Items of Interest

Studebaker Life Support

One Arizonan's quest to keep a dead brand from Indiana alive

By Phil Berg,

During his 31-year career as a jet and industrial turbine repair man, Ken Michael started collecting, driving, and restoring Studebakers as a hobby. Recall that Indiana based Studebaker sold its last car in 1966. Studebakers were occasionally competitive A.J. Foyt raced one in 53 and a reputation for durability came from winning the 4000 mile 61 Trans Canada winter rally. Raised on a Virginia farm, Michael fell hard for the styling of the Raymond Loewy designed Studebaker Starlight coupe he bought in 1959, as well as the six other Studebakers in is collection. After retiring in 2002, he expected to split his time between fishing and restoring his cars. But people with Studebakers started calling him to fix their cars. The Studebaker needy kept piling up; last summer, Michael hired two technicians to help him with the seven customer cars he's restoring. For each job he takes, he has to turn down two. We visited his shop in Payson, Arizona, to find the secret of his prosperity.

Why Studebakers?

I just love the styling. In 1953, when the Starlight coupe came out, I was 12 years old. I was so bowled over by that car, to me, there still has never been a production car as beautiful. So i had to have one, but i couldn't afford one until i was 18. I bought a 53 yellow and black Starlight off a used car lot.

How will were Studebakers make?

My dad had Studebaker trucks on the farm. The farm was a proving ground for mechanical equipment, and the trucks suffered. The factory welded the boxed frames, but not all the way around, where they used rivets. When i do a frame, it gets full seam welds. The original motor mounts fail, allowing the engine to rock and the fan to strike the radiator. So i put a strap across the engine mount to secure it.

How do you test the quality of your work on Studebakers?

The winter of 79 was the last rebuild on my yellow and black Starlight coupe. in 1991, I used it in Mexico City as my daily transportation, then i got a job in San Diego, loaded up the family, and drove it there 2400 miles. In almost to the Guatemaln border, then all the way back up the Pacific coast 7000 miles in a few weeks. Studebakers raced so many times in the Carrera Panamericana in the 50s that the Mexicans knew what it was. I was stopped often on the street, people saying, How much would you take for it? But i never sold it.

How did you get the cool supercharged Golden Hawk?

There was an older guy in Phoenix who put the car up for sale. Hot rodders would come to look at it, and he would run them off because he didn't want the car butchered. They wanted to put in a big block Chevy, and he wouldn't talk to them. He realized that i would put it back to original. So he told me, I want you to own my car.

How did you learn bout cars?

From Hot Rod magazine; I recently learned how to rebuild automatic transmissions; I build engines, too.

How log will your cars last?

I have a phrase, You can drive a Sutebaker forever. My lifelong ambition is proving that's true.

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