Sector: LPG

Studebaker Champion LPG - a sight to behold

If you were born an raised in Nevada and you're into car mechanics, there's a good chance you've heard of James "Lucky" Luckinbill. But since you probably weren't, let us introduce him to you, along with this exceptional vehicle.

A mechanic, teacher and hobbyist

In fact everything we're about to present to you concerns James' son Tim more than James himself, but to begin the story properly we need to explain who Lucky was first. Between 1945 and 1979, when he retired, James Luckinbill was the auto shop teacher at Nevada Union High School. He trained pretty much every car mechanic in the state, so if you ever experience a car breaking down in the middle of nowhere outside Las Vegas and come across a repair shop run by an old hand, ask him about Lucky – he might have been his student. But the point here is really what Lucky did in his spare time – he converted cars to autogas, something few people did back then.

Tim Luckinbill's 1950 Studebaker Champion LPG© Ron CherryBack in the day, the Champion (particularly the two-door Starlight Coupé variant) was dubbed "coming or going", because at first glance you could confuse the front with the rear. In the 1990s, an example of this model played the minor role of "The Loaner" in The Mask alongside Jim Carrey

Like father, like son

James passed his passion for old cars and LPG on to his son, Tim. And so when Tim was driving through Rancho Cordova one day and spotted a 1950 Studebaker Champion marked "for sale" on the side of the road, he didn't think twice before stopping to find out more about the quirky-looking sedan with suicide rear doors. The seller was a member of the Studebaker Drivers Club with quite a collection of vehicles, but the missus apparently didn't enjoy the growing number of cars as much as he did and it was high time he parted with some of them. Since he wasn't particularly fond of the Champion, bought from a man too old to drive it and just stored in the garage, he decided to let that one go. While the car was in his hands, it was never repaired or at least driven.

An impulse buy

The car was somewhat weathered, but complete. Under the bonnet there was the original 169,9 cui (2,8-litre) inline-six flathead engine good for 85 PS, mated to a three-speed column-shifted manual gearbox with overdrive. The Champion featured some ingenious options, including the hill-holding clutch (activating the brake when pressed to the floor) and a regulated sun visor mounted... outside the cabin, attached to the edge of the roof right above the windshield. The price was right, so Tim Luckinbill bought the Champion, but his joy of getting a bargain perhaps somewhat clouded his sense of judgement as he chose to drive the car home instead of putting it on a trailer. The engine was running, but comsumed so much oil that the Studebaker left a smoke screen behind it. When Tim pulled up to his home, his wife thought the car was on fire.

An on-and-off project car

And so rebuilding the engine was the first thing Tim got down to. Then he had the interior reupholstered with period-correct material. He could have got all the genuine pieces, but that would mean spending twice the money. Rubber floormats were replaced with carpets in the process to make the cabin cosier and give it a home-like feel. The glasswork and chromework needed nothing more than a proper scrub and polishing, just as the original paintjob. It's almost transparent from being shined too many times in the past, but on the right side it's thicker after a repaint following a side-swipe some time ago. Having driven the Champion for some time, Tim decided to fix the brakes. He jacked the car up, put it on blocks, covered it with a tilt and... left it in the garage for the next fifteen years.

Return to glory

When he retired in 2015, Tim finally had the time to make up for the neglect. He finished working on the brakes, revamped the cooling system, replaced all the fluids and scrubbed 50-year-old grease off the chassis. He managed to get his hands on some replacement fender skirts, repainted them along with the windshield visor, checked the suspension, the 6-volt generator and the original tube AM radio. He even made sure the bonnet ornament shines red as it should when lights are on. By his own admission, Tim Luckinbill is a stocker, which means he likes cars to be as stock as possible, without modifications or replacement parts sourced from other vehicles. However, there was one modification he just had to make, being fed up with poor-quality petrol – he fitted an autogas system. Lucky would be proud. And, quite frankly, would do the same.

A new, gaseous life

After the conversion, the good old Studebaker has become a better car. Never mind the running costs – for one thing, petrol is cheap in the US and for another, vehicles like this one don't get driven enough for reduced fuel bills to make any significant difference. The key is that the engine runs smoother, quieter and much cleaner – suicidals would have plenty of time to change their minds trying to poison themselves with exhaust gasses coming from the Champion's tail pipe. If you're ever in Nevada and spot the Highland Mist-coloured Studebaker, be sure to take a photo and tell Tim we say hello. He won't know who we are, but let him know we appreciate and admire what he's done to the car.


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Robert Markowski
source: Ron Cherry for The Union 2012-2018 All rights reserved. By using this site you acknowledge that you accept its Terms and Conditions