Story by Brian Earnest - Photos by Leo Pastore
If all the clergymen in the state of Florida ever decided to get together and bring their cars in for a friendly church picnic and car show, Bill Ladroga would have more than a fighting chance to make off with “Best in Show” honors.
Ladroga, a retired metallurgist who served as a Permanent Deacon in the Catholic charge for 32 years, fulfilled one of his childhood dreams about 15 years ago when he purchased a splendid, and rare, 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk.
Any Golden Hawk is pretty much a show-stopper these days, and Ladroga’s Studebaker is certainly that. In fact, it’s been to plenty of judged shows, and Ladroga has the shiny hardware to prove it.
“Oh, I’ve had all kinds of trophies with it and also took a national first in 1997 in the Studebaker national meet in South Bend, Indiana,” he said. “It’s pretty much all authentic, except for the radial tires.”
Ladroga is about as close to a life-long Studebaker fan as you’ll find. He’s owned several, and when he finally got the opportunity to buy his dream car, he couldn’t pass it up.
“When I was a kid, — and I’m 72 years old now — we had no such thing as school buses, so I had to walk to school. And I used to walk past a Studebaker dealership every day. I’ve always liked them, and the cars were just so different,” he remembers. “When ‘bullet noses’ came out, I was only about 12 yars old, and I just liked them so much.
“I thought ‘One day, when the kids are grown up and gone, I might own one.’”
When he finally decided to take the plunge and start poking around for a Golden Hawk, he already owned two other Studebakers.
“When I got out of college, I bought a ’54 Commander coupe, which I liked very, very much, but at the time I was courting my wife and living in Harford, Conn., and she was living in Fitchburg, Mass. … I was going back and forth with that car, and the V-8 wasn’t exactly economical … But I always wanted to go back to Studebaker one day.”
He eventually bought a 1953 Champion coupe, and then “at the same time I bought a ’57 President Classic, which was top of the line. It was two-tone tone blue with very rare factory air in it, and heavy-duty suspension, which was unusual for that car.
“Then I had a yearning for a Hawk, a ’56 Golden Hawk, because it was so unique. I remember seeing one way back, probably in the early ’90s. It was Cambridge Gray and White, and it was just so beautiful and I just fell in love with them. And they are very rare. You hardly ever see one for sale, and when do see one for sale, they want an arm and a leg for them."
“So I ended up selling the other two cars and bought the Hawk.”
The Golden Hawk was a special version of the popular Hawk lineup and was only built from 1956-58. A creation of the famed Robert Borque and Raymond Loewy studios, the cars were based on the original 1953 Starliners. Only 4,071 of the Golden Hawks were built for that first model year, with all but 61 coming from the South Bend, Ind, plant.
The Golden Hawks were great-looking cars, with racy, low profile, the familiar grooved horizontal bodyside moldings that they shared with President Classic, and unique upright fiberglass tail fins. They stretched 204 inches from stem to stern, and weighed in at about 3,690 lbs. — reportedly with 58 percent of the weight over the front wheels, a ratio that provided superior handling and road manners.
Under the hood, the 1956 models were unique among the three model years because they carried the Packard 352-cid, 275-hp V-8. It was the only year that motor went into the Hawk. After that, the cars received the Studebaker 289 V-8 with a McCullough supercharger.
Ladrogas’s car carries the Packard Ultramatic dual-range transmission and has a high-tech — for the time — direct-drive clutch in high gear, a feature Ladroga notes “appeared in other automatic transmissions some 30 years later.” The car also has power steering and a heavy-duty suspension.
On the outside is gleaming Mocha and Doeskin paint — it was one of 363 cars with that color scheme for 1956, according to Ladroga.
“It’s a very unique car as far as color combinations go,” he said. “There were a whole range of color combinations at the time, and some you wouldn’t even think of.” It also carries tinted glass, which was another unusual option for the period."
Ladroga estimates his car, No. 2069, has more than 215,000 miles on it — most of them coming from the two previous owners. He had the car completely restored not long after he bought it from a man in Colorado and had it shipped home to Massachusetts, where he lived at the time. The car had a continental kit on it at the time, but Ladroga wasn’t a fan of the add-on and removed it.
“The car was in good shape, but we restored it anyway,” he said. “New interior and new paint … The [previous paint] was good, but it wasn’t good enough for me … I don’t know whether it had been repainted or not, but I know the interior was redone, but it wasn’t quite authentic, so I had it all redone. Phantom Enterprises did the interior and we had it installed by an automotive upholsterer in Massachusetts.”
Ladroga also put heavy-duty springs under the back end at the time, then added heavy-duty springs to the front later.
“We had the car done in ’95, and we’ve had it ever since, except for a short stint when my son had it. But he got tired of it and we got it back,” he said.
One of the finishing touches was a set of seat belts that Ladroga fabricated himself.
“They were Karbelts, and they were an accessory at the time,” he noted. “You could order them and have them dealer installed. The safety belts for these cars were unique because they fastened to the door jamb. You not only protected yourself, but the door wouldn’t fly open if you had a accident.”
Ladroga has become a bit of an authority on Studebakers, and particularly Golden Hawks, and regularly writes stories for “56J Only”, a newsletter for the 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk Owners Registry. He has seen first hand the affection many Studebaker fans have for the Golden Hawks. The problem is, with only an estimated 500 or so of the cars still surviving, there aren’t nearly enough of them to go around.
“[Hawk owners] do try to get together, but not too often because there are so few of them and they are so widely scattered,” he said. “You know, I went back to the man who had the dealership in my hometown, he’s still alive and in his nineties. He said for as long as he had the dealership, he only sold one Golden Hawk! In all those years!"
These days, Ladroga figures he’s just like a lot of the other Hawk owners — he loves to drive his lovely 56J, but he’s even more interested in keeping it in one piece.
“Most of the guys I know tend to treat them very tenderly,” he said. “As time goes by, it’s getting tougher and tougher to find parts, and you want to preserve them.
“But still, we like to drive them. They are still very quick cars!”
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