Studebaker Stories:


By Robert Kabchef

I used to look forward to a trip by plane. Not anymore. While it's indisputably the quickest way to go any real distance, it seems more of a grind and less of an adventure than it used to be. I suppose it's just a result of my advancing years.

Anyway, I'd decided - back about July – to make a trip to Michigan before the year was out. Michigan's where I spent my formative years and I guess I still consider myself a "Michigander". Most of my family's still in the southern Michigan area, including my dear mother. Mom's not getting any younger and I wanted to spend some quality time with her. In deciding upon a September timetable for the visit, it had occurred to me that I might well be able to join Team Studebaker at the Pure Stock Muscle Car Drags in mid-Michigan. I doubt there's many of us who've not vicariously speed-shifted thru the words of Bob Palma, Ted Harbit, George Krem and the like, as to what it must be like to make an indelible mark on the history books and register what Studebaker pride is really all about. I wanted to be there and hear the Plain Brown Wrapper, the Stude Tomato and the other Studebakers as they showed their stuff. The timing of the Internats in Spokane had been a tad off for me in August so here was a chance to get my Studebaker fix for the year.

September 13 th found me waiting to get on an American Airline's flight outta Fresno, CA. Having endured the sweep-down search of the hand held metal detectors (while I stood without shoes on), I'm finally given consent to pass thru the security portals and proceed to the gate where my flight's about to board.

While waiting, I laid out too much money for a Danish that revealed it's "quality" later, when I was somewhere around 34 thousand feet above the earth's surface.

It was an early-morning departure and so that Danish and a cup of coffee would be my only real sustenance until I arrived in Detroit some 8 hours later.

Of course, there were those two tiny bags of pretzels and the freebie soft drinks as well, so I wasn't gonna starve en route. Besides, with no movement possible while in flight, I wasn't gonna be needing much fuel to keep the old frame shakin'!

I knew from my boarding pass that I'd be flying on a McDonnell-Douglas Super 80 series jetliner. This has to be one of the most prevelant aircraft amongst this country's airliner fleet. M-D built scads of them for various domestic, foreign and military carriers alike. What started out as the Douglas DC-9 had evolved over the years into many variants of size and performance. Fact is, I used to work in the factory that produced all the DC-9 / 80 series that were ever built. This was at the Long Beach California, McDonnell-Douglas plant situated on the flanks of Long Beach airport.

Amazingly, most of that once bustling facility – where a-many a military and civilian aircraft were birthed – is now being converted into a park/mall by/for the city of Long Beach. Bits of the plant still turn out the last few C-17s for the U.S. Air Force that had been contracted for back in the '90s.

The plant that's produced everything from license-built B-17s for WWII (And no doubt took delivery of their engines from the nearby Los Angeles [Vernon] California Studebaker plant) to the latest muscle-icious airlifters for today's Air Force (the C-17) is now mostly dismantled and dismissed.

Part of the facility even served as an auto assembly plant after WWII. Kaiser-Frazer assembled some of their earlier offerings there. Sadly, they fared not much better than the Studebaker plant that was only minutes away, in Vernon.

Not unlike Studebaker, Douglas Aircraft Co. dated back to the first quarter century of aviation. The year 1920 (as it so happens, the last year Studebaker produced horse-drawn vehicles) saw the birth of Douglas Aircraft with the designing of their first winged offering. From that point on, they built many military and civilian planes to meet various needs. None, of course, was more famous than the Douglas DC-3 Gooney Bird that still does yeoman service on every inhabited continent – nearly 70 years after the first one took wing! That plane single-handedly introduced comfortable air travel to the masses and was deemed one of THE most important tools for defeating the Axis powers of WWII. In spite of dominating the air transport market both before and after WWII, Douglas found itself on thin monetary ice eventually. Douglas' Studebaker-Packard-like moment had happened when McDonnell Aircraft stepped up to merge with them. The resultant McDonnell-Douglas corporation would be almost as short-lived as was the Studebaker-Packard corporation.

And not unlike Studebaker-Packard, in spite of M-D having built MANY a first-rate product and being leaders in aviation innovation, they withered on the vine, so to speak. McDonnell-Douglas was a victim of their own mismanagement or ignorance thereof.

