The Studebaker marquis had been in the business for over 100 years before the Avanti was debuted. In the mid-1950s the company lacked the economy of scale of the bigger U.S. automakers like General Motors and couldn't compete with their prices. They managed to tread water by producing compact economy Lark models that sold remarkably well for the times until 1961 when their volume fell by more than half.
Being described as one of the most impactful milestones from the postwar industry, the dapper Avanti was among the most enterprising 1960s American cars. Influenced by popular Italian sports cars of the time, including Jaguar's new E-Type, it featured incredibly innovative American styling.
Just thirty-seven days after becoming president of Studebaker in early 1961, young Sherwood Egbert was doodling a design during a jet plane ride that would inspire the Avanti. Milwaukee-based designer Brooks Stevens did the best he could do with dated Studebaker cars and engine but Egbert desired a truly spectacular new car to grab the public and aid the ailing automaker.
Stevens was busy updated higher-volume cars so Egbert enlisted the creative Raymond Loewy, a well-known industrial designer with a substantial auto design background. Loewy was in fact responsible for one of the most eye-catching American car of the 1950's; the 1953 Studebaker coupe. With just a rough idea of what Egbert was wanting
the car would be designed by Loewy's hand-picked team of Tom Kellogg, Job Ebstein and veteran Bob Andrews. Andrews and Ebstein had been longtime Loewy designers and Kellogg was a recent graduate from the Art Center College of Design in southern California. His gifted team was moved to a rented desert bungalow near Palm Springs, California to fully immerse themselves without any distractions from Studebaker executives. For weeks the talented team worked 16-hour days on the design of the car. The design theme was clearly described to his team with phrases like 'wedgy silhouette' and 'Coke-shape' from Loewy. He knew that Egbert loved flying so he designed an aircraft-style cockpit, and even personally designed the wheel openings, which mimicked the flight trajectory of the Russian Sputnik space satellite.
On March 19, 1961 a clay scale model was give to Egbert by the Loewy group. The Studebaker president fell in love with it instantly. Following board approval the construction began just five short weeks after the team had began work on it. Never before had any big American automaker ever progressed so quickly.
The end result would be an impressive fiberglass body design mounted onto a revamped Studebaker Lark Daytona 109-inch convertible chassis with an updated 289 Hawk engine. Construction was set to happen at Molded Fibreglass Body Co., at Ashtabula, Ohio, which was the same company that built fiberglass panels for the Chevy Corvette back in 1953.
Featuring a coke-bottle 'waist', the Avanti was truly something to behold. It had razor-edged front fenders that flowed back to the curved rear end and landed in a dynamic tail. The roof was thin-sectioned and an extra-large window was found in the rear along with a built-in roll bar. An air scoop was at the front underneath a thin bumper and the hood had an asymmetrical hump. Passengers sat in four slim-section bucket seats, much like ones found in an Alfa Romeo sports car. On the inside it really did resemble an airplane cockpit with aircraft-style controls and instruments some even place above the windshield.
Since the design had been rushed there wasn't time or resources for wind-tunnel testing, but the Avanti proved itself to be amazingly aerodynamic. The Loewy team guessed at the car's slick shape, but it paid off when the car could hit nearly 200 mph. The body was constructed of fiberglass, once again because time and money were tight and left no roof for steel body dies. With a shortened muscular Lark convertible frame and sport suspension with front and back anti-sway bars the car was incredibly strong and also had bear radius rods to give exceptional handling.
Under the Avanti hood was an updated version of Studebakers aged but durable 289-cubic inch V8. Developing 240 horsepower in standard 'R1' form, this 'Jet Thrust' engine featured dual exhausts, four-barrel carburetor, a 3/4 –race high-lift camshaft and dual-breaker distributor. It supercharged 'R2' form it developed impressive 290 horsepower. Several supercharged 'R3' V8s engines were produced that developed 335 horsepower. An experimental 'R4' was a non-supercharged 280 hp V8 with dual four-barrel carburetors. Even more impressive was a twin-supercharged, fuel-injected 'R5' V8 engine with magneto ignition that produced 575 horsepower.
