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Me & My Car: ’56 Studebaker in Pleasanton a ‘face-lift’ of an earlier model

Me & My Car: ’56 Studebaker in Pleasanton a ‘face-lift’ of an earlier model

It will be 60 years on Dec. 31 since the once-great Studebaker Corp. closed down its plant in South Bend, Indiana and laid off thousands, including a young man who would later become a classic car columnist for the East Bay Times.

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It was a sad day knowing the end of this iconic company was nearly over. They did keep a small assembly plant in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, until March 1966 that produced only the Lark models. Studebaker’s trucks and its Hawk and Avanti car models were no longer manufactured.

California played an important part in Studebaker’s history. There were five Studebaker brothers. One of the brothers, John, and his other brothers built a sturdy wagon that was used as payment for John’s transportation to the Gold Rush settlement of Hang Town, now known as Placerville. But John didn’t search for gold. From 1853 to 1858, he made a small fortune building wheelbarrows and other tools for the prospectors. He took his earnings back to South Bend and joined his brothers in the business.

A 1956 Studebaker Sky Hawk owned by Pleasanton resident Paul Mercurio. (David Krumboltz/for Bay Area News Group)

The engine bay of a 1956 Studebaker Sky Hawk owned by Pleasanton resident Paul Mercurio. (David Krumboltz/for Bay Area News Group)

A 1956 Studebaker Sky Hawk owned by Pleasanton resident Paul Mercurio. (David Krumboltz/for Bay Area News Group)

A 1956 Studebaker Sky Hawk owned by Pleasanton resident Paul Mercurio. (David Krumboltz/for Bay Area News Group)

The interior of a 1956 Studebaker Sky Hawk owned by Pleasanton resident Paul Mercurio. (David Krumboltz/for Bay Area News Group)

The interior of a 1956 Studebaker Sky Hawk owned by Pleasanton resident Paul Mercurio. (David Krumboltz/for Bay Area News Group)

A 1956 Studebaker Sky Hawk owned by Pleasanton resident Paul Mercurio. (David Krumboltz/for Bay Area News Group)

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Studebaker, a company that lasted 114 years, was once the world’s largest wagon and carriage manufacturer. President Lincoln’s last ride on April 15, 1865, to Ford’s Theatre was in a Studebaker carriage. Some have said that Studebaker was a company that was ahead of its time — after all, they did manufacture electric cars in 1902.

By 1913, Studebaker was the third largest automaker in the country behind Ford and Overland. They were a significant contributor to the World War II effort, building military trucks, aircraft engines and a Studebaker-designed vehicle called the Weasel, which carried personnel and cargo, one version being amphibious.

After the war, Studebaker was the first automobile company to introduce a completely new car, about two years ahead of the “Big Three.” The 1947 Studebaker really changed automotive styling for the industry. No longer were there rolling fenders and running boards, and the sides were relatively flat. The public sometimes called them “coming and going cars” as the front and rear styling was somewhat similar.

Those weren’t the last of beautiful cars produced by Studebaker, though. Raymond Loewy, supervising Robert Bourke, designed the 1953 Studebaker, a car that has been listed as one of the world’s most beautiful.

Studebaker management thought the sedan and wagon would be the volume models, but it was the coupe that captured the public’s eye. It was the last completely new-model Studebaker built. All those built after that model were “face-lift” models.

One of the early face-lift models is this issue’s featured car, a 1956 Studebaker Sky Hawk owned by Pleasanton resident Paul Mercurio. The Sky Hawk was made only for the 1956 model year, with 3,050 produced. Mercurio bought his car about five years ago from his cousin for $12,500.

“Mechanically it was pretty much done,” the owner said. “My cousin passed after that; he wasn’t very healthy at that point. He just wanted someone in the family to have the car and have it taken care of. He had worked at Harrah’s Auto Museum restoring cars. He put the drive train in, he changed the steering and suspension systems.”

Mercurio’s late cousin, a hot rodder, installed a 400-horsepower, 406-cubic-inch Chevy V8 engine and complementary Chevy four-speed automatic transmission. He thinks the car was originally painted white over cream, but it just had primer on it when he acquired it.

“I stripped it down to metal, took everything off of it — glass, chrome, everything. Then I took it to a guy to get it painted. I looked at all the colors they had and the yellow they had was sort of a creamy yellow.”

He selected the bright PPG Yellow Pearl with a Lexus black for the exterior.

“The interior was in original rough shape,” he said. “It actually had a bench seat. I wanted bucket seats and I had a guy match the bucket seats I bought with the pattern of the back seat. I built the rest of the interior. I built the center console and matched it with the dash. I built the door panels from scratch.”

Mercurio is mechanically inclined and does much of the work himself.

“The longest part was waiting for the glass and the headliner. You have to do the headliner and the front and rear glass at the same time. During COVID, I spent almost a year waiting for parts and materials.”

While one is never completely done with a restoration, Mercurio has a pretty nice set of wheels. It has all the creature comforts of a modern car, including air conditioning, cruise control, power steering and brakes, an alarm system and a radio that looks like the original factory Studebaker radio but with the latest and greatest radio features hidden behind.

He thinks he has invested about $30,000 in this car and estimateS its value in the $50,000 neighborhood, but that’s academic since he has no plans to ever sell it.

Have an interesting vehicle? Email Dave at MOBopoly@yahoo.com. To read more of his columns or see more photos of this and other issues’ vehicles, visit mercurynews.com/author/david-krumboltz.