A 1953 Studebaker Starlite Coupe was purchased from Joyce Osborn, Fountain Valley, California in November 1996. She and her husband bought it, and took their honeymoon in it in 1954. He had passed away in 1981 and the car had been sitting in front of her garage for 14 years. It was originally equipped with a V8 engine (hence, Commander designation) and automatic transmission. I have the build sheet from Studebaker that documents the manufacture of this specific car. The car is registered to me and has been in "NonOp" status with the DMV since purchase. I have the original California black plates issued by the DMV.
The car was initially intended to be a "daily-driver. The scope quickly increased, and that thought was abandoned. The new focus was to build a high-end car that was equally at home on the road or at shows. Roadability and style were the key elements. Additionally, since this Studebaker body is so well remembered for its use in Land Speed Racing at El Mirage dry lake and at the Bonneville Salt Flats, I wanted to pay homage to that heritage by adding subtle racecar elements. It then became dubbed, Spirit of El Mirage.
The Robert Bourke design of the Studebaker is, to me, one of the all-time great industrial designs, but production and utilitarian constraints put a few wrinkles in an otherwise superb execution. My goal was to eliminate those wrinkles with styling elements that put production needs or utility considerations last. The most obvious of these are the headlights and taillights. The stock Studebaker used chrome plated pot-metal castings to form the headlight and taillight surrounds. The eye, following the otherwise clean lines, is stopped by abrupt chrome just short of the end of the fenders. Replacing those chrome goiters with a smooth ending in painted steel was one of the major elements in the metalworking phase.
The body was removed from the frame and chemically stripped and electrostatic-primed at PSC in Santa Fe Springs, CA. There was no rust in any area except the front floor pans, which was repaired during body modifications. I commissioned Steve Stanford to create a rendering, based on my input, of how the car would look when completed. As you will notice later, some liberties were taken with Steve's design to further clean up the car.
The body was moved to Bill Cooke's Art in Metal in Torrance, California for metal work. You will note that all of the metalwork done on the car is completely metal-finished, and there is no plastic filler at all. At Art in Metal, Bill performed the following body modifications:
1. Hood: Emblems shaved and hinge relocated to front. The original Studebaker hood hinges are very weak and replacing them would be a plus. I liked the idea of reversing the hinge line, so we spent considerable time working out the proper hinge geometry (1986 Buick), track guide system (No Limit Engineering), and latching mechanism (VW Bug). The intention was to replace the Buick-based hinges with custom-fabricated versions using the Buick geometry. This updating has not yet been done.
2. Headlights: The headlights were frenched using steel rims. The headlight buckets were reworked to allow removal and replacement from inside the front wheelwell. This work resulted in the clean line I was after in the front.
3. Front Bumper and Grille: The chrome was removed from the grille surrounds and the grille bars. They are in good condition with the exception of one grille surround is cracked in the upper area and needs to be repaired. The chrome was also removed from the front bumper and the mounting holes filled. The front bumper brackets were modified to move the bumper in closer to the body sheetmetal. The bumper is ready for chrome plating. The valance pan below is retained to enhance the "finished" look.
4. Hood. The only exterior modification to the hood was the filling of emblem holes. Inside, however, the front hinging mechanism was developed and fabricated. This included adding stanchions to hold the guide wheels. A VW hood latch was installed, ready for power-operation.
5. Front Fenders: The vent doors were filled to present a smooth body side with the exception of the classic reveal.
6. Firewall: The firewall was smoothed and pockets for the hood guide rails were fabricated. It easily accommodates the small-block Chevy rear-mounted distributor.
7. Doors: The door handles were removed and the holes filled. The top door corners were rounded. Bear-claw door latches were installed. The driver-side door had to be replaced due to rust in the bottom. During the car's 11-year dormancy, lawn sprinklers hit it on the driver's side. Water got into the door from between the glass and the window seal. For some reason there was a piece of 2 x4 lumber and carpet inside the door. It may have been an attempt by the original owner at sound deadening? It had to be there for over eleven years and served as a great sponge to hold water inside the door and rust it out. It was replaced with a rust-free door.
8. Taillights: I decided to use frenched '56 Buick taillight lenses to eliminate the chrome bezel at the rear. Their shape from all aspects fits the lines of the car perfectly. They were made for each other - practically! It took quite a bit of sheet metal surgery to make the change. The tops of the rear fenders were moved back approximately 3 inches to achieve the proper angle. The shelf that the taillights sit on had to be created from scratch. They were blended into the line mating to the rear bumper. Once again I think we were successful in achieving the smooth look to complement the rest of the design. Now the head and taillights don't look "bolted on." Moving the fender tops back entailed also moving the trim back a corresponding amount. In order to achieve this, the body reveals transitioning from the fender to the trim needed to be sectioned out of the sheet metal and moved rearward, and the resulting holes patched.
9. Rear Bumper: The rear bumper received the same treatment as the front, namely: the chrome was removed, the brackets modified to bring the bumper closer to the body. and the mounting bolts were shaved.
