Three-on-the-tree is one of my favorite setups to drive. When I saw the clutch pedal and column shifter in this 1951 Champion, I grinned. You see, I had a ’50 Champion with the same arrangement, and I drove it all over Michigan’s Lower Peninsula back in 2015.
Well, not exactly the same arrangement. For one thing, although Mark Klinger’s bullet-nose is generally similar to a ’50, the ’51 cars were pretty heavily reworked right from the factory. More importantly, this one is hiding a V-8 surprise.
“Foul!” some purists will cry. “A hot rod in the pages of Hemmings Classic Car!” But consider that even the Studebaker faithful love this one, which we discovered back in late August, at a regional Studebaker Drivers’ Club gathering in Rutland, Vermont, just an hour or so north of our Bennington home offices. Lucky us, because the car had been driven the four hours from Auburn, Maine, where Mark and wife Lynn run the Sleepy Time Motel, which itself looks straight out of a 1950s road trip.
A big factor in the acceptance of Mark’s car is the Studebaker V-8 used in the conversion. It’s a 1964-vintage 289-cu.in. version, which would have been rated at 210 or 225 horsepower, depending on whether it was topped with a two- or four-barrel carburetor. It has a four-barrel now. At first blush, it seems like it would be a pretty straightforward swap, as the Commander used an earlier version of the engine in the same chassis, but the original builder, an engineer, went above and beyond the factory in making the conversion as dialed in as it could be.
Even barring an engineering background, Studebaker owners from the beginning of the V-8 era have a lot of options to make their cars road ready just by combing through the factory parts bins. The new-for-’51 front suspension design, for example, was essentially the same as that used under the final Studebaker Larks in 1966. The design remained in use in the sporty fiberglass GT, the Avanti, up through 1985.
Thanks to that, rebuild parts for the 1951 chassis, along with brake and handling upgrades, remain remarkably accessible thanks to a large cache of Studebaker NOS items built at South Bend in the days before its 1964 closure. It was the foundation and remains the core of the Studebaker aftermarket. It also helps that Studebaker used the same Carter carburetors, Borg-Warner manual transmissions, and Dana 44 axles as much of the rest of the industry
All of that is to say we didn’t even realize we were looking at a non-stock Studebaker at first. Sure, the blue hue seems a bit brighter than the Maui or Aero Blues of 1951, but you could write that off as variations in modern paint mixes and the bright sun. That’s a 1952 steering wheel, but unless you’re already an expert on 1947-’52 Studebakers, that’s not obvious. It’s got bias-ply whitewalls and full wheelcovers, for Pete’s sake. And, as hinted above, there’s little external difference between a Champion and Commander, which can make them difficult to tell apart.
The big clue ends up being the body style. It turns out Studebaker didn’t build a Commander Business Coupe in 1951 (some records suggest they built only one —but this isn’t it). That three-passenger light-weight was exclusive to the Champion line with its 85-hp, 170-cu.in. flathead six, barring would-be scorchers from the potentially most potent power-to-weight combination. If you wanted a Business Coupe with the brand-new 120-hp, 233-cu.in. OHV V-8, you’d have to build it yourself. Instead, the few buyers thinking that way just settled for the gorgeous five-passenger Starlight coupe with its wraparound rear window and 65-pound weight penalty.
A fellow named Dave Carter, then in California, now in South Carolina, originally put this car together back in 2005-’06. Mark bought it this way, back in April of 2021, after he found it for sale in Tempe, Arizona. Luckily, Mark is from that area originally, and his brother (who owns a 1952 Starlight) was willing to go check it out for him. The modified ’51 appealed to Mark for the same reasons it appealed to us: Aside from some non-stock details, it feels just like something Studebaker could have, should have, and maybe would have (had anybody asked) built back in 1951. Right down to the column shifter.
Lightweight body aside, Mark’s car ups the ante with what was originally the 225-hp, 289-cu.in. engine in a 1962 Hawk. The Hawk was Studebaker’s creative but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to keep its 1953-vintage bodies relevant as a sporty, full-size car into the ’60s. This engine has been bored over 0.080-inch, bringing its displacement to over 302 cu.in., but “as far as I know,” Mark says, “it’s otherwise stock.” The engine’s current horsepower is unknown, but presumably a skosh higher than the original 225, which was already more than double that of a ’51 Commander engine. Nevertheless, the 289 is very mildly built, with road manners suited to interstate driving rather than drag racing.
In fact, Mark observed that the current 3.31 final drive ratio (in a ’64 Hawk Dana 44 with relocated spring perches) don’t necessarily play well with the Borg-Warner R10 overdrive (pirated, along with its siamesed T86 three-speed, from a 1959 Studebaker Lark) and somewhat hamper acceleration from a dead stop. Overdrive cars in the era of 55-mph roads usually came with a ratio in the 4.10s or deeper, suggesting something around 3.90:1 would be suitable today in the flyweight coupe. With the 0.70:1 gearing in the overdrive, the current 3.31s cruise along like a set of 2.32s, while 3.90s would act like 2.73s.
None of this is to say that the Stude’s performance was in any way lackluster. Accelerating with traffic was no difficulty at all: with 3.90s it would probably outrun most of today’s milder commuter cars from stoplight to stoplight. Front discs, from a conversion kit supplied by Turner Brake in South Carolina, mean the car can stop just as well as it accelerates