Story and photos by Clive Branson
Can you remember 1952? The first Holiday Inn opened, Nelson Mandella was imprisoned in South Africa, Puerto Rico became a self-governing Commonwealth of the United States, The Comet, the world’s first commercial jet took off in Britain, Mr. Potato Head was sold in America, Elizabeth II became Queen of England and Great Britain, a polio epidemic hit the U.S., the average wage was $3,850 and gas cost a staggering 25¢ a gallon.
It was also Studebaker’s last year for the Champion Starlight, easily recognized for its unorthodox almost convex shape – police identity parades have straighter lines. Designed by Virgil Exner, formerly of Raymond Loewy Associates, (the company noted for an assortment of streamlined, avant garde designs that included Coca-Cola vending machines, the Greyhound Scenicruiser bus, the leviathan Pennsylvania Railway locomotive, Studebaker’s Avanti and Champion models, and the Shell, Exxon, BP and TWA logos), replaced the ostentatious rat’s nose, or ‘bullet nose’ grille, that pierced outwards from the centre of the hood as though sniffing the air, with a more refrained appearance of the Studebaker’s crest. Still the car retained its most striking feature, the extended hood-like cover over the luggage compartment.
For its day, it probably gave the impression it emerged from space.
From a young age, Alan Jordan was hooked on Studebaker’s propensity to be a bit of a renegade when it came to design. “I have always been a fan of Studebakers,” recalls Alan. “Call me the anomaly, but the car manufacturer has always had unique designs. For example, the Starlight was the first car to have a wraparound back window. The windshield was the same shape as a two-bar window but slightly curved.”
This is a rare model with only 1,049 Starlights built. It has a very European style to it. In 1953 Studebaker radically redesigned all of its models and discontinued the 1947–1952 panoramic Starlight coupe. “They were like the little guy and that’s what I like about them. In my mind, Studebaker is unequal in the sheer number of unique designs. They were a small, and not a particularly prosperous car manufacturer, so they had to improvise, but they were very creative with what they accomplished.”
Another unprecedented feature was the expansive warp-around rear window. This was a direct influence from Loewy’s design of trains. Unlike other pillared two-door sedans that use two side windows separated from the rear window by roof supports, Loewy created a roof rounded at the rear sealed by wraparound glass that provided a panoramic view similar to a railroad observation car.
Jordan bought the car in 1995, north of Toronto. “The car was completely disassembled and in boxes.” Alan shakes his head in recollection. “It took me seven years just to find all the correct parts. I assembled the whole car, remolded the parts that didn’t fit, worked on the undercarriage, the engine’s high compression, the camshaft, installed dual carbs, dual exhausts, the interior – everything! My wife, Wilma, helped me with the interior and the labourious job of sanding the car down, but she loves sanding. I don’t get it.”
Don Crams, in Renfrew, fabricated the frame, fenders and the gorgeous midnight black paint job using aircraft Enron paint – it’s the authentic colour. It’s more buffed than a bodybuilder in competition.
“The original engine, a 6-cylinder, was terrible. A couple of years after purchasing the car, I replaced it with some muscle, a V8 4-speed.” The car glides like silk across a bed. “It’s fun to drive and that’s one thing a car should be – not dull. We’ve travelled to Charlotte, North Carolina and to Massachusetts for Studebaker meets.”
Jordan is a lifetime member of the Studebaker Drivers Club of Ontario Chapter. In fact, Jordan owns several Studebakers: a ‘52 Commander Sedan, a ’62 Gran Turismo “Hawk,” and an Avanti, but it’s the Starlight that gives him the most pride. “I feel enormous pride in building it myself from scratch. That pride can’t be measured. I particularly appreciate the camaraderie amongst my club members and Studebaker enthusiasts who volunteered their time, parts and services, for nothing, in helping me over those seven years. It is a small but dedicated group that are determined to keep Studebakers preserved.” And such efforts have been recognized. Alan won two top awards from Studebaker’s National Club: the President’s Award, and the Long-Distance Award.
Unfortunately all good things come to an end and in 1962 Studebaker reverted to its previous name, the Studebaker Corporation. While the company left the automobile business in 1966, Studebaker survived as an independent closed investment firm until 1967 when it merged with Worthington to become Studebaker-Worthington Corp.
As for the future appeal of classic cars like Studebakers, Jordan ponders the brevity of it. “It worries me because I see people today only interested in superficial things about a car: the gadgets, the radio, the technology. Even today’s car ads tell you practically nothing about the car – it’s all flim flam. Unfortunately, the classic car craze will peter out. If someone is going to buy a “classic” car, it will be a car that represents the next generation’s youth. I don’t understand the enthusiasm for today’s cars. They’re not built by people that love cars. They’re built by committee decisions, computers and robots. How can you get excited about that?”
But as far as Jordan’s cars, he’ll drive them till they’re worn out. “On-the-other-hand, if you take good care of a car, you should be able to get a million miles out of it.” Alan laughs, “I’ll probably reach the great car garage in the sky before they do.”