Chevrolet had finally put its small block V8 engine into the Corvette, and had shown Corvette-based concepts wearing Oldsmobile and Pontiac badges and styling cues. Ford had introduced its new two-seat Thunderbird. Chrysler didn’t have a production sports car, but had unveiled concepts for that genre including the Special Sports Coupe and the Falcon, the Dodge Granada and first in the Firearrow series, and the Plymouth Explorer.
Kaiser had actually beaten GM in the fiberglass body-building race with its sliding-door sports car, the Darrin. Were that not enough, Jaguar’s XK 120 was tearing up country roads and road racing tracks. And, of course, there were MGs — TDs and the new TF — Triumphs, Porsche 356s, and 250 GT and 375 America Ferraris.
By the mid-1950s, sports cars — or at least two-seaters that looked like sports cars — were all the rage among America’s post-war driving enthusiasts.
Studebaker was desperate to participate, though the historic but financially struggling automaker from South Bend, Ind., simply couldn’t afford to tool up an all-new and purpose-built model. So it did the next best thing. It rolled out the Studebaker Speedster, a car built only for the 1955 model year.
“They built 2,215 of them,” said car collector Gordon Apker. “They built them because of the Corvette and Thunderbird and Jaguar XK 120 and Kaiser Darrin. Everyone was building a sports car, so Studebaker decided to build a sports car too, but it didn’t have a budget for it, so it took its top of the line model, the President, and tweaked it.”
In 1955, Studebaker returned the President model to its lineup for the first time since 1942. But instead of an upright, big-fendered, pre-war car, the new President was a Raymond Loewy-designed car, available as a four door sedan, a two door coupe or as the low-slung, two door Speedster.
Presidents were powered by a 175 horsepower, 259.2cid V8 engine. However, for the special Speedster version of the car, the engine was tuned to provide 185 horsepower and 258 ft/lb of torque while breathing through a four barrel Carter carburetor and exhaling through a dual exhaust system.
The standard equipment list allowed buyers to choose either an automatic or overdrive transmission. The car also came with power steering and brakes, an eight-tube radio, tinted glass, 2 speed windshield wipers, Speedster badges with checkered-flag emblems and more. (Cars built in South Bend wore Speedster badges while those built in Los Angeles had President and Speedster insignia on their quarter panels.)
Inside, the Speedster got a very special engine-turned dashboard — much like some historic Duesenbergs had featured — with a 160-mph speedometer and a tachometer with a needle that could point to 8,000 rpm. Seats were covered with quilted leather.
To enhance the Speedster’s visual appeal, it had a Crown Vic-style basket handle over its roof panel, a gold-plated hood ornament, and was available in half a dozen two tone and even two three-tone paint combinations.
The most memorable of those color combinations was a Hialeah Green and Sun Valley Yellow duo known as Lemon and Lime, which is the paint scheme on Lot #5009.2 at Barrett-Jackson.
“One famous quote about the car came from one of the line workers at Studebaker,” Apker said. “A reporter asked what he thought about the color, and the Studebaker staffer responded, ‘You may not like it, but you won’t forget it.’”
Apker added, “It doesn’t allow you to walk by without attracting some kind of comment.”
Apker noted that Speedsters “have a horrible survival rate.”
“They rusted out,” he said, “but this car is absolutely rust free.”
Apker explained that Studebaker built the car with very, very small louvers under the drip rails, but that those louvers were easy to clog.
He knows, he said, because he drove a Speedster back when he was in college.
Decades later, he “stumbled onto this car.” he said. “This one has every one of its little louvers still intact.”
– — By Larry Edsall