Theme : Hybrids – The Studillac

 In search of an all-American Hybrid.


“Studillac” said Leiter. “Studebaker with a Cadillac engine. Special transmission and brakes and rear axle. Conversion job. A small firm near New York turns them out. Only a few, but they’re a damn sight better sports car than those Corvettes and Thunderbirds. And you couldn’t have anything better than this body. Designed by that Frenchman, Raymond Loewy. Best designer in the world. But it’s a bit too advanced for the American market. Studebaker’s never got enough credit for this body. Too unconventional. Like the car.”

My youthful enthusiasm for James Bond books meant that I was in awe of the Studillac by the time I was 12 years old and had read Diamonds Are Forever and Goldfinger though, even now, I have never actually seen one. Though Leiter’s words sound as if they’ve come from a catalogue or a magazine article, like much of his name dropping, Fleming is supposed to have first encountered a Studillac in the US when he made the acquaintance of the wealthy William Woodward Jr in 1954. A Studillac owner (you can see his endorsement on the above advertisement) Woodward didn’t enjoy his car for long, being shot dead by his wife under murky circumstances the following year.

However Fleming’s synopsis of the Studillac is more accurate than many of his fancies, except on one count.  Early Loewy Studebakers weren’t all that stiff in pillarless Starliner coupe form so, had I been choosing the best body for a 210bhp V8 (let alone the 300hp that Fleming claims – maybe Felix got it hopped up by the CIA Motor Pool), I’d not have gone for Leiter’s convertible.  Not that he’d have even had that choice unless he had it converted elsewhere, since Studebaker themselves just made one willowy drop top prototype, then thought better of it.

Studillacs were only converted for two years by Bill Frick Motors, from 1953 to 1955, during which time over 250 were probably produced both in pillarless Starliner form and also on the slightly less graceful, but stiffer, Starlight body which had a B pillar.  There are unfortunately few survivors. After that time Studebaker addressed the power deficiency themselves with a stronger V8 which ended up being supercharged. Frick was a respected hot-rod builder, but based in Long Island rather than the usual California. He also produced Fordillacs.

I wrote an earlier piece about the Loewy Studebakers, their long life and many facelifts. My unintentionally glib dismissal of the later examples, that for many practical reasons lost the pure line of the original, attracted the ire of the excellent Studebaker Driver’s Club but, in the end, I found them tolerant and forgiving of an ignorant Brit.

53 Studebaker Starliner Side
Commander Starliner in original form.

The styling of the car itself was a league apart from its contemporaries, in the States and really, also in Europe. In its original stock form it was criticised for handling that didn’t live up to the svelte body, and only average performance from Studebaker’s own V8. Frick and his partner addressed this latter problem, at the same time apparently putting right some of the early Studebaker’s quality control deficiencies. The handling in standard Frick form still didn’t supposedly compete with many Europeans, or the best Americans, but owners got a fast and comfortable car with what is one now seen as a classic piece of automotive styling.

I’ve always liked the name Studebaker, pronounced in my English accent as ‘Stew-Dee-Baker’ but sounding far better in an American ‘Stoodie-Baker’. Had I more time, energy and money, building a restrained, resto-rod ’53 Commander Starliner would be quite close to the top of my automotive to-do list and, in homage to Bill Frick and Ian Fleming, I’d probably pop in a Caddy engine, excellent and powerful though the later Studebaker units might be.

Maybe not so radical, but I don’t know.

11 thoughts on “Theme : Hybrids – The Studillac”

  1. I had wondered where the styling of the Daimler Dart came from, it being like nothing else the marque had ever produced. Well now I have my answer. At least the Daimler draughtsman would have had to pro down the design manually, this being the age before photocopiers.

    1. Chris. I see the cues you mean but, much as I have a soft spot for the Dart, no-one would ever call it elegant, so I guess you’re not as taken with the Loewy Studebakers as I am. The obvious recipients of the Studebaker’s influence in my mind are these :

      The Citroen can be discussed, but the so-called Audax series Hillman Minx were designed with Loewy Studios help.

  2. Do you know if that Cadillac engine was specific to Cadillac or something shared with other GM lines? These days there is no unique Cadillac engine, is there? Maybe the Northstar?
    About Ian Fleming – perhaps he inadvertently invented product placement copy as well as the format for motor journalists when they need to sound exciting.

    1. I’m not sure how much commonality there was between GM engines back then, if at all. Chevrolet was only about to introduce its V8, Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick had V8s, but they were markedly different and that certainly went on into the 60s – when we discussed the Rover V8 a while back it seems that there were substantial differences between the Buick that became a Rover and the Oldsmobile that became a Repco. Whether the need for engine difference was to do with customer perception “The Power Of HydraQuad FlexiValve Technology …Blah, Blah” or just fierce and competitive division independence is hard to tell. Certainly it made no financial sense.

      As I understand it, the indisputable advantage Cadillac engine had going for it over the Studebaker unit (and other GM V8s) in the early cars was sheer capacity.

    2. And, yes, Richard, Fleming was certainly a pioneer of product placement. He was a bit of a chancer, by all accounts, so I don’t know if the mentions were rewarded by an endless supply of cigarettes from Morland’s. But I think, also, that he thought it gave realism to his otherwise ludicrous fairy tales.

  3. Hmm. I’ve never checked, but when I was a pup (before GM gave up on the engine and Rover bought the rights to the it) we referred to GM’s 215 CID V8 as the Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac aluminum V8. BOP for short.

    The one in my P6B bopped me a good one. The cam lobes wore down. I understand this was a problem with Rover V8s up to the end.

    1. My understanding is that the two engines started out with the same basic design, but Oldsmobile wanted to build a higher powered version so changed the head design including studs. So an Oldsmobile (or Repco) head won’t fit a Buick/Rover block and vice-versa.

  4. Nice article but one error jumped out, the coup is called a “Starlight” not “Starfire”.

  5. Wow a great escape from the grim reality of war torn 2022. Thanks for the terrific write-up.

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