Studebaker Stories:


by Lowell Grant, Lakeport, CA

Generations connect in many ways. Sometimes they disconnect too. This 1955 Studebaker President is one of those ties between my Dad who owned one, and my son Mark, who virtually built this car for me, to help fulfill a 50-year-old fantasy of mine.

Right from the start the streamlined form and sports car size of Dad's President, coupled with his heavy foot, made it the car of choice for my brother and me. While Mom yelled “Dave, you're gonna kill the kids!” ? Dad would grin and lay off the throttle after blowing some poor shoebox Chevy or Ford into the rear view mirror. Mom's '55 Caddy (the first car I ever drove) looked like a huge chrome barge parked next to it.

As an adult I found myself living on my ranch a few miles from the town of Upper Lake, CA, raising my son as a single Dad. Even though he had a great talent for playing his guitar and all the cool toys like motorcycles, an Odyssey and video games, life on the ranch can be a little slow. Mark sometimes stopped at my friend Bob Clouse's shop instead of going straight home to an empty house after school. Bob always had several '32 to '40 Fords under construction in his shop, which also had a paint booth and upholstery shop. So at the age of about 12, Mark found himself learning the art of building custom cars as the apprentice to someone who had decades of experience and the patience to teach a young man.

Whenever I was in Bob's shop I would think about how cool it would be to have a '55 President. Over the years Bob must have endured hearing about it 50 times. One day I got a call from Bob, who had found my car in a barn in Windsor, CA while he was looking for his next project. A retired insurance man had acres of old cars he had purchased as investments over the years. There behind the LaSalle and next to the Packard Clipper was my dream car.

“If you don't buy this car I never want to hear about it again! She's been off the road since 1969 in storage, has no rust, is complete with all the stainless trim and has only one dent you can cover with the palm of your hand!” ?

Sadly, at the time it was not possible to spend $2,000 on a dream. I took the phone number down and promised Bob to keep it to myself, until I could win the lotto.

Two long years went by. I started my own business and financial circumstances changed. I found the number in my book, dialed and held my breath. Yes, he still had my car! I remember seeing it for the first time, covered in 31 years of dust and crust. We could hardly believe how beautiful it was! Since we couldn't get the LaSalle moved easily due to other vehicles being parked in front of it that hadn't moved in 30 years either, it was decided that a chain saw cutting the back out of the barn would be easier. From that moment on, this has been a metaphor for building a Studebaker. Building a Chevy or a Ford custom is a snap, it's been done a million times and vendors make an industry of it. By contrast, building a Studebaker is a definitely the path less traveled. Sources are few, not all parts are even available. Some things must actually be fabricated instead of simply ordered! Try ordering a drive shaft for a '55 Studebaker with a Chevy ZZ4, Borg Warner T-56 6 speed transmission, heading back to a Curry 9” ? Ford rear end. Even finding a tail light lens or housing is iffy.

Only after I bought the car did I find out while researching on the Internet that the car I always found so gripping was designed by Raymond Lowey – who also designed the Tucker as well as the Avanti. Many refer to this model as “The Lowey Coupe.” ? My Mom always called me Lowey as a child (what else would you call your son, Lowell?). I must admit it gave me chills. I also found out that one of these cars was put on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York not as an industrial design but as a work of art.

The car has turned out much different than my dream. While I envisioned simply my Dad's car with a modern, reliable V-8 and air conditioning, Mark was thinking “Custom” ? all the way. As soon as the fenders and hood came off, it was obvious that the bizarre front suspension and brakes would have to go. The thing looked like a farm tractor or maybe the Conestoga wagons Studebaker made its name on a century before. A call to the Fatman in N. Carolina was in order and to our relief; they did have a Mustang II setup for us. As each of the twists and turns came up, we would talk about the next step. Mark always made his points with good reason. In the end, the most important things to me were the basic shape, the door handles needed to stay and of course the hood bird too. Mark fattened up the rear quarter panels by 4" to accommodate the extra rubber. He frenched both headlights and taillights. Out of respect for Mr. Lowey's perfect form the top would not be chopped. Windshield wipers were both ugly and not necessary since we live in California, so it was decided early on they had to go. The gas tank would also have to go to allow the 2 chamber Flowmasters to be tucked up as well as for safety since the original position was just in front of the rear bumper.

Many decisions had to be made along the way but each time Mark had the solution and I wrote the checks. Lots of them. Friends question if it's been a good investment. What else could I have done that would have kept my Dad so fresh in my Son's mind? After all, Mark was only 7 when his Grandpa passed away. What else could I have done that would have kept the two of us together as he's grown into a young man with a wife and his own business? What else could evoke the emotions that I feel when I cruise down the road in this beauty? It's so much more real and meaningful than a simple memory or hot rod, and I think that this must be the case for thousands of others who have similar stories. You can call them “dream machines” ? but for some us it's way more than that. Instead of a dream, this car is a bridge between us; solid as the steel she's made of. Someday I hope that Mark's son will own this car and the bond between the generations will continue. As for its value, how much is it worth? Sure beats hell out of a bank statement with big numbers on it, sorry, this one's not for sale and never will be.    I can't think of a number that would even tempt me.

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