Car of the Week: 1936 Studebaker Dictator

This 1936 Dictator coupe is beautiful, rare and nearly perfect.
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Car of the Week 2020
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Terry Frye is one of those guys who has some pretty tall standards for his collector vehicles. He restores them himself, and he sets the bar pretty high.

A few years back, he took a rare 1947 Studebaker M-5 pickup and turned it from a basket case into a stunning No. 1 condition show piece. There may not be a nicer example of its breed.

It would be hard to do a better resurrection job than he performed on the M-5, but Frye may have topped himself with his latest prize: an even rarer 1936 Studebaker Dictator coupe. Like the pickup, it took about four years to bring the Dictator up to concours condition, but the Verona, Wis., resident pulled it off.

Terry Frye’s 1936 Dictator coupe is a nearly flawless specimen with attention to detail in all corners.

Terry Frye’s 1936 Dictator coupe is a nearly flawless specimen with attention to detail in all corners.

The process was a little different this time. The truck was a rusted-out hulk when he started with it. Meanwhile, the Dictator was more of a mystery, and he started out by trading another Studebaker for it.

“I had a 1935 four-door sedan and I bought that in
Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and I was driving that around,” recalled Frye. “Well, I went down to South Bend, Indiana, for a meet, and visited the person, Rick Zolas, that owned this car. He was from South Bend and he owned this and had it all apart and was in the process of restoring it... I saw the car with just the frame and engine in and stuff like that, and that was in May. Then in December, I get a call from my friend Ken Voight that Rick had passed away. Ken had owned the car previously and he was going to get this car back.”

The fancy Art Deco interior is complete with optional Phantom steering wheel and has a style similar to Packards of the era.

The fancy Art Deco interior is complete with optional Phantom steering wheel and has a style similar to Packards of the era.

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At that point, both Studebaker guys had something the other one wanted — Voight wanted Frye’s ’35 sedan, and Frye had his eyes on the work-in-progress ’36 coupe. It wasn’t long before they made a deal for a Studebaker swap.

“Ken had two coupes already. He had a ’35 and ’38 coupe and he didn’t need a ’36 coupe,” Frye continued. “But he was partial to the ’35s, so we traded even-up for the sedan I had. This coupe was all apart, and I started restoring it and it took me four years to put back together.”

One of the biggest hurdles this time, Frye says, was figuring out exactly what he had and what parts he had to find. He knew right away that picking up a restoration where somebody else had left off was going to be more challenging in many ways than just starting from scratch. It’s a good thing there are a good number of other Studebaker devotees across the country who don’t mind helping each other out. And Frye knows a lot of them.

“I didn’t tear it apart, so I had a tough time figuring out what parts went where because I never took it apart. But I finally figured it out. And I got on the news group, and I found a real good guy, Lyle Stephenson out in Oregon, and he had just got done restoring a ’36 four-door sedan and I was able to ask him a lot of questions and he helped me out a lot,” Frye says.

Frye is an experienced paint and body man and has run his own wood-graining business on the side for years, so he had plenty of know-how and experience at his disposal. He also had no shortage of motivation. He knew he had a rare prize on his hands, and he was determined to treat it as such and bring it back to like-new condition.

“I belong to the Antique Studebaker Club, and in that publication [The Antique Studebaker Review] there is only like 12 Dictator coupes listed,” he says. “There could be maybe another dozen out there that have been souped-up into street rods and stuff, but not original, so it’s pretty rare.”

BEFORE THE WAR

Studebaker unveiled its dubiously named Dictator model in 1927 during a period when the company first began hanging names on its models instead of just series numbers. The model was previously known as the Standard Six, or GE. The Dictator was the company’s lowest-priced offering, one step below the Commander and two rungs below the President.

The strong-running inline six pumps out 90 hp and has little trouble cruising at 55-plus-mph.

The strong-running inline six pumps out 90 hp and has little trouble cruising at 55-plus-mph.

