Studebaker Stories:


Ed Sallia: Studebakers We Loved and Miss

By Ed Sallia,

It was a time before I can remember, filled with black and white photographs, Tommy Dorsey on the radio and the sweet pungent smell of smoke from autumn fires. My memories go back that far only in the photographs and stories shared by my parents. It was 1951 and I am two  years  old and as I stare at the photograph of me standing on the sidewalk in Indianapolis, bundled up against the late fall cold my eyes are drawn to the object which was of such interest to me at that tender age, the 1951 Studebaker Land Cruiser  that my father had just purchased.

The purchase of the Land Cruiser was preceded only a few months earlier by a brand new 1951 Starlight Coupe. Before the end of 1951 he would trade in the coupe for the new Land Cruiser with the new V8 engine and automatic transmission. Dad and mom had plans to move from Indiana to California and my dad wanted to have the latest thing from Studebaker to make the trip. He took the Coupe into the dealership for an oil change and noticed the new Land Cruiser sitting on the lot. Upon closer inspection he was astonished to see it had leopard skin upholstery.  Someone had spared no expense in outfitting the car with all the available options including the new V8 with automatic transmission. Back then Studebaker even took your leg measurement and adjusted the front seat to accommodate your height.  It was everything he wanted and more.

Dad's 1951 Land Cruiser

Just then the owner of the dealership approached him and asked if he was interested in buying it. My dad told him he thought it was probably out of his price range and that he had simply come to the dealership to get an oil change. The owner asked which car was his and dad pointed to his new Starlight coupe with barely 500 miles on it. The owner nodded and then explained that he had ordered the Land Cruiser as a surprise birthday present for his wife but she had spurned it. He was not happy about this and wanted the car off his lot so he would not have to look at it again. He told  my dad he would give him more than his Starlight Coupe was worth in trade and would sell him the Land Cruiser for what he had paid for it as a dealer. Dad jumped on it immediately. He was the happiest man in Indianapolis at that moment.
A few weeks later dad and a friend drove the Land Cruiser to California through almost a dozen states and one of the biggest snow storms in years. The car drove like a dream and shrugged off the snow and ice with little effort. Mom and I followed several weeks later by airplane.

Dad's 1951 Land Cruiser

Several years later dad traded in the Land Cruiser for something else. Even he can’t remember what it was. Over time we moved from central California to the Los Angeles area and the parade of cars cycled as surely as the years. I can recall him owning a Morris Minor which was very cramped for our family, now six strong. Trips to Phoenix to visit dads mother were something to dread.

Finally, in 1962 dad came to his senses and bought another new Studebaker, a dark blue Lark VIII wagon. We could now go to Phoenix in comfort and style. The first time we went we got caught in a vicious sandstorm which stripped the paint off the front of the car even though dad had pulled off the highway and waited at the side of the road until the storm passed.

I remember the car was very tight and kept the sand out of the inside quite well. Dad got her re-painted back to new and it soon became mom’s daily driver as dad went on a Studebaker buying rampage. All those years of pent up desire came rushing out in a stream of older models that he had wished he had bought when they were new but never did.

1962 Lark Wagon and 1955 Commander

Next there was the 1955 Commander Coupe which got some serious engine modifications, a hawk instrument panel and a gold metal flake paint job that looked like a million dollars. That car was eventually passed along to me and became my first Studebaker. It was love at first drive. She looked fantastic and ran like hell on steroids.

Dad replaced the Commander as his daily driver with a 1957 Golden Hawk that he bought from a friend at work. It was not running at the time. The car came with a pair of McCullough superchargers.

1962 Lark Wagon and 1955 Commander

Dad wanted to learn more about the car so he contacted Frost and French in North Hollywood. Based on the car’s serial number they reported it was one of only 100 that had been built with the racing frame. The difference was the frame on his car was enclosed, creating a fairly smooth underside which served the purpose of creating negative pressure under the car at speed. The result was that the faster you went the more the car was pulled down to the road. At speeds above 140 miles per hour the car was hard to steer because of the extreme down pressure. However, in a straight line this car could do 160 miles per hour and faster.

