Story and photo by Bill Vance

1939 Studebaker Champion
1939 Studebaker Champion. Click image to enlarge

Studebaker had a long, illustrious history. It had been making and selling cars in South Bend, Indiana, since 1902, and horse-drawn vehicles for 50 years before that.

In the late twenties and early thirties Studebaker held virtually every American Automobile Association stock car speed and endurance record, including 25,000 miles in under 25,000 minutes. They also ran well in the Indianapolis 500 for several years, finishing as high as third in 1932.

But in spite of its many accomplishments, Studebaker met its match in the 1930s Depression. Through a combination of bad economic times and some poor management, including acquiring Pierce-Arrow in 1928, and paying dividends right into the Depression, Studebaker went into receivership by 1933.

Following the suicide of president Albert Erskine in 1933, Harold Vance, vice-president of engineering and production, and Paul Hoffman, vice-president of sales, took over operation of the company. With model retrenchment and careful management, they pulled Studebaker out of receivership by 1935, with Vance as board chairman and Hoffman as president.

While Studebaker would continue offering its medium priced cars, it decided in 1935 that if it were to thrive it needed to enter the popular priced (under $700) class.

This would not be Studebaker’s first foray into light cars. There had been several not very successful previous attempts, including the Flanders (1909-12), Erskine (1926-30), and the Rockne (1932-33), named after Kenneth “Knute” Rockne, the famous, and then recently deceased, football coach at South Bend’s Notre Dame University.

This time Studebaker vowed to do its light car right. They conducted surveys on what average consumers could afford to pay, and what they really valued in a car. This information guided the design of Studebaker’s new car, which would be called the Champion.

The Champion, was a “clean-sheet” project, i.e., the engineers were not required to design around existing components, but allowed to produce an all-new car tailored to the needs and pocketbooks of moderate buyers.

Because the components would not be used in larger corporate cars, everything could be kept light. The engine was a good example. It was a side-valve, inline six with a bore and stroke of 76.2 X 98.4 mm (3/0 X 3/7/8 in.) giving a displacement of 2.7 litres (164.3 cu in.). It had generous bearings, full pressure lubrication, and developed 78 horsepower. It also weighed some 68 kg (150 lb) less than comparable Chevrolet or Plymouth sixes.

But weight saving had not produced a pipsqueak powerplant. John Bond, a former Studebaker engineer who became owner/publisher of Road & Track, said that it was the first of that era that would take 5,000 rpm on the dynamometer for hours. It was used by Studebaker right through until 1964, having received an overhead valve conversion in 1961. In 1964 Studebaker assembly was moved to Hamilton, Ontario, and Chevrolet engines were fitted for its last two years.

The lighter engine allowed lighter suspension, frame and driveline members. It had independent front suspension using Studebaker’s “Planar” transverse multi-leaf springs. Weight saving was also applied to the body though such steps as eliminating running boards. As a result of this dieting the Champion, at under 1,088 kg (2,400 lb), was some 272 kg (600 lb) lighter than a Chevrolet.

To supervise the Champion’s styling Studebaker hired Raymond Loewy, the man who would gain fame after the Second World War for his trend setting “coming-or-going” Studebaker. Loewy’s team produced a design that was contemporary but not earth shaking. Eliminating external hinges, and the noted lack of running boards, gave the Champion a clean, pleasant appearance.

When the Champion arrived in the showrooms it could be had with such options as the “Hill Holder,” which applied the brakes when the clutch was depressed to hold the car on a hill, and overdrive, which reduced engine speed on the highway. The overdrive contributed greatly to the Champion’s good gasoline mileage. Studebaker exploited this through such demonstrations as an AAA supervised cross-country run of 6,144 miles at 27.26 mpg (U.S.).

The company also staged several speed and endurance feats. At the Indianapolis 500 track, for example, the two cross country economy run Champions were driven 24 hours a day for 15,000 miles, averaging 100 km/h (62 mph) including stops.

The Champion was a champion in the showroom too. In spite of only a half model year, 33,905 1939s were sold. The little changed 1940 models reached over 66,000 sales; the Champion had saved Studebaker. With a Loewy restyling for 1941 it continued to do well until the auto industry shut down for the war in February, 1942.

Following the war the 1942 Champion was slightly revised, becoming the Skyway Champion, and carried over as the only 1946 Studebaker model. It was made for a few months, and then replaced by the dramatic new 1947 Loewy design. The Studebaker Champion name would continue to be used until replaced by the Lark in 1958.

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