MY 1951 STUDEBAKER CHAMPION
By Bill Junge
When I purchased my 1951 Studebaker Champion Custom 4-door sedan in October of 1993, it had seen better days. It started life in Los Angeles, CA, where it was built, and was one of 9,972 Champions built in this body style and trim level in 1951. There wasn't much rust, but every body panel, including the roof, had a dent or two. Someone along the way had changed the left front fender and, although it looked the same, the opening was different than the right fender. After the tow truck dropped it off in front of my house, I turned the wheels hard while pushing it into my driveway and the left front tire rubbed on the fender. I sat and looked at this green monster and wondered, what the heck am I going to do with this thing now? The seller advertised that it would run but when I finally got it started, it ran for five minutes then barfed out 3 quarts of dirty black oil all over my new concrete driveway. I think the crankcase breather was plugged with a nest of some kind and it finally built up enough pressure to throw up. I was living in Redondo Beach, CA at the time and the following month I attended a local Studebaker club meeting in Downey, CA. They invited me to get up and introduce myself, and let them know what plans I had for my "new" car. When I said that I was going to street rod it, I could hear moans from all over the room. Hey, I figured that this car had died and no one in this room full of Studebaker lovers would have the courage or desire to bring it back to life. I did meet one person who was interested in my project because he needed an engine and I ended up trading mine to him, plus the rest of the drive train, for a correct front fender.
I had a vision for this ugly car and wanted modern running gear and some mild customizing. This car had been neglected for a long time and I had no bad feelings about "ruining it". I went about trying to locate someone who would be able to build it because I didn't have the time or knowledge to do it myself. By accident I met Ernie and Ernie Jr. (The Ernies, as they are known in Torrance, CA) at the Pomona swap meet and talked to them about building my car. When they asked me what I had, I was almost embarrassed to say. After telling them it was a Stude, I was surprised to hear that they were interested. Come to find out, Ernie Jr. had plans to build a Studebaker/El Camino (Studemino) that he was collecting parts for.
The Ernies started working on the car in February of 1994. Off came the front end and the rotten wiring was removed. The frame was narrowed and a Mustang II front cross member was welded in a higher position to make the car sit low. I purchased a 350 Chevrolet 250 HP "crate motor" and it was installed with a rebuilt GM TH350 transmission and a rear end that had been removed from an S-10 Chevy Blazer. A GM tilt column from a van was installed and a hanging brake pedal and power booster setup from a 78 Buick Regal was used. The firewall was modified to make clearance for the HEI distributor and new floorboards were made to replace the rusty ones. The transmission hump was enlarged and the drive shaft tunnel was raised for the new one-piece drive shaft (The car originally had a two piece drive shaft and the hump was almost flat). When Ernie asked what color I was going to paint the car, because he was getting ready to paint the firewall and engine, I didn't have a clue. My wife, Lorraine, and I made a quick trip to all the new car dealers in the area over the weekend. At dusk on a Sunday afternoon, we spotted a new Dodge Neon that was painted Strawberry Pearl and thought it was a nice color in the late afternoon sun. Strawberry Pearl it would be. Next problem was the dashboard. I wanted to install an under the dash air conditioning unit but the dash was so close to the firewall that there wasn't enough room to mount the Vintique unit. We cut the dash and extended it into the car 6" which provided the necessary clearance. Three inches were also added to the bottom of the dash to provide a place for the AC outlets. The original instrument cluster was used but I mounted VDO gauges behind it and they show through the openings in the panel. At the same time, the windshield opening was closed up 1" all around and the windshield was glued in from the inside. The rubber was eliminated and it made for a much cleaner look. On June 1, 1994, the car was wired and ready to run. I drove it to the muffler shop and picked it up after work. It sounded great with the Flowmaster mufflers and I couldn't hold back my grin as I was driving it home. It was sitting in my driveway again and this time it got there under it's own power.
I drove the car like this for a couple of months while the Ernies were doing another job. I took it to work every day and drove it every chance I had. The car was rough looking but I proudly accepted and acknowledged the thumbs ups that other drivers flashed at me. My wife bought me a nice sound system for the car that included an amp, 9 speakers and a 12 disk remote controlled CD. The amp was installed in the trunk next to the battery and the large bass speaker. My first show was the Orange County Labor Day Cruise in September of 1994 and I had a ball cruising the beat up looking, but great sounding, Studebaker around the fair grounds. I caravanned to the show with The Ernies and Don, who owns the half-breed Chevrolet/Studebaker (Studeolet). By this time I had known the Ernies for 6 months and really liked their work. After the show, it was back to their garage to finish the bodywork and paint. I had somewhat decided what customizing I wanted done but was open to suggestions from The Ernies too. We more or less made the final decisions as we went along. I was there almost every evening and weekend to watch the progress and my main job was keeping out of the way. The door handles were removed and Honda latches were installed. A small lever hidden behind the door and accessed by a notch in the door pillar opens the front doors. Power door locks operated by a remote sets the alarm and locks the doors. The wind wings were removed so one piece glass could be installed in the front doors. This required the front doors to be cut and straightened. Power windows were installed in all four doors with tinted glass. Mid 80's Mustang electric mirrors were mounted at the front edge of the door in the wind wing area and give the car a modern look.
