It never ceases to amaze me what sort of special cars are hiding in garages in and around Ashland. Take my neighbors for example. There is one gentleman who has been slowly restoring an early Porsche 930. This rare 80’s turbocharged sports car is a monster to drive and every Porsche enthusiast dream. Another neighbor has two European BMW 635csi coupes sitting in his front yard ready for restoration. My neighbor directly across from me has one of the slickest looking hotrods in all the Rogue Valley. I’m sure the original designers of this jewel would have had to do a double take to realize it was a car of their own design, but this 1953 Studebaker Starliner Commander is one bad-ass ride.
For those of you who haven’t heard of Studebaker, let me pull your head out from underneath the car history rock and give you a brief lesson. Although, the story of the German immigrant Studebaker started in America in the late 1700’s, Studebaker as an automobile manufacturer did not get rolling until the turn of the twentieth century some two hundred years later. Making their fortune in the late 1800’s selling horse drawn carriages, Studebaker was the must have for cool transportation. Whether it was the military, President Harrison, or the rich upper class everyone wanted a Studebaker carriage. Think of it as the Rolls Royce of rolling rigs. As the 1800’s were coming to an end, and “horseless carriages” were showing promise, the Studebaker family decided to keep up with the times and build a proper automobile.
Ironically, it wasn’t one of the Studebaker’s who had this vision for automobiles but rather their lawyer Fred Fish. Mr. Fish covered all his bases by not only marrying one of the Studebakers daughters but represented them as their lawyer to boot! More interesting, is that when they started manufacturing vehicles they were electric powered and remained so for nine years. You thought your Nissan Leaf was a new idea these guys were doing it 100 years ago! In its infancy, Studebaker built the bodies and a company by the name of Garford built the chassis and drivetrain and assembled the cars which were sold as Studebaker-Garford’s. Since Garford decided to build their own vehicles which created a conflict of interest, Studebaker contracted a company called EMF. Well, EMF built cars that were far from reliable and threatened Studebaker’s good standing as a quality built automobile so they took matters into their own hands in 1911.
Studebaker got into its automobile stride come WWI with advances in engine design, metallurgy and the addition trucks, buses and fire engines. Surviving the Great Depression of the 30’s (not 2008) and WWII seemed to be no problem for Studebaker, but when Ford and GM came to play it proved too much for the poorly managed company. By the early 60’s many attempts to resuscitate the dying company were attempted including mergers with Packard and aircraft manufacturer Curtiss-Wright but to no avail. The last Studebaker rolled off the assembly line in 1966.
The ’53 Studebaker Starliner Commander owned and modified by my neighbor Bruce is as cool as Studebaker’s lineage. With an original cost of $2200, the “Starliner”, which meant it had a hard top, and “Commander”, meaning it was powered by a 232ci V8, was well worth the price tag. Its original owner used it as a family car and racked up 120,000 miles over a twenty year period. His son got hold of it, and as with any family heirloom, he turned it into a show car. By customizing the interior, and a applying a black lacquer paint job with gold flames, the Studebaker was affectionately known as “Black Beauty”. Well, Black Beauty then fell into the hands of a drag racer that decided this car belongs on the strip and needed a proper 400hp blown small block 350 to get down the quarter mile in all of 11 seconds. Twelve years later and many months of negotiations, my neighbor purchased the car in 1998. He felt the car didn’t need quite that much horsepower and installed a more modern Chevy 350 and complete drivetrain from an eighties Corvette. The paint was recently changed to what at first appears to be flat black but upon closer inspection it is a very dark satin purple and is wicked looking indeed. You will probably see Bruce flogging his modernized Studebaker at the Southern Oregon Raceway autocross track or just cruising Ashland with his two young boys. Be sure to throw him a “thumbs-up” when you see him!