The Unlikely Studebaker: The Birth (and Rebirth) of the Avanti

Once upon a time, a venerable and well-known automaker, realizing the end was nigh, tried desperately to show the public that while they might be down, they were not yet out. They called the world’s most famous designer and asked him to design them a sports car — something so striking and unusual that buyers would come running back to their dealerships just to see it, breathing life into a dying business. It failed, but the designer’s sports car rose from the ashes, and went on to outlive its parent company by more than forty years. This is the story of the Studebaker Avanti.

1963 Studebaker Avanti nose

THE CRISIS AT STUDEBAKER

In 1961, when the Avanti was conceived, Studebaker was already more than 100 years old. The South Bend, Indiana-based company was founded in 1852 by Henry and Clement Studebaker, who built wagons for the burgeoning Gold Rush. Studebaker’s sturdy carriages had borne several presidents, including Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. The company had gone into the automobile business in 1897, until 1904 concentrating on electric cars.

Studebaker had boomed during the 1920s, nearly collapsed with the onset of the Great Depression, and recovered soundly under new management in the mid-1930s. It was the first American manufacturer to offer a genuinely all-new car in the booming postwar years, and it reached its peak in 1950, with nearly half a billion dollars in sales.

By 1954, Studebaker was in trouble. Like other American independents (Kaiser-Frazer, Nash, Hudson, Packard, et al), the company was at a serious disadvantage against the “Big Three,” General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. The Big Three were rolling out new technology, like V8 engines, automatic transmissions, power steering, and air conditioning, and their rapid styling changes quickly made year-old cars look outdated. In the face of this competition, and a brutal price war between Ford and Chevrolet, Studebaker struggled to keep up. The venerable independent’s smaller volume and somewhat antiquated production facilities made costs high, and keeping prices competitive with the bigger automakers cut their margins to the bone. Studebaker was bleeding money; in 1954, its total sales were only about 80,000, 200,000 units below the break-even point.

In the fall of 1954, Studebaker merged with another independent automaker the Packard Motor Car Company, an independent luxury marque whose products had once been the most prestigious in America. Packard and Studebaker had both been struggling in the difficult market of 1953 and both felt a merger would shore up their own struggling business, letting them increase their overall volume and dealer base. Unfortunately, even Studebaker didn’t realize the depths of its financial predicament and the merger nearly sank both companies. In 1956, they signed a management agreement with Curtiss-Wright, the aircraft manufacturer, providing a desperately needed infusion of cash, but the cost was the loss of Packard’s engine and transmission plant and the demise of the Packard marque.

Studebaker emblem
Raymond Loewy’s group designed Studebaker’s “lazy-S” emblem. It was updated in the 1950s with a more angular look.

ENTER SHERWOOD EGBERT

Although Packard died in 1958, Studebaker earned a brief reprieve in the wake of the 1957-1958 Eisenhower Recession. Seeing the country’s new infatuation with compact economy cars, Studebaker president Harold Churchill reinvented the existing car as the compact Lark. It proved to be a hit, allowing the company to post a $28.5 million profit after years of losses.

Rather than invest that profit in further updating its car line, the Studebaker-Packard board went on a buying spree, acquiring a variety of other, non-automotive businesses, including the Chemical Compounds company (later STP), two plastics companies, a forklift manufacturer, and the Gravely Tractors company. The board was not sanguine about the company’s prospects in the auto business. Their doubts became that much more serious when the Big Three launched their own compacts for 1960, causing Studebaker’s profits to plummet to less than $1 million. Harold Churchill, who had fought hard for greater investment in the car business, was forced out and replaced by Sherwood Egbert, a hotshot young executive who was expected to continue the diversification process.

1959 Studebaker Lark VI rear 3q
Studebaker’s survival as an automaker in the late fifties and early sixties hinged on the compact Lark, a cleverly foreshortened version of the company’s 1953-vintage sedan body concocted by chief engineer Eugene Hardig.

