The Studebaker Champion: First By Far With A Post-War Car
Images: Kedarnath Swamy
‘Always give more than you promise!’
No, that’s not the slogan of a humanitarian organisation, but the one that was emblazoned on the brochures and the advertising pages of Studebaker for years…one of America’s most famous car marques from yesteryear. Thus, when Studebaker launched the model named Champion in 1939, it was with the same underlying principle which underpinned the development of the car.
The 1939 Studebaker Champion was a typical American design from the late 1930s. The engine, designed from scratch, was a brilliant in-line six of 2.7-litres, developing 79bhp, which remained in production until 1964. Choice of body styles included two- and four-doors sedans, coupes, and convertibles. Although the Champion was a compact car for the US market, it was a great success.
During the war years as Studebaker produced trucks and amphibious vehicles to aid the war effort, work went on in conceiving and developing a new ‘modular’ range of cars to be launched with the return of peacetime. With a common base shared by several models from the cheapest to the most luxurious, Studebaker planned a family of models made up of the Champion, the bigger and more expensive Land Cruiser, and the flagship Commander.
The starting point of that family was the Champion, which received an all-new design. Under the supervision of the legendary French designer Raymond Loewy, the new Studebaker Champion was a milestone design. No longer characterized by a separate bonnet, fenders and sides as in the pre-war designs of yore, the new Champion featured a ‘ponton’ style—which made the car look longer, wider, and lower—and at the same time provided for more internal space, as well as greater boot volume.
Defining a three-volume form, with the fender flowing through to the rear (yet made interesting with the shapely bulge of the rear fender), the design of the 1947 Studebaker Champion had the automotive world astounded by its advanced styling and practical features. The two-door coupe version—badged the Starlight—featured a deeply curved rear window (in four pieces).
Designed by a budding young talent, Virgil Exner, who was part of Raymond Loewy’s team, the Studebaker coupe was acknowledged as a veritable design breakthrough, making the Champion a very desirable mid-range model. On offer were four-door and two-door sedans, a two-door five-seater coupe and a convertible with two bench seats, as well as a two-door coupe with a single three-seater bench.
Going with the lowered and widened look was a chassis that was lower and wider too. The suspension system was redesigned to be more comfortable, what with independent double wishbones at the front. At the rear, the rigid axle was mounted on longitudinal leaf springs. Under the bonnet, the in-line six was retained from before, but with the capacity increased to 2786cc, now producing 80bhp at 4000rpm. Mated to a three-speed manual gearbox, and with a weight of 1550kg, the Champion could cruise at over 130 km/h.
Whilst the Champion was setting the sales charts afire in the US thanks to the slogan ‘First by far with a post-War car’, a certain Ghanshyam Das Birla, who was very close to Mahatma Gandhi and a great supporter of the Quit India movement, realised that there was considerable potential in setting up an automotive assembly plant in India, given the possibility of independence. That was how Hindustan Motors was incorporated in 1942, with a registered office at the tiny Gujarat port town of Okha.
Post India’s independence, by 1948, Hindustan Motors migrated to West Bengal, and set up a factory in a town called Uttarpara, some 15 kilometres north of Calcutta. And that’s where they began to assemble the first set of Studebaker Champions, as the Birlas had signed up an assembly agreement with Studebaker Corporation.
The point of contention is this: when were the very first Champions assembled at Uttarpara? In 1949 or in 1950? So, would a 1949 Champion sold in India be an import? Or one of the first to be assembled in India? What would be historically more significant—the imported one or one which is one of the earliest to be assembled in India?
The car on this page is a 1949 Studebaker Champion. “The car was owned by an affluent family in South India, changed hands within the family, travelled across states and then eventually landed with Chennai-based collector Ranjit Pratap,” explains the car’s current owner, Bangalore-based enthusiast Kedarnath Swamy.
Kedar (as Kedarnath Swamy is popularly known as) acquired the car from Pratap in July 2020. “It formerly belonged to good friend Ranjit Pratap, who owns 90-plus historic vehicles,” explains Kedar, adding that “during a conversation, he expressed his desire to part with this Studebaker. I bought the car in a fully restored condition. I’m planning to procure an original radio, bonnet monogram, front parking lights and antenna soon.”
“It’s indeed a great feeling to drive this car,” explains Kedar, adding that “People on the road wave, cheer and express their appreciation by showing a thumbs up. They regularly request for pictures, post them on social media (which comes back to me after several rounds), some even enquire if the car is for sale. In the beginning, the main question people usually ask is how old is the car? How long have you had it? Is it petrol or diesel?”
The question, though, that we would like to ask is the one presented before: “What would make this car historically more significant? Would it be a more valued and appreciated if it was an import or if it was one of the first to be assembled in India?”
Kedar’s thinking is this: “The point is to cherish the brand Studebaker in India. It has its own historical significance. An American iron which has been covering miles and years on Indian roads with loads of memories.”
Yet, given that we Indians seem to have a fascination for the imported versus what is made in India, and as a contrast to the beliefs in certain quarters that India’s own automotive heritage can be allowed to be ‘scrapped’ (versus preserving ‘imported vintage and classic cars’), we would love to hear your frank opinion.
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