Truck Restoration Projects
Sentimental Studebaker journey
Peter Limon is a sucker for Studebaker Champ pick-ups and he’s owned half-a-dozen over the years – but this one is special, as Jim Gibson found out.
Peter’s father bought this Champ in 1963 and sold it in the late 1960s. It is a 1960 model and his father had seen an advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald from York Motors, the importer and distributor for Studebaker, announcing it was having a sale of old and newly stocked Champs.
At a woolshed in Canal Road, Alexandria, where they were stored the satin-grey ute stood out, because not all of them had chromed grilles and it appealed to Limon senior. He had designed a chicken-plucking machine and needed a large ‘ute’ (a classic US-style pick-up), to deliver his machines to customers.
He built a canopy for it and used it for deliveries until business dropped off, because he’d saturated the market and customers had dried up. He then sold the Champ, much to son Peter’s disappointment.
Champs were assembled from imported SKD (Sectionally Knocked Down) kits at Canada Cycle & Motor Company in Melbourne, but, as you would have gathered from the sale of some stock that was three-years-old in 1963, Studebaker Champ customers weren’t lining up at dealers with chequebooks in hand.
Ford’s ubiquitous F-Series and Chrysler’s Dodge were much more popular choices for those customers looking to purchase US-style utes back then.
Peter was a young boy at the time of his father’s Champ ownership and he’d really loved this old ute, so in 1974 he decided to buy his own Champ and continued to buy and sell quite a few over the years.
One of them he converted into a tow truck, but tow truck specifications had been stringently legislated by then, so he had to get the engineering spec’s from the US, to have it NSW-certified. A tow truck operator in Sydney’s St George district later bought it from him.
Champs had become accepted by tow operators of the day, however F-Series and Dodges were far more popular choices by the industry.
Reunited on the street
Peter was driving along a back street in Hurstville, one day in 1979, when he spotted a purple coloured, badly damaged Champ on the side of the road, outside a block of flats. He knew from the unique towbar/rear step arrangement it was his father’s long-lost ute.
He spent some time door-knocking the units in search of the owner, but didn’t find him until he went back the following day.
It seems the owner had bought the Champ, of all things, as a wedding present for his new wife! Because of its sentimental value he was reluctant to sell it, but after several meetings with the persistent Peter, he finally agreed to sell.
A condition was that his wife wasn’t to see it leave the street and never see her prized wedding gift again. Peter agreed to the caveat and removed it by stealth.
The Champ had suffered a roll-over and was in a very sad state. Over the years it had the ute back removed and a tray-body fitted. The previous owner had told Peter that the culprit who painted it purple had mixed sand in the paint so as to give it a craggy appearance.
Then when Peter showed Limon senior his emotional purchase, the response wasn’t what he expected: “What the hell did you buy that for? It was no good when it was new!
Twenty years then passed before Peter had the old Champ back to its glory days as an Australian-spec’ deluxe model. Business commitments delayed the restoration and the ute sat in a corner of his shed for 18 of that 20-year re-birth.
Australian-assembled Champs had different hubcaps from their US siblings and Champ script on the front guards near the headlights.
They were all spec’d as the deluxe version, with three-speed floor shift transmission and aesthetic chrome air vents below the parking lights and between the headlights and grille, plus a sliding rear window.
Peter stripped the ute of its many non-standard parts and found that the chassis had been cut behind the cab and a F100 chassis welded to the Champ’s front frame section.
He then searched for various pieces, including an engine, chassis and ute tub. Many of the major components of a Champ were actually from Studebaker’s passenger car – the Lark.
Peter was lucky enough to find a stock ute-back and a standard chassis.
A Studebaker 259cu-in V8 was fitted between its front guards; the new tub was bolted on; the cab was repaired and then prepped for a coat of the original Balm satin grey.
Finally, the much loved ute from Peter’s childhood was ready to have a set of registration plates fitted and once more hit the road.
He had the exhaust exiting out of the driver’s side so he could listen to the throaty beat of the little V8 with the driver’s window wound down.
“It’s music to my ears,” said Peter, as he completed, no, continued, on his sentimental journey.
Sadly, like many iconic automobile manufacturers around the world who were instrumental in the development of the horseless carriage in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Studebaker Corporation folded after 69-years of automobile production in 1966.
The first petrol-powered cars (it had dabbled in electric power previously) to be fully manufactured by Studebaker were sold in 1912 and, over the next 50 years, the company established a reputation for quality and reliability.
The original manufacturing plant and home of the marque in South Bend, Indiana, ended production in the northern winter of 1963 and the last Studebaker car rolled out of its Hamilton, Ontario plant in Canada, three years later.
Studebaker was a leader, known for its innovative car designs, with models like the bullet nosed Champion, Commander, Silver and Golden Hawk, as well as the Raymond Lowey designed Avanti, which featured a radical fiberglass body design – these were all leaders in design shapes and ahead of their time.
If you are lucky enough to visit South Bend, Indiana, as the writer was at the launch of the right-hand-drive Sterling HX back in February 2005, call in at the old Studebaker site. These days it is owned by Bendix Corporation and leased to Freightliner Trucks as its proving ground.
There’s a tall grove of pine trees by the gate that was planted in 1927, to spell out the word Studebaker, but these days you can view this script only from the air. However, if the good people at Freightliner Trucks let you into the office reception area, there’s an aerial photograph of the legacy left by this once grand automotive manufacturer.
Apparently, Freightliner opens the facility annually on a weekend, for the Studebaker Club of America to hold its annual concours d’elegance.