Studebaker was proud to be "First by Far With a Postwar Car," but after
three years on the market, its vehicles very much needed a distinctive
new look for their carried-over bodies. In fact, the 1950-1951
Studebaker origins were as a counterpoint to the post-war car, when
celebrated styling consultant Raymond Loewy decided his staff should
look to the heavens for inspiration.
Perhaps no automaker is more identified with a single design than
Studebaker with its 1950-1951 "bullet-nose" cars. The feisty South Bend
independent didn't invent the "spinner" front end -- the 1948 Tucker and
1949-1950 Ford used similar themes, as have several European models.
Studebaker's styling differed mainly in degree.
Ads called it "The Next Look," implying it would start a trend. It
didn't, but that mattered little to company executives, who were content
to chalk up sales unmatched in Studebaker's previous 48 years of auto
production and in any of the next 16.
Studebaker styling in this period was handled by Raymond Loewy, who was
established by the early Thirties as a top-flight industrial designer of
everything from lipsticks to locomotives. His first production cars were
for Hupmobile: the 1932 second-series line, followed in 1934 by the
"Aerodynamic," which was influential but not a commercial success.
Loewy signed his first Studebaker contract in 1936; the 1938 models were
the first credited to his firm. With dozens of clients, Raymond Loewy
Associates employed many designers at its New York headquarters,
including Clare Hodgman, Virgil Exner, and others who did most of the
actual prewar styling work for Studebaker.
As his business grew, Loewy increasingly became a manager and a tireless
self-promoter, taking credit for projects regardless of whether he
himself put pen to paper.
In the late Thirties, Exner was sent to set up shop at the Studebaker
factory and hit it off with engineering vice president Roy Cole. The two
were soon conspiring to undermine Loewy's influence in South Bend. Exner
felt his boss didn't give designers enough credit; Cole thought Loewy
charged too much for his services.
When Studebaker contracted Loewy Associates to design all-new 1947
models, Exner and Cole worked up their own proposal in secret -- with
the advantage of engineering parameters not made available to the
"official" Loewy team. It was this design that management ultimately
chose and introduced in mid 1946. Studebaker was two years ahead of the
competition -- "First by Far With a Postwar Car," as ads blared. To
Exner's chagrin, advertising credited Loewy with the new styling.
Loewy promptly fired Exner for his treachery and replaced him with Bob
Bourke, Exner's subordinate and friend. Bourke, who made significant
contributions to the '47 design, would head Loewy's South Bend studio
into 1955, after which Studebaker and Loewy parted company.
People loved the 1947 Studebakers, the little-changed '48s, and the
modestly updated '49s. Though the fresh styling concealed mostly prewar
mechanical concepts, refinements were made to improve longevity and
For example, the low-price Champion had arrived in spring 1939 with a
lightweight L-head six of 164.3 cubic inches. This went to 169.6 cubic
inches and 80 horsepower for 1941-49, then added five horsepower. The
costlier Commanders used a larger six dating from Studebaker's 1932
Rockne. By 1949, this engine was up to 245.6 cubic inches and 100
The 1947s did introduce stronger new box- section frames,
self-adjusting/self-centering brakes, and "black light" instrument-panel
illumination, but retained "planar" front suspension, a Studebaker
staple since 1935. This still used a transverse semi-elliptic leaf spring
clamped to the box section of the front cross member, but was modified
to lower the center of gravity. Shocks remained Houdaille double-action
hydraulics, but the 1947s achieved a smoother ride through more-even
weight distribution. A two-piece driveshaft with center universal joint
eliminated the rear floor tunnel.
The 1947-1949 models were a great sales success, lifting Studebaker to
eighth in the U.S. industry with a market share of 4.12 percent.
Production was at record levels. So were corporate profits -- $27.56
million in calendar 1949 alone. Things looked great, and were about to
get even better.
The bullet-nose idea had been on Bourke's drawing board since 1940-1941,
when he first sketched several elements of the eventual 1950 Studebaker.
Chief among them was a protruding nose with flanking pontoon fenders
suggesting the front of an airplane.
Some Studebaker managers, doubtless recalling the Thirties, feared
buyers might shun anything so radical. But Loewy, ever the master
salesman, convinced them to go ahead. "We aimed at the light, fast
impression of an airplane ... a feeling of motion and speed," he said
later. This daring look drew critical comments, but not from Tom
McCahill, then the dean of automotive journalists. "I think the new
Studie is the best looking car in its class," he told Mechanix
Illustrated readers. Not bad, coming from a guy capable of some pretty
Public reaction is what matters in the auto industry, and "The Next
Look" 1950 Studebaker, featuring the company's signature "bullet-nose"
look for the first time, was a winner -- more popular than even the
1947. Sales began in August 1949, nearly a month ahead of other 1950
Hundreds of dealers sent glowing telegrams describing announcement day:
"Showroom crowded to capacity." "Public acceptance best ever." "Huge
crowds, all agreed Studebaker still leads the way." "Showing a definite
flop, showroom holds 100 people, needed room for 500!"
