MY 1951 STUDEBAKER CHAMPION
Ad for the New 1951 Studebaker
(Click on any picture below to enlarge it)
When I purchased my 1951 Studebaker Champion Custom 4-door sedan in October of 1993, it had seen better days and it sure didn't look like the car in the ad above, except for the color. There wasn't much rust, but every body panel, including the roof, had a dent or two. Someone along the way had changed the left front fender and, although it looked the same, the opening was different than the right fender. After the tow truck dropped it off in front of my house, I turned the wheels hard while pushing it into my driveway and the left front tire rubbed on the fender. I sat and looked at this green monster and wondered, what the heck am I going to do with this thing now? The seller advertised that it would run but when I finally got it started, it ran for five minutes then barfed out 3 quarts of dirty black oil all over my new concrete driveway. I think the crankcase breather was plugged with a nest of some kind and it finally built up enough pressure to throw up. I was living in Redondo Beach, CA at the time and the following month I attended a local Studebaker club meeting in Downey, CA. They invited me to get up and introduce myself, and let them know what plans I had for my "new" car. When I said that I was going to street rod it, I could hear moans from all over the room. Hey, I figured that this car was already dead and that no one in this room full of Studebaker lovers would have the courage or desire to bring it back to life. I did meet one person who was interested in my project because he needed an engine and I ended up trading mine to him, plus the rest of the drive train, for a correct front fender.
I had a vision for this ugly car and wanted modern running gear and some mild customizing. This car had been neglected for a long time and I had no bad feelings about "ruining it". I went about trying to locate someone who would be able to build it because I didn't have the time or knowledge to do it myself. By accident I met Ernie and Ernie Jr. (The Ernies, as they are known in Torrance, CA) at the Pomona swap meet and talked to them about building my car. When they asked me what I had, I was almost embarrassed to say. After telling them it was a Stude, I was surprised to hear that they were interested. I found out later that Ernie Jr. had plans to build a Studebaker/El Camino (Studemino) that he was collecting parts for.
The Ernies started working on the car in February of 1994. Off came the front end and the rotten wiring was removed. The frame was narrowed and a Mustang II front cross member was positioned higher in the frame to make the car sit lower. I purchased a 350 Chevrolet, 250 HP "crate motor" and it was installed with a rebuilt GM TH350 transmission and a rear end removed from a S-10 Chevy Blazer. A GM tilt column was installed and a hanging brake pedal and power booster setup from a 78 Buick Regal was used. The firewall was modified to make clearance for the HEI distributor and new floorboards were made to replace the rusty ones. The transmission hump was enlarged and the drive shaft tunnel was raised for the new one-piece drive shaft (The car originally had a two piece drive shaft and the hump was almost flat). Ernie asked what color I was going to paint the car when he was getting ready to paint the firewall and engine, and I didn't have a clue. My wife, Lorraine, and I made a quick trip to all the new car dealers in the area. At dusk on a Sunday afternoon, we spotted a new Dodge Neon that was painted Strawberry Pearl and thought it was a nice color in the late afternoon sun. Strawberry Pearl it would be. Next problem was the dashboard. I wanted to install an under the dash air conditioning unit but the dash was so close to the firewall that there wasn't enough room to mount the Vintique unit. We cut the dash and extended it into the car 6" which provided the necessary clearance behind the dash. Three inches were also added to the bottom of the dash to provide a place for the AC outlets. The original instrument cluster was used but I mounted VDO gauges behind it and they now show through the openings in the panel. At the same time, the windshield opening was closed up 1" all around and the windshield was glued in from the inside. The rubber was eliminated and it made for a much cleaner look. On June 1, 1994, the car was wired and ready to run. I drove it to the muffler shop that morning and picked it up after work. It sounded great with the Flowmaster mufflers and I couldn't hold back my grin as I was driving it home. Then it was sitting in my driveway again and this time it got there under it's own power.
I drove the car like this for a couple of months while the Ernies were doing another small job. I took it to work every day and drove it every chance I had. The car was rough looking but I proudly accepted and acknowledged the thumbs ups that a few drivers flashed at me. My wife bought me a nice sound system for the car that included an amp, 9 speakers and a 12 disk remote controlled CD. The amp was installed in the trunk next to the battery and a large bass speaker. My first show was the Orange County Labor Day Cruise in September of 1994 and I had a ball cruising the beat up looking, but great sounding, Studebaker around the fair grounds. I caravanned to the show with the Ernies and Don, who owns the half-breed Chevrolet/Studebaker (Studeolet). By this time I had known the Ernies for 6 months and really liked their work. After the show, it was back to the garage to finish the bodywork and paint. I had somewhat decided what customizing I wanted done but was open to suggestions from the Ernies too. We more or less made the final decisions as we went along. I was there almost every evening and weekend to watch the progress and my main job was keeping out of the way. The door handles were removed and Honda latches were installed. Ernie Jr. fabricates a small lever that's hidden behind the door and accessed by a notch in the door pillar to open the front door. Power door locks operated by a remote sets the alarm and locks the doors. The wind wings were removed and one piece glass was installed in the front doors. This required the front doors to be cut and straightened. Power windows were installed in all four doors with tinted glass. Electric mirrors from a Mustang were mounted at the front edge of the door in the wind wing area and give the car a more modern look.
