Civilizing the Truck: Adding creature comforts to the ’56 Studebaker truck

I n the grand scheme of the American truck’s transition from work vehicle to personal transportation, the mid to late 1950s could be considered the early roots of the revolution.

    While the ruggedness of the light-duty pickup wasn’t especially compromised during the period, exterior and interior styling was enhanced to appeal to the style-conscious buyer that previously had considered only passenger cars.

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Radical (for Studebaker) two-tone paint was optional for the 1956 model Transtar trucks from South Bend. A revised grille and new hood scoop also marked the models that year, which were altered in reaction to the changing marketplace. The rain and sun visors over the windows in the doors were standard equipment. (Phil Hall collection)

    Perhaps the first solid example of this trend was the second-series 1955 Chevrolet Cameo Carrier, which featured flush fiberglass sides to the standard bed, complete with chrome and two-toning.

    Upgraded interiors, wraparound windshields and smoother body lines all were worked into the domestic light-duty pickups in the middle 1950s. Ford introduced an all-new body for 1953 (and would get another for 1957), Dodge was restyled for 1954 and was fitted with a wrapped windshield in mid 1955 and the same year, there were radically new Chevrolet and GMC trucks.

    All of this put pressure on the independent manufacturer Studebaker, which had a small-but-consistent following in the truck field. The last all-new Studebaker pickup was the 1949 2R, which was modern for the time, but was increasingly dated by mid-decade.

    Even though Studebaker merged with Packard to form Studebaker-Packard Corp. in 1955, cash for a truck redesign was not realistic. The restyled 1956 Studebaker passenger cars, including the Hawk series, took most of what funds there were.

    As a result, Studebaker trucks for 1956 were physically much the same as previous models. However, that doesn’t mean that the demands of the market were lost on the folks in South Bend, Ind.

    Featured in the 1956 2E trucks were subtle changes that held a few milestones for Studebaker fans. They were named “Transtar” and carried badges on the doors to proclaim the name. Optional was two-tone paint that carried from the bed to a sweep in the middle of the door. No chrome trim, no trick bodywork, just paint. It detracted some attention from the old flared-fender bed that, like the cab, dated to 1949. It came in 6-1/2- and 8-foot lengths.

    Studebaker two-tone paint bowed during the 1955 model run. Also held over from 1955 was the basic grille. At the end of the lower ribs were new stylized directional signal/parking lights. However, the old ones under the headlights also came along for the ride.

    The hood was redesigned with a new scoop/vent in the leading edge. Lettering spelled out “Studebaker” across the middle.

    The rain and sun visors over the doors, which looked like add-on accessories, were continued as standard equipment for 1956.

    New inside was the first Deluxe Cab option. Instead of the dull basic trim, a Saran-covered seat with foam rubber lining added comfort. An insulated acoustic headliner replaced cardboard. Unfortunately, armrests disappeared.

    For power, the half-ton line came with a choice of a newly enlarged 185.5-cid flathead six out of the Champion, or 224.3-cid V-8, which was no longer available in the passenger cars. The trucks also received 12-volt systems for 1956, following the trend of the industry.

    Stude trucks had several transmission options to the three-speed standard unit. Overdrive and four-speed manual transmissions could be had on both engines, and a three-speed automatic was available for V-8-powered trucks. Standard transmission units could also be had with Studebaker’s famed Hill-Holder, which applied brakes when the clutch was pushed in.

    All of this in a vacuum would have been impressive, but the competition had most of it and more, with more modern styling. Even International would be all-new during 1957.

Sales dropped from 1955, when the Studebaker pickups first saw V-8 power.

    For 1957, a new fiberglass front grille surround and more radical trim actually made the Transtars look different. However, sales continued to slide as Studebaker progressed to its eventual truck demise in late 1963. Even a low-buck Scotsman for 1958 and Lark-based Champ for 1959 wouldn’t help.

    Much of what gussied up for 1956 was still around on the final one-ton 1964 model pickups.

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