(a.k.a. Red Car Day at Chez la Vache!)
1963-1964 Studebaker Avanti
Last Tuesday, we recounted how the Studebaker board of directors had placed Sherwood Egbert in charge of the automobile operations with a mandate to shutter Studebaker's car business. Instead, he became a "car guy," and set out to revive Studebaker. One step along the way was to put Brooks Stevens in charge of restyling Studebaker's volume cars and develop totally new ones for the 1965 model year. One result of Steven's efforts was last week's car, the 1962 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk. Egbert also commissioned famed designer Raymond Loewy to develop a sports car for Studebaker, the end result being the fabulous Avanti, the subject of today's Mardi Rouge entry.
The rakish 1963-64 Studebaker Avanti was among the most daring 1960s American cars, a modern masterpiece with totally unique American styling that even top exotic Italian auto stylists wouldn't attempt to do.
The Avanti had advanced safety features, when no U.S. automaker particularly gave a darn about safety. Such features included a built-in roll bar, padded interior and door latches that became structural body members when closed.
Performance? An Avanti with a supercharged V-8 was one of the fastest 1960s autos. A supercharged model hit 168 mph, while a modified version reached 196 mph, a staggering speed for a 1960s production street car. Some 29 Bonneville speed records were smashed by a supercharged Avanti.
Safety? The Avanti (Italian for "forward") was the first mass-produced fiberglass-body four-passenger American car. It also was the first such car to use caliper-style disc brakes.
Sexy? James Bond author Ian Fleming ordered a black Avanti and shipped it to foreign countries he visited outside his native England. Ricky Nelson, the second most popular (behind Elvis) rock and roll singer of the late 1950s and early 1960s, also owned an Avanti. The Avanti was a modern masterpiece. Too bad it didn't last long enough to help prevent Studebaker from failing in late 1963.
Studebaker was 110 years old when the Avanti debuted. It began making horse-drawn wagons in 1852 and produced its first cars, electric models, in 1902. But the company was in deep trouble by the mid-1950s. It lacked the economy of scale of larger U.S. automakers and thus its cars, although good, weren't cost-competitive against giants such as General Motors.
However, Studebaker survived in the late 1950s by producing compact economy Lark models, which sold well in the economic recession that began in 1957, along with some sporty Hawk models, such as the now-classic 1956-58 Golden Hawks.
But then the prosperous 1960s arrived, and Studebaker again found its back to the wall because Lark volume fell by more than half for 1961.
Hard-charging young Sherwood Egbert arrived as Studebaker's new president in 1961 and quickly had Lark and Hawk styling updated on a crash basis by designer Brooks Stevens.
Stevens did the best he could while dealing with Studebaker's dated cars and engines. Egbert felt Studebaker needed a dramatic new car. It had to really grab the public's attention to help generate much-needed sales and to rejuvenate the automaker's rather staid image.
Egbert's star car was the Avanti. With Stevens updating higher-volume models, Egbert recruited flamboyant Raymond Loewy, a world-famous industrial designer who had considerable auto design experience. It was Robert Bourke, working for Loewy, who had come up with the startling, slick 1953 Studebaker Starliner, the best-styled American car of the 1950s.
Given a rough idea of what Egbert wanted the new car to look like, Loewy had the Avanti's styling done under his supervision by his hand-picked team of young Tom Kellogg and seasoned Bob Andrews and John Ebstein.
To avoid distractions and interference from Studebaker executives, Loewy sequestered his highly talented team in a rented desert ranch house near Palm Springs, Calif. The team knew the car was urgent business, so they worked 16 hours daily for weeks.
Loewy gave his men instructions that established the Avanti's design theme, such as "Coke bottle shape a must" and "wedgy silhouette." In fact, GM's most famous styling chiefs worked the same way, initially giving general directions and then specific instructions.
However, Loewy personally designed the Avanti's wheel openings, which had a shape similar to the flight trajectory of the sensational Russian Sputnik space satellite. He knew Egbert loved flying, so the Avanti got an aircraft-style cockpit.
