In the early 50s, Studebaker found its market share slipping, in spite of the fact that its 1953-54 Starlight and Starliner coupes featured sexy low-slung bodies designed in the famed Raymond Loewy Studio. In 1955, hoping to turn falling sales around, Studebaker retained the basic design of the "Loewy coupes", but restyled the front end treatment and added brightwork. The company also revived a name it had used from 1927 to 1942 for its top-of-the-line model, the President. The company then added icing to the cake by creating a special top-of-the-line edition of the President, christened the Speedster, an appropriate name for a car so sleek it looks like it's flying even when it's parked. The President Speedster was loaded with "extras" and powered by a 259 cu in Packard "Passmaster" V-8 producing 185 HP at 4,500 rpm (some car enthusiasts consider the Speedster to be one of the first American "muscle cars").
In addition to a new forward projecting (and somewhat aggressive-looking) grille and a heavy front bumper embellished with two "bumperettes" that house a pair of yellow foglights, the Speedster is distinguished externally by a stainless steel roof band (evocative of a roll bar that might be found on a car of later vintage), wire wheel covers, and special badging. Internal special features of the Speedster include "shoemaker-stitched" diamond quilted seat upholstery of top grain leather and a machine-turned metal instrument panel (reminiscent of the 1936-37 Cords) that houses a Stewart-Warner speedometer registering up to 160 mph and tachometer registering up to 8000 rpm (along with other more prosaic instruments). In addition, the Speedster was loaded with amenities that might have been extra cost items on less expensive models: power steering, power brakes, power front seat, power front windows, radio, heater (a very effective heater!), two-speed windshield wipers, electric clock, turn signals, cigarette lighter, dual side mirrors, twin back-up lights, dual exhaust system with chromed tailpipe extensions, a really sweet-sounding triple horn and wide whitewall tires.
The back seat is upholstered in the same fine leather as the front, and is designed primarily for two passengers, their comfort enhanced by a center arm rest. But this arm rest is a clever pop up which can be neatly folded down if you need to put three in back (it will help if the 3rd person is short legged).
Besides all the above-mentioned features, the Speedster came with a hood-length hood ornament, a bold chrome "spear" streaking down each side, and other brightwork. And underneath the long rear deck is a very capacious trunk, housing the spare tire and having lots of room left over for your luggage when you take the car touring.
Other standard features of particular interest today on the Speedster are the two pop-open vents for the front passengers and a pair of real vent windows that turn out and do the job. (Real vent windows, imagine that!)
The low, streamlined body of the Speedster was set on a frame with a long wheelbase of 120.5 inches. It was available in six two-tone and three three-tone paint combinations. The example for sale here is painted Ivory and Pimlico Gray, which, of the nine different original color schemes, is (IMHO) the most elegant and beautiful of all, coming or going!
The Speedster weighs in at 3301 lbs-- body steel was thicker back in 1955-- but the Passmaster V-8 will carry it down the road plenty fast enough. This engine, made by Packard (Studebaker and Packard had merged in 1954), is described in the literature (Hemmings, March 2006) as having a displacement of 252.2 cu in, bore x stroke of 3.56 x 3.25 inches, compression ratio of 7.5:1, with an output of 185 HP @ 4500 rpm. This hungry V-8 engine is kept happily fed by a four barrel Carter carburetor.
To listen to this V-8 start up and rev up, watch this short bit of video footage (the first couple of minutes are silent, showing the car in a walk around view, and then the engine is started)-- Speedster video. Use your "back button" to return to this website.
The amenity-loaded Speedster came with a price tag of $3253, roughly $800 more than the President State hardtop model. In 2020 dollars, the original price tag would be $31,120. Not cheap, but the buyers of this prestigious model got a lot of comfort and performance for their money. And, as it turned out, prestige and exclusivity: 1955 was the only year the Speedster was produced, with a grand total of just 2215 Speedsters constructed; who knows how few remain?
Hollywood connections.... This Speedster now being offered for sale was bought new by George Tomasini, an important Hollywood film editor (noteworthy films edited by Tomasini include "Stalag 17", "Houdini", "Elephant Walk", "Rear Window", "Vertigo" and "Psycho", among others). George bought the Speedster as a gift for his wife, the former Mary Brian. Mary had a Hollywood career longer and possibly more distinguished than that of her husband. Mary was a successful actress, performing in 82 Hollywood movies from 1924 through 1947. She appeared in films with W. C. Fields, Gary Cooper, Frederick March, Douglas Fairbanks, Dick Powell and Cary Grant. She starred opposite Grant in the 1936 film "The Amazing Adventure".
Evidently Mary had a more than professional relationship with Grant as they were engaged to be married at one time. The marriage to Grant did not come off. Instead, Mary remained single and independent until 1947 when she wed the love of her life, George, and began to wind down her acting career. Unfortunately, George died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 55; Mary was heartbroken and never remarried.
Mary had received the Speedster from George in 1955 as a gift for her 49th birthday. She never sold it, and continued to drive it until she was 87! Mary ultimately gave the Speedster to her beloved godson, Stuart Erwin, Jr. (who also had a career in film and television). Erwin invested over $36,000 in mechanical and cosmetic restoration of the Speedster, work done by well-known shop Hot Rods & Custom Stuff in Escondido, CA. (I have receipts that document and detail this restoration work. And by my personal experience-- having owned and driven several vintage cars-- it is money in the bank, money saved, if you buy an antique car that has already undergone restoration.)
The third owner of the Speedster was Rob Ballard, who completed the restoration of the interior, including correctly replacing the elegant turned metal instrument panel. To sum up the restoration work: this car has been restored to beautiful condition, but not concours. It is a driver-- a truly beautiful driver-- but not a car so meticulously and expensively restored that you have to trailer it anywhere you go with it. It belongs on the road!
I purchased the Speedster from Ballard in 2011, so this vehicle has only had four owners.
Some miscellaneous particulars about this car: It is a relatively low mileage car (the odometer registers 77,462 miles at the time of writing); it has an automatic transmission; all five tires are good. It is not without some known problems: The windshield defroster blower is not working. And the rear windows crank down smoothly, but need a little assistance when they are cranked up. Included in the purchase price are four original 1955 documents: the original bill of sale, the owner's manual "Your 1955 Studebaker", a separate "Owner's Guide" for the Automatic Drive, and a Studebaker - Philco manual for the radio. The three booklets are signed "Tomasini" in beautiful handwriting that was almost certainly Mary's. Also included are restoration documents, two 1955 Studebaker shop manuals, the book "Studebaker Cars" by James H. Moloney, published in 1994, and other literature, plus a car cover.
This Speedster is a real California car. It spent the first 48 years of its life in the sunny state, from its initial purchase on Feb. 9, 1955 from the David J. Bricker dealership in Hollywood, until 2003 when Rob Ballard bought it and moved it to the mid-continent area. For a very detailed history of this car read Ballard's history of the Mary Davis Speedster.
So, picture yourself cruising down the road in this distinctive, beautiful, sleek and sporty Speedster-- You will enjoy driving this head turner and showing it. Chances are, once you're behind the wheel, you'll feel like a movie star! It can be yours for $37,500.