Starlight Express: Custom 1952 Studebaker Starlight Coupe

Words: Karlee Sangster Photography: Luke Ray

You couldn’t blame him really. Ten years old, working after school as the delivery boy for the local butcher, who just happened to have a stack of American Hot Rod magazines. Young Murray Nicholson was hooked from a tender age, and it only got worse. “The hot rods and customs in the magazines were chopped and channelled with white tuck and roll, diamond patterns under the bonnet, mud guards and running boards. It blew me away, it never left my mind and so it started, my love of cars!” he recalls.

Murray headed straight towards his passion after leaving school, working as an apprentice panel beater; and it was there Murray learnt all he could about metal finishing, lead wiping and gas welding. His first car was a 1958 Morris Oxford and the second? A ‘57 Chev four door.

Fast forward a good few years and Murray (or ‘Mad’ Murray, as he is known), had been working as a panel beater and general fabrications genius for a few decades. Flipping through a magazine, a roughly restored 1952 Studebaker Starlight Coupe caught his eye. Murray remembers:

“The Stude came from Los Angeles, USA. It had been brought to Australia by Mike Linch of Newcastle, NSW. He sold it to a bloke in the ACT, where it was very roughly restored. Once I got the Stude home I pulled the car down and rebuilt it. Because the car came from an old gold mine high up in the LA mountains it was rust free.”

It doesn’t get much luckier. Murray had found every rodder’s dream: a rust free vehicle for a decent price, and now it was his.

Now everyone knows there’s more than one way to skin a cat, but Murray had a solid historical knowledge and the skills to bring the car to life. “I have a passion for hot rods and custom cars, they are all different and are works of art. I think they express people’s personalities,” he says. “My inspiration comes from car builders like Barris, Windfeld, Watson and D’agostino. I planned to build a fifties Mild Custom.” And build it he did.

Every weekend, every holiday, every chance he got, Murray was at home in the garage, plugging away. “It caught the attention of people even before it was finished,” he remembers. He did almost everything by himself, with help from friend Bob Mason. A major obstacle in building the Stude was keeping it left hand drive. “The engineer and NSW RTA restricted a lot of the modifications to the suspension and drive train, engine no bigger than a 350,” explains Murray. He made do and ended up boring out the 350 motor to a 355, fitting four bolt mains, Scat steel crank and rods, forged flat top pistons, Edelbrock performer RPM alloy heads, Edelbrock inlet manifold, and an MSD electronic dizzy and blaster coil.

It didn’t stop there. A 750 Holley carb, Hugger style headers and exhaust and Chev TH700 four speed auto with 2500 stall converter and a Corvette shift kit mean the Stude more than pulls its weight on the road.

As for custom touches? “Bob Mason built the engine and gear shift mechanism all by hand, it looks like a manual style shifter. It has a Commodore two piece drive shaft and drum brake 9 inch diff. Up front it has Holden HQ wishbones with 2 inch drop spindles,” lists Murray. He continues: “It’s got P76 Rotors and HQ Disc brakes and airbags back and front. The booster is under the left front mudguard and the master cylinder is under the floor. There is air conditioning, which blows out through the old radio speaker on the dashboard. The brake lines, fuel lines, kick down cover, brake reservoirs, air con pump and alternator mounts are all handmade.”

It is this attention to detail that had the car turning heads even before it’s completion. No stone was left unturned, with Murray hand building the one-off air cleaner (all steel), modifying the inside dash, and adding an XM Ford Falcon steering wheel.

This is no passenger vehicle, there is no back seat. The air bag pump and tank are concealed neatly under the parcel shelf and the interior is flawless in a white tuck and roll job with black carpet by John Viles.

The mild custom theme is evident in every detail, and Murray has pulled out all the stops, shaving the bonnet, boot, fuel filler, front guard and air vents. He de-chromed the headlight rims and hand made the lakes pipes and side scallops, bonnet scoop and park light lens. This is no rush job.

“The front bar has been lowered 50 millimetres. I shaved the overriders back and front and found ‘57 Caddy hub cap covers and Ford Falcon rims. All up, the Stude has been lowered 150mm at the front and 140mm at the rear.

“The paint is a custom mixed Aqua DeBeers product, applied by myself with one final flow-coat by Rick McLachlan. The underside is detailed in black and shiny stainless steel fittings. This is as good as the engine bay. The side flames were painted by my good friend Mike Morris of Morris Signs in Ourimbah, NSW.” (See Mike’s ‘Road Hog’ in issue 15, page 102)

It had taken him four and a half years, but it was finished.

“My first show with the Stude was the Custom Auto Expo at Motorex 2006, at the Sydney Olympic Park Dome. The Stude was not registered then, so it had to be entered into the ‘Show Class’ competing against pro built cars, where it was placed third. It blew me away, I was just delighted to show the Stude let alone win any placing,” recalls Murray. “I then took the Stude to Wintersun in 2007, where the car won ‘Top Custom Car’. In the same year at John’s Rod and Custom Picnic the car won the ‘Tina Memorial Award’.”

Awards aside, he reckons one of the best things about the car is the travel opportunities and new friends it has afforded him. It is driven to events around 20 times each year, Murray turns heads and makes new friends wherever he goes.

“Six days after the Stude was registered in 2006, I headed off to Melbourne with six mates and their customs and rods. Our first stop was John’s Rod and Customs Picnic. There were 2,500 cars entered and the Stude was given Top Car (King of Customs!).

“We headed to the Bright Rod Run where the Stude was given a place in the top ten. We were away for ten days, it was by far the best car holiday I have ever been on.

“The Stude did not miss a beat; unfortunately a few of the other cars on our road trip broke down…” he recounts with pride.

Eight years after completing the build, the car is still the only one in Murray’s shed, and it’s far from collecting dust. Every 2nd Sunday of each month (“Religiously!” insists Murray,) the Stude is taken out of the garage and heads off to Michael Morris’ Donut Derelicts Australia meet at Tuggerah Business Park.

As the only ’52 Starlight coupe on the road in the country, the car is often invited to special events, which Murray is only too keen to participate in. “I was asked to take the Stude to Motorex Cavalcade of Kustoms in 2012. What a blast!” he says.

Whilst the Studebaker is Murray’s pride and joy, he certainly keeps himself busy.

“I work for the Chop Shop Australia, in West Gosford as a fabricator. Lately I have been working on a 54 Chev two door. It had been chopped in the states. We put in a new floor, rear wheel tubs, new inner and outer sills, ‘55 to ‘57 dash, ‘57 front bar, ‘54 front bar on the rear and ‘55 headlights just to name a few. I had been panel beating for 47 years mainly on prestige cars, so it is a good change!”

So what was it like to devote every spare second to the Studebaker for four and a half years and then to finally finish it? Murray explains: “It felt good to finish the car and sit back and look at it and think f**k, what a lot of hard work and time it took! I didn’t have a lot of spare time then, so when the car was finished I had a life to catch up on and a lot of family chores to be done.”

This article first appeared in Fuel Magazine issue 16.