Off radar

American Spirit: 1937 Studebaker J5 Coupe Express

By Massimo Delbò

Photograph: Courtesy Hyman Ltd.

The Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company was founded in 1852 in Indiana and was immediately successful as a wheelbarrow manufacturer for gold rush miners. After producing wagons for the US Army, it entered the automotive market in 1902, with an electric car designed by Thomas Alva Edison. In 1904, under the name ‘Studebaker Automobile Company’, the first car with a combustion engine was produced, praised for its technical qualities and reliability. In the mid-1930s, the Studebaker Dictator Six was introduced, a somewhat unhappy name destined to the replaced by the Commander in 1938, equipped with a 3,600cc L-head type engine with 6 inline cylinders and side valves, capable of producing 90 hp and a very pleasant, art deco line. On the very same platform of the Dictator with similar lines, in 1937, the pickup, called the J5 Coupe Express began production.

The large rear compartment inserted into the harmonious line of the Studebaker J5 Coupe Express

Splendid even today, it combines the long, aerodynamic snout that was typical of the most advanced styles of the period with external fenders and a rounded cockpit. The inherent beauty of the Express is no accident, given that it was created by Raymond Loewy, considered by many as the greatest industrial designer of his time. The interior, again extremely innovative and beautifully finished, was the result of the work of Helen Dryden, an artist and industrial designer hired by Studebaker in 1935. In 1938, the Express became the K5 and changed shape, taking advantage of the new design of the sedan version, and gaining a few centimetres of useful length for the external body (which, if desired, could be custom-made by different external suppliers).

Functionality and elegance: a load carrying area with a refined interior in light leather matched to the steering wheel and dashboard

The 1937 version, produced in roughly 3,400 units, is something truly unique, which was then flanked by the 1938 version, produced in about 1,200 examples, and the 1939 model with a deeply revised front section, produced in about 1,000 examples. On request it was possible to equip the Express from a long and exhaustive list of accessories, including leather or mohair interiors or a 3-speed gearbox equipped with overdrive. Supplied in black as standard, upon request and for US$10, it could also be painted in different colours.

Perfect art deco style for the dashboard and instruments. The speed, of course, is in miles per hour

The Express is also pleasant to drive, with a road car manners, and it is very practical, even in modern traffic, with the only limit being the very vertical driving position with little legroom for the tallest of drivers. The only limitation of the Express is that it is somewhat unknown, because, usually, those who see it fall in love with it and want it. If found, a specimen in splendid condition is worth around US$80,000, while one in good condition is worth about US$60,000. 

Excellent torque from the 6-cylinder in-line petrol engine with a capacity of 3,600cc