By Brian Earnest
At the time, Joe Parsons’ uncle seemed like the big winner. In the end, though, it was Parsons who got the car he always wanted, thanks to his uncle’s good fortune.
The whole saga started more than 50 years ago, and Parsons couldn’t have written a better ending to the unlikely tale that has concluded with the resurrection of one of the most stunning Studebaker Golden Hawks on the globe.
Car stories don’t get much better than Parsons’ tale, and it began the day a gold 1958 Golden Hawk arrived at his dad’s Studebaker dealership in East Liverpool, Ohio. “I remember as a youngster being there when he unloaded that. At that time it was only on a four-car carrier,” recalled Parsons, a resident of Raleigh, N.C. “When the car came in, the first thing the guy that bought it wanted was the tires taken off — all four tires. He wanted mud and snow tires put on it, even on the front. He thought that would be better traction for that sports car … Well, the man drove the car for a couple years, then he came back into the dealership and traded it on for later model Hawk. So my dad got the car back, and my uncle always admired the car, so he bought it from Dad. It was in the family at that point.”
A few years later, Parsons’ uncle won a new 1961 Plymouth Valiant in a raffle, and he didn’t have much use for the Golden Hawk. Eventually, the car was parked and left to sit at Parsons’ grandparents’ house.
In 1966, Joe was drafted into the U.S. Army and a year later his uncle died. “My grandmother was executrix of the estate, and she asked, ‘What do you want to do with your uncle’s car?’” he recalled. “I said, 'I want it! I want the Hawk. I’m going to restore it!'”
A year earlier, Joe’s father Chester had also passed away and Parsons had to do much of the work involved in closing down the Studebaker dealership, liquidating parts, returning cars to the factory, etc. During that time, Parsons made plenty of connections with Studebaker and also took ownership of all his father’s parts books and other literature.
“My goal was always to restore the Golden Hawk, and I had the foresight to go to South Bend in 1966 when Studebaker went out of business, and with all the parts books and stuff, I had written down all the pieces I needed for the car, from bumper to bumper. So I bought all that, put everything in boxes, sprayed all the fenders in oil and all that and hung them. I just rounded up everything I needed and kind of stored it all away.
“I knew from day one that when I had the money I would [restore it]. When I bought all those parts, I actually took a loan out at the bank for $500, and it all went to buy parts. I had all brand new Studebaker parts in boxes. I got quite a deal, because at the time, Studebaker was selling this stuff for only so much on the dollar.”
Parsons also rounded up parts from individual Studebaker dealers who were going out of business, then sold pieces to other Studebaker enthusiasts at national meets and other gatherings.
He stored the Hawk in a garage in Lima, Ohio, but was never in a hurry to get it back on the road, and the gold ’58 was not his only Studebaker. In 1972, he bought a low-mileage 1952 Land Cruiser that went on to earn AACA Grand National recognition. He also added a 1960 Lark convertible and a ’63 Avanti to the fleet.
Parsons moved several times over the years and finally wound up in Raleigh in 2000. It was about that time he decided to get serious about finishing the ’58 Golden Hawk.
“I had been living very close the Pittsburgh airport in Pennsylvania,” he said. “I was going to move to Raleigh, and I had a friend [Chuck Baranowsky] who restored Studebakers, and I gave the car to him and said, ‘Take as long as you want to restore the Hawk.’ It took him just about three years… It was a complete frame-off, rotisserie [restoration]. The car was gone through completely. It was restored with all NOS factory parts. Every piece was an NOS part.”
Parsons admits he replaced parts he didn’t even need to replace. “I had bought all those parts in ’67 — I basically had a building full of parts. I removed the front fenders and rear fenders and some other parts of the car ... and basically sold those in like 1995 or 1998 at swap meets. I pretty much sold the used parts for the amount I spent on the new parts.
“The panels and fenders and some of that stuff, they weren’t in bad shape, but I’m a perfectionist. I knew I could use all new parts, so why not?”