The Studebaker board had no reason to assume the 41-year-old Egbert would be a “car guy.” Egbert had come from resuscitating the flailing McCulloch chainsaw company, and he had no prior experience with automobiles. To everyone’s surprise, Egbert proved to be even more of an automobile man than Harold Churchill. Egbert didn’t know much about cars or automobile manufacturing, but he became an excited and enthusiastic booster of the company’s automotive business — certainly not what the board had had in mind.

Egbert decided that the surest way to revive public interest in Studebaker’s cars was to build something new and flashy that would draw people back to dealerships. He wanted a Studebaker sports car.

THE FATHER OF INDUSTRIAL DESIGN

It’s entirely possible that if Egbert had known more about the auto business than he did, the Avanti might never have come to pass. Egbert wanted the car ready for the 1963 model year, which meant it had to be in production in the summer of 1962, a little over a year away. This was a very tall order indeed, but since he didn’t know much about cars, Egbert didn’t know it wasn’t really possible, and he set about doing it anyway. He even had a designer in mind — he picked up the phone and called Raymond Loewy.

Raymond Loewy, whose own official website declares him “the father of industrial design,” was perhaps the most famous designer of his era. He had made the cover of TIME back in 1949 and it would be fair to say that most Americans interacted with at least one Loewy-designed product every day.

Born in France in 1893, Loewy had moved to America as a young man. After a stint as a window designer for major New York department stores in the 1920s, he became an industrial designer, bringing a clean, modern, Art Moderne-flavored touch to products like refrigerators, locomotives, the modern Coke bottle, and an array of familiar logos and packaging that ranged from Hoover Vacuum Cleaners to Lucky Strike cigarettes and Shell Gasoline.

In 1936, Studebaker president Paul Hoffman hired Loewy to design the company’s 1938 line. Loewy remained involved with Studebaker until 1955, with his satellite office in South Bend acting as Studebaker’s de facto styling department. Loewy’s firm produced a variety of memorable models, including the dramatic 1947 Champion, the 1950 “Next Look” Commander, and the 1953 Starliner coupe, which some historians have called the most beautiful car produced in America.

1950 Studebaker Land Cruiser front
Among the Studebakers designed by Raymond Loewy Associates were the aircraft-influenced, “bullet-nose” 1950-1951 models. This is a 1950 Studebaker Land Cruiser sedan.

Although Loewy’s contract with Studebaker had ended more than five years earlier, Sherwood Egbert already knew Loewy personally, having met him while vacationing in Palm Springs. Egbert called Loewy to a meeting in South Bend in early March 1961 and outlined what he had in mind. The two men discovered they had similar tastes, and they quickly came to an agreement. The dilemma? Egbert demanded that the project be developed in absolute secrecy, and the finished design needed to be ready in only 40 days. By comparison, even GM needed more than two years’ lead time for an all-new design. Loewy took it as a challenge.

CRASH COURSE

Loewy rented a house in Palm Springs to serve as a workshop, and transferred three of his employees from New York: Bob Andrews (previously the designer of the 1948-1954 Step-Down Hudsons), Tom Kellogg, and project director John Ebstein. The trio were not told what they would be working on other than that it was to be kept completely secret, even from their wives and girlfriends. Loewy and his team holed themselves up in the rented house — where Loewy disconnected both telephones and clocks — and went to work.

Although Loewy had been publicly credited with the styling of past Studebakers, his actual involvement with the design work had been very limited. Like GM’s Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell, Loewy’s role was to direct, inspire, and occasionally intimidate the designers doing the actual work and then to pitch their concepts to management. He was an excellent promoter, but some of his employees, like Virgil Exner (who had designed the 1947 Studebaker behind Loewy’s back), were irritated by what they saw as a propensity for claiming credit for the work of others. Unlike previous “Loewy” Studebakers, the Avanti was very much Loewy’s design. Although he did relatively little of the actual design work, which was completed in a few weeks of frantic effort by Kellogg and Andrews, the aesthetic and principles were all Loewy’s own, taking their inspiration from several custom-bodied cars he had had built for his own use in the fifties.

