1939 Studebaker Hearse - Reader Resto

By: Jack Sim with Guy Allen - Words & Photos

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At over 80 years old, this Studebaker has a knack for survival

 

1939 Studebaker

Based in Brisbane, I do a number of things for a living, including ghost tours, managing venues and the occasional vintage-style funeral with my 1939 Studebaker President hearse. The President line ran from the 1920s through to the early ’40s and then was reintroduced briefly in the ’50s. This was the second generation of the car, boasting the Land Cruiser streamlined body – yes, the name was in use long before Toyota adopted it!

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When this car was sold, American car companies were doing good business in Australia, with a lot of luxury nameplates coming over. This example was converted in Sydney when it arrived, for PJ Andrews, which for decades was a prominent NSW funeral company. It started its working life in Sydney, and then was sent out to serve the Muswellbrook-Scone district. Pretty much anyone who died in the district in the next 25 years would have had their last ride in that car. I met someone at Wintersun whose uncle had been buried with it. He promised me a photo of his uncle’s coffin in the car, surrounded by flowers.

| Watch the video: Jack's Studebaker hearse resto

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Jack fell in love with the beautiful rear tombstone doors

I acquired her after going on local (Brisbane) radio station B105 – Jamie Dunn was the presenter – and he wanted to know what sort of car I was driving since I was running a ghost tour business. I admitted at the time I had a Toyota and he put a call out to find me something more appropriate. Someone called in offering the Studebaker. From the moment I saw the back end with the two beautiful tombstone doors I fell in love.

As we all know with these things, it was to end up costing me a fortune. Her name is Lulu and is named after a character in my favourite silent movie, called Pandora’s Box. It was a German production from 1929. The female lead, played by Louise Brooks in that movie, is a beautiful, young creature. Every man who falls in love with her is drained of their money and their soul. That’s what she’s done to me!

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The resto journey is about to begin

It took quite a while to find the right people to help do the restoration. Harold Ireland from the Studebaker Club in Queensland took on all the mechanical work. His tasks included rebuilding the engine and gearbox, plus the suspension. It runs the original 250 cubic inch (4.1lt) straight eight engine, which needed one cylinder resleeved. It has a three-on-the-tree manual transmission and weighs around 2.2 tonnes. She gets around 6.5km to the litre of fuel.

It has drum brakes all round, but upgraded to a mid-1950s President set. They’re a little bit safer, but at the end of the day they’re still drum brakes. Unfortunately the first firm we tried with the bodywork were the victims of an arson attack that took out all the vehicles in their building and the one next door. My car was badly scorched. Flames completely burned the entire outside of the vehicle but incredibly the interior survived intact, even though it was made of wood. It was the only car to be saved. Nearly 30 others didn’t, so we took it as some sort of omen that this car really wanted to survive. So we invested in doing her up, again. What else do you do? She’s one of a kind, you’ll never see another. It was either start again, or take her to the scrap yard, which wasn’t going to happen.

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Harold had to redo some of the work after the fire. Then we handed over the body to Sleeping Beauties here in Brisbane – they did a terrific job. She’s 95 per cent original. We’ve kept most of the glass, so there are scratches and chips and bumps. When we were dealing with rust underneath, we decided on doing the sort of repairs that might have been done back in the day to keep a commercial vehicle going – rather than a complete strip and rebuild. In some areas we cut out the rust and then put a plate over, which was a typical truck repair. If you get underneath, it looks original with period repairs.

All of the chrome work is original and it’s getting wonderfully thin in places with bits of the brass showing through. There is some special decoration, too, such as the solid silver crucifixes in the back.

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Even the coffin rollers and pins are original, so you can see wear from all the handling over 80 years of use. You could restore it all and remove all that and make it pristine, but what’s the point? It’s a beautiful funeral car designed to take you on your last ride. My customers don’t give me much feedback and their families appreciate the vintage quality to the car.

There’s a crack in the rear door that’s been there since 1961. When I first got Lulu, I was able to trace the oldest living owner. His name is Frederick Frost and lived down in Muswellbrook. He had owned her from 1961, when she was relatively young. He asked if the crack in the rear window was there – it happened when a branch fell on it. It had also been run into a stump at some stage and you can still see the repairs underneath. We left them there as it’s quite safe.

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It now lives a semi-retired life, doing the occasional specialist funeral, which is perfect for a car of this age. I feel like I’m just one in a line of people who will take car of Lulu over the years…

Jack Sim is a Brisbane-based author and tour leader with an interest in true crime and ghosts. See his site at jacksim.com.au or brisbaneghosttours.com.au. He also manages the old Boggo Road gaol as a venue – see boggaroadgaol.com.

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Original car: 1939 studebaker
Length of restoration: 5 years

THE RESTO:

1. Close call

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The Studebaker survived an arson attack while under resto.

 

2. Charred remains

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This is how close it came to being a non Studebaker.

 

3. Tombstone doors

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One set of doors you don’t want to enter the Studebaker by.

 

4. Body building

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Many painstaking hours were spent on the big body.

 

5. Engine

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The original straight eight engine needed one cylinder resleeved.

 

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