Car of the Week: 1947 Studebaker pickup

Aside from the fact that he really digs it, Terry Frye has plenty of good reasons to never part with his handsome 1947 Studebaker M-5 pickup. Frye toiled for about four years during his spare time to get the truck looking like it does today, and letting it go, even for a profit, would be tough to do.
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Car of the Week 2020
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Story and photos by Brian Earnest

Aside from the fact that he really digs it, Terry Frye has plenty of good reasons to never part with his handsome 1947 Studebaker M-5 pickup. Frye toiled for about four years during his spare time to get the truck looking like it does today, and letting it go, even for a profit, would be tough to do.

Not only that, but his wife, Marcia, likes the truck almost as much as he does. In fact, she was the one who suggested the Middleton, Wis., couple find a Studebaker pickup in the first place.

Perhaps the biggest reason the truck will be staying put, however, is guilt. Frye says he couldn’t face all the people that helped him finish the venerable pickup if he ever put a “For Sale” sign on it. “I think this will be a lifetime [keeper] for me,” Frye said. “It took me four years of nights and weekends to do. I wouldn’t even know how many hours I put into it, and the group of people that helped me out with parts and everything, I’d just be afraid to turn around and sell it, because they helped me out so much.

“I just couldn’t do that.”

Frye has certainly earned the right to enjoy his truck. After buying the battered machine in 2003, he realized he had so many things to fix that he wound up buying a second Studebaker pickup as a donor truck. From that point, he combed the country tracking down parts and networking with Studebaker enthusiasts to figure out how to put an authentic M-5 back together.

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“I thought that the parts would be easier to find,” he said, “but because of the rarity of the truck, it took me longer than I thought to round up the parts. It took me a little longer to get it done than I expected.”

And it never would have happened in the first place if he and his wife hadn’t spotted a similar truck at a show. “[We] were looking for a pickup truck, and in 2000 we went to the International Meet in Madison, Wis., at the Marriott,” Frye recalled. “And while we were there, on Thursday it was concours day, and we walked all around the show floor and finally spotted a green one just like this, and my wife said this was the kind of truck she’d like to have.

“So then I was at work one day — I’m a plumber by trade — and I was working with this heating guy and I had told him I was looking for old cars. He said, ‘I know where there’s a guy in Cross Plaines [Wis.] that’s got a truck just like what you’re looking for.' So I contacted the guy and went and looked at it. His son had it and had all the fenders off it and they were going to street rod it, and his dad didn’t want to street rod it because his dad had bought it originally. They had kept it in the family. He said, ‘Do you want it?’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘Well, I’ll sell it to you because I don’t want my kids to street rod it.’”

By that point in its life, the truck was fortunate it hadn’t been hauled to the boneyard. It hadn’t run in several decades and showed 73,000 miles on its dusty speedometer. It was just the kind of borderline basket case that Frye was looking for, though, and he was not scared off by the truck’s condition and hard past life.

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“I had been looking and every truck I was looking at was $5,000-plus, and I didn’t want to start with $5,000, I’d rather start with $1,000, because I had to do the same thing for all the trucks,” Frye noted. “Once I started getting in that price range and looking for old parts, I didn’t realize prices had gone up since the last car I restored, but it was a fun project!

“It was a farm truck all its life. It was pretty beat up and the front axle was bent. They ran it into a big boulder out in the field. It ran up until the middle ’60s, and that’s when they retired it. It had sat from the ’60s up to 2003 when I got it.”

Frye apparently wasn’t the first owner to be smitten with the Studebaker. From the story he got, the first owner of the truck went to great lengths to get his hands on the pickup, which was originally Battleship Gray. “The gentleman was from Wisconsin and he was out visiting some people in Montana, I believe, and it was right during the war and there were shortages getting cars,” Frye said. “And he saw this one out on the lot in Montana and he bought it and brought it all the way back to Wisconsin because he couldn’t find any trucks in Wisconsin at the time.

“Eventually the truck went to his son … and now I’m the third owner.”

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Studebaker had dabbled in commercial cars and various express and delivery bodies during its early days, but didn’t officially launch a pickup truck until the car-based Coupe-Express arrived for the 1937 model year. The trucks sold in small numbers until 1941, when Studebaker took a big leap forward and launched the M-5 series of half-ton vehicles.

The company made the fenders and running boards on the trucks interchangeable, and the new M-5s used the same 170-cid, 80-hp L-head six-cylinder as the Champion cars. The trucks had all-steel cabs and could be ordered with or without the pickup box.

They were not overly fancy — no truck on the market at the time was, but they were handsome by almost any measure, at least for a pickup. Their classy, vertical grilles were painted to match the body, the headlights nicely integrated into the fenders, the windshields were raked and there was hardly a sharp edge on the truck — everything was rounded and seemed to flow together.

