Studebaker Stories:

My romance with the President

by StudeBob Kabchef

Stude farming in CA  

In 1976, I was three years into my romance with Studebakers. I'd already owned several different models at that point and was always attuned to any that I hadn't experienced.  When a 1956 President sedan came to my attention it sort of intrigued me.  To be truthful about it, I couldn't bring an image of one to mind at that point. Probably, I had seen one before but it just had never registered with me.  After all, I was eleven years old when the'56 models were in the showrooms. Certainly, in the ongoing years, I'd seen'56 Presidents but just had not logged them mentally.

Anyway, 1976 found me living in north Georgia.  Specifically, outside Atlanta in the suburb of Marietta.  The North Georgia Chapter of SDC was already established and of course I was a member.  As with most chapters it was filled with lots of neat people and lots of info was shared amongst us. Everyone in our group knew of the fella out west of Atlanta that had an acre full of retired Studebakers.  I must confess that after 20 years I've forgotten his last name.  I'm sure his first name was Herman though.

Anyway, this guy had been associated with Studebakers for a long time when they were in business.  Mostly as a mechanic, but I think towards Studebaker's end he owned and operated a fleet of Lark taxis in the quiet little town of Carrollton, GA.  When that venture wound down he took to repairing cars in the shop he'd built across the road from his house.  Overtime, people in his area had come to depend on him for repairs to their beloved Studes.  Consequently, when they decided to retire their old Stude they quite often ended up offering it to Herman.  That's basically how he'd managed to accumulate an acre of them. As well as being a walking encyclopedia of Studebaker technical info, Herman also knew the whereabouts of a good number of such vehicles for sale. 

One day, while procuring some parts from him, he mentioned that he knew of a1956 President Classic that could be had cheap.  My first reaction to this tidbit was feigned enthusiasm "Really?  Gee, that's nice."  But, in the weeks that passed, I began to think more and more about this seemingly most regal mode of conveyance from the now-defunct, South Bend auto manufacturer. Everyone I knew at that time that was into Studes was always going on about their Coupes or Hawks or Avanti's.  Yes, they are/were nice.  But without too much conscious thought I always found myself attracted to more" utilitarian" type vehicles. You know, station wagons, sedans, and trucks.

 'Round about that time my daily driver was a '52 Champion 4dr that I'd rescued from a wrecking yard.  I really liked the old Champion and all the family room it afforded. I used to joke about needing a tailwind to exceed70 MPH.  Actually, it was true!  For my hot rod licks I had a '60 Champ truck with a V-8 and 4spd. Anytime you'd forgotten what burning rubber smelled like, the Champ and I were ready to refresh your memory.  Though, while it was a very practical vehicle, it lacked room for the whole family to ride with any degree of comfort.  The ultimate transport would be something with room AND power.  Eventually that observation weighed on my "brain scale" opposite the knowledge of the President I'd been told about.  The Prez obviously bore further consideration.

Herman had told me that he knew this car well since he had worked on it a few times before it's owner had retired it.  Supposedly, it had a fresh 289and transmission in it.  It also had extensive documentation, from years past, that attested to it's being maintained well.  That was all well and good.  The important thing he'd told me was that it was 'Cheap".  "Cheap" as in $250 dollars or so. Something even I could afford.  Herman also told me that this thing currently resided in a barn in rural (and I mean RURAL) Alabama.  He said that if I were interested we could go over there some Saturday and he'd lead me to it.  Later, I realized that he probably went along to keep me from getting shot.  I say this because it was obvious when we got there that this farm produced things that were the very" spirit' of the crops they'd harvested.  Consequently they probably didn't take to kindly to strangers nosing around about old cars.  But, I'm getting ahead of myself here.

So, as I said, the practicality of the President was doing a slow burn on my synapses.  Said consideration was bouncing around in my head when one day my folks called from their home in Michigan. They allowed as how they were going to vacation in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and would like to have me and the family come along. OK, here was the excuse I'd been looking for.  I called ol' Herman and asked him if he thought the President would make a 2000-mile plus trip without too much fuss.  He replied that if I'd give it a good cleaning it would probably make an excellent piece of transportation.  At that, we agreed to proceed the next Saturday, with cash in hand, and retrieve the car. I drove my Champ truck to Herman's place on the appointed day and we then proceeded in it, with Herman at the wheel, to Alabama.

