Written by Tim Bernsau on May 19, 2015 Contributors: Eric Geisert, Dennis Varni's Fastback '51 Studebaker Woodie
Gray Baskerville accurately described Dennis Varni as "a hot rodder's hot rodder." Since buying a '31 Model A as a teenager in the late '50s, Dennis doesn't seem to have slowed down … ever. He has amassed a phenomenal stable of collector cars, trucks, vintage race cars, and motorcycles of practically every type, including the '29 Model A roadster built by Boyd Coddington that was named America's Most Beautiful Roadster in 1992. He has participated in motorsports all over the world, including numerous trips to Mexico to race in the famous La Carrera Panamericana, to South Africa for the South African Rally Championship, and to the Bonneville Salt Flats, right here in the U.S., where he drove his Falconer L6-powered "Speed Nymph" streamliner just shy of 350 mph.
Dennis has more checks on his hot rodding bucket list than just about anybody we know. So did you really expect his latest street rod to be something ordinary?
Any 1951 Studebaker woodie custom could be considered out of the ordinary (how many can you think of?), but Dennis, builder Curt Hill, and the people who had previously helped create this custom woodie, have taken the '51 to an extraordinary level.
This car was under construction when Dennis made the winning bid for it at the auction of the late Joe MacPherson's prized collection. The unfinished project had been started by Doug Carr of Woodn' Carr. It had already been transformed from a sedan to a fastback (based on Thom Taylor's design sketches) and was already a woodie. The top was chopped 2-1/2 inches, and the rear fenders were stretched 18 inches and treated to custom taillight lenses and bezels. The '37 Ford headlights were installed by Steve Davis, who had done some of the early fabrication on the car.
Dennis contacted Curt Hill at Hill's Rod & Custom in Pleasant Hill, California, about turning the just-started project into a finished car. A few changes were made, including replacing the wood. The new combination of lighter curly maple and darker African mahogany, built by Julian Cigarroa, covers a steel frame, and the wood was shaped to fit the metal structure. The idea is borrowed from the '47 Ford Sportsman, which used a steel skeleton to support the outer wood. The rear features a tailgate/liftgate combination. The wood is protected with clear lacquer. The rest of the car is finished with British racing green, which Dennis chose to highlight the colors in the maple and mahogany. Final bodywork and paint is the handiwork of Brandon Penserini at Altissimo Custom Paint & Restoration in Napa. Custom wheels, measuring 15x8, were built by Larry Westervelt. Four '56 Studebaker horn buttons serve as center caps. The sidewalls on the 255/60R15 radial tires were buffed for a smooth show-car appearance.
Hill's Rod & Custom replaced the original Studebaker frame and suspension with a new chassis from Art Morrison Enterprises, featuring an AME IFS setup in front and Currie 9-inch with 3.73:1 gears in the rear. JRi coilover shocks are mounted at all corners, with C4 Corvette disc brakes at each wheel.
Such an unusual car deserved an equally unique engine. For a while, Dennis considered dropping in a Cadillac engine to create his own version of the Studillac, the Cadillac-powered Stude coupes custom-built in the mid '50s. Then he remembered the one-of-a-kind induction system he'd found at a swap meet decades ago. The mechanical fuel injection system, with wild-looking air bodies, was a prototype created by Propulsion Development Laboratories in the '50s. Everybody had seen it on the cover of Hot Rod magazine in 1959 and nobody had seen it since. The setup is finally in service, feeding a Ford 427 FE engine. Dan Brewer in Torrance, California, did the assembly on the engine and converted the PDL mechanical injection to work with a Hilborn electronic system hidden under the manifold. Edelbrock cylinder heads are topped with Edsel valve covers to replicate the look engine on Hot Rod's cover. The new combination produced 410 hp on the dyno. An adapter fits the Ford to a GM 700-R4 transmission. This is one of the rarest, most unusual engines you'll find in a hot rod, but Dennis is almost nonchalant about it. "Nobody puts Edsels in Studebakers," is what he said.
The interior was entrusted to Sid Chavers in Santa Clara, California. Chavers built custom bucket seats and covered them in tan leather with gray-toned fur inserts. No need to replace the '51 Studebaker dash, so Redline Gauge Works restored the appearance of the factory gauges and updated the internals. A reproduction '54 Stude steering wheel came from Shrock Brothers, which specializes in repro Studebaker parts. Lucky 7 Customs gave the wheel and column their wood grain paint. The perfect accessory to the interior is the set of vintage alligator-grain luggage in the rear deck area, which Dennis found in an antique store in Washington.
The end result is a genuinely unique custom that would probably hover around the top of most people's lists of great Studebakers, great woodies, and great customs.