Flyin' Tomato

Twelve and two-thirds seconds in a 1963 Studebaker Super Lark

Flyin' Tomato

Feature Article from Hemmings Muscle Machines

August, 2007 - Daniel Strohl

On the salt flats of Bonneville, many a Studebaker streaked to fame at nearly unimaginable speeds, appearing from a distance like earthbound missiles. In La Carrera Panamericana, the Studebaker body-on-frame construction easily handled the harsh Mexican roads and made South Bend's favorite son a popular choice for racers.

Even back in the 1930s, the company fielded a few Indy cars.

But for the most part, Studebakers and drag racing mixed about as well as electric guitars in Amish country. At times, the closest South Bend seemed to get to drag racing was the Osceola Dragstrip in the next town over.

But Ted Harbit has always proved the exception to that rule. He earned a reputation as a dragstrip commando in the 1960s after campaigning Chicken Hawk, a 1951 Starlight coupe powered by a Studebaker V-8, which carried him to multiple stock class NHRA victories. He still owns, maintains and races Chicken Hawk (though now with a 650hp twin-turbocharged and intercooled Studebaker V-8--see HMM#15, December 2004), but after learning of the Pure Stock drag race series, he knew he had to run a Studebaker in it.

But, of course, the Pure Stock rules stipulate just that--he needed to find a production American performance car built sometime between 1955 and 1974. And preferably one that wouldn't get him laughed off the track. He chose a Super Lark, a breed of Studebaker little known today.

Much more familiar, though, were the Super Lark's forebears, the Golden Hawks. At a time when Chrysler's Hemis laid down more than 300 horsepower and Chevrolet's mechanical fuel injection delivered 283 horsepower, a race was on, and Studebaker couldn't help but get caught up in it. Their thick-casting V-8, introduced in 1951 with a staggering 232 cubic inches, had grown to a massive 289 cubic inches in 1957. More importantly, Studebaker's engineers had designed the V-8 to withstand extreme amounts of pressure, up to a 15.0:1 compression ratio, so it would take to a supercharger surprisingly well.

Thus, the 1957 and 1958 Golden Hawks (along with a few Studebaker police cars) used a McCulloch VS57 variable ratio supercharger, blowing 5 to 7 p.s.i. into the 289's two-barrel carburetor to produce 275hp. More than 5,000 Golden Hawks used this engine, until the 1958 recession brought that little experiment to an end. A year later, Studebaker President Harold Churchill turned the company away from head-on competition with the Big Three and introduced the compact Lark, derived from the larger Studebaker sedans and wagons, but with a shorter wheelbase and shorter overhangs.

The McCulloch connection would prove useful over the next several years, though, especially when, in March 1962--as part of an early 1960s diversification program brought on by the success of the new compact Lark--Studebaker bought Paxton Products from McCulloch.

Via Los Angeles-based Paxton Products came two significant figures. Even before Studebaker bought Paxton, the company hired Sherwood Egbert away from McCulloch to replace Churchill at the helm of Studebaker. He almost immediately initiated the development of the Avanti. A former associate of his, Andy Granatelli, the vice-president of Paxton when Studebaker bought that company, was almost immediately tasked with making sure that the Avanti wouldn't leave South Bend underpowered.

"Sherwood Egbert was the Lee Iacocca of Studebaker," said Bob Palma, the technical editor for Turning Wheels, the Studebaker Drivers Club's newsletter. "Without him, it would have been highly unlikely we would have had the Avanti or the Super Larks. He was a car guy... and he literally put his heart and soul into Studebaker."

You can't have a sports car like the Avanti without a decent engine, and about the same time that Egbert came aboard, Studebaker's chief engine engineer, Eugene Hardig, set about revising the 289 for use in the Avanti. Hardig retained the 289's 3.5625-inch bore and 3.625-inch stroke, as well as the forged rods and crankshaft, but he "really went to work" on the rest of the engine, Palma said. Among Hardig's improvements were aluminum timing gears in place of the fiber timing gears (previously used in Studebaker trucks), a Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor in place of the old WCFB, a high-performance dual-point distributor, a larger harmonic balancer, a heavy-duty water pump and a longer snout on the crankshaft to run a supercharger.

Because the Avanti would have a lower hood, Hardig also specified a redesigned intake to sit lower on the engine and a full-flow oil filter system to replace a partial-flow system that resided in front of the engine, right where he wanted to stick a supercharger.

To help the new engines breathe better, Hardig designed a new camshaft with a longer 260 degrees of duration. For the base Avanti engine, designated R1, Hardig specified only minor revisions to the existing passenger car V-8 heads and a 10.25:1 compression ratio. For the upgrade Avanti engine, designated R2, Hardig chose existing large-chamber heads from the truck line for a 9.0:1 compression ratio and a fixed-ratio Paxton SN-60 supercharger.

