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For 15 years, Gary Gerberding has always had at least one honey-do on his list: Keep working on that 1953 Studebaker. But it was a labor of love as well as a honey-do, even before he got started.

Gerberding owns The Body Shop in Grand Island, Neb., and he began restoring the Champion Starlight Coupe in 1995 for his wife. They had owned the coupe for a few years after spotting it in a junkyard. Gerberding’s wife Liz had an older brother Neil, and Neil had driven her around in his own ‘53 Studebaker back in the day. Liz dreamed of the day when she and Neil could hit the roads in her Champion Starlight.
Unfortunately, like so many bodymen, Gerberding’s personal project frequently took a back seat to whatever vehicle he was working on for a customer. “You know how it is: You work on everybody else’s car all week long and your own car comes last,” he says. But Gerberding never forgot that his wife was waiting for a car like the one her brother had once owned.

Despite the pressures of paying work, Gerberding worked on the Starlight every week, for a few hours here or a whole day there, sometimes alone, sometimes with other employees of the shop, and often with his son Dean and his grandson Anthony, until February of this year. That’s when Dean finally applied a coat of Cyber Green Pearl paint to every curve of the body, and Liz Gerberding got to cruise again in the car of her youth. Neil had unfortunately died before Gerberding finished the job, but his nickname “Flip” is on the Studebaker’s dashboard so that he’s always with his sister.

From the Ground Up

The Gerberdings didn’t exactly buy the Studebaker originally. Liz explains that they didn’t so much pay for it as they got clear title on it for digging it out of a junk pile. The frame was there, but not much else, and many summers and winters had taken their toll on what remained of the panels. So Gerberding had to rebuild the car practically from the ground up. “I started with basically junk: no interior, no floors,” he says. Still, even in Liz’s picture captioned “Ugly Beginning,” you can see the clean lines and the hint of power in the coupe.

Finding parts wasn’t a problem, because Gerberding made most of the parts he needed, including the panels, the floorboards and all the sheet metal work. The rest he found, such as the rear bumper, which came from a ‘55 Studebaker somewhere in Iowa. The headlight rings came from a ‘55 Oldsmobile; the taillights from a ‘56 Chevy.

The body is mostly Studebaker, but the innards have their share of parts from other cars: The engine is a Chevy Quadrajet 350 with automatic overdrive transmission, while the rear axle assembly comes from a Ford. The fuel tank is all Mustang.
Inside, the bucket seats (courtesy of a Corvair) and back bench are covered with off-white leather, with green lap belts and a tilt column and steering wheel painted to match the seats.

Swan Song

Gerberding put about $85,000 into the car, so he figures it’s worth at least that, but Liz probably won’t want to sell the car of her dreams anytime soon. Someday, the couple will take a cruise down the California coast, and Gerberding already knows of one possible buyer for it. “Most likely, someday, someone in LA will own it, but not today,” he says.

Gerberding’s interest lately, rather than restoration, is in car part art. He made a table out of a red and white steering wheel (with a glass top and a hubcap for a base) and lamps out of kerosene cans, and his finest creation is a headlight that he made into a lamp with a 25-watt bulb.

Gerberding readily admits that the Studebaker was probably his last restoration job. He retired in April, putting the finishing touches on some metal finishing, paint and other final jobs for other customers. “I’ve been a bodyman for 51 years,” he explains. “I’m 70, so it’s time to slow down.” With a car like the Studebaker out on the road, why not?

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