By Brian Earnest
Edward Philie was the only teenager in his corner of the world who had an old Studebaker “limo” when he was a kid. Four decades or so later, he’s the only one around Rockland, Mass., with one, and that’s just the way he likes it.
“The very first car I ever owned after I got my license was one of these,” he says, referring to his classy and unique 1948 Studebaker Commander Land Cruiser. “It was a big four-door, exactly like this one. Everything is exactly like the car is today only my first car was black, and I liked it! I went to Chevy after that. I had a ’54 Chevy and then a ’62 and a ’66 … I always told my wife when I am getting ready to retire, I want to find one of these.”
Philie was hoping to find a Land Cruiser that could be a bit of a project car, although not necessarily one that needed everything. Eventually, he found one through a dealer in California. “I kept looking and put it out on the web that I was looking for one … and a guy form California got a hold of me and sent me some pictures of one. The car looked good and it was all there, but it had been in a barn sitting. It had been there for a long time, but the grand kids of the person who owned it were playing with it and had pushed it out of the barn yard and left it out, and it destroyed the interior … It was still drivable … but it needed a new battery, of course.
“Here we are, 3-1/2 years later, and it’s a finished product.”
Even though Studebaker cranked out a fair number of the big suicide-door sedans in the years immediately following World War II — specifically, 35,731 for 1948 — the late-1940s Land Cruisers are relatively scarce machines today. Philie counts himself lucky to find the one that he did. After owning the car for a few years, he appreciates its scarcity even more. “I’ve been going to the shows... for the last three years, and I’ve only seen my ’48 and one other ’47,” he says. “That’s another one of the reasons I was looking for... that particular car. They built [this version] in ’47, ’48 and ’49, but there is something a little different with each one of them, and the 48 is the most different of the three models.”
If the deal needed a clincher, it was that Philie’s car had a paltry 29,000 miles on its odometer when he bought it, make it undoubtedly one of the lowest-mileage survivors of its kind. “It was ordered Sept. 15, 1948, and on Sept. 22, it was delivered from South Bend [Ind.] to San Francisco to a dealership and the people who bought it,” he notes. “They lived on a farm and they used the car only on errands to go into town, go to mass on Sunday or whatever … The husband, I understand, died and the wife took it over and she really didn’t like the car, because she couldn’t understand the starting motion. It has the starter under the clutch pedal on the floor. You turn the key on and you have to push the starter all the way down to the floorboard. Well, she apparently didn’t like it and didn’t like trying to get it started.”
The starter was far from the only unique feature of the late-’40s Studebaker Land Cruisers, however. Unlike other manufactures who were simply reheating models leftover from pre-war production and rebranding them as 1947s and ’48s, Studebaker launched a completely new line of Land Cruisers beginning in ’47 with the long 123-inch wheelbase, center-opening doors, curved windshields and the 226.2-cid, straight-six engine making 94 hp. The luxury sedans were technically a part of the top-line Commander Series, but in reality, they were their own branch in the Studebaker tree and the only models with a 123-inch-wheelbase chassis. Other standard amenities included Bendix self-adjusting brakes, three-speed transmission with overdrive, Hill Holder, nylon upholstery, fog lights, electric clock, heater/climatizer, a robe rail across the back of the front seat, a foot rest for backseat passengers, no-proof gauges and a no-glare rearview mirror.
At $2,265, the Land Cruiser was no cheap date, but it wasn’t out of sight for most Americans, either. A top-line Ford or Chevrolet four-door sedan was about $800 less. But for buyers who wanted a luxury ride and couldn’t afford a Cadillac or Packard, the plush Land Cruiser was a pretty attractive option, right up until the model was discontinued in 1954.
Philie began restoration work on his big sedan not long after he got it, plugging away in his driveway whenever the spirit moved him and gradually got the car back into shape. “It was drivable, but the interior was shot. The door panels were ripped. The seats were ripped. The steering wheel had broken pieces,” he recalled. “I replaced all the glass and had all the interior done over, and did the body on it. The body really had only about four areas that needed some [help] … It had some dents, evidently from the kids playing on it.”
Philie re-wired the electrical system, fund a new canister-type oil filter, changed out all the hoses and equipped the Stude with radial tires. One of his big decisions, of course, was what color to paint it. His first car had been black. The second one was a bright Columbia Blue, but he discovered the car was originally painted Iroquois Blue. “I took the chrome off and found a color underneath there, and was the same color on the door jambs and in the trunk and under the hood,” he said. “It’s kind of a blue-green. That’s what it is now. That was the car’s original color. I got the original production sheet and that was the color on it.”
Since finishing the restoration, Philie has rolled up about 3,000 miles in three summers. He never has a shortage of passengers willing to hop in and stretch out in the backseat, and the car never lacks for attention at weekend shows.
“I’ve had five Studebakers, but this is the only one I have now,” Philie says. “The last one I owned before this was a 1960 Lark and when I brought that one home, my wife said no more toys ‘or you’ll be living in them.’ So I only have this one.
“It’s very comfortable and it’s easy to drive for a standard shift. It has three-on-the-tree and is very comfortable. The seats, people get in there and it’s like sitting on your couch. I get a lot of thumbs-up and lot of horns … I am very careful with it on the highway, but I do drive it and I plan on taking it to Rhode Island and up to Maine. I drive it on the weekends, and now I’m retired so I’ll be able to drive it during the week. It’s a fun car to drive.”
Philie jokes that he won’t start worrying about adding clicks to the odometer until he gets closer to 50,000 miles. Regardless of the car’s low mileage, he didn’t dream about owning a Land Cruiser for many years and then spend several more toiling in the driveway just so he could look at it.
“My next project will probably be a brake job,” he chuckles. “I want to be able to drive it fast, and far.”