Why I like My Studebaker Commander

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By Peter Clark

[There was some leg-pulling in motoring circles last February when Peter Clark, well known as a vintage and Edwardian enthusiast prewar and as a driver of’ H.R.G.s and Aston Martins for many years, bought a Studebaker. Some of our readers may indeed have noticed this striking “custard and blue” machine, with B.R.D.C. and V.S.C.C. badges looking mildly incongruous upon it, at Silverstone and elsewhere. Having known Peter throughout our respective careers, we had no hesitation in demanding “reasons in writing,” — Ed.]

I don’t think the Editor really believes that I own a Studebaker I because I like it, but that is indeed the truth. At the end of 1953 I decided to give up active motor-racing, having reached the stage at which, in an era of intense competition and progress, I was spending more and more money for less and less return, and with my moderate abilities as a driver proving less and less capable of doing justice to the machine. I also decided to sell my much-developed Aston Martin DB2, in order to “put temptation out of my way.”

At this moment, on a business visit to Holland, I made my first acquaintance in the flesh with the “new look” Studebaker with Italianate two-door coupé body designed by Raymond Loewy. I don’t think even the most prejudiced Americano-phobe can deny that the car is beautiful to look at. What surprised me was to find that it was also a delight to drive, and seemed to possess a marked sort of personality. I think I was “sold” there and then.

Rather more than a year later came an opportunity to put these ideas to the test, when Henlys offered me a January, 1954, “Commander” with Borg-Warner automatic transmission and power steering at a not-too-ridiculous price. I had previously rejected one or two specimens either on price or for not having all of the desirable optional equipment. The American industry seems to operate in precisely the opposite manner from ours: here, a new car invariably seems to be tendered for delivery complete with radio, heater and every possible accessory including the kitchen stove; with an American car, even the wheels and tyres are, if you will pardon the exaggeration and see what I mean, optional extras.

Anyway; I duly bought OLE 580, and whilst waiting for it to be checked over and treated with Underseal, I telephoned my friend in Holland to ask what spares he had needed in 15 months of pretty hard use. His reply — “two fan belts” — was pretty encouraging.

I have appended a “data panel” to these notes, and no doubt the Editor will publish it if he considers it to be of sufficient general interest. Briefly, a 3,811-c.c. overhead-valve V8 engine drives through a Borg-Warner gearbox and an articulated two-part prop.-shaft to an orthodox hypoid rear axle. Front suspension is by dual wishbones with helical springs and telescopic dampers; the rear end by very wide, very thin leaf-springs with dual telescopic dampers.

If I remember rightly, the weekly motoring journals gave a maximum speed of just over 100 m.p.h. for the car when road-tested, and this seems to be in line with mine. So also does the fuel consumption of around 20 m.p.g. under normal touring conditions. Turning now to my particular reasons for liking the car, I would say that I like:

(1) The most comfortable driving position, with the best all-round visibility, I have ever known.

(2) The way in which, without having any apparent performance at all, the car innocently out-performs most others encountered on the road.

(3) The Borg-Warner automatic transmission which, if one is driving well, can be made to do exactly what one wants when one wants, but which, if one is driving like a clot, behaves like a double clot. Who then is laughing at whom? Incidentally, although a great deal of the power developed by the engine gets lost along the transmission line a great deal of road performance is regained by those instantaneous gear-changes under full power.

(4) The steering and roadholding, which, once one has ceased to be alarmed by a good deal of “thumping and punching” from the suspension, are of a very high order. Indeed, I know of few cars which can be put over the broken-up edges of a heavily cambered Continental secondary road at high speeds with greater equanimity. But the noises front the suspension system when one does so are, until one realises that they don’t mean a thing, quite terrifying.

There are, of course, features on the debit side which have led to the car not being an outstanding commercial success and to its subsequent modification. First and foremost, for a car which although small by American standards is large in our eyes, there is surprisingly little room in it. Owing to the low bonnet line, the untidy-shaped V8 engine has to be set unusually far back, with the result that a third passenger on the front seat has either to be legless or a contortionist capable of folding his or her feet into his or her pockets — the central part of the front compartment being full of gearbox. Similarly, rear-seat passengers must not exceed 5 ft. 0 in. in height, otherwise they find an inadequacy of both headroom and legroom. The boot, so spectacular from outside, is rather a snare and delusion, too, for it is very shallow and irregular in shape. Thus, although it will carry a vast number of squashy zip-bags which can be manoeuvred into odd shapes, it is defeated even by a single Revelation Rev-robe.

Mechanically, the brakes are the weakest feature, and a hurried journey on second-class winding roads — or a number of applications from 90 m.p.h, or so, as for a series of roundabouts — can produce appreciable fade. But, curiously enough, under true mountain conditions they were not nearly as bad as I had feared they were going to be, in fact they behaved very much better than those, on the car I used on holiday last year, whose brakes under normal road conditions have always been excellent. This is perhaps not so illogical as might at first sight appear, as the Studebaker has such a vastly greater performance on the normal road.

Tyre wear is also a bit of a problem, in fact one’s use of the car’s full performance on the Continent tends to be moderated if one observes tyre temperatures after a couple of hours’ high-speed run. This is by no means peculiar to the Studebaker, needless to say.

In the near future I hope to fit a four-choke carburetter conversion and have every intention of keeping this lovable car for at least a couple of years.

The 1954 Studebaker Commander Coupé

Engine: Eight-cylinder, 85.73 by 82.55 mm., 3,812 c.c.; o.h.v. (pushrods); 7.5 to 1 compression ratio; twin-choke Stromberg carburetter; 120 b.h.p. at 4.000 r.p.m.

Rear axle: Salisbury hypoid, ratio 3.54 to 1.

Gearbox: Borg-Warner Automatic, with fluid coupling.

Brakes: Wagner Lockheed hydraulic; 173.4 sq. in. total area.

Tyres: 7.10 by 15.0 Firestone Whitewall, on bolt-on disc wheels.

Weight: 31 cwt. (less occupants, but-ready for the road with nominally one gallon petrol).

Steering ratio: 4½ turns, lock-to-lock. Power-assisted.

Fuel capacity: 15 Imperial gallons, range approx. 300 miles. 20 m.p.g. at steady 60 m.p.h.

Wheelbase: 10 ft. 0½ in.

Track: 4 ft. 9 in. front, 4 ft. 8 in. rear.

Suspension: Front coil-springs and wishbones, telescopic dampers, torsional anti-roll bar. Rear semi-elliptic leaf springs, twin telescopic dampers.

Overall dimensions: 17 ft. in. by 5 ft. 0½ in. (high) by 5 ft. 11 in. (wide).

Makers: The Studebaker Corporation. South Bend 27, Indiana, U.S.A. (Studebaker Distributors Ltd., London, N.W. 1).

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