Loewy and Egbert wanted the new car to have a sleek, aerodynamic form with a minimum of decoration. They were reacting strongly against the acres of chrome and useless gimmickry that had festooned the American cars of the late fifties, the tail fins and Dagmar bumpers. Loewy’s concept was wedge-shaped in profile, with a Coke-bottle curvature to its fenders, flush-mounted bumpers, and a grilleless nose. Although it was basically angular in form, Loewy boasted that the car had no straight lines at all. It was low-slung, and had a noticeable rake, the nose sitting more than an inch lower than the tail. Some critics described its curious detailing as fussy or contrived, but it was undeniably distinctive.

Egbert flew out from South Bend to Palm Springs on April 2. He spent about an hour looking over the team’s drawings and 1/8th-scale model, made approving noises, and immediately drove back to the airport. Loewy and his designers packed up their work and flew to Indiana themselves, where they completed half of a full-size clay model; to save time, the other half was simulated with a mirror. The clay was ready for Egbert to present to the Studebaker board on April 27 and it was quickly approved for production. It was named Studebaker Avanti, meaning “Forward” in Italian.

1963 Studebaker Avanti R2 front 3q
This is a 1963 Studebaker Avanti, distinguishable by the shape of the headlamps. ’64s (and the Avanti II) still had round headlights, but the bezels were rectangular, giving a slightly less wide-eyed look to the nose. The grille under the bumper also changed in detail. The “knife-blade” fenders were controversial, as was the absence of a prominent radiator grille. The smooth nose was at least aerodynamically sound, reducing drag. (Most modern front-engine cars are “bumper breathers,” taking their intake and cooling air from the high-pressure area under the front bumper; big grilles today are primarily cosmetic.) This car has the R2 supercharged engine, rated at 290 gross horsepower (216 kW), linked to the three-speed Borg-Warner Power-Shift automatic.

THE STUDEBAKER AVANTI

There was no time or money for a unique chassis or suspension, so the Studebaker Avanti would ride a slightly modified Studebaker Lark frame. Cost and time considerations also made building the Avanti in steel impossible. Studebaker commissioned the Molded Fiber Glass Body Company (MFG), the same company that built bodies for Chevrolet’s Corvette, to mold the Avanti’s body from glass-reinforced plastic, more commonly called fiberglass.

Fiberglass had become popular for commercial use in the late 1930s, and in the 1950s, it briefly appeared to be the Next Big Thing in automotive manufacturing. Fiberglass is light, inexpensive, and relatively tough. Better yet, plastic molds are far less expensive than the dies and presses needed for steel body panels, which makes fiberglass much more economical for limited-production cars than steel.

Despite the early enthusiasm, however, fiberglass failed to make a big impact on the automotive mainstream, which found that its advantages were often outweighed by its drawbacks. Although fiberglass is lighter than steel, it’s not particularly rigid, so the frame must be stiffer and heavier to compensate, canceling most of the potential weight savings. Another problem is that fiberglass is difficult to paint and flexing of the body leads to ‘crazing’ in the finish. Indeed, the Avanti’s early construction was beset with quality control problems, finally forcing Studebaker to bring the assembly of the body in-house rather than allowing MFG to assemble them. Even then, fit and finish often left much to be desired.

1963_Studebaker_Avanti_rollbar.jpg
Beneath this cover is the Studebaker Avanti’s integral roll bar. Some critics thought it was probably a little too thin to be really effective, but it remains an unusual and commendable feature for a production car.

THE ULTRA-LARK

Egbert and Loewy wanted a car with highly competitive performance, not just in straight-line speed, but in handling, braking, and safety. One unusual provision of the Studebaker Avanti was an integral roll bar built into the roof. The well-trimmed dash and interior panels were safety padded, years before such padding was mandated by law. To improve handling, the Lark suspension was beefed up with heavy-duty springs and shocks, front and rear anti-roll bars, and rear trailing links to better locate the live axle. For better stopping power, the Avanti used Bendix disc brakes on its front wheels — essentially licensed American versions of the Dunlop brakes used on contemporary Jaguars and the first caliper discs on an American production car (excepting a few Crosley sports cars years earlier).

