Rip Van Winkle Wakes Up
On September 9, 2012, a crotchety, absolutely ancient looking 1928 Studebaker Dictator made the first trip under its own power in at least 49 years to the Classic Car Show at Sunny Lake in Aurora. Likely it’s been sleeping a good bit longer than that, because sometime prior to 1963, it had been towed to a Studebaker Dealer in that disabled condition and traded for… We will never know what!. What meager information that could be garnered at the time indicated that the dealer had plans to restore it and place it in his showroom as an advertising ploy. ….BUT…. In 1963 the Studebaker Corporation was in its death throes and its dealers were on the verge of bankruptcy day by day. It is likely that the old Studebaker was purchased by the dealer a few years earlier, say in 1959 or1960, when the then- newly-introduced compact Studebaker Lark buoyed spirits and provided a welcome bit of optimism to the Studebaker conglomerate by dramatically spiking their sales curve. By 1963 though, sales had taken a nosedive thanks to competition from Corvairs, Falcons and Valiants (new compacts offered by the Big Three car makers). There was now no money for such luxuries as old car restorations. So in those last days before the Studebaker empire came crashing down this old Dictator got towed to the back of the lot along with the other junkers to be sold for scrap. Enter a then 21-year-old John Biggs who, at that time, could probably be accurately described as something of a dreamer, someone who saw value in things that mainstream society had used up and moved on from. This is a disease that some of us inveterate old car buffs seem to be afflicted with from early on in life.
John saw the Studebaker languishing in the back lot. It was love at first sight! “No other good reason. I just loved the looks of it, and I had to save it”, he said. At the time John didn’t really need an automobile because he took the bus every day to work and back. Unbeknownst to his parents with whom he lived, John bought it on credit for the then handsome sum of about $500, and had it towed to a garage that he rented to store it. Of course this wasn’t the only time John gave in to these whimsical urges. He also had purchased two other unusual automobiles including a Packard and an Edsel. They were likewise stored in garages about town but his parents knew about those cars. “My Father never approved of my preferences in automobiles. You shouldn’t be wasting money on those cars, he would say in more colorful language when he found out about the Packard and the Edsel. I never told him about the Studebaker.”
In the years from 1963 to 2004 John served his country in Korea, got married, had two kids, got divorced…you know, the typical American dream scenario. Throughout that epoch he never could or would spend the money to begin restoration. “Money needed to be spent on family”, he says; “Old Cars were a frivolous expenditure. I couldn’t bear to sell the car though”. So the Studebaker had been sitting in various storage garages all over Northern Ohio, completely untouched for 41 years, until 2004. In that year a relative bequeathed him a sum of money to get the car restored.” Whereupon he had it towed to a restoration shop. By 2011 the restoration shop had quickly gone through the money and early on relegated the Stude to a warehouse. Then they went out of business. In 2012 John had to rescue the car from the soon to be torn down warehouse and had it towed to another restoration shop where the goal was to “get it running and roadworthy as reasonably as possible. Forget any body work!” The deadline was September 9 at 11:AM, the day of the Sunny Lake auto show. The shop delivered it to John at one o’clock. So for the first time ever, he drove it off the delivery flatbed and directly to the show. That is as down to the wire as you could possibly get.
In 1928 Studebaker, like the majority of other car makers of the time had been producing automobiles that were targeting the higher end of society. The well-to-do and famous people still considered automobiles not exactly essential but rather showy toys and a way to express their wealth. Ford and Chevrolet, whose cars were smaller, lighter and considerably less expensive, on the other hand were catering to the masses—the working class. Their cars were seen as utilitarian and their interiors considerably more Spartan. Studebakers were long and typically well appointed (i.e., very nice upholstery, heaters, several gauges, comfort items like armrests, ashtrays, ropes for lap blankets to hang neatly on). Their lineup included the most expensive President series, the middle ground Commander Series, and the entry level Dictator Series. All were large cars weighing in at about 3700 pounds and more, and 14 feet long whereas a typical 4-door 1928 Ford Sedan (the heaviest Ford) weighed in at 2500 pounds and was about 12 feet long.
Whereas Ford in 1928 produced about 713,000 cars, Studebaker produced a grand total of 105,000 cars in the same time period, and about 48,000 were Dictators. Thus, by typical tables of attrition the likelihood of a 19928 Dictator surviving to the present is almost astronomically small. You are not likely to see another ’28 Dictator at any car show anywhere. If you do the planets have aligned just right for you and you had better go down to the Horseshoe casino and place some bets… Because it is your lucky day.
If patina could be measured on the Richter scale, the exterior of this 1928 car would be an earthquake. The paint is severely faded and may be peeling, the roof is lumpy, a rubber tire-less spoked wheel hangs in the place where the spare tire should reside. Upon first seeing this car what comes to mind is Jed Clampett and the Beverly Hillbillies. If a 1928 Studebaker is a rare bird at any car show, the outward condition of this car makes it so unique that it is one of a kind. This car is an eye catcher even in a field of handsomely restored antique automobiles.
“It is surprising, amazing actually, how quickly a restoration shop can go through great sums of money. I’m not a mechanic and would rather a qualified mechanic in a restoration shop break a bolt off and deal with it”, says John. “It would cost a large fortune to perfectly restore this Studebaker and it would still be worth only about $20,000. The present dilemma is where to go from here. I think that we leave it just how it looks and get the mechanicals functioning a bit better!!”