Dennis & Diana O'Brien's 1941 Studebaker Champion Gasser
(from Volume 25, Issue 300)

story by owner Dennis O'Brien, photos by Michael B. Kelly


As far back as I can remember, I have always been interested in all things mechanical, particularly anything related to automobiles. As a kid, toy push cars, gas powered model airplanes, and gas powered model cars were my gift of choice for birthdays, Christmas, and the like. Following, were home-built soap box cars powered with cast off lawnmower engines, then racing go-karts. In 1959, I was in my mid-teens, and got my first exposure to drag racing. My older sister’s boyfriend, a hot rodder, let me tag along with them to Aquasco Speedway, one of the first paved, quarter-mile drag strips in Maryland. His car was a beautiful jet black 1939 Ford coupe, with black and white rolled and pleated interior, and a Chevrolet small block V-8 engine topped by four-two barrel carbs. That car, and the visit to the drag strip, was what planted the seed for the car pictured here! To say I was bitten hard by the hot rod bug would be a gross understatement. All the cars racing (from the stockers to the ever evolving altereds, modifieds, and the gas and fuel dragsters) stimulated my senses, but the cars that really captured my interest were much like my sister’s boyfriends’ car, that being an older vintage body, powered by a later model overhead valve engine….They were affectionately called “Gas class” cars, or “GASSERS”.

Eventually, I began racing some of my early hot rods, example being one of the first cars I built, a 1940 Ford Coupe powered by an Oldsmobile engine. It was not competitive class wise at the track, as I did not have the funds at that time to make it so, but the thrill of racing down a quarter mile began to nurture that planted seed. As the mid sixties rolled around, I bought a new 1965 fuel Injected Corvette and set it up for the Stock Sports Production class of drag racing (much to my parents displeasure), eventually setting a national record with it. I raced at many drag strips across the nation, and whenever they called the Gassers to the staging lanes, I would drop whatever I was doing, and headed to the stands to witness the wild wheelstands, exceptionally quick times, and squirrely handling characteristics these cars were known for. Names such as Stone, Woods and Cook, Junior Thompson, Hill Brothers, all the S&S racing team cars (Fred Bear, Dave Hales, K.S. Pittman, Malcolm Durham, Hill & Zartman), “Big John” Mazmanian, Prock and Howell, Shores and Hess, and numerous others, continued to feed that seed. I swore that one day I would build my own Gasser.

About 1970, higher education and career decisions led me away from active participation in drag racing and the hot rods, but I never forgot those names and the cars they drove. Fast forward to just before retirement in late 2011, and I thought it was finally time to shop around for a car to build into my dream Gasser. Looking through many magazines revealed that the popular Gasser craze was inundated with the 1937 thru ’41 Willys, and I decided I wanted something different. Looking back through earlier Hot Rod magazines, I saw that many of the top names were using the 1939 thru ‘41 Studebakers before the popularity of the Willys took over. That, along with my memories of riding around in my Grandmothers’ 1941 Studebaker as a young child, cemented my choice to use a 1941 Studebaker Champion as the basis for my Gasser. My intentions were to use ideas from the several evolutionary progressions that the “Gasser Class” cars went through, from the early fifties, into the hay days of the mid-late sixties. An eBay ad supplied the beginning of my build, a rolling body and chassis. Its arrival from Minnesota was met with doubt, as it was in much worse shape than the pictures in the ad had depicted. Realizing that I did not have the equipment to repair the questionable butchered frame, or repair the rusted out floors and body panels, I turned to one of Orlando, Florida’s master fabricators, Bill Clark, to get the project going. Following the fabrication and body work, (including making a mold from the original steel front fenders and hood to form a one piece fiberglass tilt front end), the car was handed over to Doug at Drop Top Interiors in Orlando for the stunning period correct upholstery.

My initial intent was to race this car, so a lot of quality parts, and expert machine work and assembly by Orlando Machine and Speed, completed the supercharged big block Chevrolet engine. I won’t take up space here with all the modifications that were done, but suffice it to say the end result was a 496 cubic inch engine, producing a dyno-proven 820 horsepower on pump gas.

The Turbo 400 transmission capable of handling that kind of power was built and modified by long time Orlando racer, (and still at it), Ken Wells, along with a 3,200 RPM stall converter from J.W. Industries.

All the polished pieces and chrome plating on the car was expertly handled by Space Coast Plating and Metal Finishing. While all this was going on, LOTS of time was spent locating many period correct speed items and accessories, as well as missing trim and other parts for the Studebaker body, some taking me years to locate.

Long story short, six years of work by many individuals, as well as my own blood, (spell that “money”), sweat, and (lots of) tears, and the result is what you see on these pages. Obviously, I went a little beyond “just a race car”. Careful thought, as well as the insurance company’s warning that there would be no coverage if the car is damaged while competing on a race track, has kept me from racing the car. You can never tell though, a year or two more of showing the car, my continued street driving, and the inevitable scratches, dings, and wear and tear may eventually override my common sense, as the need to find out just how “bad” this Hot Rod really is. After all, the extensive investment in the drive train was done to race, and I “just gotta know”! Meanwhile, I will continue to share my Dream Gasser with others by continuing to show it (with the help of good friend Chuck Money), and give my wife and I the occasional “rush” with a blast or two while driving it on the street. On the other hand, there’s this ’57 Chevy two door body I’ve been looking at…... CN