A perennial candidate for most beautiful of all times lists is the Studebaker Avanti. It’s admittedly somewhat of a polarizing design since the Avanti also sometimes shows up on lists of the oddest looking or ugliest cars ever made. I’m in the former camp and think it’s a great looking piece of human creation, but I can understand those who think it looks a little funny. Perhaps that’s how it should be as the Avanti was created to get people’s attention for Studebaker, the last independent car company in America, which was quickly becoming irrelevant as its financials got worse and worse. Studebaker president Sherwood Egbert did what he could with limited resources and a board of directors that seemed determined to run the more than century old company into the ground. The Avanti was part of Egbert’s plan in the early 1960s to give Studebaker, a company with a dowdy reputation in consumers’ minds, a new image, a rebranding in today’s parlance.
Egbert had designer Brooks Stevens update the entry level Lark and turn his attention to the Hawk. Fewer beautiful cars have suffered as many indignities as the 1953 Studebaker coupe, the basis of the Hawk and Golden Hawk. First as the Fifties and fins developed, to keep the coupe fashionable Studebaker tacked on exaggerated tail fins and an upgright grille and called it the Hawk. Some say that the grille was inspired by Studebaker’s role as distributor of Mercedes-Benz vehicles in the United States. In time, more tackiness would be added to make it the Golden Hawk. Then, after the ill-fated Studebaker-Packard merger was consummated and true Packards ended production, there were the fish-faced “Packardbakers“. Stevens was assigned the task of not just making the Hawk look good, but also make body shell that was a decade old look modern. The GT Hawk featured a revised front end and the fins were replaced with very trendy bladed rear fenders, something that can be seen on the 1961 Lincoln Continental and the mid-1960s Chrysler Imperials.
Stevens was also tasked with creating a number of attractive and innovative concept cars that would have been the 1967 Studebakers, had the company survived; the Cruiser sedan, the Skyview wagon and the great looking Sceptre coupe. Stevens wasn’t the only outside designer that Studebaker used. The ’53 coupe is known as the “Loewy Coupe” because it was the work of the Raymond Loewy studio, but Loewy’s relationship with the South Bend based automaker dated to the 1930s, when Loewy designed a new logo for the company, replacing the wagon wheel that reflected the company’s origin as a carriage maker with a more contemporary and stylish Art Deco S. ‘
Loewy was a gifted designer himself, but he was also a gifted self-promoter. Many “Raymond Loewy” designs were more accurately the work of designers who were employed by Loewy. Like Nuccio Bertone years later, Loewy wasn’t adverse to taking personal credit for the work of his employees. In the case of the “Loewy” coupe, the employee in question would have been Bob Bourke. Egbert also had Loewy do some concepts for the ’67 model year, but that’s getting a bit ahead of the story.
You see, Loewy’s concepts for the 1967 model year for Studebaker were notchback and fastback sedan variations of Egbert’s ultimate brand changer, the Avanti coupe, a car whose design originated in a doodle by the Studebaker president. Egbert saw the success of the Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Thunderbird and thought that a sporting coupe would be just the thing to change the company’s image so he turned that job over the Loewy’s team. Some say that Egbert wanted Loewy to come up with an entire lineup of cars based on the Avanti’s styling, which explains the existence of the two Avanti sedan prototypes on display in the Studebaker museum in South Bend. However, that doesn’t make sense to me as Brooks Stevens was then busy working on his own concepts for 1967; the aforementioned station wagon, sedan, and the Sceptre coupe, a broader range than what Loewy’s team delivered. I suspect that Egbert planned for the Avanti sedans to sit above the concepts designed by Stevens, a Porsche Panamera, if you will, to the Avanti coupe’s 911.
Regardless of where it would have fit in a surviving Studebaker’s showroom, the Avanti looked nothing like any other of the Studebakers. Actually it looked nothing like any other car on the road, Studebaker or otherwise then, and the Avanti still stands out today. Most of the styling was done by a team made up of Bob Andrews, Tom Kellogg and John Ebstein, though apparently it was Loewy’s idea to eliminate a conventional grille. In many ways today’s cars replicate Loewy’s smooth front end body work which draws cooling air into the radiator via a small opening below the bumper. Those bumpers were very thin. The rest of the styling was also very forward looking, reflecting the Italian meaning of Avanti, forward. The Avanti has an aggressive stance with a prominent forward rake. In plan and side views it has a Coke-bottle shape with a noticeable waist. Razor edged, almost delicate front fenders flow into a muscular rear end that features an enormous rear window that complements the coupe shape. Also delicate is the thin roof, so to give the fiberglass composite bodied Avanti some safety, a steel tubing roll bar is molded into the plastic at the wide C pillar. In addition to the unusual front end styling, Loewy added some visually interesting fillips like the asymmetrical hood bulge. The novel styling carried through to the inside, which featured four thin-shell bucket seats. The padded dashboard (something rare in 1962) had a cockpit-like design that put all of the instruments in front of the driver. It must have looked modern 50 years ago because it still looks fairly modern today. It was the “jet age” so like the GT Hawk (and contemporary Ford Thunderbird) many of the Avanti’s controls had an aircraft look to them.