As we neared the farm that day I was glad that Herman had volunteered to drive me there.  It was out in the sticks with a vengeance! Road signs of any sort were Nonexistent.  And the lack of signs might have been because these thoroughfares were too primitive to be classified as roads.  After what seemed like an eternity of seat-spring testing we finally pulled into the driveway of a place that was a step back in time.

I remember thinking that the last time I'd seen a place like this was in a Civil War movie.  The only bits that spoiled the 19th century aura were the beat-looking' Ford truck and the ancient, and obviously derelict, John Deere tractor that occupied the driveway.  Chickens scratched amongst discarded pieces of furniture and other household items that littered the front yard. A smoke wisp lazily curled from a rusted old barrel.  It lent a scent to the air that revealed the method of garbage disposal there. Ma and Pa kettle didn't have a thing on these folks!  No way, no how! 

The whole thing was fascinating in a "gee whiz" sort of way.  I actually forgot about the Stude for a bit. Herman cautioned me to wait in the truck until he identified himself. Since we'd made the journey in my Champ truck, he felt they'd be nervous at the sight of an unfamiliar vehicle pullin' up. What Herman didn't know was that the pack of hungry-lookin' dogs that had greeted us insured that I wouldn't exit 'til they were called off.

Anyhow, Herman made it to the front porch, with dogs in tow, just as a sinewy human figure emerged from behind the tattered, old screen door.  I watched as they spoke for a moment and then my "guide" turned and made a gesture for me to join them.  The old weatherworn gent on the porch had stepped back into the house for a moment.  By the time I got to where Herman stood, the gaunt, old man reemerged from the house with some papers and a ring of keys   in his hand.  The guy's wrinkled face looked like a road map of the area we'd just navigated.  He wore a filthy, old fedora hat, a brown-stained T-shirt, a set of well-worn, mud-encrusted, work boots and a pair of bib overalls that definitely left room for his boney figure to grow into.  He neither looked my way nor spoke a word as I came close.  Herman nodded to his right and   said to me: "It's out in the barn." With that the old guy set out towards the barn with Herman and I tagging along. What was really eerie about the whole encounter was that the old geezer never said one word to me the whole time of our visit. Not one!

As we walked up to the barn's entrance I could see the President's grille peering out from the dim innards.  When we finally got close I began to question Herman's credibility.  THIS was the "jewel" I'd wasted a Saturday for?  This was what we'd both endured cases of "rut-butt" to look at?  Good gracious, what a neglected piece of scrap! Out of respect, or maybe even fear, I did not vocalize my observations. After we stopped a few feet from the car, the farmer quietly turned and left the barn.  Herman then explained that the old guy was gonna get some jumper cables and his truck. 

Seems as how it'd been some time since he'd fired up the President.  The battery would need to be jumped. Now like I said, I was keeping mum. But Herman, sensing my dismay, tried to ease my anxiety a bit: " Hey Bob, this is really a good deal! "Well, it was going to be a case of "seeing is believing" as far as I was concerned.  The old Stude looked anything but "Presidential" where it sat. Herman started to explain that the ceiling beams over the car served as the daytime roost for a group of barn owls.  I looked up and, sure enough, there were several pie-faced owls watching us intently.  Barn owls are BIG birds that produce BIG droppings.  So you can imagine what the topside of this car looked like! 

Herman explained further, that from time to time the dogs would try to intimidate the owls by barking up at them from below.  In their antics they would try to jump up on the car with their muddy, sharp-clawed paws.  As you can now visualize, the dogs and the owls had taken the pride out of the President's pomp and gleam.  I was ready to back out of the deal at that point.  Probably the only reason I didn't was because of Herman's time and effort to get us there. I thought about having to drive this thing into the carport at my house and being the laughingstock of Donna Lynn Drive!  I further felt I was between the proverbial rock and a hard place as regarded the impending deal.  Either I told Herman that I wasn't interested, or I tried to make my family put on rose-colored classes and squint real hard!

Eventually, the crusty old fella pulled into the barn with his truck and jumper cables.  The floor of the barn was a sea of gooey manure.  This had kept me from getting close enough to try and see through the car's mud-covered windows.  I still had no idea of what the inside of the '56 President looked like.  Given the outside appearance though, I was afraid of what the inside of would look like!

Mr. Silent Type finally got the cables strung between the two vehicles.  He then knocked the dried mud from the front door handle, opened the door and leaned inside.  He reached down and pushed the gas pedal to the floor to set the choke.  Then he used the key to set the starter in motion. I looked at Herman with a look that said: "This thing gonna run?" He looked at me with a bit of a grin and gave an affirmative nod and a "you'll see" sort of wink.

