From a crusty salt flat push car to a polished show car, Ken Evans’ Studebaker has come a long way.
In an interesting bit of historical significance, this 1953 Commander coupe was originally owned by Paul Studebaker, a descendent of the Studebaker family. Ken says that he first saw the car in 1979 when he and his buddy Ron Hall went to Lombardi, Illinois, and Ron traded his BMW motorcycle for it.
An avid salt flat racer, Ron then used the car throughout the late 1980s and early ’90s as a push car for his record-setting 200mph Avanti. Sadly, Ron passed away in 1995, and Ken eventually purchased the coupe from his wife in 2004. Though the car looked good, Ken says it was “a piece of junk” underneath. By 1995 the old ’53 was simply used up. He decided to tear the car apart at his home shop in 2005 and build it right.
A total of three engines were on the docket for the engine bay as the car was being built. Ken owns a CNC machining company and strove to keep the Studebaker in factory power with a 289. Things got a little out of hand as he added twin Paxton superchargers and began making one-off internals like rods and main caps, and he finally realized that, while pretty impressive, it was becoming a little too exotic for his plans of a nice street car.
The second engine was a 502 RamJet that had plenty of power, but he just couldn’t bring himself to cut a hole in the hood to make it fit. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the last one, a 550hp 6.2-liter LS3 from Mast Motorsports was juuust right. It kept the sleek lines of the Stude intact and had enough horsepower to make Ken happy. It’s decked out in a FAST LSxR intake with a 102mm throttle body, Hooker headers, and cool Billet Specialties valve covers. He paired it with a T-56 Magnum transmission.
A massaged Art Morrison chassis gets the power to the ground and goes up and down with Ride Tech Shockwaves. A triangulated four-bar holds the Strange 9-inch rear in place and Wilwood brakes are hung on the corners. The front suspension uses rack-and-pinion steering, with additional under-car features including a Rock Valley stainless gas tank and a 2½-inch stainless exhaust system proudly made by Ken himself.
Ken said he had “one shot” when it came time to choose the wheels and he nailed it with a set of BIllet Specialties’ finest in 18- and 19-inch diameters with powder-coated centers. “You can Google any wheel on a more common car like a Camaro or Chevelle,” he says. “But trying to find wheel options on a ’53 Studebaker isn’t so easy.” The Billet Specialties facility is only 20 miles up the road from Ken, so he stopped by and picked out a set he liked and wrapped them in BFG G-Force tires.
Somewhere during the course of the car’s nine-year construction phase Ken decided to chop the top. Again, information of modifying these cars is scarce, let alone a complex process like how to chop the top. Fortunately, he had a second car that he could “practice on.” The rusty donor car allowed him to get a game plan for the good car, and with everything figured out, he lowered the lid 3-inches in the front and laid the windshield back 5-inches.
While the welder was out, Ken added metal to the window openings and flush-fit the glass, gluing it into place like a modern car. He then welded the rear fenders to the body and removed the top stainless spears. All of the drip rails, emblems, and door handles were eliminated and Ken made a second firewall and cleaned up the engine bay under the hood and tucked the bumpers closer to the body.
Ken’s wife Brenda put the brakes on his initial plans to paint the car black, and together they picked out the two complementary shades found on the car now. The Mango Tango comes from the Dodge truck palette and the Sandmist from GMC. The result is a striking color scheme that is far easier to take care of than a black vehicle. The defining red and black “color break” stripe won out over a bright green version thanks to a Facebook poll. What better sounding board than social media for honest opinions?
Brian Colwell of JC Customs in Big Rock, Illinois, expertly painted the car in PPG paint after Ken roughed in the bodywork. Since he and Brian are friends, Brian let him help out during the painting process to keep costs down. Being hands-on is always a plus when it comes to sanding and prepping a car, and the help is rarely turned down.
Moving inside, Ken fabricated the center console and added a dashboard from a ’64 Studebaker GT Hawk. It was filled with Auto Meter gauges and a dressed in a custom engine-turned panel. Schober’s Hot Rod Interiors was called in to stitch up the leatherwork. The front seats were plucked from a Dodge Neon while the rear was custom made. Ken keeps cool with a Vintage Air system, while a Billet Specialties steering wheel on a stainless Flaming River tilt column and a one-off shifter from Ken round things out in the cabin.
The car was finished in 2015 and has been driven to many local shows. It also earned a Street Rodder Top 100 pick during its debut year. Other accolades include a Top 20 at the 2018 World of Wheels in Chicago, an ISCA Outstanding Street Machine, plus the PPG Dream Car Pick at this year’s Goodguys Nashville Nationals. After serving many years behind the scenes as a push car on the salt, this Commander coupe is finally out front and in the limelight.
Photos by John Jackson