As with the original Corvette, fiberglass was chosen for the body not because it was an advanced composite material, but rather because it’s cheaper and faster to tool up and produce fiberglass bodies than steel ones, particularly if production is going to be limited. Mechanically, the Avanti was based on the compact Lark, though there were significant improvements. The Lark convertible chassis was chosen by Studebaker chief engineer Gene Hardig because it was stiffer than the frame used in the sedans. To make it even stiffer, it was shortened and fittings were welded on so that anti-sway bars could be installed, along with radius rods to help control the rear axle.
To power the Avanti, an R1 tune of the 289 cubic inch Studebaker V8 was standard. That meant a 3/4 race high-lift camshaft, twin-breaker distributor, four barrel carburetor and dual exhausts, good for 240 bhp. In 1961 Andy Granatelli, who had bought Paxton with his brother, sold the supercharger company to Studebaker, becoming a vice president and chief engineer of the automaker. Granatelli developed a supercharged 290 hp version of the V8 known as the R2 and then a larger displacement 335 hp R3, which was produced in very limited numbers. Granatelli even developed an experimental engine with two superchargers and Bendix fuel injection that put out a reported 575 hp. Though time didn’t allow for any wind tunnel work, the Avanti’s body proved to be pretty aerodynamic, allowing Granatelli to break 29 speed records on the Bonneville salt flats with an R3 equipped car, including a record for the fastest American production car that stood for many years.
To control all that power, Bendix disc brakes were standard equipment on the Avanti, the first caliper disc brakes in an American production car (Chrysler put disc brakes on some Imperials and Crosley had them on their Hot Shot roadster, but those used the Ausco-Lambert system, not calipers with pistons as used on the Avanti).
Initial consumer response was strong, with Studebaker dealers booking many orders. Unfortunately, working with the then fairly new fiberglass composite meant quality issues from a supplier, forcing Studebaker to start molding bodies themselves, causing delays. Many customers who put deposits down canceled their orders. In the end, only about 4,600 Avantis were produced by Studebaker. Taking the unusual step of saying that the Avanti would not be “designated by model year, but incorporates changes whenever appropriate,” Studebaker did make some revisions for the 1964 model year, the most notable being optional square headlight bezels, and a larger opening for the radiator.
Other than the headlight surrounds, there were few options as the Avanti came loaded with standard equipment including a more powerful generator (the auto industry hadn’t yet completely switched over to the more reliable alternators), ashtrays front and back, a bigger battery, chrome dress up parts for the engine, a clock, a console, remote releases for the trunk and hood, courtesy lamps and lights under the hood and trunk lid, padded sun visors, tinted glass and multi-speed electric windshield wipers. You may think that “electric” is a bit redundant but in the early 1960s, some cars were still using windshield wipers that ran on manifold vacuum. Back then you could also buy a car without a heater or defroster, those were usually extra cost options but were standard equipment on the Avanti. One option that you could order was factory installed air conditioning, though many “factory” A/C units at the time were identical to aftermarket coolers, with the cooling coils and blower in an underdash housing, not built into the dashboard.
Unfortunately, the company’s finances continued to worsen, with Studebaker (and Avanti) production ending in South Bend in late 1963. The company would continue building Larks in Canada for a couple of years before finally giving up the ghost for good in 1966. Though Studebaker discontinued the Avanti in 1964, thanks to a Studebaker dealer in the company’s home town of South Bend the little sports coupe lived on for decades.
