WATCHING THE Jack Irish TV show recently, I was pleased to see ‘our Jack’ still cruising the mean streets in his Studebaker Hawk. You don’t see Hawks that often these days, either in the metal or on screen. However, with lapsed lawyer Irish trying to eke out a living as a private investigator in today’s Melbourne, choosing a distinctive classic as his everyday wheels seems a bit odd. Hard enough, surely, to discreetly tail your quarry even in a generic Toyota, without having your classic Hawk popping up repeatedly in his mirrors. But what would I know? Lieutenant Columbo seemed to keep LA’s villains in check despite his ultra-obvious Peugeot 403 cabrio, and as for Thomas Magnum… I’ve got a soft spot for the odd Studebaker model as well as for Studebaker’s place in American automotive history.

Considering that classic Studebakers are relatively unappreciated these days, if prices are any guide, perhaps there’s a touch of the ‘orphan puppy’ factor in their appeal to me. A budget of $15,000 -20,000 seems to get you among decent late-1940s/ early-1950s Champions or even mid-1960s Larks. Sexier Studeys like Hawk GTs seem to be available for not much more. Double that and you’re looking at exotic Avantis.

Athough the South Bend, Indiana, Studebaker business was only ever a bit-player compared to Detroit’s heavy hitters, it was there from the start and often punched above its weight. I’ve always admired the chutzpah of its post-WWII marketing slogan: ‘First by far with a post-war car’. The radical look of the 1947 Starlight coupe, designed by Virgil Exner, deservedly took the spotlight and influenced the styling of the whole Studebaker range for some years.

My favourites are the 1950/51 Champions and Commanders with the singlespinner, bullet-nose styling.

Okay, Tucker had already done the single-spinner thing in 1948, and Ford in 1949. But to my eye Tucker didn’t get

the aesthetics as well resolved as Studebaker did and Ford’s effort was a bit bland and two-dimensional. I knew a Sydney family who so loved their bullet-nose Champion, bought new in 1950, that they just kept it. Last I heard it was still in the family.

It’s easy to forget that in 1951 Studebaker pioneered OHV V8s in affordable family cars. Sure, top-shelf Cadillacs and upmarket Oldsmobiles had OHV V8-power from 1949, but Ford’s OHV Y-block motor didn’t arrive until 1954.

Chevrolet and Plymouth buyers had to wait for another year for their bent-eight power option.

Also overlooked is Studebaker’s muscle-car moment, that again beat the big guys to the punch.

According to Speed Age magazine, a Studebaker Golden Hawk was quicker down the dragstrip in 1956 than a Corvette, a Thunderbird and a Chrysler 300D. The Golden Hawk took around eight seconds for 0-100km/h and topped out at 200km/h-plus. Not bad numbers for ’56, eh?

The Avanti coupe released in 1962 pressed my buttons.

The avant-garde styling of its fibreglass body was refreshingly different to the usual Detroit look. Front disc brakes were a first for an American production car.

With the optional Paxton blower its 289-cube V8 produced a decent turn of speed.

Despite Studebaker’s enthusiasm for novel styling and powertrain engineering, it always struggled financially – mergers with Packard in the 1950s and then later with aircraft company Curtiss- Wright failed to save it. Car production finally ceased in 1966.

Unlike Jack Irish I’ve never owned a Hawk. However I can confirm being followed by one in my yoof, and I did spot it in my mirror. Sadly I didn’t spot it in time to keep me out of trouble. As well as using the more familiar Studebaker Larks during the ’60s, Victoria Police had a couple of Hawks on highway patrol work. And one of them got me…