Dayton Auto and Memorabilia Museum | Studebaker Commander Salt Flats Racer
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Studebaker Commander Salt Flats Racer

Background and specifications on the Custom 1953

The 1953 Studebaker Coupe is one of the most attractive American cars to come out of the 1950’s, period. Not surprisingly, the Bob Bourke penned design was originally intended solely as a ‘show car’ until Bourke’s boss, famed designer Raymond Lowey, urged the Studebaker suits to actually put it into production. Long, low & sleek, the European-influenced design was years ahead of its time, and saw use well into the 1960’s.
Why on earth would someone want to mess w/… such heralded style? Well, in hot rodding the question isn’t why, it’s why not? Lifelong hot-rodder, Tom Bacon, knew that the Studebaker brass were not the only ones who appreciated the ‘Lowey Coupe’ style, as Bonneville racers have long been fans of the slippery shape & streamline design of the ’53 Studebaker. More than a few such Coupes have set salt-flats records over the years, and it’s that racing heritage that inspired Tom to buy Dick Spadaro’s 1953 Studebaker Commander and treat it to a true ‘hot rod’ makeover. Let me just say that the final result is nothing short of incredible!‘Red Hills Rods & Classics’ is extremely proud to offer you this one-of-a-kind 1953 Studebaker Commander Salt Flats Racer! We have been dealing in high-end classic cars for the last 20 years, and I can safely say that this is certainly one of the most unique eye-catching kustom cars that we have ever seen. Not only is the car itself simply spectacular but its history & provenance puts it into a league all its own, which I will discuss shortly. Let me back up to the beginning, when Tom Bacon decided to give this ’53 Studebaker a not so subtle makeover. The all-original body was chopped 5.5” in front, 3.75” in back, as well as a bit of widening (1.25” in front and 1.5” in the rear). The hood was shaved, peaked, and filled w/ 160 louvers. The deck-lid has rounded corners w/ another 143 louvers. In regards to the louvers, Art Johnson @ Artie’s Louvers was the man responsible for punching over 500 holes this Studebaker’s classic design. You will also find them on the custom firewall, as well as the entire length of the bellypan underneath. Punching louvers is an absolute art from and very few can achieve a job to this magnitude. Well, let me say that Art Johnson is an absolute master! The door handles, front fender vents, and gas door are long gone, giving this beauty a super clean look. The amazing paint job is VW Cosmic Green, which covers the body, frame & bellypan, with old-school pin-striping by Ken Jacobs. Tom reinforced the original frame and built his own rails from the firewall forward, then added a Heidt’s independent front suspension w/ Carrera coilovers and ECI disc brakes. Out back you will find a narrowed 9” Ford rear-end w/ Posies springs and Carrera shocks. There is a long list of other hand-built parts as well, including cross-members, motor mounts, pedal assembly, traction bars, etc., which add to the overall uniqueness of this one-of-a-kind ride. Please look closely at the undercarriage photos and ask yourself if you have ever seen anything else quite like it! She’s got the perfect stance, and rolls on 15” cast-finish American Torq-Thrust wheels (15 x 7.5 on the rear & 15 x 4.5 up front), wrapped w/ wide whitewall radial tires. Notice that there are no center caps on the wheels, as you wouldn’t want those puppies flying off on the salt and killing the guy behind you! You can walk around this car a hundred times and never find a bad angle.Open the driver’s door and you will find that the race car theme continues on inside as well. Features include: cut-down Volvo adjustable bucket seats finished in green & white naugahyde upholstery w/ matching door panels & headliner, green loop carpeting throughout, custom body-colored dash w/ a full set of Stewart Warner gauges & custom pinstripes, custom steering column w/ a Mullins steering wheel, 20” Lokar shifter w/ eight-ball shift knob & custom boot, Mooneyes aluminum big-foot gas pedal, custom-made drilled aluminum parking brake lever, custom-built roll-bar in back w/ built in tool chest & fire extinguisher, (2) custom-built control panel boxes, and on & on! Please look closely at the interior photos to see how much attention was given to detail. The craftsmanship is simply outstanding! No stereo, no AC, just a true race-car interior