A rare classic 1956 Studebaker Champion
Brian Sutton fell in love with the Studebaker Champion when spotting the 1956 range in his dad’s newspaper. He swore he’d have one, one day.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that he still has the Herald classified ad from June 23, 1962, that led him to his 1956 Champion.
“Studebaker, 1956, £200 recently spent, new WoF, new battery and tyres, exc. cond. £700.”
He bought it, or so he’d thought. It turned out it’d been run by a company rep, there was money owing on it, it was repossessed, and he had to scrape up the cash to pay extra to get it back. “A sad lesson at 21 years old.”
That was before he met Shirley, now his wife, at a dance in 1963. A girlfriend rang her “about 9.30. I was in bed, my hair in rollers, Mum was saying ‘you’re mad!’ But I’m impulsive, so I got dressed and titivated, and caught a taxi. I didn’t get there until 10pm!”
Brian was the first to ask her to dance: “The first song was Blame it on the Bossa Nova. He offered me an orange juice and asked me where I lived. It was on his way home,” and so she met the Studebaker.
Later it carried them to their honeymoon, and over the years towed a caravan on family holidays. When the four kids were small the family moved to Australia, and the Studebaker spent 22 years off the road, sitting idle under cover.
“My dad used it for a few years, but it was getting long in the tooth, and he wanted a new vehicle. He put it in the garage behind his car from 1971 to 1994. I was lucky he’d been a mechanic, and had a soft spot for it.”
There were never very many of these four-door Champion variants of the more common two-door car, and it’s now rare. The model was a clean-sheet design in 1939, light for the era, and launched with a straight-six engine that carried it through to its demise in 1964.
His is a fourth-generation car, and so had tailfins and pronounced over-headlight eyebrows.
After Brian got it out of storage in 1994, he spent a year pulling off “everything that would come off easily,” and anti-rusting it. “I put Fisholene into every crevice. I took it to a professional upholsterer and painter in 1995, and we’ve been enjoying it ever since.”
He replaced the suspension rubbers and bushings, and sorted an engine rebuild — partly with unleaded fuel in mind — using parts from the US such as new pistons, and new valves. “It’s all so micro-engineered that now it’d be many times more efficient than when it came out of the factory.”
The only changes from original are the radial tyres and a solid-state ignition instead of points. Luckily, Studebaker parts are still easy to come by; they weren’t building cars after the 1960s but there’s still a great warehouse of parts. “I could buy 60th-oversize pistons, the engine was so worn out it needed them.”
Despite the work on the car, it regularly wins “best unrestored” at rallies. “I squeezed anti-rust everywhere and had it reupholstered. In my mind it is restored.”
The couple get the Studebaker out at least once a fortnight, though the last time they went any distance was some years ago, to Wellington.
“The engine work made it much easier to drive. The problem is it only has three gears. There was an optional overdrive, and I have all the parts to do it.
“We’re just enjoying it as is before we do more. Partly we’re thinking about originality. The four-speed is a BorgWarner that was put into Studebakers, but I’m having second thoughts.”
The cabin is a glowing teal jewel, the dash interrupted by very few dials. “It was a barebones car.”
The 3-litre engine purrs away. “It’s so low-geared you can drive it in top gear. It’s a long-stroke engine, with huge torque, great for towing — we used to tow a boat to the Bay of Islands.”
There’s no power steer or power brakes — though it does have a cigarette lighter, and a hook for the sales rep’s jacket.
Brian and Shirley don’t plan to own another classic. “I like one special car,” he says, and you don’t get much more special than the vehicle that carries you back to your youth, and the young girl on that late-night dance floor.