Uncle Sam eventually nudged Boeing Aircraft Co. into buying the corporate bones of M-D just to insure that the remaining C-17s would be built since M-D was on the rocks well before the last C-17 was constructed

Unlike the lingering ghosts of Studebaker's plant, many of the buildings where I once worked as a maintenance electrician were slated for demolition almost as soon as the last of the production was cleared out. While it was a bustling facility when I left there in 1990, the end of that decade saw the place almost like one of California's defunct gold mine towns. Now most of that once busy facility is only memories.

Back in Fresno. As we turned onto the active runway for takeoff, I pressed my back against the seat. I wasn't tense about flying – I wanted to get a sense of what it must feel like when Ted drops the hammer on one of the two Larks I'd soon be watching. In that first shove, as the throttle levers are pushed forward, the power of the two anxious turbofan engines is evident. Is it more or less like what Ted feels as the lights go green? I doubt I'll get to compare.

Do we use a quarter mile of runway before we reach 110MPH? I can't say. Nonetheless, it's exhilarating when the M-D Super 80 finally rotates and we jump skyward. Michigan, here I come!

Seeing this old globe from different vantage points makes you think about how small things really are. For instance, a semi tractor-trailer rig looks positively HUGE in your Stude's rear view mirror! But from 34,000 feet up, it's a white sliver, creeping along a thin, gray trail.

Of course, cars look even smaller from on high. So while looking down as we sped along at altitude, I mused how one, small, non-descript sedan could cause the stir that the Stude Super-Larks do? Ha! Unless you're a die-hard Studebaker nut, you probably won't get it.

While we Studebaker types have NEVER doubted that our beloved South Bend beauties were the equal of anything out of Detroit, it's only been since their debut at the Mid-Michigan Motorplex's raceway that we had verifiable PROOF!

Time has shown that the definition of a "Muscle Car" is pretty elastic when you want it to be. Of course, if that elasticity doesn't work in your favor, you'd be inclined to decry it. That said, I've contended for some time now that Studebaker's 1956 Golden Hawk was the original factory muscle car. In it, you had a car that was fitted with way more engine than it was designed for, or needed.

And even tho that car was a one-year wonder (due to Packard's engine line being shut down), Studebaker subbed a supercharger on their own rugged V8 to try and replace the horsepower they lost with the demise of the Packard powerplant. Some would argue that the '57 & '58 Golden Hawks were even more tractable thanks to the change. The truth is, Studebaker realized that the muscle of more horsepower was a selling point for the performance-oriented buyer. If, in the Hawk line-up for 1956, power wasn't an important factor, all Hawks would have had the same engine. Studebaker HAD a durable, powerful V8 in the 289 that debuted that year. What WAS South Bend thinking when they shoe-horned that 352 under the hood if not to add go-fast pizzaz as an option?

I contend it wasn't a muscle car ONLY because the title of "Muscle Car" had yet to be born in '56. All the mainstream car nuts wanna pay homage to the GTO as the starting point for high-performance motoring. What about the R-series GT Hawks & Larks from Studebaker? Is it just because they lacked a engine family that they've gone unnoticed all along? Ah well....

The point of much that I've said so far is that I was thinking what irony it was that I was riding in an orphan airliner in making my way to watch orphan cars show their stuff. I was thinking this as we soared above the American countryside and pondered how physically small an R3 Lark is in the grand scheme of things. And yet....

I thought about how valiantly the faithful are that are caught up in the mania of Studebakering. After all, the calendar really has passed us by and yet we pretend not to notice that fact. I know I can't see myself without a Studebaker ( or several) to drive. And why not? What's to keep us from keeping the dream alive after all?

And so my mind wandered as I sped eastward in a friendly old MD Super 80. The plane seemed want to stand as proof that even tho it's parent company was forever gone, they hadn't disappeared because they'd built junk. It was a message I could relate to.

After visiting a few days with my dear mom and others, I set a course north, for Edmore, Michigan. It was early Friday morning and it was lightly raining. While it didn't look promising, the weather persons were talking about a gorgeous Saturday. Either way, I would eventually find myself in the company of fellow Stude nuts and that was as much what I'd come for as seeing the racing.

The going was slower than I'd anticipated and that was partly due to the fact that the rain grew stronger as the day and the miles wore on. The lush greenery of Michigan was refreshing to my senses. There's greenery in the central valley of California but much of it's contrived. It's made possible only because man pours so much water on it to make it produce fruits and veggies. It was good to be back amongst the sort of fields and woods that I remember from my childhood days.

