By on May 19, 2020

It may have escaped your notice, but things aren’t quite the same lately. I look at my hands more, wondering if the side of my right index finger escaped a good scrubbing 6 minutes earlier. The sight of a box of cookies bought two weeks ago prompts mental calculations about viral half-lives on semi-porous surface areas. For someone who’s already a germaphobe, the past three months has offered all the merriment and relaxation of a POW on bridge-building duty.

And to think I visited the dentist for a filling in January. Where had those hands been?

One calming pastime unrelated to work or worry (and maybe serving as an an antidote to both), involves the silver screen. I watch films. Old films. Bad ones, good ones… terrible ones. All in an environment free of mucus and saliva droplets ejected at terrifying speed from the filthy mouths of strangers. 

In plundering the internet’s endless vaults of public domain and illegally ripped-off films, I keep returning to one era: an era where men don a suit and tie to hop in the shower and women are both tough and feminine. Where smoking is encouraged in both chemical labs and birthing rooms. And where every hoodlum’s pocket and moll’s purse holds a snubnose .38 loaded with 158-grain round nose.

A world where drivers scoot across divan-like bench seats to exit their cars at the curbside, and headroom is always sufficient enough to accommodate the wearing of a felt, wide brim fedora.

We’re talking the film noir era, and its land of stark divisions in morality and endless shadows. In the White House is either Truman or Eisenhower, and in every American’s driveway is a Plymouth or Mercury or Pontiac or DeSoto. But not every driveway. And not every cop car boasts a Big Three badge, either.

Sometimes that wailing black-and-white is an inverted bathtub Nash Ambassador or its later short-front-track follow-up. Sometimes the hired goons stage a hit from — or soften a guy up in — a beat-up Packard Eight, be it a Custom, Deluxe, Super, or Super Deluxe. Who could tell which one? Later on, the fading marque offered up Patricians and 300 Ultramatics and Clippers and Caribbeans for those who remembered its heyday of the Roaring Twenties and Dirty Thirties.

Across a vast, monochrome Los Angeles, glittering and perfect by day, Studebaker Champions and Presidents and Commanders lurk under motionless palms outlined starkly by the brilliant, smog-filled sky. Maybe a Hudson rolls past, maybe a new Rambler. Amid a flurry of mergers, independent domestic brands will soon fade from these streets, replaced by the utter dominance of the Big Three and later invaded by low-priced, industry-rocking imports.

At the moment, however, only a few lurking Volkswagens and a smattering of imported sports cars speak to that still-distant threat lurking overseas. All is right on the streets of America. The diners are full, travelling salesmen are making their rounds, Kelvinator appliances are humming merrily in the cookie-cutter homes of nuclear family suburbia, and finned, be-chromed works of art ply pristine interstates under skies made safe by NORAD and SAC.

Yes, I lose myself in film before returning, bitterly, to the world of 2020. But we’re here to ask a question today, and here it is:

Transport yourself back to the 1950s. Any year of the decade. You have money with which to purchase a new car, but there’s two criteria it must meet: First, it must be domestic, and second, it must not be a member of the Big Three. You know your history. What make, model, and bodystyle will this new ride be?

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37 Comments on “QOTD: Bucking the Big Three?...”

  • avatar

    Easy, I have this weird fantasy of life post WWII where I’ve come back a war hero, got my engineering degree courtesy of the GI Bill and landed my first big job with the aerospace industry somewhere in sunny California. As a reward I go out and buy a 1948 Cadillac coupe. The first year of the iconic fins and modern fastback styling. I’m on top of the world :)

    … and I just read the fine print about NOT being part of the big three. Too bad, my fantasy and I’m sticking to it :)

    • 0 avatar

      Lie2Me. You could have been an advisor for Uncle Joe’s Team and received a Red Star for your service. I would have thought you would have been a Zil man, but then again I’m always surprised by your comments!

      The Studebaker V-8 was an excellent piece of equipment and took to factory Paxton Supercharging very well. Compared to Ford’s Y-Block and Flathead, it was night and day. The Boys from South Bend knew how to do it right!

