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Stories from Steve: 1956 Studebaker Skyhawk - 2,874 miles

This is one of the finest cars in our low mileage Foundation – not just because of its outstanding quality and period correct styling but because we’ve been able to document every step of its fantastic history. As you know, one of our top priorities is to determine as much as possible about the history of our cars. Many times, it is delineated by the seller but just as often we find a vehicle that has much written documentation but little verbal history. This Studebaker is one of those cars in the latter category.

It was in the early fall of 2010 that I received a copy of the December 3-4 Raleigh auction booklet. I had been to several of their auctions and was very impressed with the quality of cars presented by Mike Leith who owns the auction. I not only talked with Mr. Leith but also spent time with one of his most important employees – James Pearson. It soon became apparent they both understood the intrinsic value of low mileage original cars and the provenance associated with each one.

As mentioned, I received their catalog of cars being auctioned in December and was surprised to find a 1956 Studebaker that had only 2,874 miles (in addition to the catalog description was a handwritten note saying “Steve - hope this is yours” signed Sandy). Sandy was one of the girls that worked in Mike’s office and knew about our low mileage Foundation.

I immediately called James Pearson. I knew I could depend on his expertise and honesty regarding details of the car. He answered immediately and I knew from the spirit in his voice he would help me analyze the present and past of this fine sounding automobile.

James knew the car well - it had been in Mr. Leith’s collection for over two years, but he had little experience with the car’s past paperwork. Within days he called back to report about previous owners, titles, and original bill of sale. James has since passed away, but I still consider him one of the finest gentlemen ever in the industry of classic car sales.

After receiving James’s endorsement of the car, it was my job to analyze the paperwork and learn as much as possible of the car’s history. I soon saw a familiar name - Ed Eldridge - one of the men I saw constantly on the road. He always had excellent vehicles for sale and is highly regarded in the industry. I called him - he noted when he owned the car and explained the history as he knew it from 2006 until I bought it in 2010.

I called James back and said the car should be in our Foundation but I could not be at the auction. He immediately set me up as a phone bidder and told me I would be represented by a Robert Cobb. He called me as soon as they received my signed authorization for him to bid for me. At precisely the time the car was about to cross the auction block, Robert called and together we purchased the car on the weekend of Dec. 4th, 2010.

I had always worked well with Intercity Transport, and they delivered the car about a week after the auction. We immediately put the car up on our lift and found its condition to be absolutely stunning.

On the next Monday we started to trace the car’s history. The original paperwork was full of original documents starting with the bill of sale. Roger C. Leist of Jim Thorpe, PA. purchased the car new on 8/22/56 at Hahn and Sons Garage in Jim Thorpe, PA. The original bill of sale showed that Mr. Leist had ordered the car with 12 factory options and accessories then added four dealer accessories. He had traded in his 1953 Ford and received $1,500.00 in trade-in value towards the $3,328.00 cost of the Studebaker. Another early document was the original certificate of title through the state of Pennsylvania which included the state taxes and culminated in a whopping $757.55 (seems high for 1956!).

Other original paperwork from time of purchase was the original 1956 Studebaker pamphlet concerning service policy and the owner’s certificate made out to Roger C. Leist Jr. We realized we had wonderful original paperwork for the car and great history from 2006 – 2010 but what happened in between?

Ed was a big help here since he was told that the man who sold him the car in 2007 actually had purchased the car from an estate auction the previous year in Jim Thorpe, PA. Well, that is where the original Studebaker dealer and Roger Leist were located. Suddenly I’m wondering if Roger had the car from 1956 until his death resulting in the estate auction in 2006. It was time to look closely at each piece of paperwork from the car and suddenly we found a small advertisement that had been cut out of a newspaper. The headline read “estate of Roger Leist – public auction” - Bingo!!! - the ad even mentioned the 1956 Studebaker.

Now we had to fill in the blanks from 1956-2006. Over the next two years I must have called 8 -10 people with the last name Leist in Pennsylvania hoping to find a relative. Finally, an older man answered his phone and said he was not related to Roger but knew of the family. He explained that Roger had no surviving brothers but did have a sister who would be difficult to locate because she was using her married name. Bang!!! – the door slammed in front of me again and I told Tim (my computer guy) about the problem. One day about two weeks later I was looking at the car’s paperwork for about the 25th time and found a so-called “short certificate” from the register of wills of Carbon County, PA. As I perused the sheet my eyes doubled in size – I was looking at an original notarized certificate legally transferring the estate of Roger Leist to Kathleen Jones dated 11/15/2006. Wow!!! – I took the paper to Tim who used and located a phone number for Kathleen Jones. We had it!!! – we beat the mystery.

