Gear Head Tuesday – Studebaker’s Lost Opportunity In 1953

Gear Head


The most beautiful car ever built: the 1953 Studebaker Starliner

Car manufacturers often show ideas for their cars at the various auto shows. General Motors especially was known for custom-built show cars where ideas for upcoming production models were shown for public reaction. Studebaker, being an independent manufacturer and lacking GM’s deep pockets, usually showed what were basically production models with special paint rather than all-out, custom-built show cars.

The Raymond Loewy design firm was contracted to Studebaker for styling. At the urging of one of the Loewy designers, Robert Bourke, Loewy persuaded Studebaker management to approve the design and building of a show car in the same time frame as Studebaker’s 100th Anniversary, 1952. Almost from inception, this show car was designed with production in mind. This was the genesis of the Bourke design that became the 1953 Studebaker Starliner hardtop and Starlight coupes.


Bob Bourke (standing) with Raymond Loewy in a publicity shot.

Ray­mond Loewy, for all his self-promotion and pos­ing as the actual cre­ator of styling tri­umphs like the 1953 Star­liner, had an eye for tal­ent and hired and directed fine design­ers such as Bob Bourke.


One of Bob Bourke’s sketches for the Starliner.

The green light having been given by management for the development of the show car, work began on the design – with a caveat: the development of the show car was not to be done at the expense of the development of the regular production models. Thus much of the design work on what became the Starliner was done at night and on weekends.

As the design progressed, Bourke’s colleague, Bob Koto, worked on his own ideas for the show car. A clay model was formed with Koto developing the right side while Bourke developed the left side.

Screen Shot 2015-09-22 at 7.19.09 AM

Shown here is Bob Koto’s side of the clay model of what became the ’53 Starliner.

The design intended for the regular production models that Bourke and the other stylists on the Loewy team were working on was code named “Model N.” The beauty of Bourke’s Starliner persuaded management to adapt the design to the regular production sedans and drop the development of the “Model N.” That’s the good news. The bad news is that they forced Bourke and the other designers into making the Starliner design work with dimensions ill-suited to the design, using production components derived from the body introduced for the 1947 model year. This was one of several unforced errors that haunted the cars that should have made 1953 a banner year for Studebaker.


The Studebaker “Model N.” Note the ’49 Ford in the background. While George Walker claims credit for the ’49 Ford design, Bourke and Koto were the actual designers. Bourke’s “propeller nose” idea seen on both cars dates to a sketch he did in 1940. 

When it was decided that Bourke’s Starliner would actually go into production, Bourke pushed for the production sedans to share components with the coupe. Management balked at that and dictated that the design be adapted to the dimensions planned for the “Model N” which was to use many inner panels from the body introduced for the 1947 model year. What that meant was that instead of being built on the 120″ wheelbase chassis of the Starliner, the sedans were to be built on a 116.5″ wheelbase chassis. While 3.5″ of wheelbase length may not seem like much, when applied to the sedans and given the other dimensions management dictated, rather than the svelte sedan Bourke envisioned, the result was a foreshortened sedan that didn’t do Bourke’s design justice. The top-of-the-line Land Cruiser sedan did get the 120″ wheelbase, but the Commander and Champion sedans were built on the shorter frame. One of the upshots of this management decision was that Studebaker was, in reality, building 2 different cars that shared few parts – a costly and unforced error.

The car that came the closest to Bourke’s ideal for the sedans was the Land Cruiser because it was built on the 120″ wheelbase. Nonetheless, when compared to the svelte coupes, the Land Cruiser still looks dumpy and foreshortened.


(Above) The Land Cruiser, built on the 120″ wheelbase looks better than the sedans like the Champion (below) built on the 116.5″ wheelbase.