1963 Studebaker Avanti R2 side
The Studebaker Avanti’s basic concept (a sporty body using passenger-car mechanicals) and general size have led it to be compared to the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro, with some historians proclaiming the Avanti the first “pony car.” The Avanti is slightly larger than an early Mustang or Camaro, but it was priced far higher; an early ’65 Mustang started at $2,368, more than $1,100 less than the ’64 Avanti. A supercharged R2 Avanti was, however, a good performance match for a Mustang with the high-power K-code 289 cu. in. (4,728 cc) V8, offering similar acceleration and handling.

Under the hood was a revamped version of Studebaker’s familiar 289 cu. in. (4,737 cc) V8, which dated back to 1951. It was not an outstanding engine, being overweight, underpowered, and prone to oil leaks, but Egbert asked chief engineer Gene Hardig to give it a thorough going-over. In basic R1 form, standard on the Avanti, the revamped V8 made 240 gross horsepower (179 kW). The optional R2 version added a Paxton supercharger, raising power to about 290 (216 kW), one gross horsepower per cubic inch (61 hp/liter).

Hot rodding impresario Andy Granatelli — another acquaintance of Egbert’s, hired with the acquisition of Granatelli’s Paxton Products in March 1962 — also developed 304.5 cu. in. (4,991 cc) R3 and R4 engines producing as much as 335 gross horsepower (250 kW), but they were very rarely ordered; Studebaker built only nine R3 Avantis and no known R4s. (Andy Granatelli later bought up most of the 250-odd remaining R3 engines and some of them found their way into Avantis after the fact.)

The Avanti’s three-speed stick was the standard transmission, but most Avantis had either a four-speed manual (the ubiquitous Warner T-10) or a Borg-Warner three-speed automatic, which Studebaker called Power-Shift.

TEETHING PAINS

An early-production Studebaker Avanti was displayed at the New York Auto Show in April 1962, but production problems kept Avantis from showrooms until fairly late in the year. Starting price was $4,445, equal to a Ford Thunderbird coupe, $112 more than Buick’s new Riviera, and $193 more than the dramatic new Corvette Sting Ray coupe. In short, the Avanti was very pricey, especially for a marque that was not exactly dripping with prestige.

The Studebaker Avanti may have lacked badge cachet, but it didn’t lack for performance. With the R1 engine and automatic, the most common powertrain combination, it could go from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in about 9.5 seconds, putting it on a par with the Thunderbird. The supercharged R2 was a different story. Capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in about 7.5 seconds and a top speed well over 120 mph (193 km/h), it would outrun any pure-stock American car except the hottest Sting Rays and Carroll Shelby’s new Cobra. R3s were faster still.

Eager to bolster that image, Studebaker sent Andy Granatelli to set some records. In April 1962, a souped-up, supercharged Avanti hit a top speed of 171 mph (276 km/h) and production Avantis broke 29 speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats in the spring and summer of 1962. A year later, Sherwood Egbert himself drove a modified, R3-powered Avanti to a flying-mile record of 168 mph (271 km/h).

Avanti Hood bulge
The asymmetric hood bulge was one of the Studebaker Avanti’s more curious styling features. It continues the lines of the top part of the dashboard, centered on the steering column. It was intended to evoke the feel of a fighter plane gunsight. It was a feature Loewy had previously incorporated on a Motto-bodied Lancia he’d had built for his own use, which was displayed at the Paris Salon in 1960; that car was one of the chief stylistic precursors of the Avanti.

Most reviewers found the Studebaker Avanti’s acceleration and braking to be commendable, but they were less impressed with its handling. The Avanti was a fairly bulky car, stretching a little over 192 inches (4,887 mm) on a 109-inch (2,769mm) wheelbase and tipped the scales at more than 3,700 pounds (1,715 kg) with automatic and air conditioning.

Worse yet, the Avanti had inherited the Lark’s formidable front weight bias, which compromised its handling. The stiff shocks and springs gave better control, but they also contributed to a heavy-footed feel on broken pavement. The weakest link was probably the antiquated front suspension, which gave the Avanti vague steering feel. By the standards of passenger cars of its era, the Avanti was well above average in handling, but it was definitely no match for a Corvette Sting Ray.

