Remember the car you had at 16? I remember mine. A Wrigley's-gum beige 1968 VW Beetle I saved up $600 to buy when I was 15, then waited and stared at every day until I turned 16 and could actually drive it. Of course, it was wrecked within a year or so, because that's what usually happens to cars owned by 16 year old idiots.
But take the idiot out of the equation and add in a shockingly generous and thoughtful grandfather, and I think you'll end up with something closer to what we have here.
This is Kevin Boesky's 1941 Studebaker Champion. Kevin is 17.
Kevin is very likely the only human under 20 years old in the known universe to be the proud owner of a 1941 Studebaker. Well, maybe there's some kid in Cuba with one, but that one's likely half Lada parts by now. Kevin was given the car by his grandfather, who had the same year and model Studebaker as his first car. Kevin and his father had been looking for a car for Kevin, when his grandfather surprised him with the Studebaker, because, apparently, Kevin's grandfather is serious about being the best grandfather I'd ever heard of.
The car itself is very interesting. It's one of the last pre-war Studebakers, and is one of the earlier results of Raymond Loewy's collaboration with Studebaker, which produced some of the '50s and '60s best designs, culminating in the breathtaking Avanti. Many Loewy traits can be seen here –- the horizontal grilles, relatively sleek, unified forms, clean lines.
The old girl is in remarkably good shape, though some work was needed. The odometer only reads 7,786, and even if that's rolled over a couple times, that's not awful. Kevin and his father did a good bit of cleaning up, replaced the manifold seals, and, in a grudging nod to safety, added turn signals and some seat belts. But just lap belts, because the seats are basically couches, and you can't have a shoulder harness on a couch, silly.
Kevin seems to have an ideal attitude towards his car, and treats it with a curatorial respect that belies his paltry age. He's also managed that tricky balance of care and usage. He drives it as often as he can for trips around town, and even occasionally drives it to his high school. He claims it hasn't helped him get any girls, which initially surprised me, until I actually thought about it. How many high school girls actually know what a Studebaker is? I tried to find out, but a bunch of busybody parents called the cops on me. Jerks.
Also, maybe he was just saying that because his mom was with us in the back seat.
The Champion was Studebaker's everyman offering, originally retailing for $750, Kevin told me. As a result of these humble origins, the car retains a very approachable sort of feeling. It does have the somewhat imposing proportions of an early 40s car, but despite that this is a friendly, honest sort of vehicle. Studebaker was trying for that elusive dream of making an inexpensive car not feel cheap, and it seems like they managed pretty well. It's a little odd for Kevin, whose real automotive loves are the flamboyant French Art Deco cars, but there's enough Deco cues in the Studebaker to leave that desire quenched.
This car is such a treat to look at. It's not overdone, but it still has a number of appealing details to catch the eye. The overall shape is one that's really gone from modern auto design, with unified body sections and integrated lights, but the body had yet to grow to full width and encompass the fenders, as it would in the '50s.
The proportions are also a bit baffling to modern eyes. It's actually tricky to get a feel for the size of the car because we're no longer used to these tall, narrow cars. The height is something we'd normally associate with large trucks and SUVs, but the car is really not all that large (or heavy).
The two-tone deep red-and-cream paintjob of the car looks incredible, and makes the whole rounded masses of the car seem like a colossal piece of black cherry candy with some kind of cream center. The whitewalls and lovingly pinstriped (Kevin says he thinks those are original) rims complete the effect.
The '41 Studebakers only came in four-door sedan bodies, since almost nobody was buying their coupés. Not having a coupé is no big deal when the rear doors open suicide-style, because I've yet to meet anyone who still metabolizes who doesn't love suicide rear doors.
Also interesting to note on this old survivor are the panel gaps. People still talk about how things aren't made like they used to be, but in this case, that's a blessing. Look at this gap between the doors— you could fit enough quarters in there to play Galaga for an hour.
Despite the '40s-era fitment issues, this thing is a joy to see driving around. It has presence without pretention, and is different enough from the usual immaculate '50s Bel Airs and similar classics to really stand out.
You forget that the inside of cars used to be like living rooms, just more comfortable. Like the rest of the car, the interior is immaculate here, with every little bit of trim in its place and gleaming like it did back before this car ever heard about Pearl Harbor. The overall design of the trim, and all the detailing in the car, has a very pronounced Deco design, with trios of linear streaks and chevrons and other sleek sigils of newborn modernity. It still looks and feels modern — a past sort of modern, but modern.
The dashboard instruments look like they came off the watch you hope your grandfather's going to give to you. Everything's in one long rectangular strip, all done up in gold on a gold-flecked white background that looks like the floor of a Lord & Taylor department store. The steering wheel is this colossal, multi-hooped thing that, removed, could make a good space station design in a Jetson's background. There's pleasing chrome knobs (including one mystery knob no one knows the function of) and the wiper controls are a little screw-valve on the top center of the dash because the wipers are, of course, vacuum-operated.
The seats are, really, couches. Big, comfy, soft overstuffed grey couches. In addition to being where you sit, they also function as this car's equivalent of traction control. Try to do anything too crazy in the car, and you'll soon find yourself on the other end of the seat, gripping a ghost steering wheel and staring at the glovebox. There's zero support outside of sedate, rational driving.