      • 0 avatar

        Unfortunately, if you chose the V8 in Studebaker’s later models, you couldn’t have air conditioning. There wasn’t enough room under the hood, even for the Avanti.

        • 0 avatar

          True only for the high-performance supercharged R3 (and R4?) with the 304.5; other V8s including the supercharged 289 R2 could be air conditioned.

      • 0 avatar

        “Lie2Me. You could have been an advisor for Uncle Joe’s Team and received a Red Star for your service. I would have thought you would have been a Zil man, but then again I’m always surprised by your comments!”

        It’s not what you know or don’t know that will get you in the end, it’s what you think you know that ain’t so

  • avatar

    The most hotted-up Hudson Hornet my bank account would allow.

  • avatar

    IH Travellall factory 4×4

  • avatar

    One of those Jeep wagons that was on TTAC a week ago.

  • avatar

    I grew up around Studebakers. First impulse would be a 53-57 Commander or President, but Studebakers were somewhat narrow inside, and my dad commented from time to time about the heavy non-power steering in his 56 Commander.

    The 57 Nash Ambassador got over the chipmunk look of the 55-56 models, had the widest interior and best hvac system in the industry. The 57s also had the new AMC 327 V8, instead of the problematic Packard V8/Ultramatic, but I really don’t like the instrument panel.

    The 55 Hudson shared the Nash’s roomy body, but with a better instrument cluster. The powertrain choices aren’t great: the 308 or the Packard V8.

    I would have to go with a 56 Studebaker Sky Hawk, with power steering. Better instrument cluster than the sedans, robust 289 V8 without a supercharger, and cleaner styling that the later 50s Hawks.

    • 0 avatar

      Steve203. FYI for fun, John DeLorean designed the Ultramatic Transmission for Packard. Was the Ultramatic any worse than the Dynaflow. The hot set up was always GM’s Hydra Matic 4-Speed.

      • 0 avatar

        I rode home from the hospital in my parents’ ’52 Packard 200 sedan with Ultramatic (my mom bought it new, for $3800). I don’t know how well it worked when it worked, but I know the Ultramatic went out in ’65, and it sat in the garage after they bought our ’66 Rambler American 440 4-door with 232 2-barrel, Borg-Warner automatic, a/c and AM radio (another car from an independent!). After my dad passed away in ’69, we sold the Packard to a friend of a friend, for $25.

      • 0 avatar

        >>John DeLorean designed the Ultramatic Transmission for Packard. Was the Ultramatic any worse than the Dynaflow.<<

        Forest McFarland was the head of Packard engineering and spearhead of the Ultramatic program. The Ultramatic came out years before DeLorean started at Packard.

        The original Ultramatic was designed to be driven in high gear, with torque converter lockup. Low was not supposed to be driven routinely. Packard found that people were starting their cars in low to get them off the line faster, then slapping them into high, so Packard offered the "gear start" in 54 that automated the Low/Drive shift.

        The Ultramatic was reworked some for the 55 V8, but not enough to take the V8's torque, and, from my readings, they started smoking the high gear clutch. Packard appears to have solved the trans problem by 56, but they never successfully addressed the V8's oil aeration problem, when lead to a lot of engine failures.

        Nash was desperate for a V8, so arranged to buy them from Packard. Other Nash/Hudson products used the Hydramatic 4 speed automatic, but Packard insisted Nash buy the Ultramatic along with the V8. I have a copy of a 56 Nash sales training film, that, while admitting the V8 powertrain of 55 was problematic, assured sales people it was all fixed for 56, but then went on to warn them away from the V8 and urged the salespeople to push the 6 instead.

        Dissatisfaction with the performance and cost of the Packard powertrain motivated Romney to start a crash program to develop an in house V8, which made it to production just as Packard went toes up.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Would a Cunningham C3 be an acceptable answer? Not big 3 for sure.

  • avatar

    To slightly exaggerate their size, era exterior illustrations of cars had the driver/passengers at 9/10th scale.

  • avatar

    This past weekend I was browsing the intersection of cars which are personally interesting to me and also within striking distance of my fantasy budget, and found a rather nice 1955 Nash Statesman Special for sale a few hours drive from me for only $9,900. I’m severely tempted to go purchase it, but realistically any extra money I have right now needs to stay in my COVID stash or go towards paying off debt.

