Car of the Week: 1953 Studebaker convertible

By Steve Hudson

{Editor’s Note: We went straight to the source for this week’s “Car of the Week”. We’ll let owner Steve Hudson tell the story in his own words of his unusual Studebaker}

The story of this 1953 Studebaker Commander convertible spans over 20 years and three different owners. It started about 1983 when Frank Forster of Portland, Ore., found himself in possession of a ’56 Studebaker Golden Hawk hardtop with a caved-in roof. He then made plans to correct one of Studebaker’s more significant oversights; namely, the failure to produce a convertible version of the stunningly beautiful 1953-’54 “Loewy/Bourke” coupe. Forster then added a ’64 Dodge Dart convertible and a ’53 Studebaker coupe to his collection, and, enlisting the aid of fabricator John Donaca, went to work.

Forster and Donaca cut the roof off the Hawk, reinforced the frame, grafted in the complete convertible assembly from the Dodge and added front and rear sheetmetal and trim from the ’53 coupe. A Studebaker 289-cid V-8 and three-speed overdrive from a ’63 Studebaker were also installed. Forster apparently became burned out, parked the project outside and walked away from it.

In the late ’80s, Ann Flynn of Clackamas, Ore., contacted Forster and talked him into selling the project to her as a surprise birthday gift for her husband Dick, a lifelong Studebaker enthusiast. Dick was delighted with his “new” Studebaker, but at the time, was involved in another major project and set aside the convertible.

In 1995, I stopped by the Flynns’ home to pick up some parts for a friend, and when Ann opened a barn door, there stood this ragged and dust-covered ’53 Studebaker convertible! I had no idea there was such a thing and was fascinated to see a drop-top version of my favorite car. Ann went on to tell me they had just decided to put it up for sale. I didn’t have to think long before pulling out my checkbook.

What I purchased was a good foundation that needed almost everything a “regular” restoration would, plus the solution to some very unique technical and detail problems. The graft was nicely done, the frame was properly reinforced, the sheet metal and driveline were in place, and it had even been painted at one point, but there was a lot left to do (and re-do). The engine was stuck, the sheet metal was misaligned, there was no interior or wiring or dash, the paint was dead (and the “wrong” color) and there were a number of technical problems yet to be worked out.

Many homemade convertibles end up scrapped due to an inadequate frame. Most standard frames cannot properly support a topless body, and the Studebaker frame was barely adequate, even with a rigid top. Without a top, they become creaky wet noodles with sagging doors and evil handling. The frame on this car had been reinforced with steel plate and a ladder-bar assembly extending the full length of both frame rails. I decided to further stiffen the body by bonding a layer of fiberglass to the floorpan and sidewalls.

Early on, I decided that, although this was obviously a radically customized car, I didn’t want it to look like a radically customized car. I wanted it to look like a nicely restored, or at most, a mildly modified example of a factory Studebaker convertible. Accordingly, I avoided obvious custom standards, such as shaved door handles, frenched headlamps and such. I did incorporate a number of more subtle modifications, such as smoothing the bumpers, filling seams and removing some standard trim and the lock buttons, but I did install factory-style rearview mirrors, beltline trim from a ’55 coupe and wheelwell and rocker moldings and exhaust tips from a ’64 Hawk. I also added the hood and trunk tri-star emblems that were used on early-’53 models, before Mercedes-Benz complained they too closely resembled its own logo.

Originally, I used the naturally aspirated Studebaker 289 that came with the car, but later I replaced the powerplant with a Paxton-supercharged R2 289-cid V-8 from a ’63 Avanti, upgraded with MoPar electronic ignition, a Holly electric fuel pump, finned aluminum valve and valley covers, air conditioning and ceramic-coated Studebaker R3 headers. I backed it with a GM 200-R4 automatic.

For rolling stock, I used Wheel Vintiques 77-series wires wrapped in 2-1/2-inch wide-white radials. Studebaker did not offer real wire wheels in the ’50s, but it did offer wire wheel covers that I believe were inspired by these Kelsey Hayes-style wheels.

I did deviate from the factory theme in the ride height. Even the advertising department in 1953 recognized these cars looked much better low, and routinely tied the suspension down for advertising and publicity photos. Accordingly, I added an Air Ride system to get the proper stance when displayed.

The upholstery was one of the few things completely farmed out. Gary Saylors of The Dalles, Ore., was able to integrate the Dodge and Studebaker components into a unified and period-appropriate interior. He had the Studebaker “S” digitized and embroidered onto the seat and door panel material, and added a bit of Mylar to give it some ’50s factory-style flash.

Although red is somewhat of a cliché for convertibles, sometimes you just have to do what’s right. Accordingly, I picked out the brightest, “reddest” red I could find: PPG Concept Scarlet. Although I had never before painted a complete car, after bad experiences with several paint shops over the years, I decided it was time I tackled the job myself. The bodywork (including filling seams, closing door gaps and straightening panels) and paint turned out to be the most difficult and time-consuming part of the whole project, but PPG provided the materials, coaching and single-stage urethane paint, and I provided the semi-skilled labor. In the end, I’m still not much of a painter, but I became a real whiz at color sanding and buffing, which managed to turn my somewhat irregular spray work into a finished product that I’m pretty happy with.

We finally had the soft top on the road in spring 2003 and have since logged more than 38,000 road miles. Although the car has done quite well in many different types of shows, we still get the biggest thrill from the waves, smiles and “thumbs up” we get while driving down the highway. Of course, most people have no idea how unique the Studebaker is, or even what it is. Even knowledgeable car guys will scratch their heads and make some comment about it being a pretty rare model. The most often-heard remark from serious Studebaker people is that this is the car Studebaker should have made. I couldn’t agree more.

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11 thoughts on “Car of the Week: 1953 Studebaker convertible

  1. Ted Moews

    What a beautifully done solution…….In 1960 I had a ’53 Studebaker President Hardtop that I customized by removing the top & shortening the body 18″, removing the rear seat (a-la the ’55 T-Birds) & most of the panel behind the door,. I shortened & reinforced the frame, re-machined the driveshaft, & lowered the body. I built a removable soft top & installed bucket seats, re-upholstered the interior, nosed & decked it and re-painted it.
    I drove it commuting back & forth to UCLA & around the Southern California area for years. In 1965 I purchased a ’63 Avanti R2 & gradually retired the ’53 cut-down short. Over the years I loved the comments & hi-signs that people gave it everywhere I went-they too agreed that the “53 Studebaker/Loewy lines held their own against the 2-seater sports car looking T-Birds & Corvettes of the time.

  2. Ron Stanley

    Love the Studebaker Convertible photos and article. Studebaker truly did miss the boat by not offering a convertible to this way ahead of it’s time body style. I own a 1937 Pontiac Convertible Coupe , among others, that is my favorite. It looks totally stock from the outside but is powered by 1978 Olds Cutlass running gear.

  3. Scott McKie

    Would it be possible to gain communication with Mr. Hudson about his convertible.
    I have just purchasred a clean ’53 Stude in order to have it “converted” into a second Stude convertible.
    Any consideration willl be appreciated.
    My email address for Mr. Hudson is scotsman7@comcast.net.
    Thanks,
    Scott McKie

    1. Sal Trovato

      Hi – Would love to contact Mr. Hudson as well. Also have a ’56 Golden Hawk I would like to convert and would really like to chat. Thanks! Sal Trovato

  4. scot

    ~ you have created an absolute artistic masterpiece, Steve Hudson. i have seen similar attempts over the years, none so nice and none with he beautiful soft-top solution of yours. well done.

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