The Dictators were available in a variety of body styles, and a 221-cid/70-hp eight-cylinder version was added beginning in 1929. In the 1930s, the cars began to reflect the improved styling and more elegant flowing lines that characterized many of the cars of the period. Studebakers also had plenty of “go” with their “show” with swift 90-hp six-cylinders and 107-hp eights propelling some of the most handsome American cars on the market. The insides were adorned with classy Art Deco dashes, woodwork and other accessories that mirrored the top luxury cars of the decade. It was a time of rapid evolution in design and overall refinement in American car building, and Studebaker’s South Bend plant filled showrooms with some of the most innovative cars on the market.

For 1936, Studebaker dropped the Commander series and gave the Dictators a new 116-in. wheelbase chassis. Styling was conventional, but still attractive with a die-cast grille, divided windshield, even longer bullet-shaped headlamps and hood trim of four slim groupings of horizontal louvers with chrome spears on each end. New, free-standing, bullet-shaped taillamps protruded in back. Studebaker also returned to conventional front doors that were hinged at the A-pillar and opened from the rear. Notable improvements included a hill-holder brake; more legroom; 18-gallon gas tanks; redesigned upholstery; and all-steel roof construction.

Planar independent front suspension returned as a low-cost option. Other options included front and rear bumpers; whitewall tires; dual sidemounts; bumper guards; fender skirts; radio; heater; clock; cigar lighter; radio antenna; seat covers; dual sun visors; spotlights; outside rearview mirrors; full wheel covers; and dual taillamps.

A two-door five-passenger custom coupe such as Frye’s Dictator carried a base price of $720. The rest of the lineup included three-passenger business and Custom coupes; the two-door five-passenger St. Regis; a four-door Custom sedan; and four-door Cruiser sedan.

The cool heart-shaped rear window in the sloping roof tips out to increase ventilation.

The cool heart-shaped rear window in the sloping roof tips out to increase ventilation.

A closeup of the heart-shaped rear window

A closeup of the heart-shaped rear window

Not surprisingly, given the rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy, the Dictator name was not destined to last long as an acceptable name for an American automobile, and the label was dropped for 1937, never to be used again. In its place, Studebaker brought back the Commander nameplate, which had been discontinued in 1935.

BIG FENDERS, BIG PROJECT

“I grew up in the ’60s and I always liked ’60s cars, but as I got older, I realized I liked the cars with the big fenders, so I started pursuing cars that had the big fenders,” Frye says. “That ’35 was the first prewar car I bought, and I really liked the style of it.”

But it was the fenders, Frye says, that ultimately posed one of his biggest challenges when it came to restoring his ’36. They proved to be plenty confusing, even for a veteran Studebaker guy.

Check out the Studebaker touches like the extra tail lamp.

Check out the Studebaker touches like the extra tail lamp.

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“In ’36 they had two frames. They had the Planar suspension, and they had a straight axle yet. Well, Rick had used the front fenders from a straight axle and they weren’t the same for the Planar system. The frame was different. So I had to put a big patch in (right below the headlights), and then the inner fender panels that keep mud from coming in. When I fitted it all together, there was about a 2-inch gap between the inner fender and the frame... It took me a while to figure out that Rick had used the inner fenders from the straight axle and I had to find splash guards from a Planer system car … I was so confused on that. I didn’t know what was going on.”

The car had lived much of its life in South Dakota, which Frye credited with helping keep it mostly rust-free. But the fenders were “all torn” and needed plenty of bodywork, and the floor of the trunk needed to be replaced. Fortunately, Frye had acquired a couple of sedan parts cars in the deal and the floors were interchangeable enough that he was able to salvage a trunk floor from one of the donors. He also patched rust holes behind each doors.

The 218-cid six-cylinder powerplant had already been rebuilt and transplanted from one of the donor cars by the time Frye bought it, so much of the heavy mechanical lifting had already been done. “The motor would have been in one of the cars he had. It was an original ’36 and it’s so original, it has the babbitted bearings in it yet. Most people put the inserts in there, but Rick wanted it original,” laughs Frye.

