When you spend your days crafting custom cars for other people, there's often little time or energy left to expend on a special ride for yourself or your family. We've all known talented car builders who drive beat-up old shop trucks and let their wives commute in generic late-model sedans, much like the cobbler's children in that famous old adage.
Liz Gerberding can relate. For years she watched her husband, Gary, turn out candy-coated creations from his custom emporium, The Body Shop. Yet poor Liz was typically stuck behind the wheel of something much more pedestrian. Sure, she had the pleasure of passenger seat cruising in Gary's mild custom '55 Chevy, but it wasn't the same as rolling in a tailored ride of her own.
Compounding Liz's frustration was the fact that she already had her dream car-a '53 Studebaker Champion Starlight. She'd been hooked on the slender lines of the stylish coupes from South Bend ever since her older brother, Neil, indoctrinated her into high-speed driving while piloting a '53 Stude across the Kansas prairie. Liz spotted her coupe shortly after moving to Geneva, Nebraska, and kept track of it for nearly 20 years before finally taking possession. It took several more years of on-again, off-again work-plus a move to nearby Grand Island-before the shop slowed down enough to make Liz's Stude a top priority.
Customizing a '53 Studebaker is not a feat to take lightly, as the clean Robert Bourke design (often credited to studio chief Raymond Lowey) is a milestone of American automotive styling. Gary and his accomplices-which included the couple's son, Dean, and grandson, Anthony-had the good sense to enhance the car's original design rather than work against it. A good example is the subtle top chop, which took just 1 1/2 inches from the front of the roof, and none from the rear. The result is a profile that matches the sweep of the car's main bodyline, making an already sleek design that much more svelte.
Other alterations followed a similar strategy. The grille openings were smoothed and simplified by extending the hood and fenders and eliminating the trim. They were then filled with black mesh and simple grille bars crafted from polished '55 Studebaker quarter-panel moldings. Frenched '55 Olds headlight rings replaced the bulky chrome originals, while the front bumper was better integrated by being narrowed, shaved, recontoured, and recessed.
Gary filled the air vents in the front fenders and created decorative scoops where the body character lines dogleg on the doors. He also cleaned up the rear quarters by fabricating peaks to replace the stainless trim and molding in a pair of Lee-style '56 Chevy taillight lenses above a smoothed '55 Studebaker rear bumper. After completing these refinements, Dean laid down a fine VW Cyber Green Pearl finish.
The tastefully lowered stance further accentuates the Studebaker's slim shape. It was achieved using a Fatman IFS, 8-inch Ford rear, and 15x6 chrome reversed wheels with Coker whitewall radials. A pre-owned small-block Chevy mill and rebuilt 200-4R overdrive provided a simple and affordable drivetrain with more than enough energy to let Liz relive the high-speed driving excitement of her youth.
Liz and Gary scored a great deal on some Milkweed-colored UltraLeather, which set the tone for the clean custom cabin. Upholsterer Jim Stanley stitched the material in traditional rolls and pleats over a pair of Corvair front bucket seats and a handbuilt rear seat and side panels. Meanwhile, Dean crafted a custom center console and Gary installed a modified '51 Ford dash to house the Stewart Warner gauges, JVC stereo, and Hot Rod Air vents and controls.
Unfortunately, Liz's brother Neil passed away before the Studebaker was finished. To pay tribute to him, Liz had pinstriper M.K. John inscribe Neil's nickname, Flip, on the car's dash. "He is always riding with me," Liz says.
After more years than anyone cares to count, the customizer's wife finally has a sublime set of wheels, and the timing couldn't be better, as Gary sold his Chevy several years back. Now enjoying semi-retirement, Gary can cruise comfortably with Liz in her Champion Studebaker, all the while contemplating the next custom creation to craft for himself.