(The Granatelli brothers took the paradigm further in 1964 and hand-built at their shop in California around 120 R3 and R4 engines, which used a special and now-rare version of the Studebaker V-8, either with a 9.75:1 compression ratio and Paxton worth 335hp or with a 12.0:1 compression ratio and dual AFBs worth 280hp. They're a little bit out of the scope of this article, but if you're interested, check out our story on Nelson Bove's R3 Super Lark in HMM#11, August 2004.)

Meanwhile, an onslaught of competitors from the Big Three had entered the compact market, making life difficult for the Lark. While the Lark had benefited from V-8 power and from Studebaker's Power Kits--which included a four-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust--since its introduction, even the Power Kit 289 only developed 225hp. It took until 1962, though, for Studebaker to finally offer optional bucket seats and a four-speed transmission on the Lark.

Studebaker wanted the Avanti to bow in 1962 as well, and, indeed, it officially debuted in May 1962, but production issues kept the fiberglass sports car off the streets in any significant numbers for months afterward. In the meantime, Studebaker naturally saw that it could place the R1 and R2--also known as the Jet Thrust engines--on the Lark and Hawk option sheets at the start of the 1963 model year.

Unfortunately, Studebaker made almost no noise about the Jet Thrust engine availability in Larks and Hawks, only revealing the fact in a piece of showroom sales literature. So Granatelli and crew rounded up a Lark, Hawk and Avanti, all R2 powered, and took them to Bonneville in March 1963. The brick of a Lark actually flew through the timing traps at 132.04 mph.

Studebaker immediately seized upon the publicity potential of such a feat and that same month put together a whole performance package for the Avanti-engined Larks and Hawks, calling them--simply enough--Super Lark and Super Hawk. In the package, Studebaker stuffed either the R1 or R2, bucket seats, carpeting, a 160 mph speedometer, a tachometer, a Twin Traction limited-slip rear axle (complete with finned 11-inch drum brakes), 111/2-inch front disc brakes (and, thus, power brakes), heavy-duty springs and shocks, anti-roll bars front and rear and radius rods on the rear axle. Transmission choices included only the Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed manual or the Borg-Warner-supplied Powershift three-speed automatic. Studebaker made the package available on every trim level of Lark, even the Standard on special order, as well as on the Hawk.

Studebaker introduced the Super packages at the New York Auto Show in April 1963, but strangely enough didn't release any horsepower or torque ratings for the Jet Thrust engines until very late in 1963 (they rated the R1 at 240hp and the R2 at 289hp). "Nobody knows why," historian Palma said. But by failing to make those figures public, Studebaker effectively (intentionally or not) removed the Super Larks from competition in NHRA drag racing.

"The NHRA depended on horsepower ratings to determine power-to-weight ratios," said Palma said. "So the Supers couldn't campaign in stock classes."

Perhaps that twist of fate has something to do with a batch of factory orders for Super Larks that Palma and other Studebaker historians found.

"We have found written at the bottom of several orders in the early 1960s the phrase 'Tag Operation Drag Team,' but we have never been able to find any existence of such a drag team," Palma said.

However, another drag race sanctioning body, the AHRA, did not use horsepower ratings to classify competitors, and at least one Super, The Whistler, sponsored by Studebaker dealer Ray Tanner of Phoenix, Arizona, and tuned by Floyd Mendenhall, competed in the ranks of the AHRA. Using an R2-powered 1963 Lark Regal two-door with a four-speed, The Whistler set a record in A/Compact Stock at 13.52 seconds at 104.52 mph, and claimed a best-ever time of 13.40 seconds at 108.64 mph.

Back to Ted Harbit. A lifelong Studebaker man, he knew that an R2 Super Lark would run well in Pure Stock. While not as numerous as the Avanti (1,391 Avanti-powered Larks and Hawks versus 3,834 Avantis in 1963; 786 versus 809 in 1964), all Lark sedans actually had a weight advantage over the Avanti. So Harbit found a complete and mostly original 1963 Lark with the R2 and the four-speed.

"It was originally white, but was repainted in about 1988 in Regal Red," Harbit said. "It had never been raced before, and in my first run with it, I ran 15-something."

Realizing that he'd have to fight for every tenth to get this car--since nicknamed Flyin' Tomato, using the same self-deprecating and agricultural sense of humor that dubbed the Chicken Hawk - into the 13s, he first pulled the engine and bored it .060 inches over stock, to bring the displacement up to 299 cubic inches. He said he found little fault with the engine otherwise and rebuilt it with a pair of R3 cast-iron headers, which Studebaker made optional on its other V-8 engines. He did clearance the supercharger and switched its pulleys to increase the maximum boost from 5 p.s.i. to 6, then tweaked the timing and the carburetor jetting, but he said the best changes he made came further along in the drivetrain.

"I switched the transmission gears from wide-ratio to close-ratio, then clamped the rear springs and installed Koni shocks," Harbit said. "It had 3.73 rear gears in it, and I put 4.27s in, which brought it to life, so I decided to go one better and it now has 4.55 gears."

