The Big 6 lives again

W e have all heard the age-old stories of a little old lady with an old car stashed in a garage for decades. As entertaining as these tales are, I have often wondered how true these stories were. I never once dreamed that one day I would be telling the story.

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The proud Studebaker owner with his new-found treasure!

    After selling my prewar Packard coupe, I decided to embark on a Studebaker adventure. I had always admired Studebakers, and particularly the Lark and Hawk varieties. My original intent was to get a vehicle that my family was not terrified to drive.

    I am a minister, and while serving a congregation in central Illinois, I was enjoying a pie fellowship with a handful of elderly ladies. In passing, I commented that I had recently sold my Packard and was hunting for a Studebaker. At that point, an elderly woman sitting across the table from me, whom I had known for years, chirped up, “Oh, I have a Studebaker in my garage!” After a moment of stunned silence, my jaw nearly hit the table. I had known her for quite awhile. I had been to her home many times and knew that she did not even know how to drive! “What year of Studebaker do you have?” I responded. She did not know, but invited me to her home the next morning to see for myself.

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The 1921 Studebaker Big Six touring as originally found, buried in a garage under boxes and blankets.

    Bright and early the next morning, I made my appearance. She ushered me to a garage that nobody had entered for decades. Expecting to find an old Lark four-door or maybe a “bullet-nose” model, if I was extremely lucky, I nearly croaked when I turned on the light. Buried under two feet of old Lionel train sets was a huge touring car from the early 1920s!

    As I tried to catch my breath and dig the car out from all the things that were piled on top of it, she explained that her husband had bought the car to restore after his retirement. He had retired and died unexpectedly a matter of weeks afterwards. He had been gone for nearly 20 years. She commented as I dug out the Studebaker that she had been thinking of getting rid of all her husband’s old cars. “Cars?” I asked breathlessly. “Oh, yes, I have another shed full of them.” There were six prewar cars in another shed. But I digress. After a fair amount of effort, we discovered that the car was a 1921 Big Six touring with 23,000 miles on the odometer. The car had been purchased out of the estate of one Earl Shelton, the head of a rather nasty group of gangsters in the Peoria-to-Chicago area. They were good buddies of Al Capone.

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Removing “the engine from hell.” After 18 months and a chain of machine shop errors, I finally received my engine and got it running.

    I told her that I would be very interested in purchasing the Studebaker when she was ready to sell. Many years passed, and then the phone call finally came; they were ready to part with the Stude. With the help of my son-in-law, we rented a car hauler and made the 350-mile trip back to central Illinois. We were amazed at the condition of the car. It had been crammed into a garage 50 years earlier and completely submerged under all sorts of boxes and bags, along with mountains of Lionel train sets. We had never really gotten a good look at the car until we pushed it out of the garage. While unpacking the car, we thought for a moment that we had found the body of Jimmy Hoffa, but it turned out to be the mummified remains of a large squirrel. The Big Six, with its 126-inch-wheelbase chassis, just barely fit on the car hauler.

    I had decided to keep the car as original as possible. No telling how long since it had run. I knew it had been in storage in that garage for nearly 50 years. The paint and body appeared to be in excellent shape. The top was all there, but time had shredded it. It appears some critter munched on two of the top bows, resulting in a required replacement.

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The car is a factory-original vehicle. The dashboard holds engine gauges, a speedometer/odometer, map light and clock.

    The leather on the seats was unmolested and intact, but had dried out to the point where it had the consistency of potato chips; another replacement was required. The walnut steering wheel had dried out over time and fell apart. I found all the segments for it under the front seat, along with the original jack and Studebaker Moto Meter. I pumped 10 gallons of bright red “gasoline” out of the gas tank. When was the last time they sold red gas?

    The real fun began when I dropped the oil pan. After scraping out 50-year-old oil, I discovered the fossilized remains of six rod bearings and three main bearings in the bottom of the pan. This car was in sad shape when it was driven the last time! Repairing those poured-Babbitt bearings became a nightmare. I nicknamed it “the engine from hell.” Getting the engine out of those cars is not too difficult. Putting them together and back in can be another story. I took the engine to a highly recommended local engine shop for the engine work. After six months of promises and doing nothing, they sent it to machine shop #2 (without my knowledge). This machine shop totally dismantled the engine, and then the employee working on it walked off the job. The engine sat in their shop for another six months. All this time, I was told to expect the engine back any day, as it was nearing completion. Machine shop #2 then sent it to machine shop #3, along with some of the parts (again, without my knowledge). Many components of my engine were lost for more than a year as a result! Machine shop #3 had no idea how to reassemble the engine once the bearing work had been masterfully completed, since nobody had witnessed its disassembly. After 18 months of anguish, I received my engine back, along with many boxes of parts in a complete jumble. I had no idea how to reassemble this engine! With the skillful and patient assistance of two mechanics and many phone calls to fellow Studebaker club members, we finally got the old girl together and running.

    I completed a few necessary restorations. The top, top bows, interior, etc., were done, but I have made an effort to leave the car as original as I can. It has what appears to be a factory muffler, which works fine after all these years. It also has a red leather fan belt, which, after a little work making it supple again, was placed back on the car and works fine. A local woodworking craftsman reassembled the steering wheel, and it looks awesome.

    While awaiting some final adjustments at a local auto mechanic shop, word got out in the rural neighborhood about this huge touring car. An elderly man in his 90s came in one afternoon to see the car. After walking around the car a number of times, he indicated he knew this car. The mechanic responded that this was unlikely, because the car came out of the Chicago area and belonged to a group of gangsters. “Oh, yes, I know,” the elderly gent responded. The story goes that he grew up in the Chicago area, and his family ran a safe house for the mob. All the big names of the underworld ate supper at his table over the years. His job, as a young boy, was to service the cars of the mobsters. Although this car came out of the Shelton brothers estate, he claimed the original owner of the car was Al Capone. He was most emphatic. “Only Al Cap one was allowed to ride in the maroon Studebaker,” he claimed. He then asked if he could look for the secret marks that Capone apparently placed on his cars to discourage tampering. The mechanic said, “Sure,” and they began to clean 80 years of grime off the firewall. After a moment or two, they stopped, as under the grime the outline of a black hand appeared, exactly as the old gent had predicted. I have decided not to tamper any further with the firewall mark. It is an interesting story. Could this be? I have no idea. Many people including myself are rather skeptical of the story. I wish I could prove it. Since Capone changed cars regularly, the old gent speculates that Capone may have given the car to the Shelton gang only after a short time of use. Does anyone know of any photographs of Capone in a maroon Big Six touring?

    Regardless of the car’s history, it remains a time capsule of an era past. The Studebaker is a smooth-riding car with lots of style, and a fun car to drive to work on a sunny day.

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