1953 saw some memorable automotive debuts. In addition to the birth of Rod & Custom magazine, it was the year of the first official NHRA drag race, and the introduction of the Chevy Corvette and the Studebaker Starliner. Fifty-four years down the road, three of those four milestones are still being produced. Today, it's up to guys like Rick Heckman to keep the Studebaker alive.

The Starliner (as well as the Starlight coupe) was Studebaker's shot at creating an American sports car, and the Raymond Loewy/Bob Bourke ahead-of-its-time styling was more sleek and slender than Chevy's chubby little two-seater. Rick first fell in love with the angular lines of the '53-54s when he was a teenager in the early '60s. Because of their limited production, he saw these cars mostly in magazine stories about Bonneville racing and dry lakes action. As the years passed by, the ones that showed up on the street were typically built as hot rods or Pro Streeters, but Rick always thought the body style would make a great late-'50s or early '60s mild custom. Not too long ago, he set out to prove it, adding some new angles to the lines he loved.

Finding one of the 9,342 Starliners built in '54 cost Rick a full year of dead ends and disappointments. When he finally did locate one near Chicago via the Internet, he bought it sight unseen and had it hauled to San Diego on an open trailer. It was a barely running stocker when it showed up, with rusty floors, rockers, fenders, and a thrashed mix 'n' match interior, but tons of potential. In keeping with the custom theme he was after, Rick found a local '62 Studebaker GT Hawk to serve as a donor car. He used the Hawk framerails as the foundation for a custom chassis, and borrowed many of the interior pieces to complete the Starliner's cockpit.

The imagination that went into the rest of the car continues under the hood. Rick figured that a small-block crate engine could be built to fit the era he was after, but it just wouldn't have the wow! factor for which he was looking. Remembering a youthful experience of being humbled by a tri-power 348-equipped '59 Impala that was one of the fastest cars around, he decided to load the Starliner with one of these cool-looking Chevy W-engines.

Collecting all the parts to build the engine, locating a capable builder willing to tackle the project, and getting the whole thing to fit in the much-tighter-than-an-Impala engine compartment was a huge challenge, but it paid off.

"In retrospect, a small-block would have been much cheaper to acquire and build, would have fit easier, and probably made more power," Rick said, "but when you raise the hood and see those W-shaped valve covers and the way it fills the engine compartment, there's no question it was the right choice." The looks on people's faces when they see his alternative powerplant pick confirms it.

The 20-month build was finished last September, and it made its 300-mile maiden voyage from San Diego to the Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield a few weeks later. Since then Rick's been driving it whenever the weather is nice-which in San Diego is all the time-and is now talking about a road trip to Oregon in his recharged Stude custom.