“Why not?” seemed to be Studebaker’s collective company attitude when it launched the spectacular Golden Hawk for the 1956 model year. Perhaps more than any other machine, the 1956-58 Golden Hawks epitomized Studebaker’s innovative thinking, creative design work and bold — if not always wise — decision making.
With the tiny Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Thunderbird already capturing hearts in the uncharted waters of the American sports car market, Studebaker didn’t play it safe. The company went “all in” with a bigger, more powerful and more refined performance machine with Raymond Loewy-inspired looks. Featuring hood scoops, prominent rear fins and fancy driver cockpits, the Golden Hawks combined racy looks and performance with the practicality of a family car — they had back seats and you could squeeze five people inside. They even had a column shifter and a front bench seat.
The Golden Hawks were originally equipped with the Packard 352-cid, 275-hp V-8. That arrangement lasted only one year, however, and the final two model years used Studebaker’s supercharged 289-cid V-8, which was also rated at 275 hp.
The cars didn’t initially win rave reviews for their handling and maneuverability, but they rode great, looked great and could wind the needle most of the way around the tiny 160-mph speedometer. Alas, for all their great qualities, the Golden Hawks and their Silver Hawk and base Hawk kin couldn’t keep Studebaker from circling the drain. Ultimately, Golden Hawk sales dropped from 4,071 in 1956 and 4,356 in 1957 to a paltry 878 in ’58, when Studebaker pulled the plug.
The Golden Hawk’s orphan status never worried Parsons, however. It just made him more convinced he needed to make the car as perfect as he could when the time was right. About the only big decision he had to make involved the color. His Hawk was originally gold with white fins, and Parsons fully expected it to stay that way. That was until Rene Harger of Phantom Auto Works in Knoxville, Tenn., who had been doing all of the interior panels and seat upholstery in the Hawk, suggested a pairing of Shadowtone Red and Jewel Beige for the exterior. The combination was a much rarer factory choice for the cars — only five were painted that way in 1958, according to Parsons.
“I told him I was going to paint it gold, and he told me that’s a boring color,” Parsons laughed. “He said, ‘My advice to you to really make that car stand out is to go with Shadowtone Red and Beige.’ He thought that would go a lot better with the interior colors. It took me a year and a half to make up my mind, but he was right.
“Put it this way, every time I show the car, the first question I get is, ‘What color is that?’ The second question is, ‘Is that a Studebaker color?’ Yes, it is a Studebaker factory color.”
Parsons’ goal all along was to make the Golden Hawk a stellar show car that he could drive occasionally, and it has certainly lived up to his hopes. The car has been a frequent guest at concours events and is an AACA Grand National winner with many best of class awards to its credit. “We won our class at the Hilton Head Concours, and we’ve gone through the progression of winning our [AACA] Junior, Senior, Grand National, Grand National Senior and Repeat Senior. A year ago it was nominated for a national award. It didn’t receive it, but I’m still hoping it might be nominated again. I’m very serious about awards like that and when I start [a restoration] on one I go all the way … I want to make it the best I can make it.”
The car hasn’t been a total trailer queen, however. It gets exercised regularly and Parsons has occasionally let the 275 ponies loose for a run. “It’s a ball to drive … I really enjoy driving it, although I always have the urge to really get on it, because it will fly!” he said. “When that supercharger kicks in, you really know it. It will put your head back. The speedometer says 160. I know it won’t go 160, but it will go 120 at least.”
Parsons figures he’s put “about 1,200” miles on the Golden Hawk since it’s been back on the road. The odometer now reads just shy of 54,000. That figure will likely climb eventually, but for now Parsons’ main goal is to keep the car show-ready.
“Right now my plans are to keep it in the show circuit because I really enjoy doing that,” he said. “Now that I have the Avanti done I’ll try to take it up through the AACA and try to get that into different concours d’elegances with that, too.
“But the Hawk will stay with me as long as I’m alive. We have a couple people that want the car badly. One guy keeps saying, ‘Sooner or later I will own that car!’ but I’m not ready to let it go.”
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