After a conversation with a speed shop in Los Angeles to see about re-installing the superchargers, dad decided to leave them off and simply replace the intake manifold and install a Holley 4-barrel carburetor. The car would still do in excess of 140 miles per hour and years later, dad had some great stories of racing across the desert and walking away from Corvettes and other high performance competitors.
Over the next few years dad, my brother Danny and I cycled through several more Studebakers (14 in all I have been told). There was a 1956 Sky Hawk, 1959 Silver Hawk, another Lark VIII wagon, and others I cannot even remember. I was told the parade continued after I went into the Navy in 1970. Once I left home and entered the service I lost track and interest in Studebakers. I got married, had a couple of beautiful daughters, left the Navy and re-entered civilian life with too much on my plate to think about cars other than as they were needed to get from one place to another.

As time went on, however, and my life finally found a more settled place here in the Northwest, I found my memories of my youth were trickling back to me. I had been a child actor and found many of my old 8 X 10 stills from the various plays, TV shows and the Disney movie I was in, so I framed them and put them on my office wall. This inspired me to see what other treasures I had been dragging through life in various cardboard boxes. One day I came across a photograph of that old 1955 Commander Coupe and a flood of memories surrounding that car rushed through my mind. Suddenly I could visualize driving it again. Racing the local hot rodders and blowing their doors off. Driving it on dates to the beach and to the studios where I worked while in high school.

From that moment on I began dreaming of owning a Studebaker again someday. I began watching them on Craigslist and eBay. It was soon obvious that I was of too meager means to realistically buy one that was ready to roll and I no longer had the tools, expertise or time to restore a fixer upper. So I began buying 1:18 scale die cast models. I soon had a whole fleet of Studebakers on my office shelves. They were better than nothing, but nothing could replace the thrill of driving one.

At the beginning of July, 2010, while my wife was on a weekend camping trip with the kids and grandkids, I ran across an ad on Craigslist for a 1950 Studebaker Commander 4-door Regal Deluxe Sedan. There were several fuzzy photographs and the car appeared to be in very good condition. The description said that it had new paint and interior and was for sale at a great price. Since the car looked in very good condition I surmised that, at the price, it probably needed an engine or something. Intrigued, I called the number and spoke with the owner, Mr. Al Duble, I asked him if the car ran and he assured me that it did, and well. I made an appointment to see the car. It turned out the owner lived only four miles from me. He met me when I arrived at his home, standing by the car. It did indeed look very good and we took it for a spin through farm country. The carburetor needed some work and the overdrive did not work, but otherwise it ran fine.

I was now concerned that Al had made a typographical error in his ad on the price. Surely he had forgotten to put a one at the beginning. After chatting for some time about the car and learning more about Al and why he was selling it I broached the topic of the price. All I got out was “I’m very interested in the car, Al, but I was wondering about the price…”. He stopped me before I could finish and said “I can’t go lower on the price”. I responded, “so, you want $5,000 for it?” “Yes” he said. At that point I decided it was time to just shut up. I smiled and said “Fine, I will give you your asking price”.

We shook hands, wrote up a Bill of Sale and a Title Transfer form and the car was mine. Now all I had to do was get it home before my wife returned from her camping trip and explain why I bought an old Studebaker without talking to her first. I drove the car home, backed it into the garage where my car normally sat and placed a car cover over it. When my wife returned home I went out to help her unload her car. She had pulled into the garage right next to the new mystery car. She passed right by me saying “I saw it and I don’t want to talk about it”!

1950 Commander Regal Deluxe Purchased from Al Dubie

I was sure she was thinking I had purchased on old rust bucket that would sit in the garage for several years before I sold it again. That was what we had talked about as all I could afford so what else could she have thought?

