The work of an American designer and builder that’s largely unknown today, the ‘Gardner Special’ Studebaker predicted future American production and custom car design trends.
Compared to the likes of George Barris, Darryl Starbird, Dean Jeffries, Ed Roth and the like, Vincent Gardner isn’t a well-known name from America’s custom car boom period of the 1950s and 60s, but his output was no less impressive.
Born in Minnesota in 1913, Vincent E. Gardner apparently showed a flair for automotive styling from a young age. This was officially recognised when he won a Fisher Body Craftsman Guild award (an encouragement award for young designers sponsored by the American auto industry) while still in high school.
Fresh out of high school, Gardner was hired by Gordon Buehrig at Auburn Motors and worked on the famous Cord 810. When Auburn folded, Buehrig and Gardner went to Budd Manufacturing, the Philadelphia company that built car bodies (including the first all-steel sedan body in 1916), locomotives and even aircraft.
Recognised for his design style and modelmaking skills, Gardner next became part of the “Loewy Gang” at Studebaker late in World War II. Essentially working for Studebaker, albeit under contract, Gardner was reunited with Buehrig and worked alongside the likes of Virgil Exner, Holden Koto, Albrecht Goertz and Bob Bourke, the latter of whom was largely credited with Studebaker’s famous “bullet nose” models of 1950 (see JUST CARS #250).
Modernising a ’47
While at Studebaker, Gardner early work included designs for the 1947 model Studebakers. Groundbreaking, and certainly more modern than anything else coming out of Detroit at the time, the ’47s predicted future styling with their integration of the front guards and bonnet into a more cohesive and modern whole. But the ‘47s are better remembered for the wrapround rear windows on the ‘Starlight’ coupes.
Gardner, who was specifically credited with crafting the grille on the ’47 Studebaker Champion, felt the new Studebakers weren’t modern enough and certainly weren’t sporty enough, so he set about creating his own.
In the late 1940s, the “sports car” didn’t really exist in America, at least in the sense of a production model from a domestic manufacturer. If you wanted a sporty two-seat roadster back then, you either purchased a British import, like an MG or Jaguar, or built your own. Given his extensive modelling and fabrication skills, Gardner chose the latter.
Purchasing a brand new 1947 Studebaker Champion coupe, Gardner started on his vision by stripping the car down to the floorpan, modifying the front and rear guards, strengthening the chassis, then creating all-new sections for the rest of the bodywork.
That change in the bodywork was pretty comprehensive, even by the standards of the day. Gardner lowered the firewall and moved it back a full 18 inches (406mm), which meant that areas like the bonnet, doors and steering gear had to be modified and lengthened (or shortened) to suit, as well as all the throttle, transmission and pedal linkages.
The bonnet created by Gardner was flatter and lower than even the production Studebaker version - virtually flush with the tops of the front guards. On those guards, Gardner rotated the headlight buckets 180 degrees (so the parking lights were now on the bottom) and massaged them further, but retained the factory crease that wrapped around the front wheelarch.
The ’47 grille that Gardner himself designed was ditched for the custom, replaced by a simple chrome bar separating the bonnet’s leading edge from the dechromed lower grille openings.
Still with Studebaker at the time he was building the car, Gardner would have been aware of the ‘bullet nose’ makeover that was coming for 1950. Incorporating his own take on that idea, Gardner added a larger, but simpler chrome nosecone.
At the rear of the Studebaker, the metalwork was no less comprehensive.
Seen in profile, the rear guards on Gardner’s custom look untouched, but move around to the back and you’ll see that they’ve been widened, lengthened and incorporated into a small hip built into the car’s profile aft of the doors.
The crowning achievement of all this custom metalwork was the bootlid; a one-piece section that stretched from just behind the cabin to the back bumper and was rear-hinged. Both the front and rear bumpers were taken from a 1949 Studebaker.
Reimagining the Studebaker coupe as a sports roadster meant the roof had to go, but Gardner retained a degree of weather protection by making a plexiglass roof canopy that clipped onto the car’s bodywork and the short, roadster-style front windscreen.
The clear plastic top came in two pieces, so it could be split and stored in the cavernous boot, but there were no side windows to offer full weather protection.
Some pundits have claimed this is one of the first custom “bubbletop” canopies, preceding the craze that would adorn show car hot rods (think Orbitron, Predicta, etc.) in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Further reflecting the coming hot rod trend, Gardner took the Studebaker’s stock 169.5ci straight six-cylinder engine and increased the compression ratio to 7.7:1, also adding a finned aluminium head, second carburettor and cast split exhaust manifolds. How much extra grunt those changes added is unrecorded, but re-routing the exhausts through the tail lights did give it a “jet glow” at night, according to period reports.
