Collectible Classic: 1950-1951 Studebaker "Bullet Nose" Commander

Bob Merlis
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Eric McCandless
Collectible Classic: 1950-1951 Studebaker \

Just say the word "Studebaker," and the chances are good that the image that springs immediately to mind is of the 1950-1951 models, a.k.a. the "bullet nose" or "airplane" Studey. Although Studebaker was the first major manufacturer to put a totally new design on the market (using the slogan "First by far with a postwar car") for the '47 model year, it's the face-lifted version of that basic car, which came three years later, that was paradoxically radical and commercially successful. One of the most oft-heard Studebaker clichés - "they were so ahead of their time" - is exemplified by the bullet nose. Truly a Buck Rogers vision of the future, Studebaker's gamble with aircraft design vocabulary paid off for two glorious years starting in 1950.

Like their '47-'49 predecessors, the bullet-nose Studebakers featured a full-width, or "envelope," body with integral fenders as promoted by industrial design icon Raymond Loewy and executed by Virgil Exner. This pioneering three-box design that featured a rear deck almost as lengthy as the hood yielded yet another time-worn cliché: "Is it going or is it coming?" Har-de-har-har.

Studebaker's Starlight coupe - sold in both low-priced Champion and luxurious Commander model lines - was the most special iteration of all postwar Studebakers and tested one's credulity. The rear window wrapped around to meet the B-pillars, as the C-pillars were dispensed with entirely. Rear-seat passengers were treated to the equivalent of a Cinemascope-styled picture window. The body style was and is nothing short of sensational and continued to be offered when the freshened bullet-nose design debuted. If ever there were a Studebaker to, so to speak, out-Studebaker all others, it would be the '50-'51 Starlight.

After the launch of his postwar design, Exner left the South Bend fold, so the very talented, but largely unsung, Bob Bourke did the heavy lifting for Loewy on the redesign. With fighter-plane styling in the front and streamlined-railway-car "Vista Dome" treatment in the back, there've been few cars as stunning before or since. The design leadership was matched with comparatively up-to-the-minute engineering to make it more than worthy of contemporary consideration. Was there anything more modern on the road back then? Not really.

The 1950 bullet-nose lineup came in three sizes, Goldilocks-style. Baby Bear was the Champion, riding on a 113-inch wheelbase; the Commander was Mama Bear, with a 120-inch wheelbase; there were 124 inches between the wheels of Papa Bear, the Land Cruiser that could be ordered only as a four-door sedan. There was no wraparound, Starlight-like rear window on sedans and convertibles, but as a consolation, four-door sedans got rear-hinged suicide doors in the back. The next year saw some styling refinements in the front end with flush, rather than recessed, grillework, and there was also consolidation in that the Commander and the Champion shared the same 115-inch wheelbase and the Land Cruiser moved down to 119 inches, about the same as today's Bentley Continental Flying Spur.

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