  • avatar

    To my now deceased grandfather who worked at Studebaker as an engineer (mainly on the braking systems) until they closed their doors, I’ll take a 1959 Studebaker Silver Hawk. He drove nothing but Studebakers and we as a family have pictures of him and the cars.

    Visit South Bend and that museum if you like cars – just around 2.5 hours from Indy if you want to visit the Speedway as well. It’s worth the trip.

  • avatar
    Greg Hamilton

    Just don’t let the doctor give your pregnant wife any Thalidomide.

  • avatar

    I’d take a 1953 Studebaker Commander Starliner coupe or a 1955 Kaiser Manhattan 2-door sedan with the supercharged 6. By 1955, Studebaker junked up the design with too much chrome for my taste.

    Everybody knows the ’53 Studebaker coupes were sleek, but few remember the ’54 and ‘555 Kaisers. They were face-lifted versions of the ’53 . They were low and sported a cool-looking grille copied from the the 1953 Buick XP-300 show car. They also had unusual but attractive taillights.

    Too bad Kaiser never introduced the V8 they had in the wings, nor the 2-door hardtop version of the body.

  • avatar

    I’d take a 1953 Studebaker Commander Starliner coupe or a 1955 Kaiser Manhattan 2-door sedan with the supercharged 6. By 1955, Studebaker junked up the design with too much chrome for my taste.

    Everybody knows the ’53 Studebaker coupes were sleek, but few remember the ’54 and ’55 Kaisers. They were face-lifted versions of the ’53 . They were low to the ground and sported a cool-looking grille copied from the the 1953 Buick XP-300 show car. They also had unique taillights that extended into the tops of the rear fenders. I think they were very attractive cars. Look here for photos:

    Too bad Kaiser never introduced the V8 they had in the wings, nor the 2-door hardtop version of the body.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    The Nash Rambler Convertible Landau Coupe driven by Lois Lane in The Adventures of Superman. With Noel Neill riding shotgun. Noel was the 2nd and most popular Lois Lane. Her pin-up was also the 2nd most popular, after Betty Grable, among American GI’s during World War II.

    When you see one of those inverted bathtub designs on the screen, you immediately know what era you are in. And they personify ‘film noir’.

    That being said, everyone that I know who owned a Studebaker seems to remember them fondly.

    • 0 avatar

      Terry ‘ere, Arfur.

      Yes, I look back on old Studebakers somewhat fondly. My second year college roommate had a ’54 Champion, but its 100hp six wouldn’t raise dust on a dirt road saddled with some automatic or other. It was a rust-free garage kept example and given him when his dad died in 1964. Spent time in a clapped-out weird looking ’50 with torpedo grille on just such dirt roads a few years earlier. A college classmate’s ’57 with three on the tree, 289 V8 and rusted fenders literally flapping in the breeze by 1965 had amazing power. That thing moved.

      But especially thanks for mentioning Noel Neill. Haven’t cast eyes on her for over 60 years. As a kid in England in the mid ’50s (our family came to Canada in 1959) I got to go to the kids serials at the Gaumont Cinema in bombed-out Portsmouth on Saturdays sometimes. Wasn’t much money for frivolities with three siblings, hence the sometimes. Now I know who that gorgeous woman was with Superman. I might have only been eight or nine, but she got me. Just did an image search and am impressed by my eight-year-old taste! A knockout.

  • avatar

    I love old b/w films precisely because the lack of color made the photographer concentrate on lighting and the story,and allows me to do the same. But there are some funny aspects to watching old movies.

    I understand where the butler drags a 100 foot long telephone cord around the house; there just weren’t enough wires to the central office to allow multiple phones, old houses didn’t have the wiring in the walls, etc. But when someone driving around starts looking for payphones … my mind keeps yelling “take it out of your pocket!” For some reason, cell phones have become so ubiquitous and so much a part of every day life, that it takes some time to remember all the pay phone tricks I used to know.