Of course, I called her immediately and explained why I was calling. Her first words were, “do I understand that you now own the car, and it still has only 2,800 miles” when I said yes, she became emotional and started to sob quietly. After several minutes she said she started to cry because she loved her brother and he had dedicated his life to keeping the car as perfect as possible for future generations. In fact, she had tried to keep the car out of the auction and in the hands of a museum but was unable to do so because the auctioneer had advertised the auction and included the car in each ad.

She went on to explain that her brother was a machinist – knew cars well and felt the design and quality of the 1956 Skyhawk was ahead of its time – therefore he traded his 1953 Ford and bought the 1956 with the intent of driving it very little and preserving it for the future (in fact he used a Jeep as his primary mode of transportation).

After about five years Roger put the car in permanent storage on the second floor of his garage – covered the car with bed sheets – put carpet under the car and actually installed a security system to protect the car. She referred to her brother as a visionary since few people (if any at that time) would have believed that a 1956 Skyhawk in perfect condition would be most desirable in the future.

She asked me to call a man named Sandy Ferko for any additional information and finished our interview with a simple but poignant statement “I’m so happy the car will be preserved in your facility. I know Roger would like that.”

The next step is the point where I got “the other side of the story.” I called Sandy Ferko since Kathy said he had been a friend of Roger’s and had helped him wash and wax the car in its early years. I started this conversation with a quick synopsis of Kathy’s interview; especially that Roger put the car away because he was a visionary. Sandy started laughing. “Roger wasn’t a visionary. Sure, he loved the car and kept the mileage low, but he put it in the garage because a guy in a parking lot opened his door against the Studebaker putting a small nick in the right front fender. Roger was insulted by the guy and built a second floor on the garage to store the car and never drove it again.”

Sandy had a great story of his time with Roger. “After I retired from the automotive business, Roger and I were best of friends on a daily basis and vowed to change the exhaust on the Studebaker. For the next twenty or so years we’d be standing outside the garage and say we’re another year older and the exhaust still isn’t done!”

So that brings us to the end of Kathy’s story in 2006 – she had watched the car being loaded on a roll back truck and taken off into the sunset. It turns out it was bought by Bachman Used Cars from Lebanon, PA. After being kept with his used cars, Bachman took the car to the Hershey car show in 2007 and put a note in the window that the car was for sale and left his phone number. A friend of Ed Eldridge saw the car, told Ed, then Ed called the phone number in the window – negotiated a fair price and verbally bought the car. The deal was consummated the next day. Ed kept the car for about a year in his collection – changed only one part (the water pump) and drove the car about 160 miles.

In an attempt to buy more cars, Ed sold the Studebaker to Carlisle Productions on 9/10/08. They in turn were scheduled to auction it off at their own Carlisle auction 10/4/08.

Ed was a representative for Raleigh Auctions (owned by Mike Leith) at the time and was scheduled to be a phone bidder for the Carlisle auction. Suddenly he was bidding on his own car. He had told Mr. Leith what a great car it was, and Mike gave him a maximum bid – which, by the way, was enough to buy the car.

The car arrived in Raleigh on 10/10/08 and as with all of Mr. Leith’s cars there was a small composition notebook, put on the front seat. Each time the car was moved or driven a notation was added to the book. In this case one of Mr. Leith’s employees put “purchased via Ed Eldridge @ Carlisle auction with actual 2,829 miles – mint original - all paperwork; don’t sell – original 1956 pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes in glove box”.

On 10/20/08 the car was driven to the gas station - “added 6 gallons of 93 octane at 2,830 (actual miles) – car drives perfect.”

By 2010, Mr. Leith (who drove all his cars at one time or another) decided that several cars were too original and should not be driven on the highway. Therefore, he now felt the Studebaker should be sold. That’s when James Pearson called and said, “Mr. Ames it is in your best interest to buy this 1956 Studebaker Skyhawk – if I can help you in any way please call.” Thanks James – you’ve always been the best!

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