The bottom portion of the trunk lid was cut off and the lid is now pancaked. The license plate was frenched into the new panel under the trunk lid. A solenoid opens the trunk. The rear fenders and gravel shield were welded to the body to give it a smoother look. 1954 Chevy "bubble lenses" were frenched in, as was an aftermarket third light above the rear window. 1954 Mercury headlight rims were added and early Mustang turn signal lights were frenched in below the headlights. A power antenna was recessed in the front fender. I wanted to run chrome bumpers but the front bumper stuck out so far I didn't like the look. I moved it 5" closer to the body and trimmed 5" off the ends. I also trimmed 5" from the ends of the rear bumper. This car was a Champion with the "Custom" trim option, and was the cheapest 4 door model that Studebaker made in 1951. It therefore didn't have a lot of chrome or stainless on it and the only trim removed was the script on the front of the hood, the Studebaker emblem recessed in the front of the hood, and the bullet shaped handle/license plate light from the trunk. It didn't even have a hood ornament. The rear wheel well openings were raised 3" to allow the wider Amtech wheels to be removed, in case I had a flat. The rear window opening was also closed up and the glass was glued in from the inside to eliminate the rubber.
The car was starting to take shape and was soon ready for painting. On an overcast day in November of 1994 the first color went onto the body. After color sanding and buffing, I took it home. It had front seats from a Ford Taurus and was now ready for upholstery. I met "Fast Ed" through a friend and took the car to his shop in Torrance in December. I wanted a charcoal or dark gray interior and had decided that before the dash and garnish moldings were painted. I decided to add some charcoal leather with the gray tweed material we picked out and also chose a charcoal colored Mercedes wool carpet. I was dumbfounded when Ed asked me what I wanted the interior to look like. At all the car shows I had attended, I never really paid much attention to interior design. The last car I had upholstered was when I was in high school and I took it to Tijuana, Mexico and let them do the tuck and roll thing on their own. Why was Ed making me decide? After all, he was the upholstery guy! I made up a drawing that looked something like the seats, Xeroxed a bunch of copies and started drawing different designs. I liked the lazy S in the Studebaker logo and used that as a basis for my final design choice.
In January of 1995, the upholstery was finished and I picked the car up from Ed. After I put the newly re-chromed bullet and bumpers on, it was finally ready to show. In February we took the car to the Los Angeles Chapter of the SDC's (Studebaker Drivers Club) annual car show, which was held at the Peterson Automotive Museum in LA. There were a lot of Studebakers there, and I was happy to see some others that were modified. I remember admiring a very nice 53 or 54 coupe with a twin turbocharged Chevy engine next to me. My car drew a lot of lookers, and I even received some positive comments about the changes I had made to it from these purists, but I didn't expect to win anything so I didn't stay for the awards. I was really shocked to get a call the following week saying that I had won first place in the modified class. The plaque that was delivered to me later was proudly placed on my office wall. That year, we attended many shows in the Southern California area and also made a couple of 600+ mile round trips to shows in Paso Robles and Merced, California. The car was built to drive and that's the fun part for me. It has won several other first place, modified class, awards in Studebaker shows including the Orange Empire Chapter's annual show, the SDC International Meet and the SDC Pacific Southwest Zone Meet. It was also used as a prop on the television show, Brotherly Love, which is still being broadcast on the Disney channel. In October of 1996 we moved to Lake Havasu City, which is located on the Arizona side of the Colorado River and is known as the hottest city in the United States. LHC is also the home of the London Bridge, lots of snowbird visitors in the winter, lots of boaters in the summer and lots of retired Californians, like us. I believe there are more street rods and old cars here, per capita, than anywhere in the USA. We belong to the Relics & Rods car club and still attend a few shows each year. We also show the car during our club's annual Run to the Sun show in October.
All things considered, I have enjoyed owning, driving and showing this piece of automotive history. I remember that I wouldn't have been caught dead driving one of these ugly cars when I was in high school, but I sure do like driving it now. I have enjoyed talking to many people about the car and listening to the memories it brings back for them. I've lost track of how many times I have been told that they learned to drive in a car just like this, or that their parents, or uncle, had one just like it, except that it was green. Could it be?
Side by side with a stock 4-door Champion in Long Beach, CA.
Notice the difference in height?
Nose to nose with another Champion in Phoenix, AZ
Between two friends at the Run to the Sun in 1999