    Drivers pull up to a curb, slide across to the passenger door, and get out there, instead of opening the door they are sitting right next to. Why?!?! Well, Jack, because the seats are one continuous cushion, not only devoid of seat belts, but there is no floor shifter, no console, none of that nonsense … one smooth slick set you can literally scoot across in one smooth motion and not have to worry about opening a door in traffic, and your feet can propel you as needed, if needed (yes, the seats were that smooth) because there is nothing on the floor to get in your way either.

  • avatar

    1958 Studebaker Golden Hawk (supercharged) with twin-traction posi.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    A supercharged Studebaker Golden Hawk in gold and white. I would prefer the 1956 with the Packard 352 cu in V-8 but I could live with the 1957 or 1958 Golden Hawk.

    For a pickup it would be the 57 IH Travellette which was the first crew cab pickup or a 1955 E Studebaker half ton pickup.

  • avatar

    1953 F-20 flatbed from the REO Motor Company of Lansing, Michigan. (Pre-1954 sale of the company.)

    The engine? Gold Comet 6-cylinder. (6-cylinder pickups will be very popular one day, trust me.)

    This was not the first automotive company that Olds founded in Lansing. Bonus factoid: Ransom E. Olds’ father was a blacksmith *and* had a machine shop.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    In ’59 I’d be poking around the Studebaker dealership and noticing some German car with a 3-pointed star hood ornament. After the salesman told me that “old Les and Squirrley can fix them, no problem”, I’d have bought one. Imagine if Mercedes had bought Studebaker? Everything from a Studebaker Scotsman to a Mercedes SL at the same dealership. What other BTW : Yes, that John Z Delorean

  • avatar

    I’d prefer the limited production Nash-Healey, a two seat sports car with the Nash Ambassador I6 and 3-speed manual with overdrive. In hardtop coupe form, it was compact car sized, 180 inches long, about the length of a 2020 Corolla. I’d choose the Nash Healey over the similar looking, but smaller Austin Healey and it’s I4.

  • avatar


  • avatar

    Studebaker, DeSoto or Jeep are my choices; each for different reasons.

    Studebaker still lives, in a way, with its STP brand, which stood for Studebaker Products. Andy Granatelli was well taken by both the cars and the brand in the late fifties.

    DeSoto for the body styles, as they basically ended up leading Chrysler into the sixties with their tail fins and long, lean bodies after being purchased by that Big Three company.

    And Jeep… well, it’s Jeep. Despite what many say, it really was one of the first, true, Sport Utility Vehicles, with its off-road capabilities, fun drive AND a true utility vehicle which at the time included a PTO for powering farm tools and its ability to even plow fields, like a purpose-built tractor. Show me an SUV today that can do that.

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    ’55 or ’56 Packard Patrician, all the way. Even the model name screams exclusivity.
    Too bad Studebaker and Packard didn’t join up with Nash and Hudson back in the day. There might still be an American Motors in 2020, with Packards that are as good as Mercedes-Benzes, Hudson Hornets outselling the Camry and dominating NASCAR, Nash Ramblers as good as Honda Civics, and Studebaker trucks that outsell Fords. They probably would’ve bought out Chrysler in 1980 and would still own Jeep today.

  • avatar

    Am I following the rules okay if I ask for a King Midget??

  • avatar

    A Chevy Apache or 5 window truck would be nice. Any 1050’d Ford F series. Dodge Power Wagon.

  • avatar

    My Dad who was a Ford guy bought a bathtub Nash in the 50s when I was a kid. I remember it rode great but had many problems, especially with starting up reliably in cold Cleveland winters. I can’t remember how many times he took the bus to work downtown while a tow truck came to get the Nash.

  • avatar

    1956 Packard Caribbean hardtop coupe. 374 V8, pushbutton Ultramatic, three-color paint, Twin Traction LSD, reversible leather/cloth seat cushions, A/C.

  • avatar

    Willys Aero Bermuda

  • avatar

    Great topic! I currently have a 56 Studebaker President Classic and no one seems to know what it is today. Some pictures of it:
    Also, Turner Classic Movies has a film noir feature every Saturday night. Makes for a great weekly excursion.

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