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.
Rod & Custom Feature Car
Grand Island, Nebraska
Champion Starlight Coupe
A Fatman Fabrications front frame stub and Mustang II-style suspension gave the Studebaker an improved ride, disc brakes, and rack-and-pinion steering, not to mention a much sexier stance. The updated suspension was complemented with an 8-inch Ford rear axle assembly, while a Master Power brake booster and master cylinder activate the brakes. A Mustang fuel tank holds the go-juice.
The cream-colored engine compartment sets off a small-block Chevy decked out in dark green. Gary got a deal on the seasoned, Quadrajet-fed 350, and then made it even better with block-hugger headers, Olds Rocket valve covers, and tasteful detailing. A Speedway Motors aluminum radiator and electric fan keep things cool. Heartland Transmissions in Kearney rebuilt the GM 200-4R overdrive automatic.
Wheels & Tires
A set of vintage 15x6 chrome reversed wheels with spider caps adds the right amount of sparkle and shine. They're wrapped in Coker 205/75R15 radial whitewall tires.
Body & Paint
Credit for the bodywork goes to Liz's husband, Gary, and his crew at The Body Shop in Grand Island. The couple's son, Dean, also played a major role. A sneaky chop-just 1 1/2 inches at the windshield, tapering back to no cut at the rear-tops the list of modifications. The dual grille openings were refined by removing the surrounding trim and extending the hood and fenders; black steel mesh and '55 Stude quarter-panel spears fill the voids. The front bumper is stock, but looks much more integrated after being narrowed, shaved, recontoured, and recessed 2 inches. The distinctive peepers are comprised of '55 Olds headlight rings frenched into extended fenders. Further back, the front fender fresh air doors were filled and the character lines on the doors opened up to create faux scoops. The stainless trim atop the rear quarters was shaved, the quarters peaked, and the stock taillights replaced with frenched Lee-style '56 Chevy lenses. The rear bumper is a shaved '55 Studebaker item. When all the cutting, welding, hammering, and long-blocking was finally finished, Dean used DuPont VW Cyber Green Pearl to cover the car's clean flanks.
Jim Stanley in Red Oak, Iowa, stitched Milkweed-colored Ultraleather in tasteful rolls and pleats over the Corvair front buckets and custom rear bench. Note how the pattern on the door panels matches the shape of the body character line-as well as the contour of the custom-built center console. The '51 Ford dash was filled with Stewart Warner gauges, with a custom-built lower panel to house the JVC stereo, vents, and switches for the Hot Rod Air climate controls. An American AutoWire harness distributes sparks. Green lap belts match the exterior, while the '68 Chevy tilt column and Moon wheel were painted to match the upholstery.