The bottom portion of the trunk lid was cut off and the lid was pancaked. The license plate was frenched into the new panel under the trunk lid. A solenoid opens the trunk. The rear fenders and gravel shield were welded to the body to give it a smoother look. 1954 Chevy "bubble lenses" were frenched in, as was an aftermarket third light above the rear window. 1954 Mercury headlight rims were added and 1964 Mustang turn signal lamps were frenched in below the headlights. A power antenna was recessed in the front fender. I wanted to run chrome bumpers but the front bumper stuck out so far I didn't like the look. I moved it 5" closer to the body and trimmed 5" off the ends. I also trimmed 5" from the ends of the rear bumper. This car was a Champion with the "Custom" trim option, and was the cheapest 4 door model that Studebaker made in 1951. It therefore didn't have a lot of chrome or stainless on it and the only trim removed was the script on the front of the hood, the Studebaker emblem recessed in the front of the hood, and the bullet shaped handle/license plate light from the trunk. It didn't even have a hood ornament. The rear wheel well openings were raised 3" to allow the Amtech wheels to be removed without taking the shocks loose, in case I had a flat. The rear window opening was also closed up and the glass was glued in from the inside to eliminate the rubber.
The car was starting to take shape and was soon ready for painting. On an overcast day in November of 1994 the first color went onto the body. After color sanding and buffing, I took it home. It now had front seats from a Ford Taurus and was ready for upholstery. I met "Fast Ed" through a friend and took the car to his shop in Torrance in December. I wanted a charcoal or dark gray interior and had decided that before the dash and garnish moldings were painted. I decided to add some charcoal leather with the gray tweed material we picked out and also chose a charcoal colored Mercedes wool carpet. I was dumbfounded again when Ed asked me what I wanted the interior to look like. At all the car shows I had attended, I never really paid much attention to interior design. The last car I had upholstered was when I was in high school and I took it to Tijuana, Mexico and let them do the tuck and roll thing on their own. Why was Ed making me decide? After all, he was the upholstery guy! I made up a drawing that looked something like the seats, Xeroxed a bunch of copies and started drawing different designs. I liked the lazy S in the Studebaker logo and used that as a basis for my final design choice.
In January of 1995, the upholstery was finished and I picked the car up from Ed. After I put the newly re-chromed bullet and bumpers on, it was finally ready to show. In February we took the car to the Los Angeles Chapter of the SDC's annual car show, which was held at the Peterson Automotive Museum in LA. There were a lot of other Studebakers there, and I was happy to see a few that were not stock. I remember admiring a very nice 53 or 54 coupe with a twin turbocharged Chevy engine next to me. My car drew a lot of lookers, and I even received some positive comments about the changes I had made to it from these purists, but I didn't expect to win anything so I didn't stay for the awards. I was really shocked to get a call the following week saying that I had won first place in the modified class. The plaque that was delivered to me later was proudly placed on my office wall. That year, we attended many shows in the Southern California area and also made a couple of 600+ mile round trips to shows in Paso Robles and Merced, California. The car was built to drive and that's the fun part for me. It has won several other first place, modified class, awards in Studebaker shows including the Orange Empire Chapter's annual show, the Pacific Southwest Zone Meet and the SDC's International Meet.
In October of 1996 we moved to Lake Havasu City, which is located on the Arizona side of the Colorado River and is one of the hottest cities in the USA. LHC is also home to the London Bridge, lots of snowbird visitors in the winter, lots of boaters in the summer and lots of retired Californians, like us. I believe there are more street rods and old cars here, per capita, than anywhere in the USA. We belong to a local car club and still attend a few car shows each year.
All things considered, I have enjoyed owning, driving and showing this piece of automotive history. I remember clearly that I wouldn't have been caught dead driving one of these ugly cars when I was in high school, but I sure do like driving it now. I have enjoyed talking to many people about the car and listening to the memories it brings back for them. I've lost track of how many times I have been told that they learned to drive in a car just like this, or that their parents or uncle had one just like it, except that it was green. Could it be?
MY CAR ON TV AND IN THE MOVIES
In 1996 my Studebaker was used as a prop on one episode of the NBC television show, Brotherly Love, which was later shown on the Disney Channel. The stars of the show were the Lawrence Brothers (Joey, Matt and Andy). They had me drive the car onto the set in a large sound stage in Hollywood, CA. It went onto a lift on a Thursday morning and it sat there for two days without being moved. On Friday evening they filmed the show twice in front of different audiences and then edited the best takes for the final show. We were in the audience during the second filming and I drove the car home when they were finished late Friday night.
The episode was called Uptown Girl and
it can now be viewed on YouTube.
Another opportunity came in early 2006 to participate in a movie being filmed in and around Lake Havasu City. It's a comedy/horror film called Razor. The car was used for 5 days; 1 afternoon and 4 nights from sunset to sunrise. I drove the car 4 days and the other day it just sat in the background of a biker bar in nearby Desert Hills. This movie has a hyena (named Razor) who rides in the back seat of my car. Thank goodness they didn't have to actually have him in there. One of the actors was 6' 8" Richard Moll, who played Bull on the TV show Night Court. I also met Sid Haig who had a part in the movie. I'm looking forward to seeing the finished product as it was a little hard to understand the plot. They kept changing scenes and part of the movie was filmed in the Palmdale, CA area, where the hyena actually lives.
The following pictures were taken while the crew was setting up for filming.
Below are three of the actors in the movie. Tanya Dempsey and John Freemont were the young couple and Richard Moll was driving my car with "Razor" in the back seat.
Although this was filmed at the start of 2006, it still has not been released as of August, 2011. The only thing I've seen is the trailer that's on YouTube. Click on the link below if you'd like to view the 2 minute and 36 second clip.