Once the old fella had spun the engine enough to suck some gas from the tank to the carburetor, the Stude's engine roared to life.  He then reached down and razzed the throttle a few times.  Obviously he'd picked up on my skepticism about whether it was gonna run.  Now, for the first time in our visit, the guy looked straight at me as if to say, "There, wise guy! Satisfied?"

He then closed the hood and moved his truck. Herman gingerly trod the muck and slid into the President's front seat.  He did display a bit of caution by checking for spiders first.  Once inside, he pulled the car out of the barn and drove it up next to the house. I followed along, trying to see the value in the car's forlorn appearance. The side of the car that had been assaulted by the dogs was really sad looking. But to my surprise, the side that had been close to the wall of the barn looked pretty damned nice! Besides that, the dual exhausts sounded really sweet as it set there idling. 

The owner then produced a hose and started to attack the crusty deposits that clung to the left side of the Stude.  I still harbored doubts as to what would emerge from this bath.  At first the Piles of owl dung on the top seemed impervious to the stream of water.  I stood way back to give this washing spree wide berth.  The old guy though, seemed not to mind the resulting splash-bath of water and bird poop. In fact, he got right up close while holding his thumb over the end of the hose.  I had observed early on, that the chest part of his overalls was well be-splattered with chewing tobacco dribble.  I kinda surmised personal hygiene was not a priority concern for him.

Eventually, the owl-poop started to surrender to the stream from the hose.  After five minutes or so of wash efforts the car did look considerably better.  Although the driver's side was scratched up quite a lot, the plus was that there weren't any cancerous spots to be seen. The two-tone color scheme of dark, metallic green with light green accent was appealing once it could see the light of day. Meanwhile Herman sorted through a big envelope full of papers that he'd gotten from the glove box. The extensive file of receipts told of much work having been done in the not too distant past.  Engine overhaul, transmission rebuild, brake job. Heck, it should be ready for the road.  The engine sure idled smooth and quiet and smoked none whatsoever. A crack was quickly developing in my apprehensions.

The interior of the Prez was still wearing its original garb.  A sort of satin-looking, green brocade adorned the seats.  Probably the first thing that grabbed my attention was the "Cyclops eye" speedometer.  This instrument sat above the other gages that the driver had to monitor.  In fact, it had it's own little housing.  The numbers displayed therein went up with increasing speed and were highly visible by virtue of a magnifying glass lens.  I don't know who coined the term "Cyclops eye" for this gage, but it was a fitting description.  The bulging single lens that stared back at the driver could easily have been a stand-in for the optical organ of the mythical, one-eyed giant.

Despite my initial doubts, I was beginning to fall for the car right then and there.  Herman had pretty much sold me on the car by his assessment of it. Heck, we didn't even take it for a test drive!

So, after telling Herman I approved, old dribble-jaw signed the pink slip and exchanged it for the cash I'd brought along. He didn't even say thanks. I was now the proud owner of a two-tone green 1956 Studebaker President Classic!  I fancied myself pretty sale-savvy at this point as the receipts for all the overhaul work totaled up to about three times what I had to give for the thing.

After Herman had a few parting words with Mr. Hill Billy we set out for civilization again. It was about 80 miles or so to my residence and I asked Herman to drive the Prez on that part of our journey so he could listen for and diagnose any stray whirrs, squeaks or knocks.  Upon reaching our goal, Herman allowed that it would need an alignment and tire balancing.  Other than that it seemed fairly road-competent.  That was pretty reassuring for me as I put a lot of trust in Herman's judgment.  We finished out the day with my driving Herman back to his place. 

Sunday dawned bright and clear and I set about trying to revive the Stude's original gleam.  With an arsenal of cleaners, rubbing compound, whitewall bleach and a shop vac, battle was engaged with the layers of grime.  In the end, a fairly amazing transformation came to pass.  While there were minor traces of neglect still apparent, the ol' Prez looked very respectable.  The back seat had been matted with dirt 'n dog hair and the front seat was badly water-stained.  But a thorough shampoo and vacuuming, followed with a few hours of sun drying, gave them new life. Even though the brakes seemed to function well, I went ahead and rebuilt all the wheel cylinders.  The only thing I could see wrong with the car mechanically was that one bushing in the lower left "A-arm" was totally without any rubber.  I remember being proud of myself that I was able to replace that bushing without removing the arm itself. So, with new shocks and new tires I had a car ready for our vacation trip.  A twenty-year-old car that I'd initially viewed as "hopeless" less than two weeks before.