About 4,685 of the M-5 trucks were built for ’41 before Studebaker had to halt production of the trucks and build military vehicles for the war effort. A total of 315 were apparently offered as 1942 models. In 1946, with three years of experience cranking out military machines, Studebaker hit the ground running with its post-war civilian production and assembled 14,052 M-5 trucks. That number grew to a high-water mark of more than 23,000 in 1947 — the year Frye’s truck was built — before dropping to roughly 10,200 in 1948, which was the last year for the M-5.

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The 1947 pickups were largely unchanged from the previous year, although they did see the return of the hood ornament that had been missing for several years, and some more choices were added to the options list. That list included a four-speed manual transmission, overdrive with a three-speed, hill holder, column shifting, radio, heater, clock, chrome bumper, turn signals, dual horns, caravan top, spotlight, fog lights and some other goodies.

The trucks weighed in at 2,635 lbs and were priced at $1,082 without options — about $150 more than the year before, but still a few bucks cheaper than a Ford half-ton and almost the exact price of a Chevrolet or GMC half-ton.

“As far as power, it was similar to all the other trucks. All the other trucks were pretty similar,” Frye said. “The thing I liked about the Studebaker trucks was they had vent windows, and no other trucks in the ’40s had vent windows. So it gives you a little better ventilation, and it’s just got unique styling.

“I think they were looked at as an average truck, going by what the old-timers say about them, and of course, GM dominated the market. Then there was Ford and Studebaker was behind them, but there were always loyalist Studebaker people from the ’30s on up … And this M-5 series truck, they sold those in record numbers. It was their first big venture into the commercial truck line. In ’37 and ’38, ’39, they had the Coupe-Express, and it sold, but not in the quantities they needed. When they designed this in ’41, it started to sell in record numbers and Studebaker finally had a hit.”

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Frye figured he’d need to do some serious parts hunting to get his truck finished, and that proved to be the case. Fortunately, he was able to get assistance from fellow Studebaker buffs, who are generally a very accommodating bunch.

“Through the network, through the Studebaker people, I found a few older gentlemen that had them, and I started talking to them and asking for advice,” he said. “I adhered to that and the project went real good, and once I got to know these older gentlemen, I could call them and they’d say, ‘I don’t have that part, but call so-and-so.’ So once I got in the network, parts came to me pretty readily.”

“And now because I had such help looking for parts, whenever anybody calls me looking for something on the truck, I certainly offer any advice I can to them.”

Frye said mechanical parts were relatively easy to find for the truck, and other parts such as bumper guards, interior kits, tail lights and window glass are all reproduced or available. They don’t make whole cabs, however, and Frye needed one after he got the windshield out of the Studebaker and found that mice had lived inside the headliner. “There’s a steel column in there and you know what mice do to stuff,” he lamented. “It had rotted the top above the windshield all out and I had to search for another cab. I ended up finding another whole truck in South Dakota, and between the two trucks I was able to piece things together.”

The fenders, he said, were the biggest challenge. He wasn’t interested in using any fiberglass re-pops, so he held out until he was rescued by a Studebaker enthusiast in Florida. “I wanted an all-steel, real truck. I searched and networked and finally found a guy who had three of them, and I bought three new-old-stock fenders. The guy was out of Florida,” Frye said, adding that the fenders had bounced between owners in four different states over the years before he finally landed them.

Frye was able to salvage the frame, engine, a couple wheels, seat frames, horns, headlights and a few other items off his original truck. He outsourced the engine rebuilding, and got a friend to rebuild the transmission, including adding an overdrive gear. “It had a 4.82 rear axle in it, so if you don’t go to overdrive in it you can only do about 45 mph,” he said. “I’d say 90 percent of the work I did myself… I had a gentleman do the seat for me. The chrome, of course, I outsourced, but the painting and bodywork and all that kind of stuff I did myself.”

The paint involved changing colors from gray to Sage Blue, which might not have been a common choice originally on the trucks, but provides a rich, refined look today. “Most of them were green back then in the late ’40s and early ’50s and to see a dark blue one in the Studebaker lineup is pretty unique,” Frye noted.

Frye and his wife have rolled up about 6,500 miles in their blue beauty in the past four years, making regular appearances at local cars shows. Terry admits he frequently gets to give brief lessons on Studebaker history. Yes, they did make pickups.

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“A lot of people don’t even realize that Studebaker made a truck, so I have to tell people, yes, they made a truck from the ’30s on,” he laughs. “I fill them in that they made pretty good trucks up until... they closed.”

If you see it out on the road or at a show, Frye’s truck will definitely be traveling under its own power. He says he didn’t bloody his knuckles for four years to leave the pickup in the garage, and he definitely didn’t do it to haul the truck around on a trailer.

“Oh, I drive it and it’s wonderful. I put radial tires on it for a little extra security. It handles nice and straight. It rides like a truck because it’s got a straight axle. I can do 60-65 with it, but it’s real comfortable at 55,” he said. “I stay a little bit farther back in traffic because it’s got brakes that are, well ’41 brakes.

“I believe a vehicle is meant to be driven, and that’s what I do, and I like to show it off.”

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