Neither critics nor buyers were blown away by the Avanti’s unusual exterior styling. Critics liked the absence of chrome and glitter, but buyers were displeased by the grilleless nose and gimmicks like the asymmetric hood bulge. The interior was less controversial — offering bucket seats, full instrumentation (including a 6,000-rpm tachometer and even a vacuum gauge), a Thunderbird-style center console, and an aircraft-inspired overhead panel for the light switches — but potential buyers remained skeptical.

1963 Studebaker Avanti rear fender
Notice that the Studebaker Avanti’s fender line continues in an unbroken arc from the body side through the edge of the decklid, reflecting Loewy’s abhorrence of straight lines. The Avanti’s gently peaked rear fenders are reminiscent of the Volvo P1800 coupe, which appeared slightly earlier. The Avanti’s peaks are not quite as sharp as those of the Volvo, in part because of the limitations of its fiberglass construction.

Perhaps the Avanti’s greatest sales obstacle was the general perception that Studebaker itself was being measure for a coffin. First-year production totaled a meager 3,834, not enough to worry the Corvette, let alone the Thunderbird. A modest facelift for 1964 changed the headlights and a few other details, but sales sank to a dire 809 units.

THE END OF STUDEBAKER

By then, both Sherwood Egbert and Studebaker were terminal. Egbert’s apparent vitality belied the fact that he had recently been diagnosed with stomach cancer, and had already undergone one surgery. In late 1963, another round of surgery forced him to take an indefinite medical leave of absence.

That was the last straw for the Studebaker board, which announced the closure of the South Bend factory on December 9. Production of the Lark would be continued for a time at Studebaker’s factory in Hamilton, Ontario, but the Avanti, the Hawk, and Studebaker’s truck line were canceled. So, too, were Studebaker’s existing engines; after the end of the 1964 model year, Studebakers would use engines purchased from Chevrolet.

Studebaker continued its Canadian production for a few more years, finally closing in March 1966. Although the company was no longer in the auto business, the board’s insistence on diversification saved the corporation as a whole, although it went through several subsequent mergers and name changes over the next few years. By then, Loewy and Granatelli had moved on to other things. Sherwood Egbert never fully recovered, and he died in 1969.

1963 Studebaker Avanti Studebaker badge
Studebaker Avantis last wore this badge in the 1964 model year; later cars were badged Avanti II or simply Avanti.

This ordinarily would be the end of the Avanti story — another entry in the lexicon of valiant but Pyrrhic lost causes — but what happened next was not quite so simple.

THE AVANTI REBORN

On July 1, 1964, only a few months after the South Bend factory closed its doors, local Studebaker dealers Nathan Altman and Leo Newman signed an agreement to purchase the Avanti name, along with the rights to the design, all of its molds and tooling, and a portion of the South Bend factory. They also hired former Studebaker chief engineer Gene Hardig as chief engineering consultant. Their plan was very simple: to resume production of the Avanti as an exclusive, limited-edition luxury coupe.

The Studebaker Avanti’s fiberglass body had enabled it to be rushed into production, and problems with its construction had been responsible for many of its initial problems; now, it would also prove to be the car’s salvation. Had the Avanti been bodied in steel, Altman could never have afforded to resume production, but in fiberglass, the new company could still make a profit on a small production run, particularly since the starting price was more than $2,000 higher than the original car.

The revived Avanti, dubbed Avanti II, was only modestly altered from its Studebaker predecessor. The major external changes were the elimination of original car’s forward rake and the addition of sharp-looking Magnum 500 wheels. It still used the Lark frame, of which there was no shortage, and the same Bendix brakes and Borg-Warner transmissions.

The major dilemma was the lack of engines, since the Studebaker engine plant had been closed down. Altman finally opted for the same solution Studebaker had, buying V8 engines from Chevrolet. The standard engine for the Avanti II was Chevrolet’s ever-popular 327 cu. in. (5,354 cc) V8, rated at 300 gross horsepower (224 kW) — essentially the same as the base engine of a contemporary Corvette. It was a sensible swap; the 327 weighed nearly 150 pounds (68 kg) less than the old Studebaker engine, improving weight distribution. Better parts and service (not to mention the potential to extract a great deal more horsepower) were readily available.

