Gear Head Tuesday – Scrappy Studebaker’s Sturdy Little V-8

Gear Head

Hat tip to “Chris-to-Fear” for inspiring this post which is adapted from articles at Hot Rod Magazine and the Hemmings blog.


For much of its life as a builder of automobiles, Studebaker was a scrappy independent that punched above its weight. Studebaker’s history has a surprisingly long list of automotive “firsts.” Thus in 1951, Studebaker was the first independent car maker to offer its own V-8, a compact overhead valve unit that pointed the way toward the famous small block Chevrolet 265-283-327 series and later Ford’s 221-260-289-351 series of small block V-8s.


In 1952, the Police in my hometown of Lubbock, TX drove Studebaker Commander V-8s. The dealer, Kerr Studebaker, stayed with Studebaker to the very end of Studebaker production in Canada in 1966.

This is not to say that Studebaker was the first to offer a V-8. General Motors had already made modern overhead valve V-8s standard in its post-war Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs and Ford had offered a flathead V-8 since 1932, an engine Ford stuck with through 1951 in Lincolns and through 1953 in Fords. Chrysler introduced its famous hemispherical combustion chamber V-8 in 1951, although the Plymouth division didn’t get a V-8 until 1955.

Nash, Hudson, Kaiser-Frazer and Packard were all late to the V-8 party. Many think that Packard’s lateness in offering a V-8 engine was a significant contributing factor in Packard’s demise. The late Packard historian Robert Neal made the case that Packard should have introduced its V-8 no later than 1953. Packard’s V-8, when it arrived, suffered from inadequate development time The resulting reliability issues helped sink the venerable marque. As part of a component sharing plan in anticipation of the planned merger between Nash, Hudson, Packard and Studebaker, Nash and Hudson models for 1955 were fitted with Packard’s V-8. In the meantime, Studebaker’s new V-8 became the standard engine in their Commander and Land Cruiser series cars in 1951.

The Studebaker V-8 was a well-designed unit and – it was rugged!  In March 2015, writer Bob Palma wrote this for Hemmings about the Studebaker V-8, calling it “America’s Best V-8 Engine”:

“Now, before the Bow-Tie Brigade inundates our editor with demands for my dismissal, I will say this: The lightweight, small-block Chevrolet is America’s most versatile V-8, due to its compactness and low cost. But no postwar, domestic V-8 is as tough, and none tolerates poor maintenance as well as a Studebaker V-8. Here’s why.

As World War II drew to a close, industry engineers felt that OHV engines, configured as compact V-8s instead of impressive-looking but lengthy in-line engines, would make good use of the high-octane fuels that were developed during the war. Many thought even higher compression would be common by the mid-1950s, so Studebaker engineers designed their new V-8 to accommodate compression ratios as high as 13:1, or more.

When passenger-car gasoline never became blended for such high compression ratios, it left Studebaker with a sturdy, overbuilt V-8. It would be forever criticized as being heavy, and it is for its displacement. But that weight strengthens the engine in unseen ways.

For example, when introduced for 1951 at 232 cubic inches, the Studebaker V-8 had at least 25 percent more main bearing area per cubic inch than did Cadillac or Oldsmobile V-8s, and more main bearing area outright than the new Chrysler Hemi, displacing almost 100 more cubic inches! All Studebaker V-8s have forged, not cast, crankshafts riding in those husky bearing webs, to which only forged connecting rods are attached.

Eighteen bolts secure each cylinder head, more than most competitors. Head gasket issues were and have been virtually nonexistent, even when the engine was first supercharged for some 1957 models.

Studebaker V-8s rarely have valve problems. Hydraulic valve lifters were never used; every Studebaker V-8 has solid lifters. Forged, easily adjustable rocker arms ride on shafts in a Studebaker V-8; not cheap, stamped rockers, sometimes on individual, pressed-in studs that can pull out of cylinder heads under the right conditions.

Unique among OHV postwar V-8s is Studebaker’s gear-driven camshaft. Not only do timing chains stretch, but engineers often reduce an engine’s internal noise by capping camshaft sprocket teeth with plastic composites. They are subject to heat and age degradation, leading to camshaft sprocket failure. (I’d say its timing chain is the only design element preventing Chrysler’s 273-360 LA-series V-8s from duplicating Studebaker V-8 minimum-repair longevity.)

