- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2001

The story of this Safford Cream 1954 Studebaker Starliner Coupe begins in 1953. That is when young Neal Sheldon noticed that one of the teachers at Swanson Junior High School in Arlington, Va., had bought a 1953 Studebaker with its dramatic new styling.
Each day the young student would barely miss being tardy because he would linger in the teacher's parking lot admiring the car's sleek lines.
The Society of Automotive Engineers has since labeled the mid-1950s Starliner coupe by Studebaker, "One of the five most significant automotive designs of the past century."
Bob Bourke, working for the Raymond Loewy Design Studio, created the aerodynamic design, essentially a rolling sculpture.
In order to reduce production costs the engineers decided to employ thinner 13-gauge steel in the cow belly frame. What was lost in rigidity would be recovered, it was thought, when the body was secured to the frame.
It was a hopeful if not a good idea which turned into a production nightmare. The body did not compensate for the flexibility of the lightweight frame and the problem was exacerbated when the 233-cubic-inch V-8 engine was installed. The front part of the frame reportedly began to sag under the weight of the engine.
When the stylish car was placed in a stressful position such as making a sharp turn, the body had a tendency to flex and very often the doors would open.
Studebaker implemented several stopgap measures to stiffen the 1953 coupe, but the big improvement came with the 1954 model, which got the thicker steel. The flexing problem ceased to exist.
The public relations damage had been done. About 19,000 coupes were built in 1953 and their shortcomings were well-publicized. The problems were fixed in 1954, but only about 5,000 were manufactured. Public confidence had waned.
By January, 2000, Mr. Sheldon, retired from the Internal Revenue Service, happened to read the January issue of Collectible Automobile magazine. The featured car was the Studebaker coupe of his youth.
"That reminded me of the car I hadn't thought about in years," Mr. Sheldon said. "It also rekindled my desire to have one."
The search was short-lived. That very month Mr. Sheldon began scouring antique automobile publications, soon finding an ad offering a 1954 Studebaker Starliner coupe. The car, in Norcross, Ga., sounded promising.
Mr. Sheldon had already planned a trip to Miami in February so he stopped off in Atlanta, rented a car and went to see what he could see.
It wasn't perfect but it was close.
"I bought it on the spot," Mr. Sheldon acknowledges.
In March, after a couple of weeks passed, a truck delivered the Studebaker to Mr. Sheldon in Falls Church. The 3,085-pound car was rolled off the truck on 7.10x15-inch white sidewall tires on a 120.5-inch wheelbase. For a relatively small passenger compartment the wheelbase was extraordinarily long.
For about $2,500 in 1954 dollars a Studebaker buyer could get a car with the sleekest form on the road, turn signals, white sidewall tires, Borg-Warner automatic transmission, 127-horsepower V-8 engine, radio and a heater.
Mr. Sheldon had a trusted mechanic give the car a thorough once-over. A compression test revealed a problem that was nipped in the bud with an engine overhaul. A two-barrel carburetor still sits atop the engine. However, the severe slope of the engine hood dictates that the air cleaner must be mounted to the right side of the engine.
A single exhaust pipe under the right side of the car is sufficient to handle the output of the engine.
Almost a half century ago the Society of Automotive Engineers described the Studebaker's radical appearance by saying: "The greenhouse sweeps up from the cowl into the windshield and then drops down over the wraparound backlight onto a low, gently rounded deck between fender ridges and lights."
The original design connected the chrome taillight bezels with the chrome bumper.
The end result would have been a delight to the eye, although prohibitively expensive to produce. Additionally, it was an impractical design. One tap in the parking lot and the entire rear end would have to be replaced.
The dashboards of most American cars in 1954 did not protrude very much into the passenger compartment. The Studebaker coupe's dashboard drops almost vertically from the base of the sharply raked windshield.
Four instrument pods in front of the driver are from the left:
Amperage and gasoline levels.
110 mph speedometer.
Clock.
Oil pressure and coolant temperature.
In the center of the dashboard are six toggle switches that control from the left:
Fog lights.
Headlights.
Instrument lights.
Defroster.
Air vent fan.
Starter.
Horizontal strips of chrome across the painted dashboard give it a 1950s finished appearance. The yellow vinyl and brocade fabric blend nicely with the light tint of yellow paint on the streamlined Studebaker.
The Borg-Warner automatic transmission, unique in two ways, has a shift pattern from the left of Park-Neutral-Drive-Low-Reverse. That unique feature takes a bit of getting used to after driving a car with a modern shift pattern.
The second unique feature is explained by Mr. Sheldon. "It's a transmission device to prevent 'creep,' " he said. "When the driver stops in Drive, the transmission automatically holds the brakes, so the car won't move forward, even on a down grade."
In the center of the rear seat is a removable armrest supported by three chrome pedestals.
The wheels are dressed up with unusual at the time full chrome wheel covers that would begin at the perimeter of the wheel and stretch out to a conical point, except for being interrupted before the point by a 3-inch gold-colored dimple.
"I'm extremely fortunate to have found a 1954 Studebaker," Mr. Sheldon said, "since far fewer of them were made to begin with."


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