It was an unusual birthday party.
Vern Nelson bought his wife Kay a bright red 1963 Studebaker Lark Daytona convertible, similar to the Studebaker Lark that Kay had owned as her first car.
And then they realized that their new addition came off the assembly line exactly 50 years ago.
So, they decided to throw a birthday party for their car at their Bridlewood Estates home, just east of Lake Geneva, Vern Nelson said.
But who to invite?
In this case, the guest list consisted of the memberships of three area Studebaker clubs, the Wisconsin Regional Studebaker Club, Madison; the Black Hawk Studebaker Club, Chicago; and the Rock River Studebaker Club, Rockford, Ill.
The guests brought 23 Studebakers from more than 100 years of Studebaker cars that were parked on the Nelson family property.
Nelson said he loves Studebakers because the cars are still collectable for the average car collector.
Some car nameplates and special edition sports cars claim price tags running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Studebakers run from a top figure of $150,000 to about $5,000, he said, depending on condition, Nelson said.
And then there are Studebaker collectors, who are a gregarious bunch, Nelson said.
About 60 Studebaker lovers sat around tables set up outside the Nelsons’ extra-large garage, eating brats and burgers, trading stories and talking about swapping parts to keep their ‘Studes’ in working condition.
Hugh Edfors owns a 2002 Avanti. Although Studebaker closed its doors in 1966, a group of investors created the Avanti Motor Co. and kept the futuristic Avanti model going into the 21st century.
Only 50 of the 2002 edition of Avantis were built, Edfors said. The car retains the distinctive no-grille front end that made the Avanti so noticeable.
Edfors called his Avanti a “boutique” car, with a Pontiac chassis and Chevrolet engine. Some sold for as much as $150,000 he said, although he was quick to add that he did not spend as much for his. The interior is elk skin, and the dash and cockpit are nicely appointed.
Edfors said the Avanti, the final echo of the Studebaker brand, finally stopped production in 2007.
Asked what drew him to Studebaker in general and Avanti in particular, Edfors said it was a mysterious siren call.
“I don’t know,” he said of his attraction. “It’s hard to pinpoint.”
Edfors said his first car was a 1953 Studebaker Starliner Coupe. At a time when Detroit iron was big, wide and sporting enormous fins, the Starliner was simple and elegant with clean lines and just a hint of fins.
Donald Shelton of East Troy is the owner of both a 1953 Starlight Commander, with distinctive bullet-nose grille, and a 1961 Studebaker Champion pickup truck with full-sized truck bed. Shelton’s black 1953 Starlight Commander was owned by a doctor in Iowa and has just 80,000 miles on it.
With its original V-8 engine, he said, the 60-year car has no problem getting up to 65 mph on the highway.
Studebaker produced the Champion line of pickup trucks from 1960 until the Indiana plant closed in 1964.
The later truck beds were built under license from Dodge. Two innovations that Studebaker’s pickup trucks introduced that later pickup truck manufacturers would copy were, the sliding back window and a car-like interior.
Sliding windows came first. The comfort and styling touches that later pickups now uniformly have in their cockpits didn’t become common until the 1990s.
Howie and Evi Thomas of Hampshire, Ill., are the proud owners of a 1938 Commander, a car design that saved Studebaker during the Great Depression.
Howie said he gave it to his wife as a 48th anniversary gift, but she must have known about it earlier. He confessed it took him more than six years to restore the vehicle.
He did more than restore it, however. The antique body encases a modern Chevrolet Corvette engine and a 21st century-style interior.
Since 2001, when the car was finally roadworthy, Howie estimated he put on about 100,000 miles driving across country to car shows.
Don Cudihee, president of the Black Hawk chapter, said the allure of Studebaker is in the design.
“Their styling evoked a mysterious sportscar look,” he said.
Cudihee said his first car was a 1941 Champion, similar to the Thomas’ 1938 Champion. He said he found the remains of the car behind an auto shop when he was a 16-year-old, car-crazy high school student.
He rebuilt the car and spent his high school years driving it around.
The birthday Studebaker, which has just 35,000 miles on its odometer, was parked in the place of honor, bearing a celebratory white ribbon on its bonnet.
“I bought it from a retired engineering professor in northern Vermont who advertised the car as for sale by ‘an old guy with too many toys,’” Nelson said. “It drives really decent.”
Nelson, a self-described “gear-head,” has a master’s degree in engineering from the University of Chicago.
Studebaker isn’t his only passion. He is rebuilding a Lotus and owns the remains of a SAAB Sonnet: the chasis, engine, two-seater interior and no body.
But Nelson said the Studebaker will always hold a special place in his heart.
The styling of the cars was always appealing, said Nelson, who owned a Studebaker when he was in college.
“They always bucked the trend,” Nelson said.