Gear Head Tuesday – Bruce’s ’64 Studebaker Commander

Gear Head

Readers' car series

A few weeks ago, we saw Bruce’s beautifully restored 1956 Packard Four Hundred. After selling his Packard, he later acquired a ’64 Studebaker Commander. He is turning this rather spartan Stude into a real street stormer as you will read below.

64 Commander 300 cu in 335 hp installed

1964 Studebaker Commander R-4

The year was 2008 when, finally, I was able to go to a SDC national meet that was held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was a very well attended event and there were lots of Studebakers including more Lark-bodied cars than I had ever seen in one place. They were all lined up like Studebaker’s in a dealership car lot such that it was nearly sensory overload. Suddenly something strange caught my eye as I walked up to a freshly painted Ermine White 1962 Lark two-door sedan. The strange part was the funny looking black and white round badge with a lazy “S” and the symbol R4 attached to the front grille. Under the bonnet was all Studebaker, a built 304 cubic inch v-eight with an aluminum intake and a pair of Carter AFB four barrel carburetors and the whole business was connected to a Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed and dual exhausts with two and one-half inch tail pipes. Aside from the obvious built-in power, it otherwise looked like grandma’s grocery getter.

All I could think of was that I wanted one and the one I was looking at wasn’t for sale. A whole lot had to happen before I was able to get one and the first step was to find a v-eight donor car. That led me to the Studebaker forum where I was eventually connected with a pleasant gentleman in Nevada who owned a Bordeaux Red with red interior v-eight 1964 Commander two door sedan which I bought, minus the engine. Then I got with Dave Thibeault who proceeded to build an engine with similar characteristics and power components of what Andy Granatelli designated to be installed in the Super Larks. (For some really interesting and fun knowledge, try reading how Granatelli indirectly became involved with Studebaker high-performance).

Fast forward ten years and thousands of dollars later, I am nearly completed with this mind-boggling restoration project. It merely illustrates what happens when an obsession takes control of every molecule of your senses. I have nearly completed a substantial re-creation of what many determined to be Studebaker’s incredibly gallant effort to jump head-first into the high-performance arena. It is a fact that for an ever brief moment in time the Super Larks, not many of them, really did get built and in so doing, made a giant statement by rattling the cages of what was becoming a ferocious jungle of muscle-car mayhem!

Here’s what I ended up with:

Engine Specs:

Block 1963 full flow “V” code 259 cu in V-8
Displacement Bored .060 to appx 275 honed & decked (303 hp at flywheel)
Camshaft Reground stock R1/R2
Cam timing gear R1/R2 Aluminum
Pistons TRW Half-dish hypereutectic .060 oversize
Valves & seats R3 Avanti stainless intake & exhaust grinded multi-angle
Valve springs R3 Avanti heavy duty
Valve pockets Enlarged to accommodate R3 valves
Rocker assembly Stock reconditioned & resurfaced rocker arm shafts
Main bearings Standard
Rod bearings Standard
Vibration damper R3 Avanti reproduction
Crankshaft 289 cu in stock micro polished
Connecting rods 289 cu in stock reconditioned & shot peened
Cylinder heads 289 cu in stock, cleaned, shot peened, magnafluxed & resurfaced
Intake manifold R-4 Aluminum dual four barrel
Carburetion Carter (2) AFB four barrels
Exhaust manifolds R-3 factory headers
Distributor Unilite 47 SP8 electronic
Fuel pump R4 high-volume
Fan R-1 clutch fan with heavy duty 6 blade fan
Water pump R-1 heavy duty V-8
Spark plugs Champion J12YC
Flywheel Stock resurfaced
Bell housing Custom-built & modified to accept Mopar transmission – Dial indicated
Transmission Mopar A-833 4 speed OD with Studebaker shift handle mated to Hurst shifter base
Clutch 10-1/2″ HD clutch & pressure plate assembly, grade-8 clutch bolt set


Body components: Replaced front fenders with NOS fenders from Studebakers International
Paint: Completely stripped to bare metal and performed numerous other metal replacements then repainted with base/clear in factory matched Bordeaux Red
Interior: NOS red front door and rear side panels, original bench seats with faded red seat upholstery color dyed, dash color dyed, NOS headliner, factory-look rubber floor covering, correct Studebaker 4-speed shifter
Electrical: New correct dash-forward wiring harness from Studebakers West, NOS 160 MPH speedometer, 6,000 RPM green line tachometer
Drive train: Custom fabricated drive shaft connected to Dana 44 Twin-Traction with 3:73 gears, traction bars, heavy duty rear sway bar, new springs and shocks
Tires: P2.15/70R15 tubeless black wall

64 Commander new fr fenders & all body work completed

Above: Body work completed, body primed.

Below: re-painted in factory-correct Bordeaux red.

64 Commander fresh Bordeaux Red paint

64 Commander part of restored interior

Above: seats re-dyed in correct color. Factory-style rubber mats rather than carpet in this spartan Commander. Note seat recliner – common now, rarely seen in 1964. 

Studebaker S logo

Studebaker’s V-8 was one of the best engines of the era. We have pointed out in previous posts that it had one major design factor that severely limited Studebaker’s ability to expand it: the bore center spacing was such that the engine could not practically be expanded beyond 289 cubic inches. We perceive of that now as being a flaw in the design, but we need to understand the engineers’ reasons for designing the engine as they did. The engineers DELIBERATELY designed the engine to be limited in displacement. Deliberately?!