The next morning I left for work well before she was out of bed. I drove the Studebaker so she would realize that, at least it ran. Later that morning she called me at my office and said she was next door at the hospital for an appointment. She would come by and wanted me to take her to lunch. I knew I had her curious now. She knows it runs, but she doesn’t know what it looks like yet.

When she drove in to the parking lot at the school where I work she could not miss the Studebaker gleaming in the bright sun. I think she was pleasantly surprised as she approached the car with a slight smile on her face. I opened the front passenger side door for her and she stopped when she saw the like new interior. This was definitely not the Junker she must have thought I had bought. As soon as we were on our way she began to explain that the reason she was feeling angry was that I had not talked to her before buying the car. I explained the circumstances, that I only found the car after she was gone on her camping trip. I had little time to make a buying decision because the price was so low and there were others who had made appointments to come see the car. If I had waited to talk to her (she was out of cell phone range) the car surely would have been sold to someone else.

Two days later she purchased a pillow and throw rug for the back seat which she said looked big enough to be a small sitting room. I knew then that all was well. Since then I/we have enjoyed the car and I have been slowly doing some work rebuilding the carburetor, getting the overdrive working, all new wiring, some brake work and replacing some of the small parts that were worn. It has appeared at a number of local car shows and cruise-ins and we have been having loads of fun.

I have found I had to get used to the lack of power steering and brakes but the car is a dream to drive and I feel like a kid again when I’m behind the wheel. We get lots of looks, thumbs up, and honks everywhere we go and I can’t wait for every opportunity to take her out for a spin. Studebaker made such wonderful cars and it grieves me that they did not survive. But, as long as there are people out there still who love and appreciate these great American vehicles there will always be Studebakers on the road. Find ‘em, fix ‘em, and drive ‘em.

On a final note, my brother Danny stumbled upon the original Bill Burke 1963 Bonneville Avanti that set 29 speed records on the salt that year. This was the original cars purchased by Bill Burke specifically to run at Bonneville. It set records and garnered some publicity. Danny ran across it in San Diego when he learned it had been purchased off eBay by a man who lived down there. It did not have an engine but sported the last of many paint jobs the car had been given over its racing life. Many famous drivers had driven it, including Doug and Mike Cook and Ron Hall, so it got re-painted with each owner/driver. The new owner did not even realize what he had. Danny and crew with the Bucket List Dream at Bonneville (2010)

Danny recently wrote this brief history of the car, “A brief overview. The car was ordered from Studebaker in the summer of 1962 by Bill Burke. It was delivered to the offices of Hot Rod Magazine where Bill worked on November 8, 1962. Nine months later in August 1963 Bill drove the car to the first of over 30 records this car has set. He went 147 MPH with a 229 CID Supercharged Studebaker V8. The car set records over the next eight years and in 1972 the car set the first record over 200 MPH at 221.812 using a a destroked 331 Hemi. The car still has three records on the books. Bonneville in C/CBFA of 239.208 set in 1979 with Steve Burke at the wheel. El Mirage in E/CBFA in 1977 at 202.383 and E/FCC at 210.770 in 1981 with Mike Cook at the wheel. Drag racing fans will recognize that name, as Mike's dad was none other than Doug "Cookie" Cook of Stone, Woods and Cook fame. Doug and Mike campaigned this car for about 12 years and set over 25 records. The car has recorded speeds of 250 MPH. That is just a condensed version of the history of this car.

Dave Bloomberg's (Avanti Kid) 216 mph 1963 Avanti at Bonneville

Danny, with the help of friends at the High Gear Ranch in Paso Robles, put a new engine in it and ran it at Bonneville the past two years. I joined him and his crew at Bonneville in 2010 and spent several days taking pictures and video. He was pitted right next to Dave Bloomberg (Avanti Kid) who had come to run his 1963 Avanti that runs in the 216 mph range. They had broken the engine and so he and his crew joined forces with Danny’s pit crew to fine tune the Burke Avanti. Many people there remembered the car and the crew in the announcers booth read a full history of the car during the racing. It was great fun.

 

 

 

 

 

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