker’s Champion was the company’s entry into the low price field, so “Uncle Tilden’s” ancestry – and engine – dates back to the original Champion introduced in 1939.

“Uncle Tilden” also represents the confusion at Studebaker at the time. The sedans Studebaker built between 1953 and 1958 should have been built, as Bourke and Loewy wanted, on the Starliner/Starlight platform rather than on remnants of the 1947 platform. (Of course, had Studebaker-Packard president James Nance been able to secure the financing to tool for the all-new ’57s, the ’57 and ’58 Studebakers would have been very different from the sadly warmed over stubby-looking cars that shared the ’53 body shell. That ’53 body shell went all the way to the end of Studebaker auto production in 1966.) The Champion was supposed to be an economy car, in the low price field with Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth. But Studebaker’s high overhead meant that if they priced the Champion in the Chevy-Ford-Plymouth class, they would lose money on every unit sold. Yet if they didn’t price the Champion against “the low price three,” volume would disappear.

Studebaker-Packard Interchangeability program

The interchangeability program of the not-to-be ’57 Packards and Studebakers is shown here.

Studebaker was having an identity crisis. Structurally, they needed to be in the lower end of the mid-price market. By choosing not to build the sleek Starliner/Starlight-based sedans in ’53, they missed the opportunity not only to sell a lot of cars even in the face of the bloody price war between Chevrolet and Ford in ’53 and ’54, they missed the opportunity to solidly position themselves in the lower-mid market where they needed to be.

'55 Studebaker window sticker

Window sticker for a ’55 Studebaker President, sold by Slavich Bros., Fresno, CA. This car would have been built at Studebaker’s Vernon, CA plant.

Combined with the other unforced errors Studebaker made in 1953 (the botched tooling, the front clips that wouldn’t fit, the inability to fill customers orders, etc.) Studebaker shortened its own life – and cost Packard its life. “Uncle Tilden” is a well-preserved time capsule of Studebaker’s identity crisis.

Chris-to-Fear's fleet

Above: “Uncle Tilden” sits with “Chris-to-Fear’s fleet. Not shown is his ’59 Studebaker Lark VI. Below: three more views of “Uncle Tilden.”

Uncle Tilden5

Uncle Tilden3

Uncle Tilden4


Strange Old Vehicles

(Hat tip: “Shirl”)

strange old vehicles



Add yours →

  1. I’ve always liked Stude’s, I had a ’41 Champion, & a ’47 Starlight coupe. I now have a “39 Nash LaFayette. I traded the ’53 Packard Cavalier in on it at Motorland USA up in Maine


  2. Another Great article, Thanks for sharing


  3. I never owned a Stud, but always liked them, at first as a curiosity, then the 50’s came and they took on a whole new dimension. Good story and pictures. I remember thinking they has messed up with too much chrome in the grill, but it grew on me.


  4. chris houck 19/01/2016 — 09:19

    Excellent work Paul, thanks to the really nice article!


  5. Great info. stuff I never knew…..


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