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. To keep the proportions correct, the windshield was laid
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 and tires the rear fenders were widened about 2 inches and the
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, Vince Borzilieri molded in custom grilles and bumpers. Notice o
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.
All of the renderings looked good, but none of them was quite right, so Borzilieri and Leonard decided to trust their own judgments and just dive in, making careful decisions as they went. Choices were made, with one modification requiring another to balance the overall look of the car. And so the Studebaker became an ever-evolving build that eventually required modification of every panel to create the right look while still retaining an unmistakable Studebaker identity.
For the interior, Leonard Knight wanted something very clean and simple that paid homage t
By our estimation, one of the most treacherous parts of the whole operation was the signature heavy chop that nodded toward the Stude’s Bonneville speed record heritage. The hard part was not ruining the near perfect flow of the factory roofline. After all, Salt lake racers didn’t necessarily need to be pretty, just fast. Through careful planning and much panel manipulation, Borzilieri managed to do the near impossible and get the lid down 5.5 inches while still keeping the profile spot on and even creating the illusion of a factory roofline. No easy feat.
As for the notoriously weak frame (’53 Studes are prone to serious cracks near the front suspension even when stock), everything was removed and a complete custom frame was fabricated from 2x4-inch .125 wall steel. It added some weight to the lightweight Starliner, but chassis rigidity is critical for the outstanding handling Leonard wanted. Plus, true to form for Leonard, the Stude has a little something excessive underhood that necessitated a chassis that could withstand the brutal torque and 1,000 hp generated by a twin-turbo 427ci LSX.
Thanks to careful planning and excellent tuning, this four-digit horsepower powerplant is a pussycat. Leonard says as long as you keep your foot out of it, the Stude runs around town like it’s just a mildly cammed stock LS. That’s true to his original concept of finally creating a car that’s deviously enjoyable to drive often. Leonard has been driving the Stude steadily since it was wrapped up a few months ago, prior to its debut at the 2011 Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona. So far, corner weighting and changing the spring rate has resulted in a 1,000hp SuperStude that Leonard can cruise with one finger on the wheel.
Now, picture pulling up to a high-class restaurant in this car. The shocked valets move aside a few high-dollar Euro cars to give the Stude preferred parking status right out front. Just like when it debuted in 1953, this Starliner makes a hell of a fashion statement. And despite the judicious slicing and dicing of their revered design, we think Burke and Loewy would fully approve of this modernized interpretation.
While it looks subtle, with 1,000 hp on tap it will scare you quickly if you don’t give it respect. Leonard Knight, owner
the Studebaker became an ever-evolving build that eventually required modification of every panel to create the right look
It should have the AMG Mercedes-Benz ethos, but wrapped in an infinitely cooler and timelessly styled package.
| By The Numbers |
| 1953 Studebaker |
| Starliner Commander |
| Engine |
| Type: || 454ci, iron GM LSX block |
| Oiling: || stock GM |
| Rotating assembly: || Callies crank, Compstar rods, 9.0:1 JE Pistons |
| Cylinder heads: || GM LS7 |
| Camshaft: || custom ground turbo cam by COMP Cams, Manley pushrods |
| Valvetrain: || Yella Terra roller rockers |
| Induction: || custom intake manifold by Precision Metalcraft |
| Power adder: || Twin Turbonetics 68mm T3 turbos with custom intercoolers by J.V. Enterprises, 8.5-psi boost |
| Exhaust: || 2-inch turbo headers and 3.5-inch exhaust by J.V. Enterprises, no mufflers |
| Fuel system: || Aeromotive pump, custom aluminum 22-gallon tank |
| Ignition: || MSD controller, CD box, and plug wires; GM coils |
| Cooling: || custom-built radiator by J.V. Enterprises |
| Power to the wheels: || 796 hp at 5,400 rpm and 790 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm |
| Built by: || Turn Key Engine Supply |
| Drivetrain |
| Transmission: || 4L80E by Bowtie Transmissions |
| Rearend: || Kugel Komponents 9-inch |
| Chassis |
| Front suspension: || Kugel Komponents IFS |
| Rear suspension: || Kugel Komponents IRS with 9-inch center |
| Brakes: || Wilwood 13-inchers with four-piston calipers up front, 12s in the rear |
| Wheels & Tires |
| Wheels: || 18x8 and 20x10 Boyd Coddington Crown Jewel Tires: 225/40R18 and 275/40R20 Nexen |