Occasionally an automotive design is devised that’s just an anomaly for its time, as if the artist was looking forward to an era of style just a bit beyond his contemporaries. Such was the case with the design of the 1953 Studebaker coupe penned by Robert E. Burke at the infamous Raymond Loewy studios. The sleek, low-slung Studes with their roofline at only 56 inches were a good 6 to 10 inches below most other American coupes of the era, and the rakish aero-styling stood in sharp contrast to its tall, square-nosed brethren. Think about any other American-built car in the same era: Ford, Chevy, Caddy, Buick, Packard all beautiful, but also big, bulky, and almost trucklike in comparison. Suffice it to say, the Starliner and Starlight coupes caught the public off guard and were immediate showroom hits.
Hot rodders immediately took note, too; within months, Cadillac engine swaps that doubled the horsepower in the lightweight coupes were already being done, and Bonneville racers were investigating the Studes for their apparent aerodynamic advantage. As such, they’ve been perennial favorites with nearly every camp of customizer, and Leonard Knight is no exception. A longtime hot rodder, Leonard has always been taken by the look of those Studebakers, but had never tried his hand at one.
Look at that sleek, sexy profile....
Look at that sleek, sexy profile. To keep the proportions correct, the windshield was laid back 2 inches and the roof was lengthened about 4 inches. All of the chop was taken out below the windshield so that the Stude could use fullsize front and rear glass. Because everything flows so well, the chop isn’t even the first thing you notice.
Perhaps that was because Leonard was typically a quarter-mile guy who liked his hot rods powerful, quick, and loud. Early Studes have been built that way, but not without great effort, since the frames and suspension are notoriously weak. That’s not a great pairing for Leonard, who admits to a love for cars that might be a bit overdone. His current ’39 Ford, for example, is a race gas swilling beast that is a blast to drive and clicks off low e.t.’s, but it’s not exactly elegant, or a great cruiser.
Besides, turning a Loewy coupe into a drag racer just seemed a bit incongruous with the car’s style. That’s why when Leonard envisioned the Stude he wanted, he saw something built with the mentality of the classy European Grand Touring style that originally influenced Robert Burke, only moved forward a few decades. He couldn’t picture the car completely, but Leonard was sure that it needed to be classy, comfortable, and turn corners with ease, while still packing some potent but docile horsepower. It should have the AMG Mercedes-Benz ethos, but wrapped in an infinitely cooler and timelessly styled package.
To accommodate wider wheels...
To accommodate wider wheels and tires the rear fenders were widened about 2 inches and the wheelwells were reshaped—all of which necessitated designing a new taillight.
One thing Leonard did know from the start is that he wanted to modernize the roofline with a heavy chop, while simultaneously giving a nod to the Studebaker coupes’ land speed heritage. To get both, he knew the pillarless Starliner hardtop would create the most graceful profile rather than the post-style Starlight coupes. Leonard looked for quite a while before finding a surprisingly rust-free and running car covered with tarps out on the docks in Oakland, California. Little did he know at the time, the fairly solid body panels were hiding extensive use of patches, Uncle Henry’s roofing sealer, and sheetmetal screws.
Fortunately, Leonard knew the right man to cure the ills and make his vision a reality: Vince Borzilieri at J.V. Enterprises. Leonard has worked with J.V. Enterprises for over 10 years, and they’ve collaborated on several past dream cars for Leonard: a ’39 Ford, a ’34 Ford, and even a ’32 roadster packing a Viper engine that went for GNRS greatness in 2006. All awesome cars, but the plan for the Studebaker would go several steps beyond.
For a cleaner modern look,...
For a cleaner modern look, Vince Borzilieri molded in custom grilles and bumpers. Notice one of the custom-built intercoolers peeking through next to the parking light. The headlights were also frenched, and the hood was reshaped to dip further down between the grilles.
So Leonard and Borzilieri bench raced the grand concept of bringing a ’53 Studebaker forward five decades and blending elements from vintage Bonneville racers, a modern AMG Mercedes-Benz, and even a bit of revived Studebaker concept car. But how to do it? After all, we are talking about a car consistently referred to as one of the most beautiful and influential American cars ever produced. Customizing could create something epically beautiful, or something that just got raised eyebrows and head shakes. To help them find the right mishmash that would produce magic, Leonard and Borzilieri sat down with an artist to create some sketches.