that will put a huge smile on anyone’s face.Pop open the hood and you will find one of the most beautiful engine bays you have ever see in your life, featuring slick Cosmic Green paint from front to back and of course, more louvers & custom pinstripes. Nestled inside you will find a 500ci Cadillac motor built by Cadillac Motorsports Development, who was responsible for bumping it up in bore size w/ an offset-ground crank swinging forged Mopar 440 rods & pistons, all of which brings displacement to an enormous 526 cubic-inches. Other features include: ported heads, Comp Cams bumpstick, deep black valve covers w/ white Cadillac logo, ARP hardware, Edelbrock aluminum intake manifold, Rochester 850cfm carburetor, Mallory ignition, custom-built headers by Tubular Automotive, Flowmaster mufflers, etc. The big Cadillac motor in linked to a TH400 tranny w/ custom built driveshaft by Inland Empire, which feeds power to the narrowed Ford 9” rear-end. Power up the Mallory fuel pump, and w/ a flick of the wrist she fires up instantly settling into a nice smooth idle. She runs, drives & performs beautifully in every way, has loads of power & torque, and is an absolute blast to drive! The TH400 transmission shifts tight & true while smoothly shifting through the gears. I was amazed at how tight everything is w/ no rattles, squeaks or unwanted noises whatsoever. This can only be achieved by countless man-hours during the build making sure that the fit & finish is absolutely precise.After Tom and his wife Kathy enjoyed their creation for a couple of years, including getting the car featured in Rod & Custom magazine, the car was acquired by Wayne Carini from ‘Chasing Classic Cars’ who featured the ’53 Studebaker on his first television show which was called ‘Monterey Week’.
Mike Katz, the famous body-builder from the 1977 smash-hit motion picture ‘Pumping Iron’, pried the car away from Wayne Carini and has kept it in his vast car collection ever since. Mike only collects highly-unique & very high-end vehicles, many of them w/ prestigious race-car history. He has begun to thin out his collection, and recently sent the car out to us here @ ‘Red Hills Rods & Classics’, where it sits on our showroom floor in St. George, Utah. Again, after two decades of dealing in high-end classic cars I thought that I had seen it all, but when this car rolled off of the truck, I realized that I hadn’t. It is simply a one-of-a-kind vehicle in every sense.
Whether you are a Studebaker fanatic, a salt-flats racing nut, or simply a collector who is only interested in exquisite one-off vehicles, this amazing 1953 Studebaker Commander will make the perfect centerpiece to your classic car collection.
1953 Studebaker Commander restyled by Tom Bacon of West Hartford, Connecticut. Tom bought the old Stude from Dick Spadaro. Starting in the front he peaked and shaved the hood and then had 160 louvers punched into it. The decklid was also shaved and the corners rounded and had 143 additional louvers were punched. The car was fit with a full length bellypan punched full of louvers. All of the louvers were punched by Art Johnson of Artie’s Louvers. Tom chopped the top 5 1/2 inches in the front, and 3 3/4 inches in the back. The roof was also widened 1 1/4 inches in the front and 1 1/2 inches in the rear. Door handles and trim were shaved and the fender vents were filled. The gas door is also long gone.
Once the bodywork was done the car was painted in a VW Cosmic Green paint, and pinstriped by Ken Jacobs. Under the louvered hood rests a 526 CID 1975 Cadillac engine. The engine is hooked to a 1966 Pontiac TH400 tranny. Tom reinforced the original frame and built his own rails from the firewall forward, then added a Heidt’s IFS with Carrera coilovers and ECI discs and a 3.00-geared, narrowed Ford 9-inch rear with Posies springs and Carrera shocks
Cast-finish American Racing Torq-Thrusts and Commander wide whites gives the car an old-time racer attitude. 15×4.5 wheels with 5.60×15 Commander tires were used in front and 15×7.5 wheels and L78x15 wide whitewalls in the rear. Inside, the car is pretty stripped down: no stereo or air conditioning and a flat custom steel dash fit with Stewart-Warner dials. In front the stock seats were replaced by cut-down Volvo bucket seats, the back seat cushion was ripped out and replaced by a roll-bar. The upholstery inside the car is done in green and white Naugahyde. The upholstery was done by Tom himself. The car took 10 years and over 12 000 hours to complete.