Bob's Studebaker Resource Website

The Advanced Avanti

Studebaker's enduring masterpiece was way ahead of its time

Created by Harold Pace

The trend-setting Avanti was not only the product of the foremost industrial designer in American history, but also from an automobile company that seemingly couldn't do anything right. The designer was Raymond Loewy, the manufacturer was Studebaker, and the car was both sensational and influential in its day. Ace Designer

Loewy came to America from his native France in 1919 and revolutionized the science and business of product design. His company, Raymond Loewy International, is credited with landmark designs such as the Coldspot refrigerator, streamlined locomotives, International Harvester tractors and logos of hundreds of Fortune 500 companies. Loewy was a lifelong car enthusiast and a friend of every auto-industry mover and shaker from Carroll Shelby to Ferdinand Porsche. He had designed the famed 1953 Studebaker "Loewy coupe," among other lovely cars. If Loewy were a poker player he would have been sitting on five aces, with two extra aces up his sleeve.

Studebaker, on the other hand, by 1961 was holding every wrong card in the deck. They were saddled with an outdated line of mundane sedans and a lethargic V-8 engine they could not afford to replace. The "Big Three" had passed them by in terms of styling, build quality and performance. The Studebaker Board of Directors knew the end was coming, and were hurriedly diversifying into more profitable niches while searching for ways to extricate themselves from the automobile business with their shirts still on their backs.

Enter Sherwood Egbert. In February 1961, he had been named president of Studebaker-Packard and would mastermind a last heroic attack on the auto industry. When he took over, the Studebaker line was in disarray, with sales of its best-selling Lark compact slipping and the dealer network melting away as other Detroit manufacturers introduced compacts of their own. It was a time for desperate measures, so Egbert called upon Raymond Loewy. Avanti is Born

Egbert and Loewy agreed that Studebaker needed an image boost, a car that would position them as an intellectual alternative to the typical Detroit fare, and buy them time to come up with the money to upgrade the aging Lark. The new car would have to be based on the basic Lark chassis (hardly a landmark design) and use the heavy and anemic 289-inch Studebaker V-8. To get past the Board it would have to be cheap to engineer and produce, but this was a challenge that Loewy could sink his teeth into!

Within ten days he had rented a house in Palm Springs, California and ensconced three assistants, John Ebstein, Thomas Kellogg and Robert Andrews. They started work in the new digs with only a brief for the new car and a few sketches. In just three weeks the team finalized the design, made clay models and had the project approved by Egbert and Loewy. Even the normally staid Board of Directors back in South Bend was elated and the Avanti was rushed into production.

A luxury touring car was expected to have suitable performance, but on a pitiful budget, Studebaker engineer Eugene Hardig matched parts together as best he could. The front suspension was beefed up with parts from the company's police car package, while the rear end used leaf springs from its station wagon. The frame was borrowed from the Lark convertible, which was more rigid than the sedan version. Since the Studebaker drum brakes were hopeless, Bendix supplied front disc brakes built under a Dunlop license.

The standard engine was called the R1, and it produced 240 hp. The optional R2 engine sported a Paxton supercharger, which boosted power to around 300. The fiberglass bodies were built by the Molded Fiberglass Company, but the quality control on the first few was ghastly. Nonetheless the first cars were rushed into showrooms for the 1963 model year. Big Deal

When the first Avantis rolled out, the car-buying public went wild. The press heralded the new upscale touring car as an instant classic, and orders poured in. Unfortunately, Studebaker had mammoth problems building the new model. Their suppliers were plagued by strikes and the already iffy quality control of Studebaker slipped even further. What was barely acceptable in a bargain-basement Lark couldn't be tolerated in an expensive luxury model. By early 1963, orders were being cancelled in large numbers.

