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A little Studebaker V-8 history with one of the most successful Stude drag racers

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photo by Matt Litwin.

In every niche in the collector car world, there are people you stop and listen to, no matter the occasion. When it comes to Studebaker drag racing, that person is Ted Harbit, who’s been campaigning the cars from South Bend on dragstrips since the Fifties. We’ve covered Ted’s Flyin’ Tomato in the pages of Hemmings Muscle Machines and have caught him at the Pure Stock Drags over the years, but more recently Ted weighed in on Bob Palma’s recently highlighted column about the Studebaker V-8. So let’s stop and listen to Ted’s story, told from his own keyboard.

I’m 84 years old and have driven Studebakers since I got my license at 16. My first car was a ’50 Champion and being a very economical six it was not a “hot” car. My next car was a ’51 Commander with the first year Stude V8 and found it to be almost impossible to destroy. It was a convertible and I entered it in the first NHRA National Drag Race held in Indianapolis. The oil pressure was really low on it and since I was going to enter it in the NHRA Summer National Drags in Indy I wanted to overhaul it but when I tried to “blow” the engine, I could not. I run it until the valves floated in first and second many times but it just kept on running. The oil pressure was about 5 pounds at idle and only would go up to about 20 while driving it even up to about 5000+ rpms when the valves would start to float.

When I gave up trying to blow it up I tore it down and the rod bearings looked worn but not completely shot. The main bearings still looked decent.I think the cam bearings was the cause of the low pressure but this also shows the durability of the Stude V 8.

I lost in the trophy run to an Oldsmobile by a fenders length. The convertible was about 300 pound heavier than a Starlight Coupe. Fred Robinson, a very good friend and I both had Honda Dream Motorcycles. These were only about 305 cc’s as I recall. We loaded them in my Dad’s pick up truck and went to South Bend looking for a ’51 or ’52 Starlight Coupe. We drove up and down alleys, back streets, etc. and the only ones we found, the owners were not interested in selling them.

We came back home and one day about two weeks later while driving to Anderson, Indiana I looked over in a field just north of town and there set a Starlight Coupe. I stopped and asked the owner if it was for sale. He said he didn’t think anyone would want it as it did not run. He said he would take $30 for it. I bought it, took it home and found some change under the back seat so I had less than $30 in it.

It was an automatic so in going through it to get ready to race I put a T-86 overdrive transmission in it and put a Stude pick up truck top shifter on it and began to go through the engine and put a set of 4.89 gears in the strong Dana 44 rear end.

The convertible I had was named “Teacher’s Pet” since I was a beginning teacher at the time. Another good friend, Dave Closser was talking about all the Hawks Studebaker had (Silver, Golden, Sky, Power, Flight, etc.) and he came up with the name “Chicken Hawk”. This is the car that won 8 out of 11 times at the Nationals.

When NHRA did away with the old cars and lower classes we went back to the Nationals in ’72 running a class higher than it used to run. Didn’t think about winning but NHRA back then gave away (or rather their sponsors did) a number of goodies (oil, T shirts, batteries, etc.) We had to run a ’59 283 Chevie Station Wagon and ended up winning that year also but then NHRA dropped ANOTHER class so this pretty much ended our racing at the Nationals.

During those 11 years we had to run mostly Oldsmobiles and after about three or four years a lot of ’51 through ’54 Studes began to show up. Cars from Florida to California showed up during those 11 years. Never had a failure and ran the same engine four or five years without having to do anything to the engine while most of its competitors would usually have to go through their engines once or MORE times in a year or two.

This little 232 cu. in. engine was competing against most of its rivals with more cu. in. such as the Olds with 303 inches! After NHRA dropped our class twice I put a 289 Stude in the Chicken Hawk starting with a Paxton Supercharger. I finally went to TWO Paxtons and was able to get about 14 pounds of boost from the two of them together. The car was turning in the mid 11’s and since 14 pounds was all I could get I decided to go with TWO turbocharges. With these I was able to get up to 18 pounds boost. Long story short the car ran 10’0’s at 138 mph. Again no failures with the 289 Stude engine!

Unfortunately, I totaled it one night at the track when an oil drain line from one of the turbochargers came loose and dumped oil in front of the right rear slick at about 112 mph. The car ran 112 mph in the eighth mile and that’s when it happened is how we know the approximate speed. I had just increased the fuel lines, put a bigger electric fuel pump on it and added a “sump” to the stock gas tank as it seem to be starving for fuel when it got to 6000 rpm. It did make a big difference in it but never got to run it through a quarter mile to see what it would do but I’m positive it would have been well into the mid 9’s.

I now have a ’63 Lark with the R 2 supercharged engine (the R 1 engines are normally aspirated, the R 3 supercharged with better cam, heads, etc., and the R 4 normally aspirated but with higher compression and dual four barrel carbs) and run it regularly in Muscle Car races in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, etc. and the only problem mechanically has been two years ago when the BW T-10 four speed shelled the teeth off second gear.

I overhauled the engine when I first got it almost 20 years ago and it has not been apart since then except to prove it is STOCK. I don’t have any records of its successes but can say it seldom gets beat and turns high 12’s @ 113+ in the quarter mile on STREET tires. Like probably you (onaroll) and others felt the car was not legal so it has been torn down twice in the past 20 years (to verify it is stock) not for any repairs of ANY kind but just to prove it is stock. I also drive a ’64 Challenger with the R 3 engine in it belonging to George Krem and it has competed in Pure Stock Drag races the past 20 years also and never a problem and it turns quicker and faster times than my R 2. Both these cars are four speeds and run past 6000 rpm’s EVERY time they go down the track in all four gears.

There are also a few other Studes that come to these races and all do very well. Peter Sant from Canada DRIVES his ’63 R 2 Avanti automatic to the race in Michigan, races it and drives it home! Chuck Kern from Indiana goes to the Michigan race also with his R 2 Avanti automatic. Both these cars turn high 13’s @ 100+ mph. Rich Meadows from Indiana has a ’64 R 4 engine and also races it successfully. Joe Flannery from Georgia also races a ’63 R 2 Lark and drives it to and from the track. And there are a few others I don’t recall at this time.

The Pure Stock races allow cars through 1974 and the Studes usually out perform these 10+ newer muscle cars. No, in ’74 these cars do not have the advantages of today’s technologies but what can you expect from an engine developed by Studebaker in the late 1940’s?

Again, Mr. Palma was right on with his article on the Stude V 8 and being virtually indestructible. I could go on and on with stories to verify what Mr. Palma said but at this point if you’re not convinced, I doubt that any more said would change your mind.

Back to the Chicken Hawk for a moment. I had the car 48 years and never had a problem until that night the oil return line came loose. If you would like to see the remains of the car, just google Studebaker Chicken Hawk. Someone (not me) posted a BUNCH of picture of it. Another interesting side note, I was in the hospital after the accident (not hurt bad) and I got a phone call the next day about noon. It was from a fellow from Sweden. I asked him how he know about the accident and he said a fellow from Germany called him! This is an example of how well known the Chicken Hawk was.