Finally, the new Studebaker V-8 did not experience the internal oiling problems that plagued some early OHV V-8s. Studebaker’s V-8 did experience early camshaft lobe failures, as did several in the industry until oils and metallurgical issues were sorted out for the new engines.

Studebaker’s V-8 design produced an engine that was not only strong, but unusually powerful for its displacement. Only the new Chrysler Hemi V-8 produced more horsepower per cubic inch than did the Studebaker V-8 in 1951. From the jump, both engines produced more than ½ horsepower per cubic inch with two-barrel carburetors, a figure Cadillac and Oldsmobile couldn’t muster even though their V-8s had already been in production two years. The Studebaker V-8 remained powerful to the end, too; the 1964 Studebaker R3 engine was conservatively rated at 335 horsepower from only 304.5 cubic inches. That’s 1.100 horsepower per cubic inch; no small feat in 1964.


Rare and potent: the Avanti R3 V-8

Indianapolis 500 legend J. C. Agajanian chose Studebaker V-8s to modify for the 1952, ’53 and ’56 Memorial Day Classics. Overall sturdiness was reportedly a factor in their being chosen over Cadillac, Chrysler, or Oldsmobile V-8s. In 1952, Agajanian spent $225,000 transforming at least two Studebaker V-8s into radical, 32-valve, DOHC speedway screamers. Bored 3⁄16-inch and using reworked stock crankshafts, the resulting 274 cubic inch engines produced an incredible 370hp at 7,100 RPM on methanol…in 1952!

Today, two beautiful Agajanian Studebaker V-8s are displayed at The Museum of American Speed in Lincoln, Nebraska. Visit their website to see what was done with America’s best V-8 engine.”

The sturdy construction of Studebaker’s V-8 came in handy with the introduction of the Avanti as demonstrated in this article in Hot Rod Network about an Avanti-engined ’63 Studebaker Lark that to this day is a real drag strip screamer:


Supercharged R2 Transforms the Little Lark Into Super Stude

After decades of deep involvement with muscle cars, there aren’t many secrets left to uncover. The short run of supercharged Studebakers produced during the maker’s last hurrah may be one of the last and best.

Insiders call Ted Harbit’s ’63 Lark the Stude Tomato, or just the Tomato for short, a clever play on words for the red Studebaker. Yes, a Studebaker. And it’s not even a premium Studebaker like a Hawk or Avanti, just a humble, two-door sedan econo-model. Or so it seems.

There are no hoodscoops, crossed-flag badges, engine callouts, blackout grilles, stripes, fat mags, or any of that stuff. Aft of the front wheel is the one tiny telltale badge: a rectangular die-cast piece with the words “Avanti Supercharged” in letters too small to serve as much of a warning. Under the hood is a secret weapon with an enigmatic code name. R2 was Studebaker’s factory term for the supercharged version of its 289 engine. That R2 name may cause the uninitiated to scratch their heads, but it causes Studebaker aficionados to wink and grin. However meek the Lark may seem on the outside, it’s a slasher on the inside.

And in that dichotomy of identities lies the fun. Can you imagine the joy in the Studebaker camp as the Tomato snarls and roars and picks off a string of revered icons—Stage 1, Cobra Jet, SS454, and 440 Magnum—like arcade ducks at a shooting gallery? But that’s just what’s happening at the Pure Stock Drags. From opposing lanes at the dragstrip, the Tomato is the car that launched a thousand groans.

The spec chart provides the nitty-gritty about the engine’s content, but as an overview of the R2, Studebaker took its V-8 engine (it had no separate big- and small-block engine families as was the industry norm), based on a well-engineered 90-degree iron block, and fitted it with low-compression, big-chamber truck cylinder heads and a Paxton SN-60 centrifugal supercharger to force-feed the engine at up to 6 psi.

