Facelifts – Loewy’s 1953 Studebaker

You can’t polish a turd, but can you sully a diamond?

1953 Studebaker Commander Starliner. Image: carstyling

Editor’s note: This piece was first published in July 2014 as part of DTW’s facelift theme.

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 United States car manufacturers 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 domestic 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 postwar designs, and its front view surely helped crystallise Flaminio Bertoni’s thinking when finalising the Citroën DS for its 1955 launch.

Image: oldcarbrochures

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.

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For 1962, it had a more comprehensive reskin overseen 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 contemporary 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.

Image: RK Motors

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.

10 thoughts on “Facelifts – Loewy’s 1953 Studebaker”

  1. Amidst the pantheon of great American car designs, alongside the Cord 810, the ’53 Cadillac, the Elwood Engel Lincoln Continental and Bill Mitchell’s Buick Riviera, the Starliner’s place is secure. However, personally speaking, I never rated Lowey as a car designer. His efforts seemed almost wilfully baroque, as though by adding visual fuss, he was attempting to mask a lack of genuine ideas. The Avanti’s elevation has always been a matter of some mystery. Perhaps someone could enlighten me?

  2. Loewy was certainly a showman and, just like many lead designers these days, his own actual input is hard to judge. Certainly he was well served by the likes of Exner and Bourke. As regards the Avanti, my opinion is that viewed at the time in its original form it was pretty stunning and I still like it. Of course, as a self-confessed grille-phobe (see my comments in Richard’s chrome piece) I would be impressed. Considering that it appeared in 1962, there are hints of the GM Coke Bottle line, the Jensen Interceptor, Peugeot 205, Bugatti Veyron … I could go on, but already seem to be making things up. Unfortunately, just as with the Starliner, with the Avanti Studebaker didn’t seem to regard it as a priority to give the sporting appearance, sporting substance.

  3. I’m pleased to see that this attracted the Studebaker Driver’s Club Forum and correspondingly mortified to have them point out my error in condensing my writing for this piece. The illustrated Starliner, as you might guess from the big V8 on the bonnet, is a V8 and, thus, a Commander, Champions being the 6 cylinder versions.

    Studebaker majored in authoritative names before they lightened up with ‘Lark’ and ‘Avanti’, the most ominous being the Studebaker Dictator, which is even better than Packard Patrician.


    In the interest of factuality, I have corrected the piece, but I leave my admission of shoddy work here for all to see.

  4. I remember going for a ride in one of the first Avanti’s in1962 as there was a Studebaker dealer conveniently behind where my dad worked. Alas I couldn’t persuade him to trade his white 2 door pillar less Bonneville toward the Avanti but remember we were both impressed at the time, They weren’t interested in my TR3!

  5. The original was a lovely looking thing, but the facelifts really were a bit desperate, particularly the 1962 attempt to graft an angular Lincoln-style roof on. It looks ok in the side profile above, but a bit uncomfortable from other angles, the clash between old and new being pretty obvious:

    That said, Brooks Stevens seems to have been the go-to guy for cheap but effective facelifts, and the 1963 Hawk certainly looks a much more substantial car than the delicate 1953 original, if that was the intention.

  6. Here is Stevens’ cheap but highly effective 1962 update on the Studebaker Lark, original first:

    Not that it ultimately prevented Studebaker from going out of business, of course.

    1. Daniel, it’s quite interesting all the incremental changes Studebaker made to the sedans from ’53 onwards and through the Lark era. I thought I remembered pretty well them from my childhood, as the Victoria Police used Larks as pursuit cars, but there were more changes than I realised. J P Cavanaugh documented them over at Curbside Classic.
      And gooddog, that Sceptre is just beautiful. That’s more pictures than I’ve seen before. It’s very attractive in a sort of ‘pseudo-European-minimalist style’, if a mite overchromed and fussy at the front. What a shame they couldn’t make it.

  7. Size is a funny thing, when you think about it. To an American, these Studebakers would have been small, maybe ‘compact’ even. To an Aussie, these were big but not unwieldy, sensible big, you might say. To a European, they’d have been huge, I guess.
    The original ’53 coupe was lovely. The sedan was okay but not quite right in its proportioning, to the point of dumpiness – says he who’s only ever seen one. I can’t remember what change they made for ’54; it’ll come to me as soon as I hit Post Comment, I’m sure.
    1955 marked the crossroads – the end of elegant simplicity, and a descent into overchromatosis in an attempt to attain relevance in the US market. After that the sedans went one way (not bad for ’56 and ’57, bad the ’58, and back to sensible sizing in ’59) and the coupes quite another driection.
    I never liked the ’56-’61 Hawks. Those abominable fake fins and pseudo-something grille attempted to make the ’53 something it was not. Quite what it was supposed to be I never figured out; from the sales figures I wasn’t alone in that. I thought the ’62-4 Hawks were a big improvement, though still not what I would choose for my presonal transportation.

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