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11 April 2023

Trev Halstead is back with his wildest Studebaker creation to date!

Words: Todd Wylie Photos: Glen McNamara

Even to the uninitiated, it’s pretty clear to see that there’s been a tonne of work that’s gone into the build of this ’51 Studebaker Starlight Coupe, and that’s before you even know what it looked like when it left the factory. There are upsides and downsides to building a car that no one else has been brave enough to attempt, or is simply too rare for people to know, and the downside is that without the understanding of what it should have looked like, often some of the effort that’s been applied gets missed by passers-by. That’s all part of the appeal of it for Studebaker customiser extraordinaire Trevor Halstead though. He’s happy to let people try to work out where the original Stude parts end and his custom work begins. In the case of this car, his seventh customised Stude, and the fifth of his builds that’s graced the pages of NZV8, that’s pretty easy though … There’s nothing left of how the car left the factory. That’s not quite true — the rear brakes, albeit rebuilt, are the ones that it left the factory with, and then there’s the rear inner courtesy light. The rest, almost without exaggeration, is modified in some way, shape, or form from how it left the factory.

Obviously the look of the car is what first turns heads, and the aesthetic Trev has achieved is testament to his vision of wanting to build a traditional custom with as much Studebaker content as possible. The key point being that while there are Studebaker parts throughout, very few actually came from this particular car, or even the Starlight model.

 The custom look begins with the significant reduction in roof height over what the car left the factory with. That chop comes in at a cool 4½-inches at the front and 3½-inches at the back. Trev will be the first to tell you that he’s not a big computer guy, so there was no fancy Photoshop or design work that went into getting the look right, or even internet pictures to provide inspiration. The roof chop, just like the rest of the car, is the product of his own vision, not influenced by anything, or anyone else. 

It was only towards the end of the three-year build that Trev actually even started looking at the internet, and as part of that, began plastering social media with build photos of the car. Each and every time he posted, there would be countless questions and praise for the work that was being undertaken, which fuelled him on to see the build to completion. 

What people didn’t see, due to it already being performed by the time Trev got online, was exactly how much work went into the roof, as it’s not just the pillar height that’s lower, but the centre was also peaked to accommodate a split front windscreen. At the same time, the roof gutters were removed, and the window surrounds enlarged to fill the extra space left behind.

This is not Trev’s first roof chop, far from it in fact, so he knew all the tricks required to make it work. While he usually starts with cars that are beyond what a restorer would ever touch, this one was a bit different, as it was in far better condition when he started to work on it. 

The same amount of effort that went into the roof, went into the floor too, due to a few small repairs being required and the whole floor being raised three inches higher, to channel the body over the chassis. This led to a new smooth firewall being created along with a new smooth and raised trans tunnel being crafted too. If you don’t know Studes you’d think that may be the end of the metal-working magic, but in reality, that’s just the beginning. Take for example the front end. 

The curvaceous front panel isn’t from the ’51 Starlight at all, but from a ’50 Studebaker Champion. As the bumper has been removed, all the holes have been filled in and custom grilles fabricated, complete with custom chrome surrounds. During the build the front guards, which originally had a seam down the length of them, were welded to become one piece and the hood was also extended in length at the same time to cover where the trim was removed. Again, this is only noticeable to those who know their Studes, which isn’t many people at all. To the rest of us, it just looks like the proportions of the car are spot on, without any understanding of the thousands of hours of labour that have gone into getting them to look that way. A prime example of this is the rear screens. There’s around 200 hours of work in those alone, with steel templates being created before moving to plastic ones, and then Gary at Visual Plastics moulding the final items. 

Even that most iconic of Studebaker features — the bullet that sits proudly on the nose — is a custom item. Trev cast his own centre from bronze, hand finished it, and sent it off to be chrome plated. While items like the Frenched headlights and custom moulded tail lights built around LED centres are reasonably obvious, they’re rare exceptions.

From the outset he wanted this car to be his best yet, and having built some amazing vehicles before, two of which have been Repco Beach Hop top five contenders, that was going to be a big ask. He did also say it would be his last big build, but we’ve also heard him say that before, so we certainly hope it’s not the case, as to have so much talent and not put it to use again would be a big loss to the New Zealand custom car scene. 

 The plus side about wanting to get the car into the Repco Beach Hop top five was that he knew he had to make sure every aspect of the build was as good as the body. That means the parts that you don’t see, such as the undercarriage, along with the obvious parts like the engine bay, are all equally as flawless.

With the Starlight running a separate chassis, it allowed Trev to get the engine and chassis looking right before dropping the body over the top. The chassis, while based on the original item, was Z-notched below the firewall to give the car full suspension travel while looking like it’s in the weeds. It’s an old customiser’s trick, and one that works well, as did the job of plating and smoothing the chassis rails, and creating custom cross members complete with radiused corners. Speaking of which, note the corners of the doors, hood, and trunk have all been radiused too! 

The mechanical componentry attached to the chassis, including the 1965 Studebaker Cruiser steering box and every bracket, has either been fabricated from stainless steel and polished or HPC coated before being attached for the final time. That includes the custom four-link rear suspension and the narrowed Dana 44 diff housing that’s been filled with a 3.31:1 crown wheel and pinion. 