While I'd certainly rather had driven a Studebaker on this journey, my rental turned out to be a little Nissan. It was an able conveyance. I liken it and it's kind to being basically an "appliance". It has no soul or inspiration evident about it. It's foremost character is that it has none. It affords one an anonymity akin to being just one more leaf on a tree. If you look up the word "nondescript" in the dictionary, this car would be pictured as an example.

That said, it started and stopped and it finally turned left into the entrance way of the Mid-Michigan Motorplex. It was about 1PM when I paid my admission fee and drove towards the spectator stands.

I'd already spotted John Raab's white '63 Lark parked near the entry gate and as I got closer to the stands, more Studes revealed themselves in the general parking area.

No cars were streaking down the strip, but that was because it was STILL raining at that point.

I parked my anony-mobile and as I got out I made mental note of it's color and wheel style. I could easily have lost it in the parking area with it's mundane personality!

I made my way to the pit area of the facility and started to recognize some of the cars and the folks huddling around them. Team Studebaker had taken over the corner closest to the viewing stands. There were a dozen or more Studes parked in that corner along with support vehicles and motorhomes. I was soon exchanging pleasantries with Bob Palma, Lark Parker, the Harbits, Richard Poe, and many others. What a great feeling – to be in the company of all these neat Stude folks! I didn't even notice the chilly drizzle that kept the cars at a standstill.

Of course, the drivers were all hoping that they'd get a break from Ma Nature before the day was out. It was already evident that she was gonna have an impact on how the race event was gonna play out. What they couldn't know was that I'd arranged for some California sunshine to be towed along behind that American Airlines Super 80 I'd breezed in on.

Sure, it was now three days since I'd landed in Detroit – but you know how it can go with baggage. Sometimes it gets lost and it takes the airlines a few days to produce it. This was the case with my gift of sunny weather! Better late than never.

Along about 3PM or so, we all started to speculate about the visible patch of blue that seemed to be easing in from the southwest. Could it be – would it be – that this would be the break all yearned for? Humble sort that I am, I wasn't about to try and gain favor for having brought this break upon the event. No, my reward would simply be watching the Studes show their stuff. To get to hear the V8 snarl that I'd traveled so far to appreciate – that would be compensation enough.

Things were looking up – specifically, every head at the track. All were hoping that the blue sky patch would work in their favor. Even before the last few raindrops and fallen, the track operators had their lane-drying rigs out and were making repeated runs to disperse the moisture. While back in the pit area, engines were coughing to life, car covers coming off and drivers limbering up, all these actions heightened expectations. This was it! This was the realization of the moment I'd only experienced thru written accounts of past races.

Everyone was anxious to see things get going. And about 4PM or so, things DID start to proceed in quick fashion. With the track dried sufficiently, the first few racers took off! I don't remember which Studebaker was the first to make a run that day, but I do remember that the music it made was as pleasing a tune as I'd ever heard. Lots has been said thru the years as to the sweet sounds of a Studebaker's exhaust note. Well, that sweetness turns to an aggressive-sounding snarl when the gas pedal's held to the floor! There wasn't another sort of vehicle thru all the races I witnessed that had a sound to match that of the Studes. Not even close!

As the afternoon waned, I was torn between watching the action on the lanes and watching what happened in the pit and staging areas. It was sensory overload and I tried to take in as much of both as I could.

All too soon, the track operators announced that the day was done and we'd have to look to Saturday to see more. The abbreviated day of trial runs meant that there wouldn't be the traditional "shoot-outs" of events past. But I wasn't that distraught at that development since I merely wanted to witness Studes being driven to their full potential.

Weather gods willing, tomorrow would provide more of the same. Lots more.

Tradition has it that the Studebaker crowd congregates at a local eatery for the Friday evening meal. Beardslee's restaurant in Edmore is the place we'd meet. After checking in at the Edmore Inn, I drove on over to the restaurant and joined the growing clan of Stude-thusiats in the reserved dining room.

As always, being part of a condensation of Studebaker nuts is inspiring. This meal was no disappointment in that regard. With Bob Palma across the table from me, George Krem off my left elbow and Lark Parker, Ted & Mary Ann Harbit, Peter Sant, Doug Tjapkes, Richard "R1" Poe, John Raab and many other racers, spouses, offspring and cheerleaders all in attendance, it was Stude-sensory overload in trying to take it all in. I might sum it up by saying the meal wasn't bad but the company was excellent!