For all this hoopla, the 1950s were identical to the 1947-49 models
except for the bullet nose, minor trim, and vertical instead of
horizontal taillights. However, the new front end added an inch to
wheelbases, taking Champions to 113, Commanders to 120. Both lines again
offered two- and four-door sedans, a convertible, and a five-passenger
Starlight coupe with its distinctive panoramic rear window.
Champion also listed a three-passenger business coupe. Commanders again
included a top-line Land Cruiser sedan, now on a 124-inch wheelbase,
with extra rear-seat legroom and rear-door vent windows. All models
offered De Luxe and extra-cost Regal De Luxe trim save the convertibles
and Land Cruiser, which were Regals only.
The Champ's Regal package, priced at $79, included stainless-steel
rocker-panel and window moldings, wool upholstery in place of pile
cloth, front floor carpeting instead of a rubber covering, and a fancier
steering wheel with chrome horn half-ring. In Commanders, the $124
option substituted luxurious nylon-cord upholstery.
All models continued on 15-inch wheels, but Commanders were heavier, so
they came with 7.60 tires on six-inch-wide rims versus 6.40s on
five-inch-wide wheels. Commanders also had 11-inch cast-iron brake
drums, while Champions used nine-inch drums.
Added in March 1950 were Champ Custom sedans and coupes with no hood
ornament or rear fender shields, painted rather than chromed
headlamp/taillight rims, and only a small round trunk handle/light
assembly. They looked spartan, but at $1,419-$1,519, they were among the
most affordable full-size cars around. Studebaker was targeting
traditional low-priced leaders Chevy, Ford, and Plymouth, and thus
advertised Champ Customs with the clever slogan "It's 4 To See Instead
All 1950 Studebakers boasted a new double-A-arm front suspension, with
Champions featuring tubular shocks mounted inside new "long-travel" coil
springs. Commanders had slightly different geometry to handle their
extra weight and retained lever-action shocks. Champs used an antiroll
torsion bar in front; Commanders added a rear bar, plus center-point
But the big engineering news was Automatic Drive transmission.
Developed jointly with the Detroit Gear Division of Borg-Warner, it
became available for Land Cruisers in late April 1950, then spread to
other models as production increased. Automatic Drive was superior to
most competitive automatics in several ways.
First, it was air-cooled, so it did without costly, complex
water-cooling. It also allowed push-starts if needed, did not "creep"
the car forward from a stop if the driver released the brake, and
included a hill-holder that prevented rolling down an incline at idle.
Selecting Reverse at more than 10 mph automatically put the transmission
in Neutral to prevent damage.
Studebaker was the only independent besides Packard to develop its own
automatic transmission. Ford Motor Company wanted to buy Automatic Drive
for its 1951 line, but Studebaker declined, thus missing a chance to
make considerable extra money. This transmission continued through 1954,
after which Studebaker switched to the less-costly Flight-O-Matic.
Demand for the bullet-nose '50s proved so strong that Studebaker added a
third shift at its large South Bend factory and ran its Southern
California and Hamilton, Ontario, assembly plants at or near capacity. A
14-month model "year" (July 15, 1949, to September 27, 1950) produced
343,164 cars -- the most for any vehicle in Studebaker's long history.
By the end of 1950, company employment was up to 25,000, a peacetime
The dealer count grew too, swelling from 2,628 in December 1949 to 2,851
a year later. Net sales totaled $477,066,000. After-tax profits were
more than $22.5 million. And Studebaker's market share, which had
improved every year since 1936, reached a new high of 4.25 percent (or
more than 5 percent including truck sales). With that, Studebaker could
again claim to be America's most successful independent vehicle maker.
Some analysts began speculating that the Big Three might soon be the Big
Studebaker had a terrific follow-up to blockbluster 1950: a modern new
V-8. Like the trendsetting 1949 Oldsmobile and Cadillac engines, it was
a light, compact, and efficient overhead-valve design. Engineers led by
Stanwood Sparrow began work in 1948, with development headed by engine
specialist T. S. Scherger. The result was another Studebaker exclusive
among the independents, and years ahead of the Chevy, Ford, and Plymouth
Arriving as standard for the 1951 Land Cruiser and Commander, the
Studebaker V-8 was an oversquare design with 232.9 cubic inches on a
bore and stroke of 3.38x3.25 inches. Horsepower was a lively 120 despite
a conservative 7.0:1 compression ratio.
