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Studebaker Champions

By Bill Tricarico

To fully understand the critical importance of the 1939-40-41 Champions to the very survival of the Studebaker Corporation and its impact on the auto industry, it may help to review the history of the era.

In the mid-1930’s, the Great Depression is in full swing, Buick is winning the prestige market by a large margin, and the car-buying public is demanding value for its sparse dollars. Studebaker, following weak sales in 1938, introduces the aptly-named Champion, designed from a “clean sheet,” not utilizing older parts, to be one of the lightest and most fuel efficient cars of its time.

Champion’s 1939 price tag ranged from $650 to $800. The in-line 164.3-cubic-inch six cylinder engine was a minor masterpiece, weighing only 455 pounds, including the transmission and averaging about 155 pounds less than the comparable engines of Chevrolet, Ford, and Plymouth but with only six less horsepower.

Although a risky venture for a small independent auto maker, pre-war Champions were a huge commercial success. Studebaker sold 30,000 “Champs” in its introductory year, As owners, especially over-the road salesmen, bragged about 25 MPG efficiency and top speeds around 80 MPH, sales skyrocketed in both 1940 and 1941. Alas, with the start of World War II, Studebaker, as well as most manufacturers in the United States, concentrated completely on the war effort. Studebaker was known for the US6 truck, 1200-HP engines for the B-17 Flying Fortress, and the all-terrain Weasel.

As a sophomore in high school in 1962, Fred Rapp did not know much about Studebaker’s history. What he did know was that Dad had purchased a 20-year-old car from a neighbor for Fred and his twin brother to drive to school. Cool, right? But, even better, Dad was also a valuable resource as a top-flight mechanic. He kept the car running well and taught Fred the basics of auto repair. Fred soon became an expert; he learned everything he could about the 1941 Studebaker. The more he knew, the more he liked. So much so, that, when he was able, Fred purchased two more Champions on eBay. With his vast knowledge of the inner workings and parts from Studebaker International, Fred keeps the vehicles running smoothly.

The three-car lineup in his driveway is an impressive sight to passers-by and car enthusiasts in the area. Fred’s “high school” car is a blue 1941 sedan. “Bluey” was built in Los Angeles. It is flanked by a 1940 beige 2-door coupe (Dewey) and another 1941 red sedan (Ruby). Dewey and Ruby were built at Studebaker’s main plant in South Bend, Indiana. All three have slight stylistic differences, body types vary a bit, and the paint sets them apart, but, under the hood and below the headliner, they are three editions of the same car. For example, by inserting a key and depressing the clutch, each of the Champions springs to life. Clutch-activated starting is an innovation attributable to Studebaker’s engineers. None of the cars have heaters per se, but each of them is equipped with a unique “Climatizer.” All three have dashboard-activated hood releases which must be well maintained because they are prone to rust.

 Since protocol of the day required ‘new’ styling each model year, Studebaker offered a side-stripe of a contrasting body color for its 1941 Champions, to differentiate the ‘41s from the 40’s, for an additional cost of $5.

Fred plans to keep the Champions running as well as he can for as long as he can, and in original condition. When it’s time, his favorite nephew will take on the role of chief mechanic and champion of the Studebaker fleet. 

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