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.
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.