Simanaitis Says

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R&T MAGAZINE nailed it with this headline announcing its road test of the Studebaker Commander Coupe in the September 1953 issue. Early in the road test, they wrote, “Although not a sports car, it gives the American public a chance to prove whether they really want style and individuality.”

1953 Studebaker Commander Coupe, one of Raymond Loewy’s designs for the company’s lineup. This and following images from R&T, September 1953. Below, a 1953 Buick Skylark. Image from Barrett-Jackson.

“Studebaker,” R&T noted, “has never accepted the bath tub school of design, and the ’53 model shows more Italian influence than a certain manufacturer’s cars who admits Italian design.”

I would conjecture that this unnamed automaker was Nash, what with its “Pinin Farina’s Latest Triumph” hype of the era: “See the matchless styling of the world’s foremost custom car designer—now featured in the 1953 Nash Rambler!”

1953 Nash Rambler Airflyte. Why do I think of reaching for soap and a loofah?

Nash was on rather firmer ground with “The Top Talents of Three Nations” campaign for its Nash-Healey.

The Studebaker’s lines were strikingly more swoopy than those of any other domestic car of the era, with innovative packaging part of the execution. For example, as a tradeoff of the coupe’s low roof line, the rear seats’ permanent center rest concealed the driveshaft tunnel. Another tradeoff of swoopiness came in its trunk’s utility: The spare tire couldn’t fit vertically; it took up more area mounted horizontally.

R&T felt that front and rear seating was adequate, though a tad more padding would have been preferred. Instrumentation was deemed small and difficult to read.

On the Commander’s handling: “It has a moderate amount of understeer which is generally considered to be desirable in the interest of safety since an understeering vehicle requires a steady pull on the steering wheel to hold the car into a constant radius corner.” (By contrast, an oversteering car requires deft unwinding.)

The A-3-53 designation identifies this Studebaker Commander as R&T’s third domestic car tested that year (a Lincoln sedan and Hudson Super Jet preceded it).

“We particularly wanted to test the manually shifted model equipped with overdrive because, in most cases, performance of this combination is better than is the automatic drive model.”

In fact, R&T tested both: The manual-transmission car got to 60 mph in 14.9 seconds, compared with the automatic’s 16.5 seconds starting in Low and more than 18 seconds when left in Drive. This, noted R&T, “despite the claim of many salesmen that their automatic transmission models are equal or better in performance than manually shifted models.”

The manual-transmission Commander beat the automatic in acceleration; starting in the automatic’s Low was quicker than leaving it in Drive.

R&T also addressed “Hop Up” possibilities: “For the person who is content with good performance, the stock Studebaker V-8 is the answer. Those who think they need the ability to burn rubber will find that it doesn’t have quite the urge that will satisfy them.”

Several options are cited: “The hop up kits available from Stu V [a Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, speed shop] will add a respectable amount of energy to the car and still have it remain docile enough for traffic driving. Frick Motors on Long Island have available the Studebaker equipped with Cadillac engines.”

The Frick ‘Studillac” got to 60 in 8.7 seconds; its conversion price was $1500, in 1953 dollars, of course. Figure around $14,000 today.

Another option suggested by R&T: “An ‘all-out’ conversion, for those with the amount of money necessary, would be the Utzman double overhead cam heads as used on the Indianapolis car built for Agajanian.” Cost back then? “Well over $5000,” whereas the stock Commander Coupe R&T tested had a list price of $2379.

The Utzman double overhead camshaft heads for the Studebaker V-8. Image from the Museum of American Speed.

How fa$t do you want your Commander Coupe to go? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018


  1. Tom Phillips
    January 17, 2018

    The Museum of American Speed is a national treasure. Whenever I am in the region I am drawn back as a nail to a magnet.

  2. Pete Ginkel
    January 17, 2018

    It still looks good! And better than the tarted up end of life Silver Hawk of the late Fifties.

  3. Mark W
    January 18, 2018

    It’s interesting that in that era (and the 60’s too) you could actually tell the makers of cars apart (even small players like Studebaker). Now all cars are generic and indistinguishable – but they also (almost) always start and run for hundreds of thousands of miles without changing the plugs, so there is some trade off. Hard to find them in parking lots, though.

  4. Joseph Papai
    March 16, 2020

    I love this car beyond any rational reason. I have one in my garage, which is ready for restoration. Talk about individuality, they are still hot, after all these years. They had tragic workmanship problems that seriously blunted acceptance in the market. I also like the 1962-64 GT Hawks, which are a good point to end the cars existence.

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