“This Studebaker got me into the old-car hobby,” David Nittler says. In 1991, he wasn’t particularly interested in an old car but nonetheless, when invited by an acquaintance, he agreed to go see a 1961 Studebaker Lark about 40 miles from his Cotulla, Texas home.
With the thought of transforming the Lark into a racecar, the owner had removed the transmission and was about to pull out the engine when his landlord sold the property. The owner and the car had to leave.
After Nittler saw the 1961 Studebaker, he was asked what he would pay for it. Since he didn’t want it, he said he wouldn’t give anything. That is when the owner pulled the title to the car out of the glove box and signed ownership over to Nittler. The price was right, so the following day Nittler returned with his truck and a tow bar and towed the Studebaker home with the transmission lying in the bed of the truck. The odometer had registered about 73,000 miles. Most of the parts were there, Nittler says, although many of them were well worn. He recalls that the doors were in rough shape.
Nittler believes he is the third owner of the Studebaker and that it has never left Texas. This car was the basic low-end Lark offered in 1961 with a base price of $1,935. It came equipped with a 169.6-cubic-inch “Skybolt” six-cylinder engine that developed 112 horsepower in order to move the 2,665-pound four-door sedan.
“It’s a Plain Jane model,” Nittler admits.
In the dashboard is a 120-mph speedometer. I wouldn’t bet money that it could reach that speed, Nittler opines. “I usually drive it about 50 or 55,” he says. At that comfortable speed he reports that his Studebaker delivers about 16 miles per gallon.
With the Lark model at home, Nittler set about reassembling all the parts and pieces of the car. He sent the automatic transmission off for rebuilding in Laredo, Texas.
Because the 1961 vehicle had sat outside exposed to the elements the light blue paint had faded, Nittler observed, so he had it repainted in 1995.
With the car returned to operating condition, Nittler said it still fumed and smoked in addition to using more oil than gasoline. In 2000, Nittler himself tore the engine apart and replaced the rings and seals. That effort, he says, didn’t totally fix the problems but helped immensely.
Next on the improvement list came the interior. The fabric inside the cabin, Nittler says, is a combination of cloth and vinyl. The car received its reupholstering in Eagle Pass, Texas. The floor is covered with a black rubber mat.
“There isn’t a lot to go wrong on the car,” Nittler says. His Studebaker has no clock, no radio and no air conditioner. However, it does have vents beneath the dashboard to admit fresh air, a “Climatizer” heater, backup lights and windows that are operated by hand cranks. Some of the more expensive Studebakers left the manufacturing plant with four headlights. Nittler’s car has the “old fashioned” two headlights.
New 6.50×15-inch white sidewall tires on a 108.5-inch wheelbase help dress up the car. Nittler says the small hubcap on each wheel is original to the car. The spare tire lies flat on the bottom of the deep trunk.
As Nittler continued slowly restoring his Studebaker he decided in 2006 to again have it resprayed in the original light blue color. While that was being done he had the back bumper replated with chrome. He also found replacements for some of the damaged side trim.
In 2010, Nittler had the engine pulled out and, he says, “Had it done right by a professional mechanic.” Nittler continues, “Since then, I’ve driven it 1,500 miles and so far it hasn’t burned any oil.”
Studebaker built 41,035 cars like the one Nittler owns, but it is doubtful that any have survived in better condition since leaving the factory in South Bend, Ind., half a century ago. — Vern Parker, Motor Matters
Copyright, AutoWriters Associates Inc., 2011
VERN PARKER is the former automotive editor of the Washington (D.C.) Times. While earning an undergraduate degree from Kansas State University in 1968, Parker was a stringer The Manhattan Mercury, Topeka Capital-Journal, Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City (Mo.) Star. He formerly held positions with the Providence (R.I.) Journal and Bulletin and the Decatur (Ill.) Herald-Review. Since 1989, Parker has spearheaded the annual antique classic car revue in McLean, Va.