With its nitro-snorting EFI Hemi, crazy suspension system, extensive body mods and left-of-field colour, Rhonda and John Zelukovic’s Studebaker Hawk floored the establishment when it rocked up to Summernats 10.
First published in the September 2023 issue of Street Machine. Photos: Ben Hosking
From there, the HOWBZR Stude went on to be the number-one star attraction at numerous Aussie shows, picking up no less than 11 trophies at the 1997 Melbourne Hot Rod Show and loads of other tinware during its travels. The Zelukovics even thought about shipping it across to the US of A, as they felt it was more than capable of taking on the Yanks at their own game.
All these years on, the Studebaker has made a few guest appearances here and there with the assistance of the Zelukovics’ son Ben, but it mostly just takes pride of place in the garage of the now-retired Rhonda and John. Mind you, John did build himself a beautifully restored version to keep it company, which you can also see here.
The Studebaker is like a time capsule, but it still looks remarkably fresh – has it had a makeover?
JZ: Other than repairing a small bit of damage it sustained at its very first Summernats, it’s never been touched; it’s still the original paint and trim. None of the polish has gone off, and it lives in a sealed room, so it doesn’t get very dirty. It hasn’t had a buff in 25 years, and has only ever been waxed about half a dozen times.
RZ: We only showed it for two years; after that, we haven’t driven it much.
JZ: A lot of people would get the shits whenever we turned up at shows. After a while, we just took it to exhibit rather than get it judged.
RZ: Ben has taken it to a few charity shows to help them help out, using it as a bit of a drawcard to attract people through the gate.
So it hasn’t done many miles over the years?
RZ: To be honest, I never really liked driving it; it’s too over-the-top. I’ve only driven it once or twice. Our son Ben has driven it more than us; he’s put about 500-600 kays on it.
JZ: We drove it into town a few times, which turned every head in sight. We kept it registered for about 10 years; then we thought, what’s the point? I’m sort of glad, as we’ve had those 20-inch-wide rear tyres well before we finished the car; they’re like 30 years old now.
Back in the day, it was a truly radical machine.
JZ: Pretty well everything was painted. There was no chrome, only polished stainless steel such as the exhaust, or polished alloy like the gearbox and intake set-up. It was also one of the first cars in Australia to have leather on the floors.
RZ: It went from an ugly duckling, something the kids didn’t want to be seen dead in, to jaw-dropping, something they all now want to own.
It was a huge hit at Summernats 10, where it won People’s Choice.
RZ: That was totally unexpected.
JZ: Victor Bray was there. He came over and had a really good look at the car. Victor loved it and commented, “I wouldn’t be caught dead with the colour. But it’s got a Hemi, and anything with a Hemi is my style of car.”
The colour was definitely controversial.
JZ: There’s been talk over the years about changing the colour to make it more masculine. Nobody could come up with a colour, so it’s stayed the same.
What sort of maintenance has it needed over the years?
RZ: When we built the car, everything was new; not one part has been repaired or replaced since we built it. It hasn’t done enough miles to hurt anything.
JZ: No oil leaks, no rattles, no squeaks – nothing.
I believe it’s been converted to run on pump fuel now.
JZ: We originally ran it on nitro, as the engine came out of a Top Fuel dragster. On nitro, it used about five litres just to start up. That got pretty expensive, as nitro was something like $60 a litre. It was like pouring money down the drain, and it was so temperamental to start. When Ben converted it to pump fuel, it went from six fuel pumps back to just two.
Six pumps? Sounds complicated!
JZ: Well, yes, but not as complicated as running two MicroTech ECUs. We had to run a second ECU to be able to drive 16 injectors. The whole system was fresh off the shelf, which was a big deal back in the mid-90s.
The height-adjustable front suspension was pretty cutting-edge back then, too.
JZ: No airbags back then! I designed the front end myself, which was based around a Rod City Repros double A-arm set-up. The coil-overs connected to rocker arms that pivoted via a pair of combine harvester linear actuators. Retracting the actuators dropped the car down. The good thing about this system is the coil-overs still work like normal no matter the ride height.
RZ: John had his friend build a voice-activated control box. You talk to the car to make it go up and down. It has three heights: full elevated for getting it on/off the bus we use to transport it around in; ride height; and pose mode!
Have you both enjoyed your journey with the car?
RZ: Oh yes, we’ve met so many nice people and got to see so many nice places through the car scene. We loved travelling around.
JZ: It’s been more love/hate with me. While building it, I had the bonnet propped open with a pool cue. Obviously it wasn’t strong enough, because it snapped and dropped the super-heavy bonnet on my head. Certainly didn’t love it that day.
You’ve both retired now; what does the future hold for the Studebaker?
RZ: We sold the business [John Zelukovic Smash Repairs in Orange] to the kids, Rebecca and Ben. They’ve owned it since 2004.
JZ: They’ll also inherit both Studebakers when we’re gone. I know they’ll take good care of them.
RZ: They’ll probably end up handing them down to the grandkids. We’ve got four grandchildren, and we’ve got cars for each of them.
JOHN’S FACTORY HAWK
John’s factory-spec Studebaker was purchased from Hollywood, USA, where it had been stored in a shipping container for over 20 years. The car was in really good shape except for the interior, where the rats had got in and ripped the seats and trim to shreds.
John stripped it to a bare shell and fully restored it back to original, other than two upgrades – air conditioning and a stereo system.
Seeing a factory-spec car parked next to the Zelukovics’ heavily modified version allows one to fully appreciate the scope of the work that went into HOWBZR.
HOWBZR HAWK IN DETAIL:
- Deleted chrome trim around rear side glass
- Wedge chopped roof
- Door frames reworked
- Laid-back front screen
- Fabricated front nostrils blended into nose
- Frenched headlights
- Deleted front bumper
- Indicators grafted into front edge of guards
- Original guard vents shaved
- Kawasaki side mirrors
- Honda door handles
- All badges shaved
- Flush front and rear glass
- Deleted chrome trim around rear side glass
- Shaved door locks
- Shaved roof gutters
- Fuel filler cap smoothed over
- Bolt-on rear fins permanently welded to body
- Deleted chrome trim on fins
- Shaved boot badge
- Recessed number plate
- Deleted rear bumper
- Custom tail-lights
- Stretched rear wheelarch openings
- Side-exit exhaust
- Doors wrap into sills
RHONDA & JOHN ZELUKOVIC
1960 STUDEBAKER HAWK
|Paint:||PPG Rhonda’s Apricot|
|Suspension:||Cantilever double A-arm (f), four-link (r)|
|Wheels:||Weld; 15×5 (f), 15×16 (r)|
|Tyres:||Mickey Thompson Sportsman Pro 33×21.5-15LT (r)|