The personal luxury coupe Avanti was introduced at the New York International Automobile Show in April 26 of 1962. Advertised by Studebaker as 'America's Only 4 Passenger High-Performance Personal Car!' it continued in production until December of 1963. The public was enthusiastic over the arrival of the upscale Avanti, much to Studebaker's delight. Nicely equipped the 1963 and 1964 models had a base price of $4,445. Dubbed 'America's Most Advanced Automobile' the Avanti was available in red, gold, white, turquoise and black. Gray and maroon were later offered. The Avanti was the most expensive car in Studebaker's lineup with the Gran Turismo Hawk following close second priced at $3,095. The Avanti was designed to compete with the Buick Riviera, the Chevy Corvette Stingray and the Ford Thunderbird.
The winner of the 1962 Indianapolis 500, Roger Ward won a Studebaker Avanti as part of his prize package at the Annual Shareholders' Meeting. Ward became the first private owner of an Avanti. That same year a Studebaker Lark convertible became the Indianapolis pace car and the Avant was dubbed the honorary pace car.
At a time when safety wasn't the highest priority to U.S. automakers, Studebaker added features that included door latches that became structural body members when shut, padded interior and a built-in roll bar. The Avanti became the first mass-produced fiberglass body four-passenger American car and the first to use caliper-style disc brakes. The Avanti featured front disc brakes that were British Dunlop designed units produced under license by Bendix. A Paxton supercharger was offered as an option.
One of the fastest cars during the 1960's, some Avanti models came with a supercharged V8 engine and had a top speed of 168 mph. A modified version could reach 196 mph, which was mind-blowing for a 1960s production street car.
The plan was to sell 20,000 models in 1962, but unfortunately only 1,200 models were built. Molded Fiberglass Co., which also constructed Corvette fiberglass body parts messed up Avanti bodies and delayed production for months. Unfortunately countless delays and cancelled orders were quick to follow. Though Studebaker set up its own fiberglass production most buyers ended up cancelling their order and buying a Corvette or other comparable sport car. Rumors spread at the same time that Studebaker was on the edge of going out of business and in December of 1963 they did close their South Bend operation. The door was barely closed before the final 1964 Avanti left the plant.
The Avanti title, plant space and tooling were sold to Nate Altman and Leo Newman, Studebaker dealers in South Bend, Indiana. Lasting four decades after 1963 with Chevy V8 engines, numerous Avanti replicas and new design cars would be produced through 2006. Newman and Altman bought the rights to the car and formed Avanti Motor Corp., and continued to create hand-built models for years in the old plant dubbed 'Avanti II'. Powered came from a Corvette V8 and Gene Hardig; the original Avanti head engineer was happy to take on his old role. Altman felt that the Avanti was 'too sensational' to let it die and worked diligently for more than a decade to keep it alive. Nearly identical to the Studebaker version, the Avanti II however lost its slight front rake and featured the Corvette V8 engine. It was of a much higher quality and the purchaser was able to select their own carpet and other high-grade interior material. Altman died in the mid-1970s and his family sold the operation.
In Canada until 1966 various Larks and several other models were constructed. For some 1964 models the Avanti 240- and 290-horsepower V8s were available. In 1963 a total of 3,835 Avanti's were produced. The following year the numbers totaled at 809. One can typically tell the models apart by the rounded headlights of '63 and square headlights of '64.
Ian Fleming, James Bond author ordered a black Avanti and shipped it overseas when he traveled outside of the U.S.
Today an impressive number of Avanti's have survived the test of time. Thanks to the solid construction of the day and their no-rust fiberglass body. A '63 or '64 R1 is valued at $10,800 in good condition and nearly double that at $20,500 if in exceptional condition according to the Cars of Particular Interest guide. A R2 can go for $12,000 to $22,800.Sources:
By Jessica Donaldson