THE ELEGANT FOUR-DOOR CONVERTIBLE body style is commonly associated with prewar classics and the 1961-67 Lincoln Continental. In the 1930s, several manufacturers offered drop-top versions of their top-of-the-line sedans. The high price of making the big convertibles guaranteed low production and exclusivity for owners. Studebaker was one of several automakers that produced four-door convertibles to enhance their images.
Studebaker had entered the automobile industry with an electric car in 1902 and began building gasoline-powered cars in 1904. Studebakers were medium-priced cars and sold well until a combination of poor management decisions and the deepening Depression forced the company into receivership in 1933. It emerged and began a long relationship with the industrial design firm of Raymond Loewy (designer of the iconic Coke bottle, among other things). The first Loewy-designed Studebakers were the 1938 models, including the Commander and the President.
The 1938 Commander was powered by a six-cylinder L-head engine with a displacement of 226 cubic inches and 90 hp. A 250-cid eight-cylinder engine with 110 hp powered the larger Studebaker model. The convertible sedan was the top of each line.
This particular car, which sold for $1,365 in 1938, is of special interest because it was built with right-hand drive for export and is loaded with absorbing details. Chevron-shaped headlamps from the President line are faired into the front tenders, with the name "Riteway Export" molded into each lens. The name is also lightly stamped into the headlight fairings — "Rite" on the left, "Way" on the right Optional Studebaker wig-wag taillights swing from side to side when the brakes are applied.
Suicide doors open nearly perpendicular to the body for easy entry. Windows roll completely down into the doors, and a narrow body-colored panel filling the gap between front and rear windows is removed when the top is lowered. The interior feels roomy, with leather bench seats stretching across both front and rear. The rear seat has club chair armrests.
The dashboard is elegantly simple. The speedometer and gauges for fuel, temperature, oil pressure and battery are clustered behind a clear plastic fascia. These share the painted metal dashboard with an ashtray and a clock, as well as a tiny radio dial the size of a postage stamp at the top of the dash. All other controls, including the Studebaker heater, are located unobtrusively below the dashboard.
The two-piece windshield is curved, with wind wings set behind each windshield pillar Looking out above the dashboard, it's easy to imagine this as a postwar luxury car.
The Commander's engine starts easily with a turn of the key and a push of the chrome starter button under the center of the dash. The first and lasting impression of driving the car is the extraordinarily long clutch travel. The driver's left knee nearly touches the high-mounted steering wheel before the car — finally — rolls forward. Steering is impossibly heavy at a stop but becomes easier as speed builds. The three-speed gearbox has no synchronizer in first but engages easily. Power is smooth but measured, shifting into high gear before 30 mph. On the road, the car embodies rolling elegance. It brought $139,000 when it was sold last year.
In the postwar years, manufacturers turned away from the low-production convertible sedan in order to meet pent-up demand with higher-volume models.
Studebaker was one of the first to introduce all-new designs after World War II, including Loewy's 1947 Starlight Coupe and the 1950 "bullet nose" Studebakers. These new designs proved to be too extreme for many buyers, however, prompting the question of whether the car was coming or going. Loewy produced a landmark design for Studebaker with he 1953 coupe, before the cash-strapped corporation glided slowly toward oblivion by 1966.