Nate Altman and his partner Leo Newman owned one of the biggest and oldest Studebaker dealerships in the world. Altman and his brother Arnold had engineering backgrounds, were impressed with the Avanti and realized that there was still enough interest in the car to make limited production a profitable venture. Together the three men founded the Avanti Motor Corporation and bought the rights to the design and manufacture of the Avanti, along with necessary tooling and some buildings in Studebaker’s South Bend manufacturing complex. They also hired a relative handful of former Studebaker employees to start building what they called the Avanti II, to orders. Initial plans were for a volume of 300 cars a year and while Altman and crew never reached that goal, they did manage to consistently sell a couple hundred cars a year and make money at it. As part of the deal the Altmans and Newman also bought the rights to Studebaker’s truck division. The automaker had had a fairly successful truck operation and in 1965 there were still many thousands of Studebaker trucks still in commercial use. Newman was put in charge of selling truck parts, a venture that gave the new Avanti Motors immediate revenue and some financial stability as they got Avanti production up and running.
As with some other small manufacturers like Checker Motors, Avanti Motors used small block Chevy V8 engines and Hydramatic transmissions sourced from General Motors (that Avanti branded as Power Shift, modified to allow the driver to hold first and second gears). Combining those components with NOS (new old stock) parts left over from Studebaker and bodies they molded themselves, Avanti Motor Corp was a modest success. Since the cars were essentially hand assembled, the Altmans and Newman could offer an almost unlimited range of customization, the kind of bespoke or personalized assembly that today is offered by high end automakers like Ferrari and Aston Martin. Many buyers easily ran the $6,500 base Avanti past the $10,000 mark. The option list was much longer than when the car was a Studebaker: Hurst shifted four speed, power steering, power windows, AM/FM radio, fog and driving lights, a limited slip rear end, and the buyer’s choice of bias ply Firestones or the then fairly new radial ply tires introduced by Michelin. Interiors could be ordered in vinyl or full leather and exterior colors were whatever the customer wanted.
The bodies remained largely unchanged though Altman changed the stance of the Avanti to reduce some of the car’s dramatic rake, and the radii of the wheel openings were reduced and reshaped. Contemporary road tests gave the Avanti II a 0-60 time of between 7 and 9 seconds (depending on which Chevy motor was specified), quick for the day, with a top speed of 120 to 125 mph. The power disc/drum combination could decelerate the Avanti at 1g from 80 mph. Since the Chevy motor was a bit lighter in weight than the Studebaker V8, balance was improved and the Avanti II was a pretty good handling car by the standards of the day.
Realizing that price meant they were competing with Cadillacs and Corvettes, Newman and Altman marketed the Avanti as a personal luxury car before that term was invented. As federal safety and pollution regulations came into effect in the early 1970s, the small operation tried to keep up, adding somewhat less than attractive front bumpers. That decade was not a good one for Avanti Motor. Nate Altman died suddenly in 1976 and the inflation of the late ’70s drove the price of the Avanti II past $12,000 in 1976 and beyond $23,000 by the early 1980s.
Nate Altman’s death temporarily put an end to negotiations with businessman Stephen Blake, who wanted to buy the Avanti operation, and Altman’s brother Arnold (“Arry”) took over management of the company, Leo Newman having also passed away by then. Blake continued to pursue Avanti and in 1982 he finally bought the South Bend operations from the Altman family. Blake had grandiose plans for the Avanti, including a convertible, a race team and a new chassis with a trick independent rear suspension designed by racer Herb Adams. He did improve the way the car was built, but he became financially overextended, his bankers pulled the plug, and Blake sold off the company in 1985. Arnold Altman died in 2006 at the age of 88.
After Blake’s bankruptcy, subsequent owners would eventually build an “Avanti” that was a rebodied Chevrolet Camaro, giving a great automotive story an unfortunately sad coda. As far as I’m concerned the Avanti stopped existing when Blake sold the company as later “Avantis” had no trace of Studebaker genetics in them.
We’re not about to see the likes of Nate and Arry Altman and Leo Newman again. With all the regulations and standards that car manufacturers must meet today, the chance of someone buying the tooling and putting a major manufacturer’s automobile back into production for the same market just isn’t going to happen. Sure, older products live on in the developing world. Much of the Chinese auto industry got started by building, under license, older Mitsubishi Pajeros and other previous generation vehicles from established automakers. While you may be able to buy a new old Mitsubishi truck in a third world country, you’re not likely to see someone put the C6 Corvette or Fox body Mustang back into production.
The blue 1963 Studebaker Avanti pictured here was photographed at the 2014 Motor Muster at Greenfield Village. The silver Avanti II also featured in this post was photographed at the funeral of Naomi Floch, of blessed memory. You wouldn’t be reading this if it wasn’t for Mrs. Floch, she was my first grade teacher, the person who first taught me how to write.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS