This 1951 Studebaker Champion Is Still All Business

Rather than run around with a joke-wielding bear, Gary Wolcott has chosen to make a Coyote his travel companion in this Studebaker Champion. Starting out as one of 3,763 Studebaker Champion business coupes (giving businessmen ample room to haul their wares to-and-fro between sales pitches) Gary’s Stude’ is still all business – and yes, we opened with a Muppet’s Movie reference.

Studebaker

There are 102 new louvers punched in the hood of Gary’s Studebaker. One of the few external modifications made to the car.

The characteristic wrap-around rear window was one of the new styling features introduced on two-door cars built by Studebaker in 1947, and ran through to the end of 1951, the year Gary’s car was produced. It started out as an option, but then became its own trim line, the Starlight coupe.

Keen-eyed readers will note that Gary’s ride does not have the full-curve rear glass, due to the fact of his car is a business coupe (AKA: three-passenger coupe). It was often, jokingly noted, that the styling cue made it difficult to know whether the car was coming or going. On a much more serious note, the same could be said for the state of the company that manufactured it.

Studebaker

Even without the “Starlight Coupe’s” wraparound rear glass, it’s easy to see how the car got it’s “coming and going” punchline.

Studebaker, like many storied names in automotive history with over 100 years of production, began by making horse-drawn wagons. As successful blacksmiths, three brothers, Henry, Clement, and John Studebaker built a wagon as payment to a wagon train for younger-brother John’s passage to the thriving gold fields in the West. Over the next few years, fate shined over John, and he amassed a small fortune making wheelbarrows and other mining tools for the gold fields.

In 1858, and with fortune in hand, John returned to join his brothers Henry and Clement, who had started the H&C Studebaker blacksmith shop in South Bend, Indiana. They began building wagons for the North during the Civil War, and eventually, their company would be the largest producer of horse-drawn wagons in the world.

Studebaker

Gary handled the dash metalwork, but left the skins for someone else to lay down.

Studebaker Goes Horseless

They entered the automobile business in 1902, interestingly, by making an all-electric car, a feat that automakers are trying to perfect yet today. Two years later, they brought out a 16-horsepower, two-cylindered, gas-powered touring car. As the 114 year history of the Studebaker nameplate weaved its way from prosperous corporate acquisitions into receivership and back again, the company that bore the name of its founding fathers is fraught with innovations destined for greatness as well as erred decisions fit for late-night talk show hosts or light-hearted movies full of jabs and one-liners.

The range of offerings manufactured by the company headquartered in South Bend, was quite broad, and every aspect of American living was enhanced by their efforts. The Studebaker name could be found on cars, pickup trucks, tractor trailers, fire engines, busses, and postal trucks. There was even the Studebaker Rockne, manufactured between 1932-1933, which was named after University of Notre Dame’s famed football coach, Knute Rockne. Another Studebaker name-game that didn’t fare so well, the Dictator, was dropped at the end of the 1937 model year for obvious reasons.

The custom-fabbed console serves to keep the air-ride control and gauge handy.

In 1939, Studebaker began building the first-generation Champion line, a clean sheet of paper effort with a focus on keeping the finished product light and economical. It was a huge success when introduced, and for its size, it was one of the lightest cars of the time. The car featured styling cues from the mind of Raymond Loewy, and coupled with its low cost of only $660, it was one of Studebaker’s best-selling models. Thanks to its newly-designed engine and light weight, it won many Mobilgas economy runs.

Studebaker did keep the corporation afloat during the war by producing equipment for the war effort, which included various trucks and engines for aircraft and personnel carriers.

“The body only had minor rust, but a lot of dents!”                – Gary Wolcott

Like many other auto manufacturers, after the war, they began re-tooling in hopes of satiating the civilian market’s thirst for new automobiles. Being one of the first new cars offered after the war, the Champion was completely redesigned.

