MI Tests The Studillac (Nov, 1953)

Studillac is the best car name ever.

MI Tests The Studillac

RAYMOND Loewy, Studebaker designer and chief stylist, proved once again in 1953 that he’s the guy the rest of the country’s designers wish they were. Back 1n 1946 he inspired the industry to steal his notchback Studie designs and in 1953 he came out with a car that made the typical monsters of Detroit look as modern as Ben Hur’s chariot in a stock car race. The engine of these showroom Studebakers is the same V-8 they had in 1952, a competent power plant which has proven responsive to hopping-up treatment. And now, the sporty lines of the 1953 models have inspired Bill Frick to create the “Studillac,” a real hydrogen bomb in spades and about which I propose to tell you more forthwith.

When I was in Le Mans last summer for the famous 24-hour race, I kept stumbling over Loewy in every pit. Unlike some of our home-grown design jackasses, who never stray further from their drafting boards than the nearest saloon, here was Raymond Loewy, checking every new angle and interesting curve (automotive) the products of the best car brains of Europe had produced. In building the new Studebaker, Vance, the company’s prexy, was forced to take what is known in Wall Street as a “strong business man’s risk.” The new cars were a sensational departure from the established trend toward bigger and better canal barges on wheels. They were not designed for Herman and his twelve kids but were built for four people. Careless Herman can continue to buy the Orphan Asylum Specials, still being featured by all the other companies.

The 1953 Studebaker has the looks of a moonlight night in Monte Carlo and literally drips with swashbuckle and intrigue. How about it as an automobile? Frankly, the way we just tested the Studebaker is the way I prefer to do it, and would, if it. weren’t for the fact that a lot of readers demand tests almost on the day of announcement. The new Studie had been around for months before we really went t^ work on it, giving me a much better chance to check up on the complaints and bugs that are bound to develop on so drastic a model change as this.

The first new Studie I drove was, oddly enough, in Monte Carlo and as it was the pride and joy of a friendly Frenchman who had no desire to see it creamed over there where parts are hard to come by, I just took it for a mild drive along the Grand Corniche to Nice and back. The steering reminded me of a TC MG, which means positive but a little on the hard side. The ride, though firm, was certainly comfortable, especially considering the car weighed more than 100 pounds less than an American Ford. The performance was far from flashy and in no way complimented the design. This was due principally to the torque converter transmission which sapped the torque of the small Studebaker V-8 engine, just the way rubber boots would slow up a tournament tennis player. The also available three-speed-and-overdrive transmission is a far wiser choice for those who want respectable performance to go with the car’s looks. If you really want performance, however, performance that will nail all other—and I mean all other—cars to the road in a red light race, then Bill Frick’s Studillac is the answer. The Studillac, a direct descendant of Frick’s Fordillac, will even run away from an XK 120 Jaguar as if it were a highway sign.

The big complaint I’ve been hearing about the new Studies was not on their looks but on the way they are finished. This is a factory and dealer fault that does not take away from the car’s over-all appearance nor the stability of the engine.

On the half dozen or more new Studies I have examined, little filings like the chrome stripping along the windows and body look as though they had been put on by reform school delinquents. The doors on several were hung badly and the general finish of the trim left much to be desired. Actually, most of these finish faults could have been corrected by the dealer before being delivered, as proven by Bill Frick.

When Frick gets a Studebaker to convert he spends, on the average, 20 man-hours just putting the car together the way the factory should have done it in the first place. On every new car I examined, the chrome strips were unbuttoned from the body. Under way they vibrated and thundered like the butterflies in a Skid Row bum’s stomach on Sunday morning. Frick takes off the strips and reassembles them correctly and from there on in there is no trouble from this department Which brings up a sorry point.

On several other makes of cars I have -examined lately, I have found more and more evidence of sloppy work and there have been several instances of what could only be looked on as malicious sabotage by some of Walter Reuther’s little cherubs. Coke bottles walled up inside the body shell of a deluxe, high-priced automobile so that they rattle every time the car hits a bump. A handful of finishing screws or nuts dropped inside the door panels by some goon. Screws deliberately piercing the wiring, thereby causing short circuits inside the car. From all I can learn, Walter Reuther is a pretty square Joe but I think the time has come when he should go to work and weed out the jerks in his organization who are not only double-crossing the factory but are rooking the buyer and thus Reuther’s UAW-CIO as well. If Reuther is on the level, he’ll take strong measures to stamp out that sort of thing. Don’t say it doesn’t exist, Walt, because I’ve seen too much of it. Remember, all you need to ruin the reputation of a thousand honest workmen is one or two punks in every factory.

