Studebaker – Presidential Panache

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By Chris Pollitt

Experimentation and the history of the automobile go very much hand in hand. The evolution of the car has not been formulaic and linear. Instead, it has been the subject of many bold and forward thinking ideas. Admittedly, not all of them caught on. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is the fact the motor car has been the basis of an industry that dares to fly close to the sun. 

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Competition was rife from the moment the first ‘car’ built by Karl Benz clattered and sputtered out of his shed. Almost instantly, engineers were looking at ways to better it, to beat it and to improve it. For a while there, car were the work of men in sheds who spoke of the intricacies of engineering while smoking a large pipe. Then Henry Ford happened, and showed the world what could be done with mass production and the assembly line. In essence, Ford simplified the process of building the bones of a car, which meant engineers and designers could dive head first into every other aspect. 

Before we get into what that meant for the car, though, we need to go back. All the way back to 1736, in fact, when Peter Studebaker and his wife Anna Margetha Studebaker, along with Peter’s brother and cousin, arrived in America from Rotterdam. They were ground zero for a legacy they would never have imagined. 

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In 1799, Peter and Anna welcomed their son, John to the world. John grew up watching his father work, and naturally followed in his footsteps. The trade in question was that of wagon making. The wagons were renowned for their quality, and soon the Studebaker and Jr name was the one to go for. 

Clever moves, like building roads that would be perfect wagons, showed the forward thinking nature of the company. For many, the wagons of Studebaker were seen as being instrumental to the development of western America. The company’s wagon factory was self sufficient, in that it made everything it needed to make said wagons. It was a hugely advanced operation. 

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It made sense, then, for the Studebaker name to move into the world of automobiles. They were all too aware of the shift in attitudes towards the car, which John Studebaker had always thought as being something complementary to the car. However, the number of cars on the road didn’t lie, and soon it would be the horse that would be complementary. As such, in 1897, with a new generation of Studebakers (John had five sons and five daughters) at the helm, the company moved into building cars. 

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Over the following decades, the Studebaker name would build trucks, vans, buses and of course, cars. Though despite the company’s strong foothold in the industrial, that was not to be the image of the cars. Instead, the combination of savvy marketing and of course, wonderful cars, meant they were seen as aspirational, luxury machines. They were also, to come back to our original point, brave, bold and undiluted designs. Which brings us onto the car you’re seeing here; a 1955 Studebaker President Speedster. 

The President name was, by ‘55, a familiar one. The first Studebaker President was released in 1928, and it was one of the cars that helped cement the premium image of the brand. Studebaker went big with its names. The President, the Dictator, the Big Six and the Commander were just some of the monikers employed over the years. President, however, would be one of the more longstanding names. The President models were flagship, no holds barred machines dripping with luxury and contemporary cutting edge technology. 

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1950s America was a land obsessed with excess, with the space race and with all things flash and luxurious. It was also a place where speed, or at least the perception of, was king. Chevrolet had proven this with the Corvette, only for Ford to remind them by some considerable measure that people wanted luxury with the arrival of the 1955 Thunderbird, which outsold the ‘Vette by 23 to 1.. Studebaker wanted a slice of this action, and so it came up with the President Speedster. 

Based on the President hardtop coupe, the Speedster version was a sleek, impossibly long machine that was built to delight. It was also loaded with equipment. Power disk brakes all round, power steering, a four-barrel carb, dual exhausts, two-speed electric wipers, triple horns, twin reversing lights, fog lights, radio and diamond-quilted leather upholstery and more. It was a rolling palace. A bright example of just how luxurious Studebaker cars could be. And we mean that in a literal sense. The colours on the car you see here are factory; Hialeah Green with Sun Valley Yellow. Add in the bright interior trim, and you’re left with a car that simply couldn’t be missed. 

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Studebaker so desperately wanted to be in the fight with cars like the Thunderbird. Ford’s two-seater was positioned not as a sports car, but as a ‘personal luxury vehicle’ and that was something Studebaker knew it could do. It fitted the President Speedster with a 259 cubic inch V8 with a manual or automatic transmission. This, combined with the seemingly endless equipment would be enough to demolish the Ford, right? 

Sadly not. While once a considerable powerhouse, Studebaker was reaching the end of its life in the mid 1950s. The President Speedster was a valiant attempt at injecting some interest into the company, but the car was perhaps a bit too much. It was laden with high-end kit, granted. But in doing so, it showed little restraint. Studebaker grabbed hold of the excess of the ‘50s and pushed it too far. The Thunderbird, for example, was a more restrained, better made machine. Its most popular colour was black. It was proof that on the showroom floor, less was definitely more. In the end, only 2,215 President Speedsters were built. And of those, only a handful remain today. The car you’re looking at here is believed to be the only one in the UK.

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Time has been, in our opinion, kind to the Studebaker. It may well have been a bit too brash for its time, but now it stands as the perfect embodiment of the exaggerated impression we have of the ‘50s. Pop culture won’t speak of the negative elements of the time. Instead, it will focus on the fun, the music, the neon lights, the big dresses and everything bright. The President is all those things. And for that, we love it. 

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This car is important, too. It’s a survivor for one, having been with one owner since 1996. The same owner who, after a childhood with Studebakers, imported this car. It’s had remedial works, of course. But by and large, this is an original car. That’s a rare thing. It’s also important as a reminder of just how brilliantly unabashed Studebaker was. It wasn’t a company to follow formulas or to go with the crowd. It was one that pushed what could be done, that lived for ‘let’s give it a go’ and that, ultimately, had fun doing what it did. Some modern car companies could learn a lot from that kind of open, unhindered attitude.

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