Omahan revives a classic Commander
By Jeff Barnes
Frank van Doorn is a Studebaker man, but he didn’t really want another one. He already owns three that he restored himself, and adding and restoring a fourth was more car and work than he wanted.
But a good friend had a 1952 Commander for sale and there were some heartstrings there. “The car’s significant to me because I received one for (high school) graduation in 1959,” van Doorn said. “It was the same model and color, but it was a convertible.” Van Doorn admits he didn’t treat that car as well as he should have and regrets not having it today.
In addition to the admiration and nostalgia for the friend’s car, he hated seeing what was happening to it. The friend owned the Commander for ten years, but sat in a garage for the last eight of them. “He said the brakes were not up to his standards – he went to slow down and it passed through an intersection,” said van Doorn. “Sitting for eight years is worse for a car than moving for eight years, though.”
It was too nice a car to let pass, so van Doorn – a retired professional mechanic – bought it four months ago. Much of this summer was spent in getting to the shape that he wanted. “It was rust-free – a dry ‘Southwest’ car, but I had a lot of little things to do to it,” he said, including new lights, overdrive, steering wheel, and – of course – brakes. “There’s no problem in stopping now.”
He also did something he’s never done before in wet sanding the car. The Commander had fairly poor paint job, he said, with a lot of texture, kind of an “orange peel” effect. “I tried to get a shop that was free to wet sand it, to smooth and buff it out. “I didn’t want to wait, so I did it myself,” van Doorn said, admitting to some fear in the project. “It made a lot of difference – it’s not perfect, but respectable.”
It’s the kind of car you want to show off. The ’52 was built in the year of the Studebaker centennial (the company started as a manufacturer of wagons for farmers and the military). The Commander was a two-door hardtop with no “B” (center) pillar, “and was the next best thing to a convertible back then,” van Doorn said.
“Its basic body shell came out in 1947, making it the first car company after World War II with a new model,” he added. “The Champion was the basic model, but for a hundred dollars more, you could move up to the Commander. This model was the first year of the hardtops but the last year of the ‘upright’ cars before went to the low-slung model.”
The engine is a 232 c.i., V-8 with 120 horsepower. “That’s relatively small for a V-8 but it has a lot of get up and go,” said van Doorn. “It can run 70 on the freeway with overdrive.”
He and his wife Elizabeth truly enjoy the car and the results of the restoration. They haven’t driven it on any big trips yet, but are planning a 1,000-mile round trip to Gering next year for a regional Studebaker meet, celebrating the car’s 60th year.
“We still have to work up some confidence for a long trip,” van Doorn said, “but we’ll do it. It’s just an adventure to head out on a long trip with a car this old.”
(Published originally in the Omaha World-Herald, October 2011)