I was six years old when the ’53 Studebaker Starliner was introduced. At that age, I was already quite a “Gear Head.” My family tells me that even as young as four, I could tell you the make and usually the year of any car pointed out to me. I always have thought that the ’53 Starliner is the most beautiful car ever built. The sixty-four years that have passed since have not changed my opinion of that car. We’ve covered the design of the car – usually called the “Loewy Coupe,” but actually designed by Robert Bourke (who worked for Loewy) HERE.
1953 Studebaker Commander Starliner
As the 1955 model year arrived, Robert Bourke found himself forced by Studebaker management to lard chrome on his clean-lined coupe. He argued long and hard against layering chrome on the car, even going to far as to convert his personal Starliner at his own expense into a clean ’55 prototype. Studebaker bosses Harold Vance and Paul Hoffman ordered the chrome, and Packard boss James Nance didn’t override them.
Robert Bourke converted his personal Starliner at his own expense into a ’55 prototype in his argument with Studebaker management against larding the car up with chrome.
The ’53 Studebaker bodies were in their third season as the ’55 model year began and Studebaker needed something to “spice” the cars up. Misguided as it may have been even considering that the entire auto industry was suffering at the time from a “chrome infection,” Studebaker larded the chrome on the ’55s as part of their attempt to hide the fact that their body shells were in their third year when almost every other manufacturer got all-new bodies in 1955.
The “Catfish mouth” grille as the chrome-laden ’55 Studebaker grilles came to be called.
It was in this context that the one year only Studebaker Speedster was introduced. For the auto show circuit, Studebaker fitted out 14 President Starliners with almost every option in the catalog, gave the cars special badges and a special interior. The first 14 were all painted in Hialeah Green and Sun Valley Yellow, more commonly called “Lemon and Lime.” Studebaker recycled the Speedster name they had last used in the 1920’s for the cars. The “President” name was also recycled, having last been used by Studebaker in 1942.
The Speedsters were well-received on the show circuit and Studebaker launched it as a special mid-year model. The Speedsters were fitted with the 259 cubic inch V-8 fitted with a four barrel carburetor and dual exhausts. Power steering, power brakes and white wall tires were standard. The Speedsters got a handsome engine-turned instrument panel fitted with Stewart-Warner gauges including a 160 mph speedometer and an 8,000 rpm tachometer. The seats were trimmed with beautiful and unique-to-the Speedster diamond-stitched leather. Also standard on the Speedster were wire wheel covers, fog lights mounted in the front bumper and dual back-up lights at the rear. (Back-up lights were an extra-cost option on most cars in those days …)
The Hialeah Green and Sun Valley Yellow paint scheme proved to be the most popular of the Speedster production colors, while other available combinations (there were eight total) included Shasta White/Velvet Black and Coraltone/Pimlico Gray, all with matching interior schemes. Three tone paint schemes were also available.
Above: The striking color combination of Coraltone and Pimlico Gray is very rare as it appeared on only 82 of the Vernon plant cars and 219 Speedsters overall.
The catalog art above shows the extra bright metal and badging found exclusively on the Speedster, including the wide basket-handle trim (inset) that dressed out the C-pillar and rear window.
The handsome engine-turned instrument panel is fitted with Stewart-Warner gauges including an 8,000 rpm tachometer.
The beautiful diamond-stitched leather interior. The rear package shelf received the same treatment – a luxury touch.
The door panels were also covered with the diamond-stitched leather but in a contrasting color to the seats.
Studebaker’s Speedster was viewed by some in the automotive press as being Studebaker’s five passenger coupe answer to the two seat Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Thunderbird. Sporty cars were in demand; British sports cars such as the MG, Triumph and Jaguar were catching a lot of attention in those years. The Speedster gave Studebaker a sporty but low-budget answer to all of those cars. Bourke’s five passenger coupe also became a precursor to the luxury coupe market launched by Ford’s ’58 “Squarebird.” The Speedster spawned the Hawk series for Studebaker beginning with the 1956 models. The Hawks became one of Studebaker’s longest-running car model lines.
As a subseries of the President line, the Speedsters wore President badges on the rear deck lid. Note the dual exhausts and the back-up lights, both standard on the Speedsters, optional on all other Studebakers.
The 420 Speedsters built at Studebaker’s Vernon, California plant wore both “Speedster” and “President” badges on the rear fenders. South Bend-built Speedsters only have the “Speedster” badge on the sides.
A total of 2,215 Speedsters were built with 1,795 manufactured at the plant in South Bend, Indiana. The other 420 Speedsters were built at Studebaker’s Vernon, California (Los Angeles area) plant. The Vernon-built Speedsters are readily identifiable because they have the “President” badge above the “butter knife” chrome on the rear flanks of the car – which also wears the “Speedster” badges. The South Bend-built Speedsters lack the “President” badge on the sides.
Speedsters are sought after by collectors and bring higher prices than almost any other collectible Studebaker. The significance of the Speedster is beyond the numbers of them built.
Photo credit for the images of the black and white Speedster go to
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