John Garland's The Studebaker Silver Hawk soars above its more common peers.
photo by Matt Rose
John Garland owes his lifelong passion for automobiles to a cow. It was the one his uncle traded for a 1948 Plymouth when Garland was 16 — the first, but hardly the last, car he ever worked on.
“My grandfather was a mechanic, and although I never knew him, my parents gave me his set of Craftsman tools when I was a young man,” the 62-year-old Asheville native says. “I still have them, and still use them.”
In the 46 years since his Plymouth days, Garland estimates he’s bought, rehabilitated and sold 100 automobiles. “I guess I get a little bored with each one after a year or two,” he says. “I don’t get attached to one particular car. But every person I’ve sold to has become a friend.”
His current infatuation, though, may linger a bit longer. It’s a mint-condition, cherry-red 1958 Studebaker Silver Hawk, a car that still turns heads with its early-space-age styling, wraparound rear window, slanted rear roof posts, buttery wood trim and meticulously renovated interior — including sporty leather seats. The car enticed Garland when he first saw it a year ago, but played hard to get, requiring the intervention of friends after its then-owner rebuffed his first attempt to buy it.
“This is probably the most popular car I’ve ever owned,” says Garland. “People stop or pull up alongside all the time and ask about it. It kind of caught me off guard how interested people are.” (The Silver Hawk, produced between 1957 and 1959, was the second model in an eight-year run of Hawks described by the company as a “family sports car.”)
The last Studebaker rolled off a Canadian assembly line in 1966, but before the company went out of business it enjoyed a long relationship with American motorists — even back to the days of the carriage trade. Studebaker’s horse-drawn line, produced at an Indiana plant, reached its apogee when President Benjamin Harrison ordered a full set of Studebaker carriages and harnesses for the White House in 1889.
By 1904, Studebaker began manufacturing gasoline-powered horseless carriages, building a reputation for innovative design that in 1913 yielded the first six-cylinder engine forged from a solid block of metal. Loyalists also point out that the company was the first to test its cars on its own proving ground, and the first to abandon the boxy, heavily ornate styling of pre-WWII cars for a sleek, aerodynamic look. The company’s slogan boasted it was “first by far with a post-war car.”
Ironically, Studebaker’s most iconic models were produced as it slid into troubled financial straits during the ‘50s, battered by an ill-conceived and unsuccessful merger with Packard that left it unable to cope with the industry’s rising labor costs. Nevertheless, the troubled relationship with Packard gave rise to the Hawk series.
“The Studebaker Lark is probably the car most people remember,” says Garland, referring to the small compact model the company sold starting in 1959 (one that is often seen at car shows). The company’s swan song was the Avanti, a European-inspired touring car. But its ancestors, like Garland’s Silver Hawk, are still revered for distinctive styling that was ahead of its time. The Hawk was among the first models to abandon Detroit’s signature tail fins, an industry styling conceit that lasted well into the ‘60s.
“Studebaker gave the Silver Hawk these speedster sides,” explains Garland, indicating the level, chrome-accented rear assembly. “They also introduced a turbocharged engine, in the days before fuel injection.” Another Studebaker innovation was an anti-spin feature on the rear wheels that it called Turbo Traction. Garland’s model sports the 1996 Corvette V-8 engine he installed under its thrusting hood, rather than the original straight-six that Studebaker favored. But it otherwise arrived in his garage much in its present state, requiring only a bit of work on the rear suspension and some paint. Garland’s 30 years with the Eaton Electrical Corporation, from which he retired earlier this year, means there may be the addition of air conditioning and a better heating system in the Silver Hawk’s future.
He can list from memory any number of the automobiles he’s owned over the years — a 1966 Chevrolet Nova here, a 1964 Ford Falcon there, and the 1967 Ford Custom that belonged to an uncle and that he still owns. But the cars are only part of the story.
“It’s all about building friendships,” says Garland. He means relationships not only with buyers but also with fellow car buffs in the Hendersonville Antique Auto Club who travel to regional and national shows. The cars have also provided a common activity for Garland and Gail, his wife of 36 years. “She puts up with the habit and pitches in when I ask her to,” he says with a smile.