Also, it feels cavernous inside. There's no transmission/driveshaft hump on the floor to speak of (it's under the car) and the rear seat is basically over the rear axle, so there's acres of open floor space in the back. It's tall enough that you don't realize it's kind of narrow. Really, it feels so big inside because if these dimensions were on a modern car, we'd call it a van.
The trunk is as vast and upright as the rest of the car, and there's a neat little trick where the taillight bulbs also serve to iluminate the inside of the trunk. Clever!
Like everything else about this car, you have to keep it in perspective. No, by modern standards, the acceleration isn't great. At all. But, it's also not terrible. The straight-six 164.3 ci (2.7 L) engine began life in, of all things, the doomed Rockne 65.
By 1941, it was making about 78 HP. The torque numbers are a good bit better (though I'm not sure what they are exactly) and the car doesn't really weigh all that much (around 2600 lbs or so), so the 1st gear acceleration works to get you going, and even in second you're relatively keeping up with modern traffic, but very soon things get much more gradual. Really, though, that's fine, because stopping is already tricky enough as it is and the Champion isn't even trying to be a sportscar, anyway.
The big mystery here is how anyone managed to have a pair of unsoiled pants prior to 1960 or so. The brakes on this car are terrifying, but that's less about this specific car than it is about brakes of the era. Tiny, overworked drum brakes all around. Even at modest speeds, you have to dramatically increase your stopping distance in the Studebaker.
You can certainly get used to it, and anticipate your stops much more in advance, but the terrifying thing is all the people in their modern, boring, stop-on-a-dime cars don't know this. Several times during my pleasingly long test drive of the car people would turn in front of me, or cut in front of me and stop short, blissfully unaware of the 2600 lbs of Art Deco chrome barreling at their ass. I'd put the pedal to the floor and, luckily, every time we gradually came to a safe halt. The last thing I wanted to be was the idiot journalist who crushed both a beautiful car and a young man's dreams.
I liked the ride feel of this car a lot, mostly because it's nothing like cars of today. It's sort of like what I imagine it would feel like to ride a bed, lofted by four hardworking putti. You feel like you're sort of gliding, bouncily, over the landscape, the tall body leaning a bit to and fro, the generously padded and sprung seats eroding the bumps down to pleasant rolling waves. It's comfortable, in a sort of mildly drugged kind of way.
Again, you need to keep the age of the car in mind here. By modern standards, the handling's not great, and even in its own time this was never meant to be a curve-carving monster. The tall body means lots of body roll, but it is at least independently suspended — at least semi-independent. The front suspension system uses a transverse leaf spring and is called a "planar" system, which seems to be Studebaker's exclusive attempt at a semi-independent system while still using a beam axle. It had the transverse leaf spring, but also a shock at each end, and a more modern-looking A arm as well. It's an interesting setup, but I don't think it was really designed to take on Lotuses from the future.
It does understeer an awful lot in turns, and at low speeds that wheel gets pretty heavy. Generally, I think it's a safe enough handling setup if you know its limits, but I suspect that on a bad road or a with a driver who doesn't respect the car, it could end up on its side without too much fuss.
I forgot how much fun driving a three-on-the-tree can be. In a car like this, it just feels right, and it's somehow more relaxed than a floor shift. First gear is not synchronized in this Studebaker, so you don't go into it unless you're stopped, but that's not a problem.
One little feature I especially liked was a clever little mechanical hill-holder setup. Essentially, if you press the clutch down far enough (but not so far as to hit the little starter button below it) it activates the brake. It's all mechanical — you can even see the brake pedal move without your foot on it. This makes hill starts a snap, which is a big plus.
Also getting the Champion points is the very useful overdrive, which many cars of this era lack. That alone helps this car become a somewhat viable daily driver, allowing for much less stressful freeway cruising.
For such an old lady, the Studebaker could be an unexpectedly good daily driver. It's roomy, surprisingly easy to drive, comfortable, gobs of room — you could absolutely make this work as an around-town car.
My biggest issues would be with the rarity of the car, and the brakes. Even a minor fender bender would be heart-rending, and Kevin told me he's had a really hard time finding any body shops who'd even touch the car. Plus, visibility of the front fenders is really difficult, so the worry over parking dings would be present. Still, it's worth it, I'd say.
Who wouldn't look at this car and smile? You'd have to be either made of icy stone ice or have witnessed your own mother being run over by one of these to not look at it and feel a bit happier than you were before. It's a relatively unusual classic, filled with charming details and pleasing combinations of color, shape, sound, and smells. Maybe it even tastes good, too. I wouldn't be surprised. The car has a humble but dignified appeal I can't help but love.
There's not too many of these around anymore, especially in such clean but usable condition. This one isn't concours-quality, but I wouldn't want it to be, because then it'd be gone from the real world. These cars don't quite have the cult following of, say, an old E-Type or a first-gen Stingray, but that just makes it more interesting. I'm certain this car will hold its value indefinitely.
Also, I'm adding 10 points to the score for the amazing condition and originality of this car. Don't try and stop me.