Harbit said the supercharger's belt starts to slip at somewhere around 5,500 rpm. If it didn't, he imagines it could put out closer to 7 p.s.i., but he doesn't push it much and shifts at only 6,000 rpm.

The results? Harbit easily bested Tanner with a 13.15-second run in Pure Stock competition and a best overall run (night air, slight tailwind, prepared dragstrip) of 12.67 seconds at 110.8 mph.

Maybe Studebakers should have run on the dragstrips after all.

Owner's View
The 'Tomato drives and handles excellent. When racing, it handles as well at 100-plus mph as it does at 60 mph. Drag racing times are hampered by having to use 70-series street tires.

When I got the car and drove it with the four-speed, I felt 30 years younger. I had not driven a four-speed since about 1970, and I'm 72 now. Racing this car and my '51, the Chicken Hawk, helps keep me from aging too fast.

Oh, yeah, and I'm also building an Avanti to race. It will be the same basic engine, only with dual turbos and dual carbs on a tunnel ram intake. On alcohol.--Ted Harbit

Club Scene

Studebaker Drivers Club
P.O. Box 1715
Maple Grove, MN 55311-7615
Dues: $19.95/year (for first-time members)
Membership: 12,800

+ 12.67 seconds at 110.8 mph speaks for itself
+ 12.67 seconds from less than 300
+ 12.67 seconds from a Studebaker

- Superchargers require that much additional maintenance
- Scattering your engine on the strip would get real expensive
- It takes 12.67 seconds to command respect in a Studebaker


Base price: $2,315.00
Price as profiled: $2,995.02
Options on car profiled: Super Lark package, $680.02

Type: OHV V-8, iron block
Displacement: 289 cubic inches (currently 299 cubic inches}
Bore x Stroke: 3.625 x 3.625 inches (currently 3.625 x 3.625 in.)
Compression ratio: 9.0:1
Horsepower @ rpm: 289 @ 4,800 (est.)
Torque @ rpm: 303-lbs.ft. @ 5,000 (est.)
Valvetrain: Solid valve lifters
Main bearings: 5
Fuel system: Single Carter AFB 600cfm carburetor, Paxton SN-60 centrifugal supercharger, Carter mechanical fuel pump
Lubrication system: Pressure, gear-type pump
Electrical system: 12-volt
Exhaust system: Dual exhaust

Type: Borg-Warner close-ratio T-10 four-speed manual with Hurst Competition Plus shifter
Ratios 1st: 2.20:1
2nd: 1.64:1
3rd: 1.31:1
4th: 1.00:1
Reverse: 2.26:1

Type: Dana 44 with Twin Traction limited-slip differential
Ratio: 4.55:1

Type: Saginaw recirculating ball
Ratio: 20:1
Turns, lock-to-lock: 4.7
Turning circle: 37.6 feet

Type: Hydraulic, power assist
Front: 11.5-inch Bendix disc
Rear: 11-inch finned drum

Chassis & Body
Construction: Steel body on frame
Frame: Box-section ladder with four crossmembers
Body style: Two-door sedan
Layout: Front engine, rear-wheel drive

Front: Independent A-arms; coil springs; Koni shock absorbers; 7/8-inch anti-roll bar
Rear: Parallel semi-elliptic leaf springs with clamp on front half of leaf spring; top-mounted radius rods; Koni shock absorbers; 5/8-inch anti-roll bar

Wheels & Tires
Wheels: Stock stamped steel with wheelcovers
Front: 15 x 6 inches
Rear: 15 x 6 inches
Tires: Dayton radials
Front: 235/70R15
Rear: 235/70R15

Weights & Measures
Wheelbase: 109 inches
Overall length: 184 inches
Overall width: 71.3 inches
Overall height: 55.7 inches
Front track: 57.37 inches
Rear track: 56.56 inches
Curb weight: 3,350 pounds

Crankcase: 6 quarts (with filter)
Cooling system: 18 quarts (with heater)
Fuel tank: 18 gallons

Calculated Data
Bhp per c.i.d.: 1.00 (stock)
Weight per bhp: 11.59 pounds
Weight per c.i.d.: 11.59 pounds (stock)

Studebaker built 1,391 Avanti-powered Larks and Hawks in 1963.
Only 145 were Super Larks or Super Hawks.

0-60 mph: 7.8 seconds*
1/4 mile ET: 16.2 seconds @ 87 mph*
1/4 mile ET: 12.67 seconds @ 110.8 mph**
Top speed: 132.04 mph***

* Based on a June 1963 Car Life road test of an R2 Lark Daytona with an automatic transmission
** Based on Ted Harbit's best timeslip
*** Based on Andy Granatelli's 1963 flying mile run in an R2 Lark Regal at the Bonneville Salt Flats

This article originally appeared in the August, 2007 issue of Hemmings Muscle Machines.

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This article originally appeared in the August, 2007 issue of Hemmings Muscle Machines.
Order Backissues of Hemmings Muscle Machines