Kathy J 1953 Studebaker Commander Starliner coupe

Life Lessons from a Studebaker

Who could have guessed how one moment of curiosity would change the lives of an entire family? I had no idea what I was setting in motion that day in 1982 when I peeked inside my grandmother’s garage and saw an unfamiliar car. It was sleek and swoopey, a faded robin’s egg blue with just a hint of fins and a wide chrome stripe down the side. What could it be? Even before I discovered the Studebaker emblem I was already hooked. When I saw that abbreviated dashboard with the aircraft-looking gauges and the hand-painted pinstriping I fell in love! Fortunately my husband and two young sons shared my fascination, exclaiming over the unfamiliar V8 (a 259 Packard, not the original engine).

When we learned the car belonged to a cousin who was moving but couldn’t bear to part with his “high school sweetheart” it didn’t take long to persuade him that the best home for the mothballed 1953 Commander was with us! A little fresh gas, air in the tires and a battery and we were ready for the 80 mile drive home. Well, that was our first lesson in Studebaker Wisdom: the old girl was willing and able to make the trip but we should have allowed for the ravages of age and storage. Disintegrating tires, mouse nests catching fire, and a noxious exhaust manifold leak were our initiation rites.

As a young family starting out in a small business we didn’t have much money, so the Studie became our daily driver. Over the next couple of years we gradually replaced the faulty wiring, the exhaust system, and carried on a running battle with rust in the gas tank. Since we lived in a remote rural community, I made a run to “the valley” every week or two, racking up 150 to 300 miles per trip. The ‘53 always purred along in overdrive, getting a consistent 28 MPG and lots of attention from other drivers. I learned to spot the looks of recognition, and enjoyed enlightening those who asked “What is that, a Mercedes?” Practicing Studebaker Economy was fun!

There were a few minor breakdowns, usually due to floating debris in the gas tank blocking the outlet. Eventually we gave in and replaced the tank, which we should have done the first week. The heater hose for the defroster gave out one subzero January day. I had to drive the last few miles home with my head out the window because the windshield was fogged over. Fortunately it was a very deserted stretch of highway and I had a wool cap!

My lesson in Studebaker Patience came the day the 3-on-the-tree shifter broke. I had parked in front of the office at a used auto parts yard, but they didn’t have the truck part I needed. When I tried to leave I couldn’t get into reverse gear! Soon a crowd had gathered, and a couple helpful fellows tried to push the car back so I could take off in first gear. Well, Studebaker had this wonderful invention called the hill hold clutch, intended to hold the car on a slope without the need to bear down on the brake pedal. Of course it also prevented me from engaging the clutch while jammed up against that parking chock! Tempers were beginning to fray while one guy kept telling me “Push the clutch lady, it’s the pedal on the left” and I tried to explain that it wasn’t going to help. Just then the owner of the wrecking yard came along, “You guys can’t push that Studebaker! It has a hill hold clutch. You’ll have to get the wrecker and drag it back instead.”

And if that weren’t embarrassing enough, instead of being able to limp home unobserved I had to stop at the neighboring wrecking yard for the truck part. Just as I shut off the car there, the horn began to blare! I was already angry and shaking from the last experience so it seemed to take years to get that hood open, find the wire to the horn, and yank it loose! I never fixed that horn. But I never took the ‘53 for granted again, either!

For nine years my boys grew up with that 53 Studebaker, they took pride in having a car that nobody else had. After we got it painted (“Mandarin Maroon” a 40's Chevy color) the kids were always inviting friends to go places with us. Their friends considered it a high honor to be seen in the ‘53. And the Studebaker bug bit both boys hard, one found a ‘55 Commander when he was 19 and drove it for several years. The other has a ‘49 Studebaker truck ratrod in the works.

Our 1953 Studebaker Commander was eventually sold to pay medical bills, but to this day my entire family will snap to attention whenever someone says “Look! There's a Studebaker!”

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