The interior upholstery was one of the few parts of the restoration that Frye did not take on himself. He turned that job over to Rene Harger with Southeast Studebaker in Knoxville, Tenn. “He is one of the few experts who does interiors for the Studebakers. He does correct patterns for the seats, correct materials... so that all looks original.”

The "Deco" styling followed through even when ventilating the engine compartment.

The "Deco" styling followed through even when ventilating the engine compartment.

When it came to the paint, Frye was right at home. He has plenty of experience doing both paint and bodywork and didn’t need any help. He handled all the spraying himself, and even did his own pinstriping.

“I wanted an original color that was offered in ’36 and Rick was going to paint it green. They offered a metallic green in ’36 and I didn’t think green was an appropriate color for it,” Frye notes. “So I got some paint samples and I would just paint on one fender and try colors one at a time until I finally figured out what color I wanted. This color is called Graytone Maroon. It was a color offered in ’36 and inside the maroon, I just went with a lighter color to get a contrast on the side of the car. And this is the correct pinstriping. It’s a chamois color with red striping on it and that’s original to the car.

“I went to tech school for body shop repair way back in the ’60s and I’ve just kept up on painting through the years. I was reading about it and for the pinstriping, I used a paint called One-Step, and it’s pretty forgiving. It’s an enamel paint and I ended up getting a kit with the striping on it. So I could put on the kit, pull off the pieces that needed painting, paint it and then pull off the other pieces… So I had to stretch the tape all the way around the car and try to line it up with the curvature. I had never done it before, but I figured, what the heck, I didn’t have anything to lose. I did the pinstriping all myself, painted it, and I even [repainted] the license plate myself.”

The bumpers were actually considered an accessory when the cars were new, as were the bumper guards.

The bumpers were actually considered an accessory when the cars were new, as were the bumper guards.

Frye has also loaded the coupe up with just about every accessory and add-on that Studebaker offered at the time. Some of them were with the car, or donor cars, when he purchased it; some he’s had to chase down on his own. The bumpers were actually considered an accessory when the cars were new, as were the bumper guards. Other goodies now on the car include the Deluxe Equipment Group that included the Phantom steering wheel, twin horns, extra tail lamp and sun visor; safety glass; overdrive transmission; hill holder; radio and antenna; deluxe heater; defroster shield; vent windows; safety glass; oil filter; grille guard; door hinge mirrors; wig-wag auxiliary brake lamps; radiator screen; visor mirrors; and Planar suspension.

“I wanted a few things and I kept an eye on eBay and a few swap meets, and if an accessory popped up, I bought it,” Frye says. “I wanted the front fender lights. Those are real rare. They were offered from ’31 thru ’36 and I wanted those for turn signals — a little safety feature. I needed the right rear taillight, that’s another thing I considered a safety feature. Those are things I added that probably didn’t need to add, but I just wanted them for safety. Plus those were from the same year as the car, so they kind of blend in.”

Not surprisingly, given Frye’s standards for his cars, the frisky Studebaker runs as good as it looks. The six-cylinder is no joke when it comes to propulsion, and Frye isn’t shy about airing out the coupe on Wisconsin’s back roads. “Oh, it drives good. With the six-cylinder, in this coupe body style, it really goes!” he says. “It goes, and with the overdrive, once it gets past about 35, it kicks in and you can kind of let up on the gas. But yeah, it’s pretty quick.”

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As spectacular as the ’36 Studebaker turned out, Frye is still modest about the end result. He jokes about a few little “imperfections” on the car that he knows about that nobody else will ever see. One of his favorite stories is the two points he got docked by judges last year at a national meet in Ohio.

“I scored 398 out of 400 points! It rained that morning, and I had put turn signals on it, and the right turn signal didn’t work,” he groaned. “And the thing is, these cars weren’t even offered with turn signals. I just put ’em on there for safety. And if you put them on, they are supposed to work.

“But other than that, they couldn’t find anything wrong with it I guess.”

Terry Frye and his Studebaker

Terry Frye and his Studebaker

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