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Reminiscing – That old 1949 Studebaker

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Photo courtesy John Raffensparger, Sr.

[Editor’s note: This “Reminiscing” story, edited by Richard Lentinello, comes to us from Hemmings Classic Car reader John Raffensparger, Sr.]

My Studebaker was a 1949 four-door Champion that was painted Cumberland Green, and in very good condition. The price was right – $400, which I borrowed from my father. Since I was only making $86 per month money was a little tight. A 1955 Champion engine had been installed in place of the original, which had thrown a rod. The new engine gave the car better performance than most ’49 cars.

Within two weeks the hood and rear deck ornaments were gone and the holes leaded in. Over the course of the next year I had the rear fender seams leaded and three of the outside door handles removed. I meant to put solenoids in the doors but never got around to it. Other modifications included a 1950 Land Cruiser dash and a one-piece rear window. A 1949 Chevrolet front license plate bracket was fitted to the rear bumper and fender skirts were added. After disposing of the somewhat busy stock grille, I installed a Henry J grille bar, and planned on later Frenching the grille opening and headlamps. When I was home on leave I sprayed on 14 coats of green lacquer, sanding between coats. The finish looked as good as the new clear coats.

Then, in November 1958, Uncle Sam said I had to go to Germany and I parked the Studebaker at my parent’s home in Baltimore. After a short nine-month tour of the Fatherland I was discharged and returned home. I never was fully satisfied with the performance of the Champion. To cure this problem I found an aluminum cylinder head and dual-carb setup. Performance increased, but not enough to satisfy my lead foot. Then it occurred to me that Studebaker had introduced a V-8 engine in 1951. I searched the local junk yards for an engine and found one in a 1953 Starlite coupe that had been bashed in the rear. The yard owner climbed up two other junkers to the coupe and using a set of jumper cables started the engine; it ran great. After giving him $50 he cut the engine and transmission with a torch and dropped them into the back of Dad’s 1953 Ford pickup.

After arriving at my father’s sheetmetal shop (he looked at me as if I was nuts) I unloaded the engine and brought the car into the shop. First step was to remove the old six-cylinder, and then I began fitting the V-8. Well, not just right now. I found that the cars with transverse front leaf springs would interfere with the oil pan, so it had to be reversed and otherwise modified to make it fit. Next problem was that the tie rods had to be lowered four inches to clear everything. I also put two-inch lowering blocks on the rear springs.

After the engine was bolted in I cranked it up and it ran great, with an exhaust straight out of the headers. It was noisy, so one of my dad’s welders helped me fabricate exhaust pipes from a Chrysler tailpipe. I would fit it, and he would tack weld, then I would check to see if it still fit. We made a lot of joints this way. The head pipes exited into glass pack mufflers and then into full length chrome plate lake pipes. They really looked and sounded good. After the clutch was hooked up I fabricated a floor shifter using a Valiant illustrated parts manual as a guide; it was made from stainless steel with nylon bushings with a miniature piston as a knob. Now for a test drive.

Boy did that old Studebaker go. With the original overdrive rear, 0 to 30 MPH in first gear was as quick as anything on the road, including hemi-powered Mopars. Second gear would wind up quickly to 50 MPH and if I caught overdrive it would go to 70. It was really a fun car, and I drove it for nearly a year, always fixing any problem that came up. I had to be very careful coming off the line as the 6.40×15 tires would break away very easily and make lots of noise.

Then a used 1958 Studebaker Silver Hawk caught my attention down at Fulker Motors, the local Studebaker dealer. I immediately fell in love. Sadly, I parked the ’49 Champion and enjoyed my new Silver Hawk. Over time I sold off the engine, transmission and some other parts. Finally after I noticed a lot of rust starting to appear, I sent it to the junkyard. It was a great experience and I will always remember that Studebaker.

The ’58 Silver Hawk was a great car, but it too met its fate. One day I went to the Studebaker dealer for some parts and on the showroom floor was a new Mist Blue 1963 Gran Turismo Hawk. At $3,900 I didn’t think I could afford it, but the salesman offered me a great trade and I was in debt for the next three years. I still have that ’63 Gran Turismo Hawk, but have many fond memories of that ’49 Champion.