Story and photos
by Steve Liddick
Citrus Heights, CA (MPG) – A half-century ago, when he was 14-years-old and still too young to legally drive, Citrus Heights resident Steve Rainville bought his first car. It was a 1955 Studebaker Commander. He paid $65 for it. When he was in his 60s he found another Studebaker of the same model. He bought it. To date he estimates it has cost him $25,000 to turn it into the pristine gem that sits glowing in his driveway.
If that seems like a hefty price for a trip down memory lane, look at it from the viewpoint of someone who would like to recapture a small sliver of youth. Like anything else, it is worth exactly what the buyer is willing to pay for it.
Why the vast price difference in a half-century in what would appear to be the same car?
For one thing, there are fewer of them now than when Studebaker was turning out 100,000 cars a year at its peak of production, compared with the millions of vehicles being built annually by the auto making giants. Rarity increases the value of anything, from stamps to baseball cards. Consider, too, that Studebaker never enjoyed the popularity of its big brothers in Detroit. In fact, the company took a lot of ribbing when the 1948 model came out and detractors claimed you couldn’t tell which was the front end and which was the back end, whether it was coming or going.
Of his sleek pride and joy, Rainville said, “It’s not completely stock.” The car had gotten severely crunched in a violent freeway rear-ender. Steve and his girlfriend got pretty well crunched too. They suffered whiplashes. He had the structural damage repaired and made “a few” revisions. “I put in a 1963 engine, a heavy-duty transmission, bucket seats, a floor shift, head rests (a guard against possible future rear-ender whiplashings), front disc brakes, and rebuilt the front suspension.” Not to mention an immaculate paint job and a thousand dollars’ worth of white sidewall tires.
Other than that, it’s the same car he had in his adolescence.
There is a second Studebaker in the backyard. It is a 1963 pickup truck. Not nearly in the show quality condition of the two-door jewel that is out where the world can see it.
You might think parts would be scarce for the elderly classics. “Parts are easy to get for most models,” Steve said. “There’s a guy in Los Angeles with a warehouse full.”
The Studebaker company has a California connection. There were five Studebaker brothers. John came west to Placerville at the height of the gold rush. But he didn’t pan for gold in the wet socks sense. He made a hefty amount of money by building wheelbarrows and selling them to the miners. His brothers ultimately lured him (and the money he had saved), back east, where they went into the carriage and buggy business. Most notably, they supplied the beer wagons pulled by the Budweiser Clydesdales, and a Studebaker buggy ordered by President Benjamin Harrison when he was in the White House.
The business eventually turned to battery-powered cars (the Studebaker Electric). When internal combustion engines became more reliable, they began building the smog-makers of the type we know today.
There are more than 12,000 members in 100 Studebaker Drivers Clubs around the world. One club serves greater Sacramento area collectors. Since the cars are representative of an earlier era, so are most of their drivers. Steve Rainville is among the younger members. “At 65, I’m one of the kids,” he said.