Yes, because South Bend’s engine engineers had counted on postwar predictions from General Motors Research Labs that future gasoline octane ratings would soon rise above that of aviation fuel. Charles Kettering, GM’s research boss, saw higher octane ratings and higher engine compression ratios as the next big thing.

Studebaker bought into that and developed its postwar V-8 so it would accept compression ratios of up to 14:1. The idea was to increase engine power and efficiency by progressively raising compression rather than by expanding displacement. Unfortunately for Studebaker, the oil companies didn’t go along with Kettering’s vision, automotive octane numbers stayed flat, and Studebaker was left holding the small-displacement bag.

When Studebaker punched out its V-8 to 259 cubic inches for 1955 and then 289 cubic inches for 1956, that became pretty much the engine’s practical size limit. (Studebaker also used Packard’s 352-cid V-8 in the 1956 Golden Hawk, and then a supercharged 289 in the 1957 Golden Hawk and subsequent models.)

The company’s stumbles beginning with the botched introduction of the ’53s set it into a death spiral and the V-8 remained at its 289 cubic inch practical limit because the company couldn’t afford to re-tool for a larger engine. It seems strange that as Studebaker and Packard stumbled and Packard closed, that the company didn’t negotiate to lease the new V-8 engine line at the plant Packard built in Utica, MI and use Packard engines in Studebakers. (The plant also built Packard’s marine and aviation engines and was taken over by Curtiss-Wright who wanted it for its own Defense work. Had Studebaker-Packard arranged this with Curtiss-Wright, Studebaker’s engine displacement problem would have been solved. The Packard V-8 was designed for expansion – the unbuilt ’57s would have been powered by a massive 440 cubic inch V-8.)

While the Studebaker V-8 is limited in displacement because it was designed to accept high compression ratios, the engineers built a very beefy engine to handle the high compression ratios including solid lifters and a gear (rather than belt) driven camshaft.

When Sherwood Egbert was trying mightily to turn Studebaker around when he arrived in 1961 and launched the Avanti project, the engineers and Andy Granatelli had a strong engine with which to work to build a performance image for Studebaker.

Bruce’s ’64 Commander R-4 is a fine tribute to those who developed the superb Studebaker V-8.

Studebaker S logo

’50s Fantasies:

(Hat tip: “B-Squared”)

GM's Cars of Tomorrow

Here’s a fun “What If”:

(Hat tip: Steven Hayward)



Add yours →

  1. Great article. The R4 is legendary among Studebaker fans, maybe even more so than the R3. I love the sleeper look about it, even in red!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. rulesoflogic 31/05/2018 — 12:34

    Very informative. I might want to use the three paragraphs beginning with “Studebaker’s V-8 was one of the best engines of the era” in a future post. Is that OK?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. michael a cenit 01/06/2018 — 18:54

    Interesting comment about leasing or “buying” Packard V-8’s from C-W in Utica. Putting a Packard engine in the 57 Clipper would have made it a much more acceptable car at retail with old line Packard buyers. Maybe they could have kept the Packard line in production longer with a Packard engine.

    Actually Studebaker made money on the 57 Packard, even with the late release.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like Studebakers almost as much as Packards, so don’t take what I’m about to write as a slam against Studebaker.

      The South Bend plant was notoriously inefficient and that contributed to the high overhead, labor issues aside. When Packard lost Briggs as a body supplier, I think they should have continued to build bodies-in-white at the Conner (ex Briggs) plant, truck them to East Grand and build Packards there. That would have prevented many of the build quality issues Packard faced with the ’55s.

      When the financing for the all-new ’57s didn’t materialize, instead of shutting Packard in Detroit, they should have shuttered South Bend and built Studebakers on the Clipper body in Detroit. They could have jettisoned the Clipper line because the Clipper-based Studebakers would take their place. With that, the company would have had more leverage in getting Studebaker dealers to add Packards and Packard dealers to add Studebaker. The decision to keep South Bend open was based on Studebaker’s “higher volume” – volume which turned out to be ephemeral in ’57 and ’58.

      Be all of that as it may, you are quite right that the Packard V-8 in the Studebaker-based ’57 Clipper would have gone down a lot better with the old school Packard buyers. Because of the rugged build of the Studebaker V-8, the Packard V-8 was less than 100 lbs. (65, I think) heavier than the Studebaker V-8, so the weight would really not have been an issue, especially if they had moved the battery to the trunk to help the weight distribution.

      Thank you for your visit and comment.


  4. rulesoflogic 03/06/2018 — 13:59

    Thanks, again. Maybe you and your readers will enjoy this:


  5. rulesoflogic 04/06/2018 — 07:57

    56packardman, thanks for your comments and thanks for posting a link to my post, Sunday Studebaker, on the Studebaker Drivers Club forum.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sounds Great all except where the Specs List shows it’s a 259 Bored .060 to 275 c.i.d. with 303 Crankshaft H.P.

    Then later it lists a 289 Crank, shallow Dish Avanti Pistons .060 Over, 289 Rods etc. These two statements Totally will not work, WHICH is it? !


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