While the rest of Trev’s cars run on static suspension, to get the Starlight as low as possible, he opted for airbags all round this time, and clearly the investment was worth it. Of course, that meant when it came time to mount the 299ci motor, it needed to sit higher on the chassis rails than stock to ensure that when the suspension came down, the perfectly painted sump wasn’t destroyed. The engine — built with a 259 block and forged 289 stroker crank — is equally as well finished as the exterior, with the casting marks being smoothed off before the engine was painted. While performance was important, it remained secondary to looks, and Trev’s achieved a great combination of both, in part by sourcing a rare Edmunds 2×2 manifold and topping it with a pair of Stromberg WW carbs. Always one for using creativity over cash, Trev opted for factory Studebaker Avanti headers to feed into stainless 2-inch exhausts and custom 3-inch baffled lake pipes. While the lake pipes are hidden up under the reinforced sills, the triple 2-inch tips were handcrafted to be a feature that draws the eye. 

The engine package is backed by a BorgWarner three-speed gearbox with overdrive on second and third gear, and — you guessed it — that too has been smoothed and painted before being fitted. The amount of work in the engine bay is extreme, yet Trev probably spent more hours on the interior, handling most of the trimwork himself, besides the stitching for the seats, doors and hood lining that he handed over to Greg Mather at Midnight Upholstery. Each and every one of the polished stainless domes used on the boot and door trims was created by hand, as was the rest of the metal work you see, including the window winders and door handles. Absolutely none of it was off the shelf, or off another vehicle, but simply the result of Trev spending hours cutting, welding, bending, and polishing. Even the steering wheel didn’t miss his touch. It started life as an HQ Holden wheel that is now matched with a custom-made centre and a ’56 Stude horn button. Under the custom dashboard is not just all the wiring to make everything work, but also a Toyota electric power steering motor, and the wiper motor to help keep the engine bay clean.

The gauges are all VDO with Smiths rev counter and speedo, while the rest of the components are a mix of bits and pieces Trev had around, like a Ford Escort handbrake lever and a shifter out of an old bus, which was bent into the desired shape. Each of the custom knobs below the Sony head unit was also custom shaped on a linisher from stainless bar and polished by Trev to a finish better than you’d find on any off-the-shelf version. 

The car debuted a week before Repco Beach Hop 22 at the Mt Maunganui All USA Day hosted by the BOP Mustang Club. As expected, it stole the show, earning him People’s Choice and Best Hot Rod/Modified. From then on, it continued its winning ways, and while the ultimate goal was to win Repco Beach Hop 22, making it into the top five cars when the calibre was as high as it was, is a huge achievement. That’s not to mention he won Top Car on the Thursday as well as NZHRA’s Choice on the Sunday too. There’s a lot of satisfaction to be had from knowing that the whole car was built at home by himself, including the paintwork, engine build, and chassis set-up. Now it’s on the road, Trev is set to be a familiar sight at events around the country, and we’re sure there are many more awards in the car’s future. It’s well worth checking out in person if you get the chance as it’s a master class in not only nailing the concept and execution, but also showing what can be done on a budget with dedication, passion, and a couple of thousand of hours of spare time … Oh, and plenty of talent!

1951 Studebaker Starlight Coupe

Engine: 299ci Studebaker V8, 259 block, forged crank, stainless valves, heavy duty valve springs, R1 grind camshaft, solid lifters, Edmunds 2×2 manifold, Studebaker Avanti headers, Stromberg WW carbs, MSD Street Fire ignition, stainless 2-inch exhaust, 3-inch lake pipes, triple 2-inch outlets

Drivetrain: BorgWarner T86 3-speed gearbox, long tail overdrive, 10-inch heavy duty clutch, one piece driveshaft, Dana 44 diff, 3.31:1 final drive 

Suspension: 6-inch air bags, AVS suspension controller, relocated shocks, custom 4-link rear, electric power steering 

Brakes: HQ Holden front callipers, Falcon front rotors, VH44 booster, stock rear drums, stock master cylinder

Wheels/tyres: 15×6-inch Studebaker Hawk wheels, 215/75R15 wide white tyres, custom hubcaps

Interior: Modified HQ Holden steering wheel, custom console, modified 1947 Studebaker Champion dash, Ford Escort handbrake, full custom retrim, custom arm rests, custom door trims, modified Honda front seats, Smiths XJ12 Jag speedo, VDO gauges, Sony audio, custom switches, custom shifter

Chassis: Smoothed and 3½-inch Z-notched chassis, boxed rails

Exterior: Roof chop, peaked roof, split front windscreen, shaved gutters, enlarged windows, channelled body, moulded rear fenders, custom spats, shaved fuel filler, shaved trunk, custom lower rear panels, custom number plate surround, 1950 Studebaker Champion nose cone, shaved bumpers, custom bullet centre, one piece front end, widened front guards, custom inner guards, radiused and lengthened hood, radiused doors, shaved handles, custom glass, custom paint

Performance: Untested

Driver: Trev Halstead

Car clubs: Te Awamutu Rod & Custom Club, Studebaker Drivers Club

Age: 70

Occupation: Auto restorations and customising 

Previously owned cars: Every modified Studebaker imaginable!

Dream car: 1955 Studebaker Speedster coupe

Why the Studebaker? I wanted to build my version of a traditional kustom using Stude parts

Build time: 3500 hours plus

Length of ownership: Seven years

Trev thanks: Eric Carter, George Panfilow, Greg Knight, Greg Mather, Peter Dellaway, Glen Odlum, Gary Hooker, Jamie Hazlitt, my wife Di, Tash and Jesse; without their help the build may never have been completed.