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Studebaker Road Test

Chicago Daily Tribune header

Studebaker’s Miracle Ride was recently subjected by the Studebaker engineers to two “third degree road test” which were immeasurably more difficult than any ever before attempted. In the first, a new 1935 Commander was driven for 106 miles over the ties of the Pennsylvania Railway between South Bend and Indianapolis, Ind. In the second, the same Commander staged a thrilling race with the Dixie Flier, crack train of the Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad, near Momence, Illinois. Luther Johnson, veteran Indianapolis race driver and Studebaker test pilot, was the driver of the Commander on both occasions. The test were conducted under the direction of H.E. Churchill, member of Studebaker’s engineering staff, and were made with the definite objective of determining just how much punishment the mechanism of Studebaker’s independent planar suspension would stand. Independent planar suspension successfully withstood every test! In the run to Indianapolis, the Commander was officially clocked out of South Bend at exactly 9 o’clock in the morning by F.H. Smith, manager of South Bend’s main Western Union office, The car sped out of South Bend with Johnson at the wheel and completed 106.5 miles over this rough railroad road bed – which included not only many trestles and crossing guards but also a half dozen or more places where the Pennsylvania right-of-way crossed other railroads. It was a terrific test, but the Commander completed the distance in a running time of three hours and fifteen minutes, or an average of 33.1 miles per hour-which would be considered a fairly average driving speed for most motorists over the same distance. Driver Johnson was almost as fresh at the finish as he was at the start.

Newsreel Men Interested

Paramount News heard of this remarkable run and showed decided interest. "Why don’t you find a stretch of double track and run that car against a fast train?" it was suggested. A spot was selected within easy driving distance of Paramount headquarter in Chicago and arrangements were made with the C. & E.I. Railroad for a special train and use of their right of way.

The Dixie Flier is one of the fastest, most luxurious trains in the world. It operates on a regular daily schedule between Chicago and Jacksonville, Florida, and on many stretches of track it travels at a speed which hangs around the ninety-mile-an-hour mark. Railroad officials provided Studebaker engineers with an exact duplicate of this train for their use on the day of the tests, April 5, 1935. The Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railway boasts one of the finest roadbeds of the country-a roadbed which permits heavy trains to travel over it at high speed with absolute safety-but it was not designed for automobiles to travel between the rails at high speeds! The ties are approximately 18 inches apart and are heavily ballasted with rough gravel. The section near Momence, Illinois was chosen not only because it was close to Chicago, but also because there were two very long trestles over the Kankakee River at that point and because there are more than the average number of switch points located there.

Expected “Crack-Up”

While the camera clicked the Commander went through its paces and Paramount newsreel cameramen, constituted as they are, were bent on making it as spectacular as possible. In fact, they expected a "crack-up!" The action went this way:

Luther Johnson pulled his car up alongside the locomotive at the Momence station. Engineer F.W. Kay and Conductor James Hoffman climbed down out of the train and spoke to Johnson for the benefit of Paramount’s microphone.

"That’s mighty good roadbed, but I never seen anyone try anything like this on it before," said Kay. "Well, let’s see what happens," was Johnson’s reply. Kay climbed into the cab, the signal was given, and the run was on. Down over the trestles and out on to the rocky roadbed the pair went. The heavy locomotive steadily gained speed, and Johnson kept just a little bit ahead of it. A mile or so down the track there was an open switch, and here is where the only casualty occurred. The knife-like rail at the switch pierced the Commander’s left front tire and a blowout ensued. But even with a flat tire, Johnson kept on and retained his position beside the locomotive until the tire flew off in shreds. He had perfect control of the car at all times.

Cameras Everywhere

Paramount had cameras alongside the right-of-way, a camera plane, cameras on the locomotive, and cameras on a special flange-wheeled motorcar traveling ahead of the train.

Time after time the run was repeated and then, for the especial benefit of the aerial cameramen, Johnson and the crack passenger train staged a thrilling race which lasted for about 10 miles. Both achieved speed in excess of fifty miles an hour. "I could have beaten him easily," Johnson remarked. "But the cameramen instructed me to keep close to the locomotive so both of us would be in the picture at all times."

This thrilling performance was “duck soup” for the Commander. It could have gone on and on under the same conditions; and, as Johnson said, it could have achieved much higher speed with prefect safety and perfect comfort.

Engineers Make Careful Check

At the conclusion of the test, Studebaker engineers drove the car back to South Bend, where it was taken into the laboratory and subjected to a minute examination. There was no sign, no indication that any mechanical part had been subjected to this extraordinary punishment. The newsreel men didn’t get a "crack-up," but they got something far more thrilling – the picture of a Studebaker Champion successfully racing with a crack train-traveling in the train’s own element.