Studebaker’s radically styled, fibreglass-bodied and fast 1963 Avanti was introduced half a century ago, as a grasping-at-straws effort to keep the brand alive, and the sporty coupe rocketed the terminally troubled car maker’s name to a final, albeit brief, apogee.
The Avanti was launched at the New York Auto Show in the spring of 1962 as “America’s Most Advanced Automobile” and drew reactions such as “startling, sizzling, unconventional, elegant and a knockout.”
Canada Track & Traffic magazine, in an article published shortly after its May, 1962, launch here, and headlined Elegance With Muscle, called it “a bold fresh concept with an undeniable feeling of motion that makes its competitors seem old-fashioned.” It went on sale here later in the year priced at “about $6,000.”
Reaction to it was mixed, according to Road & Track, which said, “some see it as only a Lark [the compact it was based] in a gilded cage, while others as the newest, freshest design from a U.S. builder since the supercharged Cord 812.”
With its Paxton supercharger blowing hard, an Avanti went on to set a blistering top speed number of 171 mph and 29 records on the Bonneville Salt Flats, lending the name some additional allure. But due to initial production problems and styling that – while it might have been “sizzling” – wasn’t everybody’s can of motor oil, what it didn’t set was sales records.
The Avanti lasted barely two model years, at least wearing Studebaker’s badge, with 3,843 ’63s and just 809 ’64s built. Studebaker, which had begun its transportation odyssey almost half a century earlier, building the Conestoga wagons that helped open up the American West, lasted only a few years longer as an auto maker.
The final Studebakers rolled out of its Canadian plant in Hamilton, Ont., in 1966, by which time the already flamed-out Avanti had emerged from the sackcloth and ashes to fly again, in what would prove to be the first of a series of reincarnations that kept its name alive into the new millennium.
That the Avanti is still revered by Studebaker enthusiasts was reinforced in 2007, when the brand was celebrated as the feature marque in the Classic Concours at Toronto’s Canadian International Auto Show. Canadian club members set up a replica of the Avanti launch display from the ’62 New York show.
Back in the day, an Avanti R1 could be purchased in the United States for $4,445, the supercharged R2 for $500 more. The one pictured here was sold at a recent Gooding & Co. auction for $74,800.
The Avanti was the brainchild of a former chainsaw company executive, newly hired by a board of directors determined on diversification and ultimately getting Studebaker out of the car business. Sherwood H. Egbert, however, turned out to be a car guy and planned, according to Automobile Quarterly, to build the “young image, attention-getting Avanti, certainly one of the more significant milestones of the postwar industry.”
The only clean sheet of paper involved in its creation by cash-strapped Studebaker was the piece handed to famed industrial and automotive designer Raymond Loewy. Most of the rest was acquired by rooting around in factory parts bins.
French-born Loewy’s diverse credits included the Shell and BP logos and the Lucky Strike cigarette package, Coca-Cola machines and Greyhound’s Scenicruiser coaches. His involvement with Studebaker began in the 1930s, and postwar his team was responsible for the bullet-nosed Studebaker sedans of the early 1950s, the stunning Starliner and Starlight coupes and later, Sky, Silver and Golden Hawks.
He was called back in 1961 by Egbert, and given 40 days to design and produce a scale model of the Avanti. His design group, hidden away in a rented Palm Springs California house, did so, coming up with a shape that still attracts attention. The body was built in fibreglass to keep costs down, but problems producing them delayed production six months.
Neat features included bucket seats, a padded dash, padded integral roll bar, vanity case, a 140-mph speedometer, tach, clock, vacuum gauge, air conditioning and radios.
The Avanti’s chassis and drivetrain were created under the eyes of chief engineer Gene Hardig, whose boys started with the 109-inch wheelbase chassis of the Lark Daytona Convertible. The Lark was a compact introduced a couple of years previously.
This was suitably stiffened-up, and fitted with front and rear anti-roll bars and front disc brakes, the first time caliper disc brakes had been used in North America.
Into this was slotted a breathed-on version of the Studebaker 289-cubic-inch, overhead-valve V-8, renamed the “Jet Thrust” to reflect its 240-hp in R1 form. A three-speed manual transmission was standard, a four-speed and three-speed automatic optional.
When fitted with one of racer Andy Granatelli’s Paxton superchargers, power rose to 290 hp in the R2; versions expanded to 304 cubic inches, and known as R3s, produced 335 hp. Twin superchargers boosted an experimental engine to 575 hp and, with this fitted, an Avanti reputedly ran 191 mph.
The Avanti died along with Studebaker’s South Bend, Ind., factory in 1964, but Studebaker dealer Nathan Altman and partner Leo Newman decided it should be resurrected. They bought the rights, six factory buildings, tooling and parts, arranged to have bodies made and took on recently-made-redundant engineer Hardig.
The first Avanti II was shown in July, 1965, and they were sold by Avanti Motor Corp., until it was sold to real estate developer Stephen Blake in 1982, who made major styling and mechanical changes, but struggled to sell enough cars.
Since then, the Avanti name has passed through a number of hands, reborn on a Pontiac Firebird and then Ford Mustang chassis and built in Mexico, until 2007. Its most recent reappearance is on the DC Avanti, a sports car built in India and due to be launched this year, although whether any threads tying it to the original remain isn’t certain.
|Back in 1963|
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