10. Deck Lid: The emblem and lock holes were filled and the front corners rounded. The gutters around the trunk opening had to be rebuilt due to rust, again caused by the lawn sprinklers.
11. Gas Fill: The gas filler door in the left rear fender was filled. It was replaced by a Cobra aluminum flip-open gas cap in the tulip panel. This was a nod to the racing influence. The fuel tube leading from the bottom of the filler to the tank opening was a challenge, but we solved it nicely. The cap was recessed into the tulip panel, lowering its profile.
The chassis is based on the stock 1953 Studebaker frame. The stock suspension, both front and rear were removed and scrapped. The front suspension is a front clip from Fat Man Fabrications incorporating a Mustang II independent tubular A-arm suspension. It incorporates rack and pinion power steering and power disc brakes. The front clip was installed by Earle Williams at Williams Classic Chassis in Irwindale, California. Earle also fabricated the motor mounts to accommodate the small-block Chevy engine. The front suspension includes coil springs (Mustang II six-cylinder). Shock absorbers are not yet installed. Front tires are BF Goodrich Radial TA P215x60x15 steel belted radials on Halibrand Sweet Swirl forged aluminum wheels with three-spoke knockoffs.
A Ford 9-inch from Currie Enterprises replaced the stock rear axle. A differential has not yet been installed. The axles are 31-spline. The rear axle is equipped with stock Ford drum brakes with finned cast iron drums. The rear tires are BF Goodrich Radial TA P255x60x15 steel belted radials on the same style Halibrands. New leaf springs were installed. Shock absorbers are not yet installed.
The original gas tank was stripped and then treated by the TankRenu process at Mattson Radiator in Garden Grove, California. This completely seals the interior and exterior of the tank. The tank was also modified to accommodate a Chevy in-tank electric fuel pump/filter for the fuel injection system, including a sump to prevent fuel starvation.
The engine is a stock 1987 Corvette 350 c.i. Tuned Port Injection engine from Lakenor Salvage in Norwalk, California. Internally it is completely stock, with 25,000 miles. The block ands were primed and painted. Joe Stubblefield Polishing in Bellflower polished the Tuned Port Fuel Injection components. It includes ceramacoated block-hugger headers, Zoops polished serpentine belt/pulley system with low-mounted air conditioner compressor and alternator. The transmission is a stock Chevy 4L60E automatic overdrive unit.
The dashboard/instrument panel were replaced with one from a '56 Studebaker. This allowed use of an engine-turned dash panel with six round gauges. The instruments were custom ordered from Classic Instruments without the glass and bezels installed. I liked the silver/gray gauge face, but wanted to cover over the "Boyd's" logo with a Studebaker logo. I did this by scanning an old-style Studebaker logo and having it printed on vinyl sign material. The glass and bezels were installed after the logo work was complete. An Ididit steering column was installed with a very rare Grant billet aluminum steering wheel. This steering wheel was chosen because the spokes emulate the shape of the grille opening. Recarro power front seats are included, but not mounted. The stock rear seat springs and center armrest are included. All garnish moldings and rear quarter windows/frames are included. Windshield and rear glass are intact and included. Side door glass is not included, but power operators are, but not yet installed.
Summary of What's There
Rust-free, chem-stripped '53 Studebaker body
Extensive metal-finished body modifications
Frenched '56 Buick taillight lenses
Rear-opening tilt hood with guides and latch
Shaved door handles, emblems, bumpers
Bear-claw door latches
Dechromed grille, bumpers
Bumpers tucked in to body
Filled front fender fresh air vents
Filled gas filler door
Recessed Cobra aluminum flip-open gas filler in rear tulip panel
All stainless body trim
Extra pair taillight lenses
Tri-bar halogen headlights
Renu'ed gas tank
Cobra aluminum flip-open gas filler
Stock complete 1987 Chevy Corvette Tuned Port Injection engine (no
computer incl) (25,000 miles)
Mooneyes finned aluminum valve covers
Zoops custom-built serpentine drive low-mount brackets/pulleys
Polished aluminum air conditioner compressor (R12)
Polished aluminum GM alternator
Power steering pump
Stock complete 1987 Chevy 4L60E automatic overdrive transmission (no computer incl) (not sure if converter is lock up or not)
1953 Studebaker frame chemstripped
Fatman Fabrications front clip
Independent A-arm, coil spring front suspension (no springs or shocks)
Power rack and pinion steering
Front disc brakes
Power brake booster (7-inch) and dual master cylinder
New rear springs, shackles, bushings (no shocks)
Currie 9-inch rear axle housing (no differential)
31-spline rear axles
New Ford rear drum brakes
'56 Studebaker dashboard
Modified Classic Instruments "Boyds" gauges (Studebaker logo)
Inside garnish moldings
Rear seat frame/springs
Rear seat center armrest
Rear quarter windows and frames
Recarro power font seats and tracks