Gardner’s reimagining of the fairly humble Studebaker into a sports roadster didn’t stop at the outside.
Inside the car’s cabin, the split bench seat was retrimmed in tan leather, as were the door cards, with storage sections also added.
The instrumentation consisted of a quartet of large gauges, including a clock, fitted to an engine-turned panel in the centre of the dash.
Ahead of the custom sports steering on the lengthened factory steering column is the shifter for the three-speed manual transmission, but on the nearside is another of this car’s fascinating features.
Arrayed along the column are a range of levers to operate everything from the headlights and indicators to the heater. The pneumatically-opening bonnet and bootlid were also operated from these column-mounted levers.
The extremely clean appearance of the cockpit, while designed to be modern, arguably shows influences from Gardner’s early days at Auburn, too; more specifically the layout of the Cord 810 cockpit with its engine-turned dash facings and fingertip transmission controls.
Done and Gone
Almost immediately after completing his Studebaker custom in 1949, Gardner entered the car in the ‘Press On Regardless Rally’; a 24-hour test of time, speed and endurance held in Detroit.
Winning the first running of what became an annual event, Gardner then took his Studebaker west and won the ‘Most Magnificent Custom Roadster’ award at the inaugural Grand National Roadster Show in California in 1950. However, Gardner’s wife was never a fan of the car, and convinced Vince to sell it soon after.
It seems Vince didn’t need much persuading, as at the time, he had won a design contest in Motor Trend magazine to design a new sports body to suit a Ford Anglia. After leaving Studebaker in 1951, Gardner called on former colleague Dave Todd and secured a US$8,000 donation from Henry Ford II to bring his winning concept to reality. That became the ‘Ford Vega Roadster’ that debuted in 1953. Resembling a Triumph TR2 or early Austin-Healey in appearance (even though Gardner designed it well before both these cars were released), the Vega could have been an immediate challenger to Chevrolet’s Corvette, but Ford baulked at the idea.
Undeterred, Gardner planned to offer the Ford-based roadster as a fibreglass-bodied kit, but the Vega never went beyond the one-off stage.
However, the Studebaker that Gardner built would continue on, through the hands of numerous owners.
After leaving Studebaker, Gardner became an independent design consultant, creating the 1956 Studebakers in this role. Later, he joined Dearborn Steel Tubing, a company that worked closely with the auto industry. Here, his projects included the custom 1963 Thunderbird ‘Italien’ and a shortened two-seater Mustang (See JUST CARS #231 – this car sold at auction in 2015 for AU$661,340).
Gardner’s work on the Gyronaut X-1 land speed record motorcycle was followed by a collaboration with Alex Tremulis (designer of the Tucker 48) that looked at offering upmarket accessories for Mustangs under the ‘Coupe de Elegance’ label. This idea never got traction, so Gardner returned to being a design consultant and freelancer.
Before Gardner’s tragic passing through suicide in May, 1976, his custom Studebaker had found its way into the possession of one of the talented, but troubled, designer’s treating psychiatrists. He would retain the car until 1985, after which time it was passed through numerous owners.
In the early 2000s, it came into the possession of a Florida-based enthusiast who recognised its significance and commissioned Fran Roxas of Vintage Motorsports to complete a full restoration.
Roxas had previously restored Gardner’s Vega Roadster, so undertook what proved to be a laborious the task, requiring the manufacturing of numerous elements from scratch, as many of the car’s bespoke pieces, like the steering column switchgear, had been lost or destroyed over the years.
With assistance from Arrigo Specialty Metalworks, the Gardner Special was completed in 2012, just before its appearance at that year’s Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida. Later in the same year, the Gardner Special Studebaker was presented at the Pebble Beach concours in California, where it won a second-in-class award (American Sports Customs class) behind the wild-looking Norman Timbs Special.
Most recently, at last year’s Monterey auction season, the Studebaker Gardner Special was offered through Mecum. Reflecting its rarity and the quality of the restoration, the car came to the August sale with a guiding range of US$450,000 – US$600,000 (a price no doubt influenced by the US$385,000 that the Gardner-built Vega Roadster sold for in 2006), but failed to meet its reserve and was withdrawn from the auction. However, given the increasing appetite for one-offs and customs, don’t be surprised if the Gardner Special comes to market again in the future.