Studebaker love in Starlight beauty

An Italian scholar of the early Renaissance, Francesco Petrarcha, once wrote, “Rarely do great beauty and great virtue dwell together.”

About 650 years later, in a way he could never have imagined, the Studebaker Corporation proved the sage’s observation to be correct.

Studebaker celebrated its centennial in 1952, but didn’t bring out a new model to honour its 100th year. For various reasons, it was 1953 before an all-new Studebaker emerged — but it created a sensation. What began originally as a show car concept was put into production and is still regarded as the best-styled American car of the decade.

Usually referred to as “Loewy” coupes and hardtops after Raymond Loewy, whose design studios created the dashing new cars, the two-door Starlights and Starliners were nearly six inches lower than any other American car with a sleek aerodynamic look that left the competition looking boxy and boring.

Sadly, the beautiful new Stude had many flaws. Studebaker engineering decided to build the chassis out of a lighter gauge steel than was used in the rest of the industry, believing that this would help the car’s ride.

What they hadn’t counted on was that installing the heavier V-8 engine in Starliner models would cause the chassis to sag, making it impossible to match up the front sheet metal with the rest of the car’s body.

Fixing the problem took three months, delaying shipments to dealerships from October of ’52 until January of ’53 — a lag that cost many sales.

The production planners got into the act, too. Failing to take the two-door models appeal into consideration, Studebaker prepared to make three four-door sedans for every two-door.

When demand for the two-door cars turned out to be more like one-for-one, there were more delays in getting cars to customers.

“I’ve been a Studebaker man since I was 16,” says 50-year-old Kevin Fonseca, who was seven when the last Studebaker came down the production line in Hamilton, Ont. Fonseca’s initiation into the ranks of true Stude believers came when he inherited a ’65 four-door sedan.

“It was my grandfather’s last car, and my first,” he says. “I still have most of it.”

Living in Winnipeg as a young man, Fonseca remembers admiring the ’53 of a fellow member of the Studebaker Drivers’ Club and hoping that one day he would own one himself. In 2001, now living in Calgary, Fonseca was driving through Braeside and saw a ’53 Champion Starlight coupe at a drive-in restaurant.

“I made a U-turn to talk to the owner,” he remembers, but the car was not for sale then. “I chased the car for a couple of years,”

Fonseca admits, and finally was able to make a deal.

Originally a Saskatchewan car, the coupe had been restored by the man who sold it to Fonseca.

“Bodywise it was pretty good,” Fonseca claims. “He rebuilt the engine and transmission and upgraded the brakes to ’60 Lark-style brakes.”

Other than the brakes, Fonseca says, “It’s pretty much bone-stock.”

The Studebaker has taken Fonseca as far afield as Portland, Ore. — but not very quickly. Its 85 horsepower flathead six was a little long in the tooth even in 1953.

“It’s slow, but it just chugs right along,” he reports. “They are quite underpowered and it really doesn’t like a strong headwind.”

People who notice the car at shows are usually surprised, Fonseca says, to see that he still has the original engine and three-on-the-tree transmission as many hobbyists have added more modern power plants to give their coupes performance to match their looks.

While it may be slow, Fonseca says he bought the car to use, not just own.

“If I’m going to a meet, I prefer to drive it. Why save it for the next guy?”

Photograph by: Ted Rhodes, Canwest News Service