Photos courtesy of Cars In Depth
You find unusual cars down on the street, stored off of the street, parked by by the curbside, ready for the crusher at a junkyard, or sometimes even abandoned in Brooklyn or Qatar. I first noticed this Avanti II while I was taking my mom to physical therapy. She broke her wrist and until she had recovered enough hand strength to take the shifter out of park I was given the task of driving Miss Peshie (Mom’s Yiddish name). My intention was to drop her off at the clinic and then attend the funeral for my cousin’s mechutan. When I passed the Avanti I was little disappointed. I’ve tried to get in the habit of taking my cameras with me most places that I go so I can seize the opportunity when I find a car worthy of note. I had my camera bag with me but there was no way I could shoot the Avanti while we were both driving in traffic. When I got to the cemetery, though, I noticed that the Avanti driver was also paying his respects.
For a second I considered the propriety of the situation but I realized it wouldn’t be the first time that I photographed a car at a marble orchard so I got out my 3D rig. The car looked to be in pristine condition, with smooth and straight body panels, and flawless paint. I didn’t get a chance to talk to the owner, but from the condition of the 30+ year old car, my guess is that it’s either been restored or babied since new.
This was an Avanti II, one of the continuation series made by South Bend Studebaker dealer Nate Altman. Altman never made more than a few hundred cars a year so Avanti IIs are pretty rare. In 1964, after Studebaker stopped US production (they continued to build cars in Canada until 1966), Altman and his partner Leo Newman bought the tooling for the fiberglass sports tourer and six buildings in Studebaker’s South Bend complex plant to keep the car in production.
Since the car was essentially handmade, Altman gave customers the option of a virtually unlimited choice of interior trims and fabrics. Such bespoke treatment is now commonplace at high end companies like Ferrari and Bentley, but Altman appears to have pioneered that service.
Altman died suddenly in 1976 and Newman died in 1980. Altman’s brother Arnold sold the business to Stephen Blake in 1982. Blake era Avantis dropped the II, and incorporated body color bumpers and rectangular headlamps, so this is clearly an Altman era Avanti II, with chromed bumpers and Avanti II badging.
The original Avanti was the product of Raymond Loewy’s studio, based on a “doodle” by Studebaker chief Sherwood Egbert, who wanted a sporty coupe to use as what we’d now call a halo car for Studebaker’s boring and fading product line.
Tom Kellogg, Bob Andrews and John Ebstein’s original design for the Avanti was so successful that the car’s shape has survived a series of owners.
Michael Kelly bought the company after Blake ran into financial problems, moved production to Youngstown, Ohio and made radical changes, effectively making the new Avanti a rebodied Chevy Monte Carlo. Later versions would use a Ford Mustang platform. Kelly would sell the company in the late 1990s, then reacquire it some years later, making a big publicity splash announcing that production and corporate headquarters were relocating to Cancun, Mexico. Kelly was arrested and charged with securities fraud in late 2006. Though the Avanti Motors web site is still operating, their US phone number has been disconnected and it appears that the company is currently defunct. It’s interesting that though they’ve abandoned all of their other trademarks, Avanti Motor Corporation maintains their trademark registration on the Avanti logo and its use with cars. I think it’s a good bet that if there’s a market for perverse Packards then someone will eventually buy the rights to make some kind of replica of one of the most original car designs ever. If that doesn’t happen I expect the Studebaker museum to try and acquire the logo, as they’ve done with the Studebaker log and as the Packard club and foundation have done similarly with Packard trademarks.
Either way the Avanti is a stunning piece of design, unusual and attractive at the same time. It invariably ends up on lists of the most beautiful cars ever made (usually sharing the list with at least one other Stude, the ’53 Starliner coupe, and sometimes the ’48 bullet nose). It’s among the most distinctive car designs ever, as instantly recognizable as an XKE or a ’67 Vette. The E-Type and Sting Ray, to my eyes, though, are evocative of the 1960s, their styles declaring their eras just as surely as deuce coupes evoke the early 1930s. There is a reason why the original Avanti body styling stayed in production for two and a half decades, and that the original Avanti’s styling language was the brand’s raison d’etre with subsequent owners. If ever the word “timeless” applied to a car, it applies perfectly to the Avanti.
If you have 3D capabilities, you can see this Avanti II in stereo at Cars In Depth.
For a more complete look at the history of the Avanti, both at Studebaker and beyond, see Aaron Severson’s usual fine job at Ate Up With Motor.