Back to Studebaker 1953. I must admit that many cars coming through today reach the dealer looking like the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag. The fee that the dealer is allowed by the factory for servicing is rarely enough to put them on the road as they should be. However, knowing this doesn’t help the buyer and only creates bad will between dealer and customer. Like Bill Frick, I found that the only thing the Studebaker lacked was correct servicing. I also found that the more recent ones are coming through better, so perhaps by the time you read this the things I criticized have been fully corrected.

Performance-Wise, this year’s V-8 Studebaker are practically the same as the 1952 models. The car steers a little hard compared to some of its contemporaries but the new low center of gravity gives it an almost sports car feel ‘when taking a slight curve. The steering wheel is on the small side in order to make room for bigger than average tummies in this flat-cat design and the roof clears your head by just one application of Vitalis if you are more than six feet tall. The seat cushions are short for long leggers and I found the hooded instruments hard to read.

The foot vents are a real feature that every car should have. The rear seats are ample for two but again, if you are sky high, that roof comes awfully close* On a gravel road where I made some spin and skid tests, I found the rear holding on even after I had whipped the wheel for a breakaway. Once I gave the wheel an extra fast whip to the right. Instead of the rear breaking, the left front wheel started plowing deep and my head hit the roof so hard I had a sore neck for hours afterwards. The brakes on my test car squealed, a fault which undoubtedly could be corrected.

Okay, by now you may be wondering if I feel this car is a real dog. Here’s my answer. The ’53 Studie has some faults but it also has a ton of good points. In the looks department it is 50 miles ahead of any other American car. To get these looks, some sacrifices had to be made and for the most part I’m all for them. It has more comfort than any imported sports coupe, regardless of price, and still it has a sports car look. As any sports car man will quickly point out, you can’t have the weather protection and comfort qualities of a Saint Bernard with the streamlined looks and speed of a greyhound. If plush comfort is your dish, buy an Orphan Asylum Special. If you want a compromise where the comfort is far more than adequate and the looks are tops, take a closer look at the Studie.

If you want real performance to match those sexy lines, there are several ways of achieving it. The base Studie engine can be hopped up to give fantastic performance, when using a gearshift transmission, and if it is not smothered by the torque converter rig. Merritt Brown hopped up a 1951 V-8 so that it did better than 117 mph on Daytona Beach last winter and could get to 60 in less than ten seconds from a standstill. If you really want a bomb, however, buy one of Bill Frick’s Studillacs.

Bill first spends those 20 hours putting the car together right and then he really goes to work. Out comes the whole rear axle assembly and in its place a complete Mercury unit is installed. This gives the Studie 11-inch rear brakes instead of the standard 9-inch and the whole unit is huskier in order to take the extra power. Bill also installs a larger radiator core. Out comes the Studie engine and in its place goes a standard 1953 Cadillac mill. As the Cadillac engine weighs only about 50 pounds more than the Studie plant, this is more than balanced by the heavier Mercury rear end assembly. With all this done, what do we have? To start with, we have a car that is now rattle-proof and all of whose accessories are nailed on right. Under the hood we have one of the finest engines in the world, one which turns this mild car from South Bend into a sports coupe that will match nearly anything in the world in getting down the highway.

My test of Frick’s Studillac was brief and to the point because the car had already been sold and its new owner was waiting. I believe you may have heard his name before—Briggs Cunningham. Actually, Phil Walters was picking up the car from his old partner Frick and was waiting to take it to Briggs.

Phil and I got into a slight hassle about the car’s cornering ability. Phil claimed that, due to the Studie’s low center of gravity, it was undoubtedly the best cornering assembly-line car in America. I claimed that it takes more than just a low center of gravity, that little things like suspension and shocks enter into it, and that I feel my ’53 Lincoln could out-corner any stock Studie with plenty to spare. As these kinds of yak fests never get anywhere or prove much unless you run the two cars together, we went on to other things. Walters rightly asks where in the world could you get as reliable a 125-mph, four-passenger coupe as the Studillac at any price, and on this point I must fully agree with the general manager of the Cunningham Company.

The stock Cadillac engine, unhopped, just loafs in the light Studebaker chassis and should outlive a new-born colt by about 20 years. Frick sells this job for around $4,500 or just a few bucks more, depending on the extras, and at this price it is a real bargain. Zero to .60 averages 8.5 seconds. Top speed is 125 to 126 and you get up there in an eye blink. For a transmission you can have the regular Cadillac Hydra-Matic dual-range job or, if you insist, Frick will install a three-speed Cadillac transmission that will give even a little more flash. Is this a practical job? Well, with Ferraris and Continental Bentleys costing more than three times as much, you get a car that will outrun the Bentley and match most of the Ferraris. In my book, it won’t corner with the best but it does fairly well, as Frick demonstrated on an airport course when he creamed a well-driven modified Jaguar around the circuit.

The regular Studebaker is one of the best looking rigs and, if you are getting a little fed up with family carryalls, I suggest you try one. For four people it is big enough and the trunk will hold enough baggage for a short weekend for all four.

14 comments
  1. Toronto says: January 6, 20091:06 am

    Nice wheels! I always did like Studis, but this is a work of art.

  2. Toronto says: January 6, 20091:09 am

    Charlie – you *do* realize that it’s pronounced “STEW dillac”, right? Not “STUD”.

    Still an awesome name.

  3. StanFlouride says: January 6, 20093:03 am

    Ray Loewy, earlier in his storied career, designed the well-known Lucky Strike logo.

  4. Don says: January 6, 20099:48 am

    Huh. I think STUD-illac is absolutely the RIGHT pronunciation . . . .

  5. Charlie says: January 6, 20091:56 pm

    Toronto: Of course, but my way is more fun.

  6. slim says: January 6, 20093:48 pm

    The comments about poor workmanship and sabotage are interesting. No wonder the Japanese cars were so well accepted.

  7. Toronto says: January 6, 20094:09 pm

    Slim: No way were Japanese cars accepted in the 1950s. Even in the ’60s, Toyota Crowns were ‘tinny’ to say the least.

  8. slim says: January 6, 200911:54 pm

    Toronto: The perception of poor workmanship from Detroit didn’t end in the 50′s. But it’s interesting to see it pointed out in a major magazine as early as 1953. What I meant was that the Japanese eventually capitalized on it.

  9. Gutie says: January 7, 20092:00 am

    As I recall Studebaker had an especially generous contract with the UAW which put them in an even less competitive position. Yet they were able to carry on as a mfg for many years. On the other hand, all the owners were quite complicit with labor in not expecting better performance from the workers. Until into the 60s no one ever believed that Detroit would not be the leader in auto production and sales. So it worked for everyone. As to the Studillac, the ’53 had frames that were not strong enough for the regular cars, I wonder how they stood up to the added stress of more power and torque.

  10. KHarn says: January 24, 200910:24 pm

    In the NOVEL “Diamonds Are Forever”, Felix Lieter (Then working for Pinkerton) owned a Studalac!

  11. Tom Portesy says: January 18, 20118:55 pm

    I am the owner of a Bill Frick Studillac 1 of 3 known to still exsit I own this car since 1974 and ashamped to say is not finish I am 65 and my time is running out But would never think of selling it I’ll finish it if it kills me.

  12. Nick says: January 5, 20126:02 pm

    In the Ian Fleming James bond books this was the car that Felix Leiter drove.

  13. Morgan Paris says: February 7, 20121:18 am

    Novelist Ian Fleming actually owned a Studillac in the mid 1950′s, and got a speeding ticket for driving 96mph somewhere in the continental United States. That is how I found about the existence of this peculiar, but speedy car. Studebaker also had a car called the Power Hawk in the late fifties that was supercharged, and was about as fast as a Studillac, which as the artilce mentions was capable of reaching up to 125 mph. They also used the new powerful Packard V-8 engines for a while in the mid 50′s before Packard went under, which had 250 horsepower and probably also had about the same speed range capabilities.

  14. studillac tom says: January 5, 20146:01 pm

    This is not so Ian Fleming had a friend William Woodward owner of a Frick studillac took Ian for a ride in it Ian never forgot it and put into Diamonds are Forever I have the letter Woodward wrote to Frick saying how pleased he was with the studillac. I own a frick studillac since 1974 [email protected]

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