Studebaker Stories

Merlin Klotz: My Special Startlight Coupe Story

By Merlin Klotz,

My father had polio when he was 4 and was paralyzed from the waist down. He lived his entire life wearing 25 pounds of steel braces on his legs. He refused to let that stop him and became a successful minister... not exactly the best paying job in the world. In 1946 Dad had a beat up, mid '30's Chevrolet that he drove by placing one foot on the brake and one on the clutch pedal and pushing on his knees to stop or shift. There was a stick to the accelerator as I remember for gas. I would have been 3 at the time.

One of his parishioners happened to be the local Studebaker dealer, a gentleman who took extra special care of my father and treated him like a brother. Soon after the '47's came out I remember Clyde contacting dad and my folks having a discussion about whether they could or should or could afford a new car. With the war parts were scarce even the best cars on road were pretty well used up. I believe pent up demand made new cars hard to come by and there were waiting lists at most dealers.

My next memory was of Clyde and Dad going to the bank together and my folks having a brand new Dark Maroon 1947 Starlight Coupe. Shortly after that the car went back to Clyde's garage and Ray, one of his mechanics, went to work installing a hand control kit.

Thinking back, I'm sure that with returning soldiers missing limbs someone saw an opportunity/need and began building these kits. I'm also sure that knowing Clyde, he saw the kit first and would not sleep until he had dad in a new car with real hand controls!

1947 was before power brakes and before automatic transmissions so the kit worked around these minor details. There was a lever between the gear shift and steering wheel that moved up and down, spring loaded to a central position. Accelerator springs were weakened and pushing the lever up was the accelerator. ( There was a thumb screw that you could tighten for a primitive cruse control )The middle position activated a solenoid that drove the clutch pedal. Pulling the lever down activated an air brake like on a tractor trailer that drove a second master cylinder in the trunk. You could drive either with hands or feet by simply throwing a switch under the dash that de-activated the clutch solenoid.

That was the car I learned to drive on. At around age 7 I could, using the hand controls and a cushion on the seat, move it around the farmstead to fill it with gas bring it to the house from the garage or take it to the barn so that Dad could get a bag of feed for our one cow out of the trunk.

Thank you Clyde... may you rest in peace.

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