You can’t polish a turd, but you can sully a diamond
Once, whilst Europe was happy to go on producing the same identical model year after year, until the dies got too worn out to function, the US doggedly changed models every three years, with a facelift every year in between. Thus, any reasonable US car spotter will be able to identify the exact year of a Ford Thunderbird, first by the shape, then by the radiator trim or the rear lamps. Any manufacturer who didn’t come up with something new for each season was not going to be taken seriously.
Studebaker was not in a great position in the late 40s, but it tried making the best of things with good design. First Raymond Loewy’s studio came up with the influential 1947 models, then it excelled itself with the 1953 Champion and Commander drawn by Robert Bourke which, in Starliner form, is one of the great designs, and its front view surely helped crystallise Flaminio Bertoni’s thinking when finalising the Citroen DS for its 1955 launch.
Unlike the DS, unfortunately, the underlying car did not live up to the radical shape, attracting criticism for being wallowy and underpowered, even in V8 Commander guise. In time these things were addressed, but at what cost? Studebaker couldn’t afford the luxury of a three year model cycle, so the unfortunate original evolved through a series of increasingly awful facelifts, all trying to make the original form more relevant by adding that year’s fad from the Big Three, whilst in 1956 changing its general name to Hawk, in a vain attempt to suggest an all-new car, or maybe just to protect the innocent.
For 1962, it had a more comprehensive reskin by Brooks Stevens. It would be easy to characterise the creator of the Wienermobile and the Excalibur as the Liberace of industrial design but, bearing in mind a miniscule development budget, it was a pretty fair effort against all odds to keep the ageing Hawk up with the competition. The basic underlying car was not put out of its misery until 1964, an 11 year run, incredible by then US standards. Along the way it had been joined by another Loewy classic, the 1962 Avanti, which outlived the Studebaker Corporation to go through an even longer phase of negative facelifts in a very, very drawn out death – in fact in theory it might still be alive.
On the positive facelift front, the ’53 Studebaker has always been popular in forming the basis for some of the most elegant creations in the world of US Custom Cars and, when sorted and with the right engine, is a fine drive by the standards of the age. With more money and less panic, it suggests that the original could have been developed into something great.