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Virgil M. Exner’s Striking Studebaker Starlight Coupe Design

In the post-World War II period most domestic automakers dusted off their prewar designs and maybe changed the grille and added a few chrome trim strips here and there and called it the new 1946 model. It was a seller’s market led by a pent-up demand to be able to buy the first new cars that were available since 1942.


  • 1951 Studebaker Starlight Coupe receiving full service at a Sonoco Filling Station.

After viewing the photo above of the unmistakable 1951 Studebaker Starlight Coupe at a Sonoco Service Station via Douglas S. Dempsey at Motorology, it appeared to be a good time to learn more about it. Like many postwar designs inspired by the aircraft used in World War II, Virgil Exner was apparently impressed by the windshield and roof line used on some of the larger Boeing and Douglas aircraft used before and during the war. Instead of placing it at the front of the car, he used it for the back half of the roof and added curved instead of flat paneled glass sections. But, we are getting ahead of the story.


  • The red 1951 Studebaker Starlight Coupe in the lead illustration and this second green one are courtesy of Alden Jewell.

Exner began working for Raymond Loewy and his design firm Loewy and Associates in 1938 on Studebaker body concepts. Loewy was a somewhat difficult man to work for and the relationship between the two lasted until 1944 when Exner was fired by him. He was soon hired at Studebaker and continued there working on postwar designs.

Exner quickly went to work and designed Studebaker’s new groundbreaking postwar offerings, which were first introduced to the public in New York City in April of 1946, and by mid-year in Studebaker dealer showrooms. The smaller automaker from South Bend, Indiana managed to beat the “Big Three” all the other car companies with the first all-new postwar car, but it did not become available until 1947 due to shortages of steel and materials at the time.


  • October 1946 patent application for the design of the 1947 Studebaker Starlight Coupe.

Unfortunatley Virgil Exner was not credited in public for his design as Lowey and his firm, still associated with Studebaker were attributed for its appearance because his well-known name would help sell the new offering. Exner’s name though was listed as the sole inventor on the Studebaker patent application above, and he was later credited by designer Robert Bourke for his work. When originally introduced, the Starlight Coupe featured a fairly conventional front end design, later in 1950 a new grille much like that used on some jet aircraft freshened up the front end of the car which continued to be sold until 1952.

  • View three television commercials below showing the new 1950 front end on the Buster Keaton Show.


12 responses to “Virgil M. Exner’s Striking Studebaker Starlight Coupe Design

  1. Tell me if I´m wrong,but I believe that the glasses may be the most expensive to produce parts of a Studebaker… .I have a tin replica of a Starlight when kid…Lovely car!.

  2. The design holds an unmovable place in my heart, for reasons more romantic than technical. Any readers have experience with the car?

    • I owned two Starlights. A bright yellow ’49 was my first car, and later I had an aqua-green ’51. I actually liked the ’49 better, because the grill was not only conventional but entirely stainless steel, so by the time I got it in the early Sixties it was still rust-free (California car). I did like the torpedo nose on the ’51 because it was so unique. They both used a lot of oil, but their engines were strong and reliable. The Starlight was a heavy and sturdy car. A woman backed into me once in her much newer car, and while there was a very slight dent in my rear bumper and the fender lost a little paint, her rear end was obviously damaged. The visibility was, as you’d imagine, superb. The feature I most remember was the hill holder clutch, which was very useful in San Francisco where I lived at the time. Magnificent machines!

  3. I notice that the red coupe in the promotional shot looks exactly like the car that any person could own and drive: no “stretching,” no obvious ride height monkey-business, no goofing around with perspective. That car is so gorgeous and “right” in it’s oddity that the Studebaker marketing men didn’t have to resort to tricks to make it look its best. Fabulous!

  4. Relatives visiting us had one of these. I wanted to sit in it. They would not let me and said “A kid wouldn’t know one car from another.” I’m still pissed!

  5. The Studebaker Starlight Coupe is one of my all-time favorite auto designs. When Studebaker came out with their “FIRST BY FAR WITH A POSTWAR CAR” in ’47, my dad took me into town to see the new Studebakers. I was only 10 years old at the time and that beautiful car just blew me away. I still feel the same today.

  6. While this basic body-shell came out in 1947 and continued through 1952 it was simply called a 5 passenger coupe (three in front, 2 in back) by Studebaker until the marketing department came up with the name Starlight in 1949.
    The styling did only allow room for two in the rear seat, but armrests had a big “hidden” storage area. Flip up the arm rest and the compartment extended all the way to the floor.

  7. Thank you for this interesting article. At last the truth is given for this extraordinary design given us by Virgil Exner!
    Even past articles in AQ weren’t as clear about who was really the autor of this design.

    It is true that Raymond Loewy must not have been easy going, as I met him some 40 years ago in an elevator to his studio in Paris, where I went to present my portfolio. I of course recognised him instantly but he stared at me so intensely with his piercing eyes that I did not have the courage to introduce myself and say hello! After that I regretted it becouse I just met with the head of staff and never saw R.L. again. At his death I remember that all old drawings and models of his studio were sold in an auction in Paris, it made a sad impression on me.

  8. In high School I had two Studebakers 1948 Starlight Coupe and later a 1948 Champ Convertible Later in life I have a 1955 Speedster, 1958 Golden Hawk, 1949 Champ Convertible ,a 1961 Lark Convertible, 1964 Daytona Convertible last one built in SB. 1962 Champ pick up truck and last 1064 Daytona 4 Dr.

  9. I had a ’51 Commander Starlight Coupe from ’63 to ’67, and a ’52 four door Champion that I only kept for a few months. From ’51 on, Commanders were V8s and Champions were 6 cylinders. Aside from its unique beauty, the ’51 was a very well engineered and equipped car. 3 speed standard with overdrive, – even when I got it as a 90,000 mile, 12 year old car, it got over 20 mpg, and as a teen, I drove it very hard. In ’51 Stude had Hill Holder to lock the brakes until you let the clutch up when stopped on an incline. Self adjusting brakes, too.

    Drove that car on my wedding night and our honeymoon. One of two cars (out of 30-some-odd that I’ve owned) that I wish I still owned.

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