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Pair of custom Studebakers embodied visions of a sporty, sci-fi, bullet-nosed future

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Gardner Special photos via Bonhams; Manta Ray photos via Mecum Auctions.

At first glance, the 1949 Vince Gardner Special and the 1952 Manta Ray seem to share little other than their custom bodies and schnozz-forward faces. However, a deeper look at both reveals plenty in common, from their Studebaker chassis to their scheduled appearances on the auction block next month at Monterey.

Long before the space race inspired all sorts of out-of-this-world automotive designs from American car manufacturers, the postwar-era rocket designs and advanced materials from which the space race emerged lent their own sometimes specific influences to those dreaming of the automobile’s future. Combined with the rage for sports cars spreading through the country, those influences led to a number of unique cars.

One of those dreamers, Vince Gardner, spent some time working, ultimately, for Raymond Loewy on the design of the 1947 Studebaker but once that contract ended he felt he could improve on the end result with several contemporary concepts, not the least of which was the desire to make a two-door roadster out of the slab-sided tintop.

He started by buying a 1947 Champion coupe (serial number G222901) and cutting off the roof, after which he moved the cowl, dash, doors, and seat back a foot and a half toward the rear quarters. The front end he reshaped with a flatter hood and a redesigned grille centered by a prominent bullet front and center, three years before Studebaker introduced its production bullet-nose grilles.

While the gadgets he incorporated into the car – the switches and controls mounted to the steering column, the hydraulics used to life the decklid – gave it a hint of Bel Geddes-style futurism, the clear plastic bubbletop he added to the car may have predated every other Jetsons-like bubbletop fitted to a custom car.

Gardner finished the car in 1949, drive it in a rally and won some show awards with it, but eventually parted with it to take on other projects. More recently, since a Fran Roxas restoration, the Studebaker has appeared at both Amelia Island and Pebble Beach and popped up for auction once before, bidding up to $75,000 against a pre-auction estimate of $450,000 to $600,000 at Mecum’s Monterey sale in 2016.

Bonhams, which will include the Vince Gardner Studebaker Special at its Quail Lodge auction, has yet to release a pre-auction estimate for it.

A couple years after Vince Gardner debuted his Studebaker, General Motors unveiled its super futuristic LeSabre concept, a car that sent thousands of automotive imaginations into overdrive. Two of those imaginations belonged to Glen Hire and Vernon Antoine of Whittier, California, both of them aircraft designers at North American Aviation in 1952. The two bought a 1951 Studebaker Commander (serial number 594912), stripped the body, and built up their own two-door roadster out of 14 sections of fiberglass, a material that had only in the prior three years or so been pressed into service building automotive bodies.

The triple taillamps came from a 1952 Lincoln, the speedometer from a Plymouth, and the 232-cu.in. V-8 from the Studebaker. Just about everything else – from the massive nosecone to the LeSabre-style front bumpers and down to the dash knobs – they built or customized by hand. According to contemporary sources, Hire and Antoine gave some thought to pulling additional bodies from their molds and selling the car they called the Manta Ray, but those plans fell through.

Jet car builder Bob Yeakel bought the Manta Ray from Hire and Antoine, but the car always had a V-8 under its hood – either the original Studebaker or the Cadillac overhead-valve V-8 that replaced it and remains with the car today. By 1959, it had been repainted from gold to pink and made its way out to Kansas, where it eventually became part of the collection of L.L. “Peanuts” Lacer, who squirreled it away out of sight for decades afterward. Not until 2016, a quarter century after Lacer’s death, did his son, D.E., pull it out of storage and re-debut it at Amelia Island.

Mecum, which will include the Manta Ray at its Monterey auction, has yet to release a pre-auction estimate for it.

The Bonhams Quail Lodge auction will take place August 15 to 16. For more information, visit Bonhams.com. The Mecum Monterey auction will take place August 15 to 17. For more information, visit Mecum.com.