Yes, there was a little voice inside me that asked if I knew what I was doing.  But, the President gave all indications that he was ready to execute his assigned task.  As is my practice to this day, I'd make sure we stowed as pare fuel pump, water pump, radiator hoses, and fan belts Those parts are the ones that would be hard to find replacements for whilst away from home, even in 1976.  If one of those items breaks you are going to be down for a while unless you have another one with you.

Of course, there was a bag of tools, a heavy-duty towrope and jumper cables, too.  One other thing I took along was a CB radio.  This was when the CB craze was sweeping the nation.

While I was not inclined to get on the airwaves and chat, I did think maybe it would offer some benefit on the open road. (No cell phones back then!)

As far as the   '56 President sedan was concerned, I was really fond of it by the time we left for Michigan. It had gobs of room for all the gear we packed. A spacious back seat gave my two pre-teen kids room to do the antics that children of that age do.

This particular President was equipped with automatic transmission, power steering and power brakes. All were features, which I appreciated.  This 56 model was the first and only year of the Flight-o-matic transmission that started out first gear when the "D" range was used.  I liked this feature, as it made the car seem more nimble. Occasional uninformed souls sorta looked down their noses at my old Stude sedan.  It was fun then to dispel the "no-zip" image by sticking my foot into the four-barrel and lighting up the tires!

Finally, with wife, kids, clothes and gadgets for a three-week vocational stowed, we headed out for northern Michigan.  The drive itself would be a little over thousand miles each way.  Even though I'd only gotten this Stude about two weeks prior, I felt confident in it's ability to go the distance. Just after we crossed into Tennessee though, the first, and as it turned out, the ONLY problem showed it's ugly face.

We were headed north on Interstate 75.  This stretch of this north-south artery is anything but flat. On a level stretch, or going downhill, the 289 pulled just fine.  But when a bit of an uphill pull confronted us the car started to act like it was running out of gas.  Backing off on the accelerator let the engine pick back up. But of course when climbing a hill you need more power, not less.  Understandably it didn't take but a few hills to get me frustrated.  Since it was quite some miles to the next town or rest area, I decided to pull off along the side of the freeway.

Luckily, the problem was readily visible.  The fuel pump on the Prez still had a glass filter bowl on the bottom of it.  It so happened that the car was on a slight incline where we were stopped.  I got down on one knee and looked up at the fuel pump.  It was easy to see that the pump was not keeping it's filter bowl full of gas.  Aha! The wisdom of the stashed spare was going to prove itself. 15 minutes later we were cruising again.  This time, without hesitation.

That same afternoon we pulled into my parent's driveway in southern Michigan. My dad came out to greet us as we emerged from the Stude.  He stood back and eyed the President from end to end. Then, only half-jokingly, he said, "Looks nice.  Hope you brought along a towrope."

You have to know my Dad.  He's a stand-up comic who just never went professional.  A regular clown, if you will.

Anyway, I gave a bit of a chuckle and allowed as how I had indeed included a towrope amongst the stuff we'd packed.  I told him I felt confident we wouldn't need it but that I didn't want to be without one out in the wilds of northern Michigan.

The next day we set out on the rest of the journey to our destination, a cabin on the shores of Lake Superior.  The wife and me, along with my sister and her friend, rode in the Stude President.  Our kids rode with my folks in their '68 Ford LTD.  The whole drive to the cabin was pretty much uneventful.  Although soon after we crossed the Mackinaw Straits into upper Michigan, the weather turned soggy. Such is the nature of this part of the country.  You can have great weather there in the middle of the summer or you can have cold, wet, positively miserable conditions.  I had taken this into account when getting the Stude ready for the trek.  I'd done so by installing mud and snow tires on the rear. It was a decision I would come to be thankful for.

We finally got to the cottage late that day and made ourselves at home. The President performed well in the damp and mud.  In fact the most amusing facet of the vacation had to do with the rotten weather and the Stude.  Two or three days into our stay we decided to make a journey to one of the many scenic points that make upper Michigan so charming.  We had to take both cars, as there were too many of us to ride in just one of them comfortably.  We headed out through the wilds on what was usually just a rut filled dirt road.  Only now it was a well-trenched river of mud!  I let my dad lead, as he was familiar with the route.  Aside from being a clown, my father is "Mr. Cautious" when he's behind the wheel.  At his "inch worm" pace, in the gooey, slippery muck, it seemed to take forever to get where we were headed.  Later that day, on the return trip, we switched passengers and I took the lead position.  There had been no traffic on this road earlier and there was none to be seen as we started back.  I was positively itching to have some fun with the Prez.