In an attempt to rally slipping sales, the Avanti went racing. When Studebaker bought Paxton, they also acquired the expertise of company president and hot rodder extraordinaire Andy Granatelli. He promptly bored the V-8 out to 299 cubic inches, cranked up the boost on the Paxton supercharger and blistered the Bonneville Salt Flats at 168.15 mph. Granatelli-modified Avantis set dozens of speed records, eventually topping 196 mph with dual Paxton blowers.

For 1964 there was little money for changes, despite the number of customer complaints regarding items such as faulty weather sealing and window fit. The only major change was from round headlights to ones with squared housings (the round ones remained optional). A grille was added to the front air opening and the interior received minor refinements. Granatelli developed two new engine options, the supercharged R3 and an unblown R4. Both were bored out to 304.5 cubic inches and pumped out 335 to 400 hp, but less than ten were built.

Unfortunately, time ran out for Studebaker, bled dry by falling sales, labor woes and a desire to move on to more profitable pastures. The last Avanti (a 1964 model) was built in December of 1963, and shortly all South Bend production was shut down. Lark production was transferred to Canada, where it languished until 1966. Altogether, Studebaker built 4,642 Avantis.

Although Studebaker ditched the Avanti, it was still an exciting design. Nate Altman and Leo Newman were South Bend Studebaker dealers who just couldn't let the Avanti die. After protracted negotiations, they bought all the tooling and rights to the Avanti and put it back into production, with former Studebaker chief engineer Hardig in charge of development. At first little was changed except for swapping in a Corvette V-8. The Avanti II, as it was called, was marketed as an upscale personal car that could be ordered in any color or interior trim the buyer wanted.

Although it was subtly upgraded over the years to use available parts, the basic Avanti II remained in production until 1981, when the company was sold to real-estate developer Steven Blake, who announced several popular "special edition" models with upgraded trim and rubber crash bumpers. A convertible was added in 1984. However, quality control and production problems returned, and by 1985 the company was in bankruptcy. The assets were purchased by Michael Kelly, who returned the Avanti to production, along with an ungainly stretch version that traded elegance for more foot room.

Kelly took in a partner, John Cafaro, in 1987 and began moving production from South Bend to Youngstown, Ohio in hopes of expanding the line to include a limousine. Avanti ran out of original-style frames and switched to ones made from a Chevy sedan and pickup truck chassis. Cafaro bought out Kelly in 1988. The clean original styling suffered from the changes, and quality control somehow got even worse.

In 1991 the Avanti was finally laid to rest, although an Avanti-ish styling kit (designed by original stylist Tom Kellogg) for Pontiac Firebirds was sold by AVX in 1996, and was recently bought by a new "Avanti" company run by Michael Kelly.

The Avanti is still regarded as a landmark design, with a dedicated owners club and collectors scrambling for clean, original examples. The Studebaker-built cars are the closest to Loewy's original concept, but the early Chevy-powered Avanti IIs were the best built and performing of the lot.

As with most groundbreaking designs, the Avanti inspired designers for generations to come. The "Coke bottle" waist design (with the center of the car necked down like a Coke bottle) was copied on many cars in the 1970s, most obviously on the 1968 Corvette. The Avanti interior presaged the safety regulations of the 1970s by featuring a built-in rollover bar and a thickly padded dashboard with recessed controls.

Although the optional supercharger was not unique (they had also been available on some Ford models), the Avanti was still one of the first production cars to be fitted with forced induction. Most interesting are the parallels between the sales record-breaking 1964 Ford Mustang and the Avanti. The Avanti came out two years before the Mustang, when the 'Stang would have been in its early planning stages. Both were based on existing economy-car platforms, and both used 289-cubic-inch V-8s. The external dimensions of the two cars are almost identical. Although the Mustang was not a slavish copy of the Avanti, it was almost certainly influenced by Loewy's initial foray into the concept of the "personal car."

In any case, the Avanti made headlines, set trends and did everything right except sell in record numbers. The good news is, you don't see one on every street corner today. It was, and is, an enduring classic penned by one of the giants of American design.