Our 1960 Studebaker Hawk

Our 1960 Studebaker Hawk

A Story by Martin Durso
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Why would a great car sit idly for years despite needing only a relatively minor repair?

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Our 1960 Studebaker Hawk

In the mid-19th Century five brothers from South Bend, IN started a company to build wagons for farmers, miners, and the military.  At the beginning of the 20th Century, the company shifted to automobiles.  Whether moved by horsepower or by actual horses, Studebaker’s vehicles earned a reputation for quality and reliability.  Thus, its WWII era advertisements proudly and reasonably touted that the engines in the famous American B-17 bomber called the “Flying Fortress” had been built by “Studebaker craftsmen.”
            We don’t envision “craftsmen” working on an assembly line in which monotonous tasks blur the contributions made by flesh and steel.   Of course, Studebaker used modern production methods.  At the same time, its workers were among the best paid in the industry.  Ultimately, however, Studebaker’s high labor costs and its relatively small size left it unable to compete.  
            After a contemplated mega-merger with three other smaller (now, former) car companies -- Packard, Hudson and Nash -- fell through, and a deal with Packard alone proved too little too late, Studebaker tried to survive by concentrating its product line.  Whereas it had once produced five different Hawk models, including the flagship Golden Hawk and the best-selling Silver Hawk, by 1960 the kettle had been reduced to just one survivor simply called “the Hawk.”  Moreover, the ’60 Hawks reached showrooms late and may not have landed at all but for pressure from Studebaker dealers who needed something with more panache than the Lark -- the company’s compact.  To be fair, the Lark was an innovative automobile but at a time when consumers were looking for four-wheel rocket ships, like the flashy finned beasts being produced by Chrysler, Ford and especially GM at the time, the Lark screamed “taxicab.”  In fact, a hack version of the Lark called the "Econ-O-Miler" sold pretty well. 
            There was nothing milquetoast about the 1960 Studebaker Hawk.   Its long sloping hood and short thick trunk gave it a muscular profile that Ford would later emulate in the Mustang.  Studebaker’s “winged warrior” also boasted a bold front grille and nattily sloped tail fins.  Overall, while still a family car, the Hawk conveyed a promise of power and, even when equipped with its standard drive train -- a 210 hp V-8 and an automatic transmission dubbed the “Flight-o-matic” -- the Hawk delivered on its promise.    
            But alas, solid cars and earnest measures to economize simply were not enough to save Studebaker.   The company that had sold 300,000 cars in 1950 only produced 50,000 a decade later.  A bold bid to survive -- the 1962 introduction of the Avanti, a luxury coupe that could reach almost 180 mph -- also failed.  Though its Canadian operations lingered a little longer, Studebaker stopped most production in 1963.  By then it was just a 1% asterisk on the American car market.  Amid reasonable uncertainly about the future availability of replacement parts, the price of used Studebakers plummeted.  Thus, it was in 1965 that my family could afford to buy the grandest automobile that ever graced our driveway: a black and pristine 1960 Studebaker Hawk.   
            Food was plentiful but money was always tight in our house.  Buying a “brand new” car was out of the question.  Auto repair shops also were for other people.  With gas cheap, my Dad chose a highly discretionary approach to preventative maintenance.  As a result, most of our cars didn’t purr so much as they growled.  Like a grandfather trying to complete his story, our engines often sputtered objections when turned off.   And like an old world grandma worried about the future of her family in a foreign land, our valves “tsked tsked” loudly enough to be heard a block away.   
            The Hawk was different.  When we bought the car, it had only been driven 25,000 miles and it had been serviced at the dealer pursuant to the manufacturer’s recommendations.   These were novel if not shocking concepts in my house.  The car had been owned by an older couple who had no children.  They represented that the back seat had never been sat in.  This was nearly impossible for the six kids in my family to grasp.  Moreover, the car had this great sound when idling and, with its flawless black paint, shiny chrome, and powder blue leather interior, it looked great too.  By a long shot, the Hawk was the nicest newest used car we had ever owned.
            Not long after we proudly drove the Hawk home, the Batman series premiered on TV.  The show attracted some great guests but besides Caped Crusader himself the real standout in the campy series was the Batmobile.  It was shiny black, with a long front hood, short passenger compartment, and angled tail light fins.  “Holy Hormones Batman!”  The Batmobile looked like our Hawk fitted for combat.  In these circumstances, a ten year old whose family had owned only junkers before might be expected and forgiven for taking a few liberties in presenting the Hawk to his friends. 
            My best lie was that the car had radar.  Near the speedometer, Studebaker had cut a place in the brushed aluminum dashboard for a circular gauge -- perhaps for a clock.  What our Batmobile had instead was a black disk, under glass, on which had been painted a large white cross and concentric white circles.  The placeholder looked exactly like a radar screen, at least those depicted in one of the great movies of the day, such as “Fantastic Voyage” (Raquel in a tight white wet suit, armed to do battle with raging corpuscles).   Of course, the Hawk’s radar was only used when necessary but, trust me, it really worked. 
            During its first five years in our house, the Hawk performed flawlessly despite the fact that my mother, bless her beloved soul, drove like Batwoman.  One foot on the gas, the other on the brakes.  Both pedals stomped, sometimes nearly together.  When driving with her, it was smart to remain alert but it was even more important to remain limber so that your head could roll to accept rapid acceleration, deceleration, and cornering. 
            In 1970 the Hawk’s Flight-o-Matic transmission gave out.  Automatic transmissions are really complicated and rebuilding one is far beyond even the best backyard mechanic.  So, based on the belief that it still had a long future, the Hawk was taken to a transmission repair shop.  We got it back two weeks later and $500 poorer, shifting smoothly once again.  What happened next may be difficult to understand but it’s true.  We had our ups and downs in my house but only one truly poignant curiosity -- this one. 
            About a month after we got the Hawk back, it developed an exhaust leak due to stripped or cracked manifold bolts.  A car’s exhaust manifold directs hot and dangerous gases away from the engine and the passenger compartment.   The manifold repair job was not mechanically complicated but it required a garage with a lift.   My Dad had our driveway.  Thus, the only reasonable choice, particularly after spending all the money on the transmission, was to bring the Hawk to a repair shop and get it fixed again.  Instead, it sat idly in our driveway for the next 15 years.  And that, my friends, is no radar story. 
            Over time, the Hawk became my father’s storage shed.  He packed the trunk with tools and loaded less greasy items into the interior.  He kept the driver’s seat empty and, on rare occasions, he would charge the battery and run it up and down the street.  Despite sitting for years between such exercises, the Hawk ran surprisingly well.  Of course, effectively without an exhaust system, it sounded like an Indy car in your living room. 
            My folks never had the Hawk repaired.  Instead, in 1986, after my Dad retired, they sold it to a young man who had knocked on their door and said that he’d like to restore it. 
            I really don’t know why an almost serviceable automobile sat in our driveway for a decade and a half.  I know our neighbors wondered and fretted about it.  We’d mow the weeds that sprouted around it from time to time but it still looked pretty shabby.
            One has to wonder why the Hawk was allowed to sit for fifteen years.  On one hand, my generally cheerful Dad did leave a lot of jobs around the house in a nearly completed state; perhaps the idle Hawk just didn’t bother him that much.  On the other hand, the car’s period of idleness included a difficult time in my Mom’s life during which her driving skills diminished; perhaps Dad kept the Hawk grounded in order to protect the woman and family he loved. 
            While both of these theories are plausible, I think the real truth is that my Dad simply could not bear to take the Hawk to a repair shop for “exhaust work” yet, at the same time, he knew that he could not fix the damn manifold lying on his back in the driveway.  Caught between two unacceptable alternatives, he took a Hippocratic approach:  first, do no harm.  Then, as time passed, he began to see himself as a type of caretaker.
            I may be rationalizing here, particularly since I’m now older than my father was when he let the Hawk sit, but the caretaker hypothesis really may not be so far-fetched.  When my Dad finally sold the car, it was a perfect candidate for restoration, having a straight body, a reasonably clean interior, and relatively low miles on a drive train that included a “freshly” rebuilt transmission.  He sold the car to someone who had the ability, money, and passion needed to restore it.  By holding on to the Hawk for so long, my father had preserved, maybe even increased, its value. By 1986, the 26 year old Hawk had become quite collectable.   
            My Dad never said how he felt about losing the Studebaker, and I wasn’t there when it left.  So, I get a chance to write on a blank slate.  Here’s what I choose to recall:  when he watched the Hawk being carefully towed away on a flatbed, my Dad quietly clapped his hands, nodded, and grinned a bit.  He smiled because the car was headed to a repair shop, not a junkyard.  He was relieved that his long watch was over and, most important, he could see that our 1960 Studebaker Hawk would soon be flying down the road again. 