As soon as we got going I started to stick my foot in it.  I'd never allow it to get going too fast.  I was just having a ball spinning the wheels and fishtailing in the pools and ruts of liquid mud.  Mud in abundance flew everywhere!  Mud, mud, mud! Those childhood urges to splash in every puddle had emerged from long retirement.

Now they were gleefully celebrating they're revival. Mind you, I did think (for a moment anyway) about what the underside of the car was gonna be like.  But the willing V-8 under the hood and the long slippery trail were just too much of a temptation.  In my minds eye I fancied myself on one of those road-rallies through some distant rainforest.  You know, Cairo to Cape Town or some such exotic callings.  For passengers that day, there was my wife, who was white-knuckled in the front seat.  And in the back seat was my younger sister and her friend who were both cheering me on.  Needless to say, their enthusiasm fueled my daring-do. Now every so often I'd stop and let Mr. Cautious, my dad, catch up with us. Then we'd shoot off again with strains of the Paul Simon song "Slip Sliding Away" coming from my two back seat passengers and rooster tails of mud from the two back wheels.  The rain was still falling, the mud was flying, I mean, like this was the highlight of the trip for me! Thru what little bit of back window was not mud covered, my sister would check periodically to confirm that she could still see my Dad's Ford in the distance.  One time though, she reported that she'd lost sight of them.  So, I decided to stop and wait for them to catch up.

We just sat there for a while, discussing the thrills of mud-racing and waiting for the Ford to appear.  After a few minutes though, I began to think something might be wrong.  I got out and braved the mud enough to clear the back window somewhat with a rag.  Upon reentering the Stude I selected reverse gear and started to retrace our trail.  Almost a mile back I found the Ford sitting with the hood up.  My Dad, ankle-deep in mire, was leaning under the hood trying to figure why the engine had died.  For me, one look at the Ford's engine told why it had quit.  The distributor was drenched with brown muck!  It had suffered such fate because on the Ford engine the distributor was at the front. As such, it was exposed to much of the slop that splashed up from the wheels.  However on the Presidents V-8 the distributor is at the rear of the engine.  Consequently, even with all the determined puddle-jumping I did, it kept on going.

In spite of our best efforts to dry the Ford's ignition, it refused to start.  In light of that I just could not resist the next comment I made to my father.  While we stood looking at the Ford's reluctant motor I said, "Damn good thing I brought that tow rope along." Fortunately he wasn't too ticked off. He managed a bit of an embarrassed smile as he replied, "Yeah, imagine that."

Well, never mind the cold, the damp, and the muck and bad luck.  I was beaming as the twenty year-old Stude pulled the slack out of the tow   rope and started to haul the eight year-old Ford to it's destination.  It did this in the mud no less! From there on out, there were no more unflattering comments from my dad about the aging Stude.  Thru the rest of our backwoods treks, and all the way home to Georgia, it just purred and took on the back roads like it just didn't know any better.

I mentioned that I'd installed a CB just before the trip.  This proved to be entertaining almost to the point of being a bother.  With the whip antenna sticking up we could hardly pass a truck without the call "Hey Studebaker! Got your ears on??  Man that's a good-lookin' car.  Hey, what year is that? Blah, blah, blah..."Of course, I just glowed with pride.  Never once did I hear any comments about the occasional old Ford or Chevy that might appear.  The styling of that '56 President was certainly not objectionable by standards of it's time.  It was a capable, durable, attractive car. Even though this car was 20 years old when it came into my possession, it was solid, quiet and willing to take the deliberate abuse I tested it with. 

I ultimately sold my 1956 President. (Sure wish I hadn't!) And while I'm fairly certain it met an unkind fate later on, it still plies the road in smart fashion thru my memories of it.

The mid-50s sedan offerings from South Bend were outstanding examples of quality                transportation. They simply lost out to the "King-of-the-hill" price wars of the "Big Two" at that time. Hard to say what might have been if they had been offered on a level playing field.  Even though the President is likely gone, I still carry the fondest memories of that great car.  

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