Building Today’s ‘Baker

When Gary Wolcott located this particular car just outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, four years ago, it still had the original paint that was applied to its Loewy-designed body way back in South Bend. Gary reports,”The body only had minor rust, but a lot of dents!” Even when something is in such great over-all shape, it’s amazing how much work something small like numerous dents can add to the project.

Studebaker

The “bullet nose” is another one of Studebaker’s signature features.

Of course, when you look at the amount of work that Gary has done to his Studebaker, it’s easy to see that dents were not the only thing that occupied his time during the 2 ½-years he worked on bringing this ‘Baker back to glory. One thing is certain though; Gary did the largest amount of work on his car during the process.

The one thing he reports was handed out for someone else to accomplish was laying out the black vinyl interior that now graces the office area of Gary’s business coupe. That work was done by B.J.’s Custom Auto Upholstery in nearby Tampa, Florida, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The inside of Gary's ride is tastefully trimmed in black vinyl. The one task that Gary reports he farmed out for help to complete.

There was a lot of work to be done before Gary concerned himself with stitching and carpet. Since he was building the car for both show and go, he needed a chassis that was up to the task. The factory Champion frame was retained, but the front suspension was updated with a Fatman Fabrication front clip, featuring disc brakes, rack-and-pinion steering, and a pair of coilover shocks. The suspension out back features a triangulated four-link, keeping an 8.8-inch Ford rear fitted with 3:73 gears and a posi centered, so a set of air bags can move through their entire range of motion.

Studebaker

With 435hp on tap, this Coyote crate engine makes sure that Gary’s Business Coupe still hauls!

Speaking of motion, how does a new Ford Coyote crate engine sound as a means of making Gary’s ride a true Champion? With 435hp and 400 lb./ft. of torque, the new choice of powerplant far surpasses the Champion’s original 85hp produced by the 170ci inline-six’s engine. To corral all those horses, a Performance Automatic transmission is bridled by a Lokar shifter. Any noise and fumes find their way beyond the curved back glass by way of a 2 1/2-inch aluminized steel exhaust featuring DynoMax mufflers.

A ’55 Chevy steering wheel carries the Bullet theme as well.

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With everything beyond the firewall and floorboard properly accounted for, Gary could then focus on the area where he now spends most of his time enjoying his Studebaker, the interior. Starting with the sheetmetal mods, Gary modified a ’50 Ford dash to fit into the area once filled with factory Studebaker gauges.

Even the Lokar shifter adds character to the car.

All instruments are now centrally located in one circular bezel, right in front of the driver. He also installed an aftermarket A/C system (he lives in Florida after all), and fitted a Custom Auto Sound control unit into the remaining dash landscape.

In keeping with the custom interior, Gary added a ’55 Chevy steering wheel and a custom-made console, fitted with a bullet-nose, because, well, it is the Champion’s well-known styling feature.

Beyond the copious number of dents that needed removing, Gary also had time to punch a few louvers in the hood of his Champion – 102 of them to be exact. Other than that, and thanks to the rust-free nature of his Stude’s body, there are few other modifications from stock.

When you’re starting with something that is already so far from mainstream, where would you even start when modifying it? To top off the build and give his bulbous ‘Baker that just right stance, Gary rounded out the rolling stock with a set of 15-inch steelies wearing BFG rubber.

The combination of classic styling, subtle mods, and  the modern Coyote powerplant make this version of a “bear’s natural habitat” the perfect candidate for making a cross-country jaunt. Just think of the good times that could be had with some Muppets as companions.

About the author

Andy Bolig

Andy has been intrigued by mechanical things all of his life and enjoys tinkering with cars of all makes and ages. Finding value in style points, he can appreciate cars of all power and performance levels. Andy is an avid railfan and gets his “high” by flying radio-controlled model airplanes when time permits. He keeps his feet firmly grounded by working on his two street rods and his supercharged C4 Corvette. Whether planes, trains, motorcycles, or automobiles, Andy has immersed himself in a world driven by internal combustion.
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