The Loewy group gathered in Palm Springs on March 19, 1961. It rapidly developed a clay scale model of the Avanti, which Loewy rushed to Studebaker's headquarters. Egbert knew a winner when he saw one and was delighted with the car. The Studebaker board approved its construction just five weeks after Loewy's team began work on it. No major American automaker had ever done a car so quickly.
The Avanti had a coke-bottle "waist" and thin-section roof with an extra-large rear window and the built-in roll bar. Razor-edged front fenders swept back into the curved rear end and into a jacked-up tail.
The front had no conventional grille - just an air scoop below a thin bumper. The hood had an asymmetrical hump, and the interior featured aircraft-style instrumentation and controls, some placed above the windshield, as on the 1956 Packard Predictor show car. Occupants sat in four slim-section bucket seats similar to those in an Alfa Romeo sports car.
No time or resources existed for wind-tunnel testing, but the Avanti nevertheless was highly aerodynamic, one reason it could hit nearly 200 mph. Loewy and his team had just guessed at the car's slippery shape.
There also was no time or money for steel body dies, so the Avanti body was made of fiberglass. The car was enormously strong, with a shortened, beefy Lark convertible frame and sport suspension with front/rear anti-sway bars and rear radius rods for superior handling.
Powering the Avanti was a modified version of Studebaker's dated but sturdy 289-cubic-inch V-8. This "Jet Thrust" engine developed 240 horsepower in standard "R1" form, with such items as a 3/4-race high-lift camshaft, dual-breaker distributor, four-barrel carburetor and dual exhausts. It developed 290 horsepower in supercharged "R2" form.
There also were a few supercharged "R3" V-8s, bored out to 302 cubic inches and making 335 horsepower. There was also an experimental non-supercharged "R4" 280-horsepower V-8 with dual four-barrel carburetors and an amazing twin-supercharged, fuel-injected "R5" V-8 with magneto ignition. The "R5" produced an astounding 575 horsepower.
To Studebaker's delight, the public was crazy about the Avanti, which drew many to Studebaker showrooms. It was upscale and nicely equipped. The 1963 and 1964 models each had a $4,445 base price, when a less practical Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray two-seat coupe cost $4,252.
But quality problems arose because Egbert rushed the car into production, knowing time was running out for Studebaker. It didn't help that production was delayed for months because Molded Fiberglass Co., which also built Corvette fiberglass body parts, botched Avanti bodies, forcing Studebaker to set up its own fiberglass production. Another factor was pressure from GM on Molded Fiberglass not to make bodies for Studebaker. Because of the production delays, many Avanti buyers canceled advance orders and bought a Corvette or other sporty cars.
Making matters worse, the word was out that Studebaker was on the ropes and might go out of business. In fact, it closed its South Bend operation in December, 1963, when the last 1964 Avanti barely left its plant.
Suffering from cancer, Egbert had left that November and died soon thereafter. Studebaker built Larks and a few other models in Canada until 1966. The Avanti 240 and 290-horsepower V-8s actually were available for some 1964 models. But Studebaker engines were gone by 1965, so two Chevy engines were offered for 1965 and 1966, when Studebaker production ceased after totaling 8,947 cars that year.
Only 3,834 Avantis were built in 1963 and just 809 were classified as 1964 models. The general rule is that the 1963 Avanti had round headlight surrounds and the 1964 model had square ones.
A fair number of Studebaker Avantis have survived because of their no-rust fiberglass body and solid construction.
The Avanti was too good to die quickly. It lasted for decades after 1963 with Chevy V-8s after being initially rescued by two successful South Bend Studebaker dealers, Nate Altman and Leo Newman.
Altman and Newman bought all rights to the car, formed Avanti Motor Corp., and continued to have it hand-built for years in the old Studebaker truck plant, where the original Avanti was built, as the "Avanti II," powered by a Corvette V-8. The revived car's chief engineer was Gene Hardig, the original Avanti head engineer.
The Avanti II was nearly the same as the Studebaker version, although Altman removed the car's slight front rake, substituted the modern Corvette V-8, gave it much higher quality and let buyers choose various high-grade interior materials such as carpets.
Other individuals continued to build the car for years when Altman passed away in the mid-1970s and the Altman family sold the operation.
The Avanti still turns heads. No car has ever looked like it, and none probably ever will.