Some have likened the engine to a smaller Cadillac V-8. Indeed, the two
were close in physical size. But there were significant differences. The
Studebaker engine used solid lifters instead of hydraulic, camshafts
driven by gear rather than chain, conventional instead of "slipper"
pistons, and locked rather than "floating" piston pins.
It was also 54 pounds lighter than the Caddy engine. Both put spark
plugs above the exhaust manifold for easy access, a feature lacking in
the later Ford and Chevy overhead-valve V-8s.
Studebaker engineers didn't overlook fuel efficiency with their V-8. In
the 1951 Mobilgas Economy Run, a Commander won Class B with a 28-mpg
average. A Land Cruiser posted 27.6 -- nearly three mpg better than the
previous year's Commander Six. (The Champion, with an unchanged six,
managed 28.6 mpg, tops for all full-size cars entered.)
The new V-8 Commander was not a muscle machine, but "Uncle Tom" McCahill
termed it "a rip-roaring, hell-for-leather performer that can belt the
starch out of practically every other American car on the road."
His overdrive-equipped test model clocked 0-60 mph in 12.5 seconds and
reached nearly 100 mph. After driving two more '51s, McCahill concluded,
"The new engines are swell. Comfort, performance, and durability are
excellent, and I believe Studebaker people are due for one of the
biggest years in their history."
All 1951 Studebakers wore a smaller, silver-hued spinner with a painted
instead of chrome trim ring, plus large chrome-plated diecast grilles in
place of the low, deep-set twin intakes of 1950. A support shield
between the bumper and fenders replaced the previous tubular bumper
Sedans adopted the one-piece windshield previously reserved for
Starlights, convertibles, and the Land Cruiser, plus one-piece rear
windows. Tail lamps were enlarged and the deck lid handle was redesigned.
A few model names changed. Champion now offered Custom, De Luxe, and
Regal trim. Commanders regrouped into Regal and State models below the
company's flagship Land Cruiser.
More significantly, the compact V-8 allowed Commanders to share the
Champion's shorter chassis and front "clip," trimming seven inches of
wheelbase, 10 inches of overall length, and 205 pounds from the 1950
versions. Land Cruiser went to a 119-inch wheelbase.
Though this change saved considerable tooling expense, there was another
reason for it. As sales vice president K. B. Elliot told dealers in an
October 1950 bulletin, the aim was to narrow the Champion/Commander
price gap, thus encouraging six-cylinder prospects to splurge for a V-8.
As a result, the previous year's $348 spread between the top-trim
Champion and Commander four-doors shrunk to $111.
All 1951s used an improved "Miracle Ride" chassis with wider and
stronger front control arms, all-round tubular shocks, and softer new
four-leaf rear springs widened 43 percent (to 2.5 inches) from the
previous five-leaf springs. Champs also adopted center-point steering.
As before, three-speed column-shift manual transmission was standard.
Overdrive cost $87, Automatic Drive $190. Studebaker pioneered the
hill-holder in 1936, and this remained standard for Commanders and the
Land Cruiser. Champ buyers paid $12.50 for this convenience.
Though model-year sales were down considerably at 268,565, the 1951 run
was shorter than 1950, and the government had curbed civilian production
on account of the widening Korean conflict. But as the sales staff
hoped, Commander sales improved from 23 percent of the total to 48
percent as buyers responded to the new V-8 and lower prices.
Unquestionably, 1950 and 1951 were the peak years for Studebaker car
sales, profits, and employment. But fashion is fickle, and the
bullet-nose models were soon forgotten. By the mid Eighties, though,
they were back in vogue as collector cars and as Fifties icons for
movies, museum exhibits, and ad campaigns.
As one author put it, "they were so far out, they were in." Modern cars
may be hard to tell apart, but you can still spot a bullet nose a block
away and know it's a Studebaker -- just as South Bend intended.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Fred K. Fox of the
Studebaker Drivers Club.
1950 Studebaker Champion
|De Luxe 4-door
|De Luxe 2-door
|De Luxe Starlight
|De Luxe Business
|Regal De Luxe 4-door
|Regal De Luxe 2-door
|Regal De Luxe Starlight
|Regal De Luxe Business
|Regal De Luxe convertible
|Total 1950 Studebaker Champion
1950 Studebaker Commander
|De Luxe 4-door
|De Luxe 2-door
|De Luxe Starlight
|Regal De Luxe 4-door
|Regal De Luxe 2-door
|Regal De Luxe Starlight
|Regal De Luxe convertible
|Total 1950 Studebaker
Engine 169.9 cu in (2.8 L) I6 85 Hp
3-speed manual, synchromesh on 2nd
and 3rd gears column-mounted shifter.
Wheelbase 112 in (2,845 mm)
Length:197.3 in (5,011 mm)