Once dinner was done, the crowd dispersed rather quickly. Back at the Edmore Inn, a number of us congregated in Bob and Jerry Palma's room for an all-too-brief session of tall-tale-swapping and sharing of information. What a hoot!

In the course of the gab session, Bob Palma gave Nels Bove a hint to check with me about a body tag I might have in my collection. You see, Nels had acquired the mortal remains of a '64 Lark, known to be a factory show car that was used in the San Francisco auto show of '64. Awhile back, someone tipped Nels off that this hulk was awaiting it's final reward in a Sacramento wrecking yard and Nels came to it's rescue. Of the many things missing from the car was it's body tag. So, Bob Palma – knowing that I collect body tags – mentioned to Nels that I might have said tag in my possession. It WAS a real long shot. I don't live near or often go as far as Sacramento in my travels. BUT – I do have an AMC buddy up that way that will snag those tags for me when he happens across them. So there was a remotely slim chance that I might have that tag in my garage, back in California. I'd have to check thru the hundreds of them when I got back home.

Anyway, it was a cool evening with the best sorta company a Stude freak could hope for. Eventually, the session broke up so we could get some shut-eye before Saturday dawned.

Dawn it did, of course. All bright and shiny and full of promise for the events I longed to witness. Myself and a few others recharged our batteries with coffee and eats at Beardslee's again. Then it was out to the Mid-Michigan Motorplex for more excitement.

By the time some of us got back to the pits, Ted was already in the staging area for another run. Ted was one busy fella that day. He had George's R3 there as well as his own famous Stude Tomato R2. He'd alternate between the two as far as making runs. I honestly don't remember who ran what times and who they were running against. I'll leave that to Bob Palma to lay out.

For me it was a "flash" of a day as I was so consumed by the excitement of it all and trying to find the best vantage points to watch and film from. With so many Studes in attendance, you didn't have to wait long to see one run – sometimes one Stude against another! Studes or not, the track crew kept up the pace to where there were hardly any lulls in the action. The beautiful California day I'd arranged for made for a great event. It was well worth the effort I'd made to make it happen.

Several things about watching the Studes run stand out in my memory of it all. First off - as I'd mentioned earlier – the sound that a Stude V8 makes when it's pushed hard – is truly distinctive. I can hear it in my head when I think about it but I'm not sure I can do it justice with words. I CAN say – from first-hand experience, mind you - that it sounds alot like the snarl that I recall as coming off the straight pipe on a 1937 Bugatti's straight 8!

Years ago I had the opportunity to drive (and not necessarily sedately, thank you!) a number of Bugattis. Several sported Gran Prix type bodies and the one Type 35 I recall would lite up it's tires if you asked it to! The thing had a loooong chromed exhaust pipe that extended down the side of the body and ended right behind the right rear corner of the cockpit. It was sans any muffler whatsoever. Ya had to be mindful of that exhaust tube lest you fry your forearm on it! But what music it made – just like a Stude V8.

As has been written in past coverage of these meets, the crowd – the non-Stude crowd, no less – seems enthusiastic about seeing a Studebaker show it's stuff. Not that they evoked the same applause that would erupt every time some GTO or Firebird would lose itself in a cloud of tire smoke, but you could hear the murmur waft thru the stands each time one of the Studebakers streaked down the lanes.

At one point, I was high up in the stands, trying to get some good footage with my videocam. As the Stude Tomato blasted by, one fella asked another about the nature of the engine in the car. His friend related correctly that it had a 289 with a blower on it. I remember thinking to myself that it was cool to hear someone who obviously was a GM fan talk with proper knowledge about a Studebaker. No more than had that thought happened when the first fella said: "Yeah, I had one of those 289s in a Mustang once. That thing would really go!"

When the second fella nodded his head knowingly, I exhaled a whispered, mental groan. So much for Stude knowledge.