© 2021 Martin Durso


Author's Note

Martin Durso
Probably best for car lovers and Batman fans. Story requires some patience in the beginning.

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I always liked the Studebaker. The designers weren't afraid to stick their necks out. We had a neighbor who had an Avanti. I think it was far and away a cooler car than the Mustang and the T Bird in their respective days. Well written thanks for sharing and for the memories.

Posted 4 Months Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.




Reviews

I always liked the Studebaker. The designers weren't afraid to stick their necks out. We had a neighbor who had an Avanti. I think it was far and away a cooler car than the Mustang and the T Bird in their respective days. Well written thanks for sharing and for the memories.

Posted 4 Months Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Car/motorcycle lover here, and I very much enjoyed this. I got my Studebaker("55 President Speedster) from a junk yard about 1965. The owner had been a high school football player who died after a tough practice, and his dad just didn't to see it anymore. I loved any kind of car at that time, but especially loved Studebakers after that. I later wanted to buy a hawk (It had the Packard engine) with the automatic transmission gone out, but didn't have $150.00.
Like you and your family, money was always tight. A great read this is, and very well written. It's a pleasure to read something that's not full of errors!

Posted 4 Months Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Martin Durso

4 Months Ago

Thanks very much Samuel

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Added on March 31, 2021
Last Updated on April 2, 2021

Author

Martin Durso
Martin Durso

CARLISLE, PA



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