Sunday, October 29, 2006

James Bond and the Studillac

Found on the Net.

In the novel Fleming introduced us to one of my favourite, and certainly one of the least known, cars of the 1950's. On a drive to Saratoga, Bond gets his first look at the new car of his best friend, Felix Leiter. The car appears to be a black Studebaker convertible. When Felix talks up the car's performance Bond thinks he's spouting nonsense, until Felix stomps the fuel pedal and reveals to Bond the car's hidden abilities. Leiter's car is a special custom job, a Studebaker with a powerful Cadillac engine under the hood. Cadillacs in the 1950s were real performance cars. When the horsepower of the Caddy engine was put into the aerodynamic, light weight,Loewy designed Studabaker body it yielded a potent, high velocity, weapon! Special rear axle, brakes and transmission had to be added to handle the extra power. This car is not the product of Fleming's fertile imagination. Such a car was actually produced by a specialty shop in New York. It was dubbed with the singularly un-mellifluous sobriquet, "Studillac". But that aside, this car is a real honey! I know of no source today for the Studillac, but the Raymond Loewy designed Studebaker sports coupes of the mid 1950's are beautiful and special enough on their own to warrant admiration. Studebaker got their start way back in 1852 making Conestoga wagons. To celebrate their 100 year anniversary in 1952 the firm hired the famous French designer, Raymond Loewy to design their new line of cars for the 1953 model year. The result was what has been called one of "America's prettiest car of the 50s". They had a decidedly European look to them. I expect this is why Fleming chose the car for Felix, and why Fleming allowed Bond to admire it.

What Felix Leiter's Studillac might have looked liked. A custom Studebaker convertible body with a Caddy 331 engine.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Bill Frick - Studillac Connection

Here's a little article by Richard Quinn about the infamous Studillacs made by Bill Frick Motors of Long Island, NY. Enjoy!!

Bill Frick was a “gearhead” several decades before the word even existed. He had started engine-swapping career in 1934 at the age of 18 by putting a 1924 Dodge 4 cylinder plant in a Model A Ford. By the late 40’s he was heavily involved in souping up old cars for amateur drivers and had developed a solid reputation in this field. In 1949 he had a go at NASCAR racing. Eventually he set up shop at 1000 Sunrise Hwy in Rockville Centre, New York.In 1949 Cadillac introduced its new V-8 engine. This was the first short-stroke, overhead valve, high compression V8 built. With 331 cubic inches and a 7.5 to 1 compression ratio it churned out 160 horsepower in its original form. Bill Frick was quick in recognizing its potential for creating a real super hot street machine (sans the heavy Cadillac body) and set about to build one for himself using the new 1949 Fords as a base. He intended that this creation would be used for only the purpose of towing his race cars to various racing venues in the eastern U.S. The car, however received such universal praise among speed enthusiasts that soon he and his partner the legendary race driver, and WWII hero, Phil Walters (alias Ted Tappet), went into the building of Fordillacs on a full time basis. The combination of the (relatively) lightweight Ford body and the performance offered by the new Cadillac power plant was irresistible to many young rodders. Over 200 people gladly parted with the $1000 fee ($1375 with the Hydramatic) in order to have the hottest car on the block. One of the first Fordillac buyers was Briggs Cunningham the wealthy Connecticut sportsman. Cunningham would eventually buy out Frick-Tappet Motors and move the business (along with Phil Walters) to Florida where they would spend the next five years, and a small fortune, in a vain attempt to win LeMans with an American-built car. Meanwhile Frick stayed in New York to plan his new project and that project was to be called the Studillac. Of course the new “Loewy” coupes and hardtops set the car world on its ear with their dramatic styling (by Robert Bourke) in 1953. Studebaker had introduced its new V8 in their 1951 cars but the 120 horsepower seemed pretty anemic when compared to the 210 available in the ‘53 Cadillac power plant. Bill did some measuring and found that the engines were almost identical in exterior dimensions and the 50 extra lbs. of the Cadillac V8 would pose no problems with the Studebaker suspension. By repositioning the steering box slightly, moving the floorboard tunnel and replacing the Studebakers transmission cross member with one from a ’37 Chevy the job was almost done. Frick replaced the 11” front and 9” rear brakes with ’53 Mercury 11” Bendix brakes (a $250 option but apparently performed on most all the cars he built). The two-piece drive shaft was replaced with a one-piece job. A six volt electrical system was standard but a 12-volt system (an extra $200) was optional and quite practical. This was accomplished by placing two six-volt batteries in the trunk with all the lights, accessories etc. working off one battery and the starter generator off the other. Bill eschewed major body modifications and outwardly the cars that left his shop looked nearly identical to the way entered. The only exception was the Studillac script that was placed on the front fenders slightly above and forward of the vent opening. It is uncertain how many of the cars carried this script but the late Robert Bee’s car had one. I am sure this identification label may have been omitted at the customer’s request though most customers apparently chose to have it for the prestige it would provide.It should be noted that the cars Bill reworked could be brought in and dropped off by the customer or Bill would secure them form his local dealer at discount and pass the savings along to the customer. Evidence suggests the dealer from whom most of the cars were purchased was Balport Motors located at 425 West Sunrise Highway in Freeport, New York.Of course Frick ended up with lots of perfectly good low mileage Commander V8’s that he sometimes sold back to the dealers or often to private individuals. Some of them were used for transplants into European cars that were adaptable to the conversion (Siatas etc.).The conversions required about three days to complete and the process also included attention to the cars “fit and finish.” In Tom McCahill’s drive report (Mechanix Illustrated Nov. 1953.) he takes Studebaker to task for its poorly hung doors and a variety of other body imperfections saying among things that, “The chrome stripping along the windows and body look like they were put on by reform school delinquents.” When ask how many conversions were made between 1953 and ‘55 Bill claimed he was too busy building them to count them! Bob Bee talked to Bill several times before his death in 2000 at age 84. According to Bob’s estimates 80-100 cars were built in the 1953 model year and approx. 180 of the ‘54’s. Bill recalled doing two ’54 Conestoga wagons and one 1955 Speedster. By 1955 Studebaker had bumped up the displacement to 259 c.i. and the horsepower to 185 and this made the conversion to the 210 h.p. less dramatic and as a result only a few ‘55’s were completed. (Incidentally Bob Bee owner of one of the few known Studillac survivors was a physicist and engineer. He died tragically in an accident on August 6, 2004. He was 67.) The price for the complete conversion was $1500 or $1995 if you wanted the optional Hydramatic transmission used in place of the 3-speed manual column shift. If purchased as a complete unit (meaning you did not already have the car) the cost was $3750. This included a radio, heater, directional signals, and a Cadillac manual transmission. Bill also offered quite a list of special options to go with the conversions. These included the floor shift with manual trans $250, special leather top $450, pleated leather dashboard $135, wire wheels (bolt on) $318, Borrani wire wheels $630, 12 volt electrical system $200, tachometer $70, Special 11” diameter brakes $250, Special 3.31 to 1 rear end ratio $250, Marcal headlamps $21.60. Frick claimed a top speed of 125 M.P.H. and 0 to 60 in 8.5 seconds. Tom McCahill said, “It will even run away from an XK 120 Jaguar as if it were a highway sign.” The fact is during its day it would out run and out accelerate anything sold on this side of the Atlantic.

Bill Frick de New York, sieur de Studillac