Another time, loud cheers went up as the Plain Brown Wrapper decreased it's ET over earlier runs. That was a cool moment. But not too much later, the Wrapper streaked down the runway again and this time it even sounded different from what my ears had come to expect. As Ted muscled the shifter thru it's pattern, the Wrapper would alternately snarl and then mimic an AK-47. It was a bit alarming to one as innocent of such as myself. But that fractured rhapsody resulted in the all-time best run the car's ever run here at the Mid-Michigan Motorplex. And I soon found out – from Ted himself – the staccato notes were the result of the Wrapper's rev-limiter doing it's job. That job would be - protecting the 304 from over-revving to the point of self-destruction. OK then!

Watching Ted drive these 40+ year-old cars to better times made me recall the title of the History Channel's current series: Man, Moment, Machine. When the three of them come together, history's about to be made. Fact is, I felt that way about all the Studebaker drivers that day. If you needed a shot of inspiration – the moment, these men and their able machines were just what the doctor would prescribe for you.

Ted's performance with the supercharged gems is always great to watch or even hear about. But I know Ted won't be upset if I say that maybe the best show of the day was by a lowly R1. Richard "R1" Poe showed us that even withOUT a Paxton up front, a Stude ain't nothin' to dismiss on the strip! Richard really shined that day and from the way I hear it, he's hardly reached the limits of his Lark's potential.

Being as I tend to favor the independents, I took particular interest in one run where Richard was pitted against a 1969 AMC ScRambler. This Rambler was a one-year issue wonder that had 390 cubic inches stuffed under it's hood. That's One Hundred & One more cubic inches than what's under the hood of Richard's 6-year older Lark. (Or roughly 2/3rds of Champion engine more – if you wanna look at it that way!) And having watched this particular ScRambler run a number of times prior – I think the fella driving it was an experienced driver who was intimately in tune with his car.

Richard's displacement handicap didn't keep him from beating the ScRambler. For me, it was one of the most interesting match-ups of the day. Hats off to Richard. He should serve as a real inspiration to those of us that don't have the exotica of a blower mounted atop our Stude's engine. He mastered new ground that day for an unsupercharged Studebaker. Amazing!

There was one heartbreaking moment that I was witness to. That was when Doug Tjapkes' R2 Hawk made mincemeat of it's own engine. I was filming the run and I could hear an unearthly sound sorta like a hiss and a growl combined. Doug had just started to accelerate when something let loose. The noise and the cloud of oil vapor that trailed the car was sickening to witness. Lark Parker later showed me some of the bits of connecting rod and piston skirt that the track crew had picked up. I sure hope Doug gets that pretty Hawk back on it's feet soon. I know that's his intent.

Other mental moments stand out when I recall that Saturday..

At one point in the day, I found myself rounding the fence that separates the pit area from the staging area. As I looked up over the long lanes of muscle cars that stood waiting their turn, I was overcome with the thought of just how many dollars worth of vintage iron was in that pack!

As the PBW set in the staging lanes, Ted was in the drivers seat, helmet on, looking a bit lost in thought. I broke his concentration as I asked him if after all the years of racing, did he still get tense when he was waiting for the green light. "You bet!" he replied.

I can tell you that when he's sitting in front of the light tree, with his right foot ready and his fist clutched 'round the shifter ball, you can see the concentration on his face. Yet when he and the Wrapper lope back into the pits thereafter, he's as cool as a cucumber. Ol' Ted's a wonder. Don't let his quiet and humble manner fool you. He's a terror when the lights go green!

And while I'm talking about Ted, let me also share the observation of his action in the pits. Man, that guy can have the top off an AFB and be changing the jets before I could get the air cleaner off my Transtar!

Anyway, as the day wore on, I had someplace else I had to be before it evaporated completely. I went around and said my goodbyes to those of the Studebaker persuasion that were still there. It had been a great day all in all. One I would never forget!

I spent the balance of my trip visiting with friends and family but the race event was the real high point, entertainment-wise. If you can attend one of these, I strongly recommend it. There's great things to be said about a Studebaker meet but I'd rather see them in action than sitting in line with their hoods raised.

Oh! And by golly, after I got back home, I DID find the missing body tag off that show car that Nels Bove has rescued. I sent it to Nels so it can be a part of that car's eventual rise from oblivion. It's a fitting footnote to a great weekend of watching Studes take their rightful place in the history of American performance cars. With the track victories and the Studebaker-powered efforts on the salt flats, it's as tho Studebakers have shaken off the dormancy of being artifacts to once again make automotive history! To a Studebaker faithful like myself, that's as satisfying as anything I could imagine. Long LIVE Studebaker!

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