53 Champion sedan

Engineering wanted to try a new idea for the frame, the “Flex Frame.” Studebaker and Packard historian George Hamlin described the idea as being similar to the flex that is designed into skyscrapers. The “Flex Frame” was one of those things that looked good on paper, but didn’t work out well in the real world. On the road, the production ’53 Studebakers “shake, rattled and rolled.” The “Flex Frame” was particularly notorious on the Starliner hardtops, which needed more bracing because the body lacked the stiffness the “B” pillar sedan versions had. The result was cars whose doors wouldn’t close and that had shakes and rattles galore – another unforced error.

When the new ’53 Studebakers reached the dealers’ showrooms, the company was shocked that demand for the Starliner/Starlight coupes was 4-to-1 over the sedans. The company was not prepared to meet the demand. But this wasn’t the worst of Studebaker’s inability to build as many coupes as the public wanted. In production, the front clips didn’t fit. How could this be? The answer lies in the fact that, as a cost-saving measure, Studebaker didn’t set up a pilot line to “debug” the cars before actual production. But that was not the worst of it as we will see below.


 (Above) The rear fender stampings of the 1959 Chevrolet were the most radical metal stampings on a production car.
(Below) The design was considerably softened for 1960 to reduce the number of defective stampings.

60 Chevrolet

The stamping of body panels is a complex process. The sheet metal, in most cases, cannot simply be stamped in one die. The metal must be coaxed into its final form. Thus one body panel must go through a progression of dies before it reaches its final shape. This fact is a key reason why tooling for a new car is such an expensive proposition. For the 1953 cars, one Studebaker body engineer thought he had found a way to shorten the process and sold the idea to management. Like the “Flex Frame,” this idea worked better on paper than in production. A case in point is the rear fender stampings of the 1959 Chevrolets, the most radical stampings ever attempted on a production car. The numerous defective panels led to the design being considerably softened for the 1960 models to eliminate the numerous stamping rejects of the ’59 models.

By trying to eliminate intermediate shaping dies, Studebaker found itself with many defective body panels and having to do a hasty and expensive re-tooling to make the panels actually work in production. Because Studebaker didn’t set up a pilot production program for the 1953 models, this, another unforced error, was not discovered until actual production began. Thus Studebaker had a winner in the Starliner/Starlight coupes but couldn’t meet demand because production was delayed for months while the tooling issues were sorted out. Many customers walked away and bought other makes, particularly Fords and Chevrolets.

Therein lies another part of the saga of Studebaker for 1953. Customers who were disheartened by Studebaker’s inability to fill their order for the Starliner/Starlight coupes were lost to Ford and Chevrolet because of a bloody price war between those two “low price” makes. The Chevrolet and Ford factories began cranking out cars, forcing them on dealers, who had to sell the cars at cutthroat prices to move them. No one – other than the customer – won in this battle. The independent manufacturers were particularly hurt by this price war. It even hurt more upscale makes, including Packard, who had been tracking to build 100,000 cars for 1953.

Another unforced error at Studebaker was that management would not take a stand against the United Auto Workers. Studebaker paid the highest wages in the industry and they really couldn’t afford to do so. Thus when volume fell as it did in 1953, Studebaker’s wage costs were a huge factor in weakening the company’s financial position.

The sedan that both Loewy and Bourke wanted to build would have shared most of the components of the Starliner/Starlight coupes. This would have resulted in a breathtaking car that would have clearly established Studebaker as the industry design leader. Studebaker management refused and the Chevrolet-Ford price war aside, the public rejected the 1953 Studebaker sedans.

Some years later, another Studebaker designer, Bob Marcks, worked out his own layout of the sedans Studebaker should have built for 1953. His thoughts were essentially the same as what Bourke and Loewy had wanted to do. Marcks even had a model built of his “Starliner” sedan. This was Studebaker’s lost opportunity for 1953. The mistakes of 1953 dogged Studebaker to its end.


Years later, former Studebaker designer Bob Marcks showed the car Bourke and Loewy wanted to build as the ’53 sedans in his own interpretation of how the Starliner coupe could have worked as a sedan.


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