Because moving air into the engine doesn’t rely on atmospheric pressure, which has better days than others, the supercharged engine has completely different power delivery characteristics than other muscle engines. On the dragstrip, understanding its nature is key to maximizing its potential. The force-fed Tomato has a top-end charge that kicks like a mule. George Krem, another lifelong Stude dude in the know about the R engines and former owner of the Tomato, says, “Since the Stude V-8 is a relatively small-inch engine, and the centrifugal blower doesn’t really wake it up until a fairly high rpm, its driving characteristics are the opposite of a typical big-inch big-block. Off the line you don’t get the slam-in-the-back effect of the big-block, but the higher you wind the blown engine, the harder it presses you in the back. A 4.55 axle ratio helps disguise that effect some, but it’s there.”

Owner/driver Ted Harbit says that if the Tomato is even or behind by a car length at mid-track, the race is in the bag.

And Ted should know. He has been a true-blue Studebaker racer and NHRA event winner since Kennedy was president and Studebakers were still in production. He’s older, but he’s intensely focused, treacherous, sharp as razor wire at the wheel, quick as a black belt on the four-speed, and as consistent as a rerun—the Tomato’s perfect teammate.

From the stands, the run begins with the Tomato leaving early on the light, but not too early. Ted doesn’t redlight. With the steep 4.55 gears, First is over in a hurry. The tires bark and the car shudders at the 1-2 shift. As the engine comes under load, the Paxton goes to work and the exhaust note takes on its loud, slappy sound, a tone distinctive from any other car. At the 2-3 shift, the Tomato is on full boost hitting its mid-track charge. One more gear change and the tach starts the final sweep towards redline. The traps approach with the engine in the sweet spot of the powerband. It has been another very strong run, and the win light is almost certainly on for the Studebaker. If it was close, there’s usually a collective “Yeah!” heard from the stands.

In more than a decade of Pure Stock Drags racing, the Tomato has amassed an extraordinary record in the shootouts (see sidebar). It has dropped an occasional round and beaten itself a couple of times, running more than three-tenths quicker than its qualifying e.t., which got it DQ’ed. But at the conclusion of the best-two-out-of-three shootout competition, nobody has outdriven or outrun the Tomato.

Extracting this level of performance requires some attention to the R2 engine. The weak link is the supercharger drive belt, which likes to slip at higher rpm even under the best conditions. The fix is installing a fresh belt at max tension just before the shootouts, and some texturing (sandblasting) on the pulley groove. The pressurized engine also has an appetite for spark plugs.

But the basic engine is up to the job. All Studebaker V-8s had forged steel cranks, forged connecting rods, forged rockers, solid lifters, and gear-driven cams instead of the customary timing chain. They also had a generous arrangement of head bolts that keep the heads clamped down and prevent head gasket issues. Other basics include a Carter 625-cfm AFB carb and a Prestolite dual-point distributor. Rounding out the drivetrain is a Borg-Warner T10 four-speed and Dana 44 axle with Stude’s “Twin-Traction” differential.

Doubters take note. The Tomato has been through the Pure Stock Drags’ heavy tech in 2012, a partial teardown to carefully examine the engine’s internals, and passed with no issues.

It’s what the Pure Stock Drags has done so well: pulled forgotten options out of obscurity and reintroduced them to the discussion.

How did a car with this kind of performance go virtually unnoticed for so long? For starters, not many were made. Research by the Studebaker Drivers Club shows that across the Lark, Hawk, and Avanti lines, only 2,157 R2 engines were produced for 1963, and with the age of independents drawing to a close, other cars—Sting Rays, Super Dutys, 409s, 427s—were grabbing the spotlight.

Further, Studebaker, perhaps intentionally, did not release horsepower figures for this engine until November 25, 1963—after the ’63 model year. George points out, “The lack of hp ratings kept the cars out of the stock classes all during the important 1963 NHRA season.”

The plain Lark may not have been the bombshell cheerleader. She didn’t get a lot of dates, but high society or not, with the right equipment, she could dance as good as the best and better than the rest.


Above: The Studebaker 289 V-8 with a supercharger as used in the ’57 and ’58 Golden Hawks and in the ’57 Packard Clippers. It developed 275 horsepower. Below: A ’63 Studebaker Avanti with the supercharged R2 289.



 Regarding our post about the Nissan Figaro, “PacDoc56” forwards this link to a man in Virginia who owns 100 (!) Figaros.


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