1963 Studebaker Avanti
1963 Studebaker Avanti. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

By the time the futuristic Studebaker Avanti was announced in 1962, Studebaker history already dated back 110 years to 1852 when Clem and Henry Studebaker opened a blacksmith/wagon shop in South Bend, Indiana. They added electric cars in 1902, then a gasoline model in 1904. Electrics ended in 1912, and horse-drawn vehicles soon after.

Studebaker developed a sound reputation and survived the 1930s Depression, albeit after a brush with receivership. Following the Second World War Studebaker was the first with new post-war styling, the 1947 “coming-or-going” Raymond Loewy design. 

The 1950s were difficult for non-Big Three (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) automakers. The end of the post-war sellers’ market brought relentless competition which drove Kaiser-Frazer, Crosley and Willys-Overland out of cars. In 1954 Nash and Hudson were forced to amalgamate as American Motors Corp., and Studebaker and Packard joined as Studebaker-Packard Corp.
Studebaker’s designs prevailed, and “real” Packards disappeared in 1956 followed by Packard-badged “Packabakers” in 1958. By the late 1950s Studebaker was in trouble, and in 1961 a dynamic new president, Sherwood Egbert, was recruited from chain saw manufacturer McCulloch.

To revitalize the company’s image, Egbert wanted image cars. He turned to Studebaker hero Loewy, creator of post-war 1947 Studebakers and low silhouette 1953 Starliner/Starlight coupes, later the Hawk series. Loewy agreed to design an all-new Studebaker, if given a free hand.

Granted full autonomy, Loewy and a few associates worked feverishly in secret in Palm Springs, California, producing a full-size clay model within five weeks. It was dramatically different from anything seen before, the biggest styling departure since 1947.

Called the Avanti – Italian for forward – the four-passenger, two-door Grand Touring’s hood dipped down to a bladed bumper. Blade-like front fenders extended ahead of the hood and flanked two round, glass-covered headlamps. With no grille, cooling air entered under the bumper, and an asymmetrical hood bulge sat directly in front of the driver.

There was little chrome, and the “Coke bottle design” flanks were concave. Curved side glass, a large rear window and high tail with an abrupt drop-off gave a wedge-shaped profile. Small taillights wrapped around the rear fenders, and wide C-pillars concealed a built-in rollbar. The Avanti was all curves and arcs with not a straight line anywhere.

The front seats were comfortable buckets, and the full set of round instruments included a tachometer and manifold pressure gauge. Overhead switches gave the cockpit an aircraft like feel.

It was the dramatic, daring styling statement that Egbert wanted. To save time and money a fibreglass body was used, mounted on a strengthened 2,769 mm (109 in.) wheelbase Studebaker Lark convertible chassis with stiffer springs and anti-roll bars. It had rear drum brakes and Dunlop front discs made by Bendix, the first volume production American car with calliper discs (Crosley had them in 1949).     

Molded Fiber Glass Products of Ashtabula, Ohio, whose autobody experience included Chevrolet Corvette, got the body contract. The Avanti had an upgraded version of Studebaker’s 4.7-litre, 240-horsepower overhead valve V8. With optional Paxton-McCulloch centrifugal supercharger it developed an estimated 275 horsepower. Transmissions were three- and four-speed manuals and three-speed automatic.      

Road & Track (10/’62) reported that a supercharged, 1,542 kg (3,400 lb), four-speed Avanti sprinted to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 7.3 seconds, helped by a low 4.09:1 axle ratio. While good for acceleration, it limited top speed to 188 km\h (117 mph). Handling was reported as mediocre.       

Andy Granatelli, later of STP fame, took three supercharged “R-3” Avantis (there were progressively tuned R-1 to R-5 versions) with 4.9-litre engines to Utah’s Bonneville salt flats in August 1962. He broke 12 stock car speed records, including the flying mile at 271 km/h (168.15 mph).

Although the Avanti was introduced in 1962, fibreglass body difficulties delayed production until 1963; body building was finally moved to South Bend. This delay, plus Studebaker’s precarious financial condition kept Avanti sales to only 3,834 ’63 models. This shrank to only 809 ’64s, which were identical except for square headlamps.

Avanti never reached its true potential because of its slow start and because Studebaker was a failing company. Its Indiana operation closed in late 1963, and Studebaker production continued in Hamilton, Ontario, where it ended in 1966. Avantis were not made in Canada.

After Avanti production ended in South Bend, Studebaker dealers Nate Altman and Leo Newman, established Avanti Motor Corporation in 1964 to produce Avanti IIs. They sold the company in 1982, and it subsequently went through several resurrection attempts.

The Avanti was a brave attempt by a dying company to save itself. While it ultimately failed, it did produce a daringly different car.

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