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Studebaker Champion

Published: 28th Apr 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

The miniature propeller in the centre of the nose will spin if you give it a flick! The miniature propeller in the centre of the nose will spin if you give it a flick!
Note unusual striped cloth trim. Very 1950s but that’s part of the appeal Note unusual striped cloth trim. Very 1950s but that’s part of the appeal
Gorgeous rear end styling - or is it the front - marks the Champion out although they don’t weather too well. Gorgeous rear end styling - or is it the front - marks the Champion out although they don’t weather too well.
Rear screen wraps right the way around. Special blinds are a desired extra Rear screen wraps right the way around. Special blinds are a desired extra
Straight-six engine sits quite low in the bay. A good rugged unit, but not quick Straight-six engine sits quite low in the bay. A good rugged unit, but not quick
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What is a Studebaker Champion?

The first all new post war design for its Champion model range from the independent Studebaker Corporation that pipped most of the other major American manufacturers to the post. Based upon an all steel two-door coupe body with front wings that flowed flush up against the doors, the Champion Starlight Coupe featured radical rear end styling with a wrap around rear window that caused many contemporary motoring pundits to comment whether the car was actually coming or going, with only the tail lights giving the game away! Modern industrial design guru Raymond Loewy is said to have requested the rear end should look like an aeroplane. The cockpit glazing of a period Douglas DC-3 commercial airliner, more affectionately referred to by the Americans the Gooney Bird, does immediately spring to mind. But the all new Champion coupe was years ahead of the competition, and though it’s always risky introducing controversial styling, it proved a winner. Nowadays the even more dramatically restyled Champion Starlight Coupe of 1950 is considered a true classic paragon of the era, there’s nothing else quite like it, and represents individuality personified!

History

From the humble beginnings of a blacksmith’s shop in South Bend, Indiana, the heavily bearded Studebaker Brothers, Henry, J.M, Clem, Peter, and Jacob went on to become the largest wagon maker in the world by 1868. They were the most successful manufacturer to switch to building petrol powered vehicles their first in 1904, and indeed produced an electric car in 1902. Raymond Loewy’s connection with Studebaker goes way back to 1936, it was Raymond Loewy Associates who styled the original Champion model back in 1939.

The all new design Champion of 1947 which cost $11 million to develop was penned by Robert Bourke with input from Virgil Exner chief stylist at RLA who left shortly after. Throughout the six year production run the Champion continued to be powered by a 169ci L-head straight-six engine of 80bhp. Studebaker’s V8 engine didn’t arrive until 1951 and was a tad too late for the Champion, but was fitted in the Commander series. The Champion Starlight Coupe model featured a curved roof supported by large ‘C’ pillars, with a wrap around rear window consisting of four sections of glass, the rearward sections being fixed.This created a panoramic effect, similar to that of a train’s observation carriage!

For 1948 there were a few minor trim changes, a winged hood medallion featured on all models, bumpers became beefier, and self adjusting brakes were fitted, along with an anti-glare instrument panel. The year also marked an $18 million profit for Studebaker. Despite a strike by 16,000 workers in January 1949, profits rose to $27.5 million and 1950 was the company’s best year ever with 268,099 cars sold. In 1950 the Champion was given a frontal facelift which incorporated what is colloquially known as the ‘Bullet Nose’ or spinner front, complete with a circular chrome moulding and revolving miniature propeller in the centre. The influence of the aeroplane theme had continued, and compared to what else was on offer at the time from other manufacturers the Champion must have looked quite bizarre.

The previously used transverse leaf spring front suspension that dated back to 1935, was discontinued in favour of a new independent coil sprung arrangement. Champion production continued in this guise until 1952 when the model was totally restyled again by Robert Bourke as a sleeker sporting coupe, and was regarded as a milestone in design.

Driving

The Champion’s handling on the road is as interesting as its overall design. Negotiating corners at speed will induce body roll, there’s no power steering, but once on the move that’s not a problem, and there’s also lots of play in the steering wheel. Although reasonably aerodynamic, cars fitted with a period sun visor can be susceptible to cross winds. Obviously with crossply tyres the handling can be even more hairy on poorly surfaced roads, so radial tyres will make a huge difference. Manual gear selection on the three-speed ‘box can take a little getting used to and there’s an electric overdrive on second and third gears, thus providing a most comfortable cruising speed of around 55mph. All round drum brakes aren’t wonderful and as with lots of old cars with this set-up, advanced warning of stopping is the name of the game here.

There’s also a Hill Holder device fitted which is hydraulically operated and when the car is brought to a halt by the brakes, operation of the clutch pedal maintains the braking effect while the other foot is moved from the brake pedal to the accelerator pedal. The brakes are released as the clutch pedal is released and the drive is applied through the clutch by the engine. This device can be unreliable and many owners choose to disconnect it. Driving a car like the Champion Starlight Coupe will attract a huge amount of attention by other road users and passers by, their reaction is often half the fun of owning such a radically styled car like this

Prices

Strangely enough for a car that is as individual and seriously stylish as the Champion they are still very affordable compared with most of the American musclecars of that era. For example, a runner requiring a bit of work can be had for as little as £4500 and a car in excellent condition will fetch around £10,000. Concours examples will be in the region of £15,000 - £25,000. Cars with desirable options such as an original tissue dispenser, Appleton lamps, rear window blinds (see pictures) etc, will always be at a higher premium than standard cars. There are very few Champions residing here in the UK, so if you fancy one, you’ll almost certainly have to look for one in the USA - which will add to the cost.

What To Look For

  • Rust can be a serious issue on the Champion, but if the car has previously lived in a dry state in the USA it won’t be as bad as a wet one! One of the problem areas is around the bottom of the sills. Finding replacement body panels is not going to be easy, so if you are considering restoring a car that needs lots of body repairs, think very carefully and budget accordingly.
  • Inspect the separate chassis for age cracks as the metal used is rather thin. Watch for the usual dodgy patch repairs and underseal!
  • The overall running gear is reasonably sound, but worth ensuring that the front idler arms are in good condition, as they are not too easy to obtain. Check also the front king pins for wear, though these are more readily available.
  • Replacement parts like rubbers, clutch and brake assemblies (the latter being Wagner and the same as used on Fords) are all fairly easy to source. These cars were made in quite large numbers, and certain spares are still plentiful, though it goes without saying mostly from sources in the USA. Nowadays there are many companies in the USA manufacturing new parts for Studebakers and the club in America has 13,000 members, you’re not on your own!
  • Ensure that the brakes are working efficiently as on some cars the rear hubs are integral with the drum and can be difficult to remove plus a special tool is required.
  • In a nutshell if a Champion is well maintained it can be very reliable classic, but a neglected one could give problems. When inspecting a car ensure that all the grease nipples have been well lubricated, and on a test drive see that the overdrive is working okay as this is electrically operated and can be problematic.
  • The car featured here on these pages has been owned by Dick Russell for the last 17 years and it’s proved to be 100 per cent reliable, regular servicing is the key. Son Nick also drives the car as often as possible and the biggest job yet was to change the clutch.

Verdict

An American car with iconic styling that will fit in your garage okay and is guaranteed to create maximum interest down at your local supermarket or car show! Definitely a classic for the enthusiast who wants something that little bit different and who also appreciates its quirky but attractive lines. Go for the 1950 Starlight Coupe model with the Bullet Nose and miniature spinning propeller. Fitted with the straight-six engine fuel economy is pretty good with up to 25mpg possible although you’ll won’t win a traffic light GP



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