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.
Rod & Custom Feature Car
San Diego, California
'54 Studebaker Starliner Hardtop
Rick laid the Starliner on 'rails from a '62 Studebaker GT Hawk, fabricating custom-made body mounts and torque boxes to accommodate the '54 body. The independent front suspension includes a Fatman dropped frame stub, tubular stainless A-arms, coil springs and gas shocks, an antiroll bar, plus GM 11-inch disc brakes. In the rear, a narrowed '60 Thunderbird 9-inch with 3.00:1 gears, 11-inch Ford drum brakes, and Dutchman axles rides on stock parallel leaves with a single leaf removed and 2 1/2-inch blocks added to drop the rear.
The Chevy 348 W-engine is a 1958 first-year engine. Rick said it was tough finding a shop to build the engine, but Motorworks in National City, California, bored the block 0.060 over, and Greg Sadeau at GES Engineering in San Diego assembled the engine using 9:1 Egge pistons and stock heads with finned Offenhauser valve covers. Tri-power induction comes from Rochester 2G carbs on a stock manifold. Ed Hansen built the custom exhaust running from a pair of Sanderson headers to old-style Smithy's glasspacks. Walt-Built Transmissions in Oceanside put together the column-shifted TH350 automatic with a TransGo shift kit and a stock 11-inch converter. A custom driveshaft from Driveline Service in San Diego runs to the 9-inch rear.
Wheels & Tires
Swap meet steelies are still hard to beat when it comes to rolling stock for a traditional custom. These 15x6-inch smoothies with 3-inch backspacing have chrome outer edges and body-colored centers, and were dressed up with chrome center caps. Wide white BFG Silvertown radials are P215/70R15s and P205/70R15s.
Body & Paint
The lines of the '53-54s were about a decade ahead of their time. Mark Garant at Moore Street Auto Body in San Diego, along with Rick, did just enough bodywork to remove all the rust and bring out the car's shape. It was nosed, decked, and shaved of some trim and scripts. The grille trim was removed and the grille bars smoothed. The bumpers were also smoothed and the upright bumper guards eliminated. The headlights were replaced with tri-bar halogens and the rims painted. The red and silver 'flake paint is custom-mixed PPG acrylic urethane shot by Rueben Alcarez at Moore Street Auto Body. Robert Gagnon applied the 'striping on the nose and deck.
The '62 Gran Turismo Hawk, designed by Brooks Stevens, advanced the Studebaker's style even further into the future, especially in the interior. Rick used his GT Hawk donor car to furnish the bucket seats, door panels, dash, steering column, wheel, and door and window mechanisms on his '54. Leon "Smitty" Smythe and Jim's Auto Upholstery in San Diego put it all together, covering the cockpit with black and silver pearl vinyl. The stock gauges were replaced with Stewart Warner instruments. Rick installed a Clarion AM/FM/cassette system and Polk Audio speakers.