Thus equipped, the Avanti II was in many ways the ultimate Avanti, with performance and handling superior to the original. Altman and Newman’s efforts received the highest compliment from Raymond Loewy himself, who bought one of their cars for his own use in 1972.

1963 Studebaker Avanti engine
The standard R1 engine in a 1963 Studebaker Avanti. The Studebaker V8 bowed back in 1951, originally displacing 233 cu. in. (3,812 cc). The Avanti’s version was 289 cu. in. (4,737 cc), although it has no relationship to the Ford V8 of the same approximate displacement. In standard form, the Avanti’s R1 engine had a single four-barrel carburetor and 10.25:1 compression, making 240 gross horsepower (179 kW). It’s a heavy engine, and prone to oil leaks, but it’s durable and it has strong low-end torque. Avanti IIs replaced it with a Chevrolet 327 cu. in. (5,354 cc) V8, rated 300 gross horsepower (224 kW).

The Avanti II was very much a specialty item. Its $7,000+ price tag was fully $1,000 more than a Jaguar E-Type and double the cost of a well-equipped Ford Mustang. Still, Altman and Newman were selling exclusivity as much as anything else, hoping to imbue the Avanti II with bespoke snob appeal. The new builders proudly announced that they could built up to 1,000 cars a year, although their actual annual production seldom approached 200 units.

SOUL SURVIVOR

The Avanti II soldiered on into the seventies, although federal regulations forced some design modifications. To meet bumper regulations, the delicate flush bumpers were replaced with bulkier units, giving the car a somewhat ungainly look. The Chevrolet 327 gave way to the 350 (5,733 cc), and then briefly the slow-revving 400 cu. in. (6,470 cc) small block, which was now down to an unimpressive 180 net horsepower (134 kW).

1963_Studebaker_Avanti_dash.jpg
1963_Studebaker_Avanti_overheadconsole.jpg
The early Studebaker Avanti dressed up its interior with plush vinyl upholstery, bucket seats, full instrumentation, and an “aircraft-inspired” overhead console. Not only does it have a 6,000-rpm tach, oil pressure, ammeter, and coolant temperature gauges, it even included a manifold vacuum gauge, particularly useful on the supercharged R2 cars. The overhead console has switches for the lights.

Nate Altman died in 1976 and control of Avanti passed to his brother, Arnold Altman, who finally sold the company in October 1982 to Stephen Blake, a Washington, DC, businessman. Blake made an aggressive effort to revive the small company, reorganizing the factory and putting a greater emphasis on quality control, while negotiating new deals to market the car through selected Cadillac dealers. He dropped the “II” from the name, ordered the addition of body-colored bumper covers to better integrate the big 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers, and planned a convertible model. Blake even made a brief stab at racing, but by then he had overextended himself and his financing collapsed.

In 1985, the company’s assets were purchased by Texas businessman Michael Kelly, reportedly for less than $750,000 — not much for even a tiny automaker. In August 1987, Kelly moved production to a new factory in Youngstown, Ohio, and announced ambitious plans for new models, including the long-delayed convertible, a stretched-wheelbase “Luxury Sport Coupe,” an even longer four-door sedan, and even a stretch limo. He also arranged for 50 “Silver Anniversary” coupes for 1988 using supercharged V8s reminiscent of the early Paxton-supercharged R2s.

2007 Avanti convertible side view
This is one of 38 completed 2007 Avantis. Under the fiberglass skin — restyled by Jim Bunting and Tom Kellogg and bearing only a modest resemblance to the original — it’s essentially a modern Ford Mustang and is registered as such.

Kelly’s ambitious overextended the company again and his partner, J.J. Cafaro, took control in August 1988. The limo was mercifully forgotten and the long-wheelbase LSC was dropped, but Cafaro did make about 100 four-door models on a 116-inch (2,946mm) wheelbase. Sales approached 350 for 1989, the highest ever for the post-Studebaker Avanti, but the bottom fell out the following year. The company went bankrupt in 1991 after a final 15 cars were sold.

HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL

Raymond Loewy died in 1986, but the car he designed was not yet ready to follow him. In the mid-1990s, Avanti fan Jim Bunting commissioned Tom Kellogg, one of the original designers, to help him design a two-seat version of the Avanti. With the help of hot-rodder Bill Lang, Bunting built one, using as a 1994 Pontiac Firebird as a basis, the 1993-2002 F-body’s plastic body panels were easily swapped for the new fiberglass pieces.

Bunting showed the finished car, dubbed AVX, at Studebaker and Avanti club meetings in 1997. He announced that his new company, AVX Cars, would partner with Lang Custom Auto to make more AVXs, using fourth-generation F-bodies as donor cars. Despite these ambitions, Bunting gave up after making a couple of prototypes, and sold the company to John Seaton.

In 1999, Michael Kelly came back into the picture, joining forces with Seaton to start a new Avanti Motor Corporation, based in Georgia. They acquired the defunct older company’s assets and announced that they would build Bunting’s Firebird-based AVX design under the Avanti name. The first 52 cars appeared in 2001 with sticker prices starting at $79,000.

2007 Avanti convertible rear 3q
Like the Mustang on which it’s based, the modern Avanti still has a live rear axle. Assembled by hand at considerable cost, its build quality is relatively poor, with an assortment of squeaks and rattles as well as several misaligned body panels. Its kinship with the Mustang does at least provide it with airbags and anti-lock brakes.

The business was complicated by GM’s cancellation of the F-body — the Firebird and Camaro were dropped after 2002 — but Avanti had enough hardware to build another 200 cars in 2003 and 2004. After that, they reengineered the Avanti on Ford’s new Mustang platform (known as S197, in Ford parlance), using the Mustang GT’s 4,601 cc (281 cu. in.) OHC V8 engine. It looked much the same as before, although initially only convertibles were available. Coupes and a cheaper V6 model (again using a Mustang engine) were added for 2006. The company even announced an SUV, initially called “Studebaker XUV” and then simply “Avanti Studebaker.” Although it would have been based on Ford’s Super Duty truck chassis, the SUV looked a great deal like a HUMMER H2.

In October 2006, Avanti production moved to a new plant in Cancun, Mexico, and got a new president, David Sharples, formerly of MG-Rover. On December 22, 2006, about two months after the Cancun plant opened, Michael Kelly was arrested by the FBI in Jacksonville, Florida. He was later charged with 14 counts of fraud, accused by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of operating a massive Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors in Mexican time-share properties.

Sharples announced that Kelly was no longer part of Avanti and that Kelly’s arrest would not affect Avanti production, but as of this writing, production seems to have ended after about 38 of the 2007 models were built. (The owner of the black car in the photographs, which is one of the last 2007s built, obtained his at a sizeable discount off the retail price.) A handful of incomplete cars apparently remains in the Cancun facility, but it’s unclear if the company is still operating.

Although the current Avanti is essentially a Mustang in drag — the owner of the black car says even his California DMV registration identifies it as a Ford, not an Avanti — that isn’t so distant from the original as it might seem. Back in 1962, after all, Road & Track called the Studebaker Avanti “a Lark in a gilded cage,” and even features like disc brakes and supercharging could not completely disguise its mundane, passenger-car underpinnings.

The Avanti has always been an idea, more than a car: Sherwood Egbert’s hopes of saving Studebaker; Nate Altman’s ambitions of making an American Bentley; Loewy’s aesthetic vision. Even if many of these plans have proved quixotic, there’s always a bull market for dreams.

2007 Avanti convertible headlamp
The new Avanti still wears the same badge as its predecessor of 45 years earlier.

As of this writing, the Avanti appears to be dead, but we wouldn’t be surprised if a design that has flirted with doom more often than Harry Houdini had at least one more miraculous escape up its sleeve.

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NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources included Arch Brown, Richard Langworth, and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1963-1964 Studebaker Avanti,” Great Cars of the 20th Century (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1998) pp. 312-315; Patrick Bedard, “Retrospective: Studebaker Avanti: If not ahead of its time, then certainly contrary to it,” Car and Driver Vol. 39, No. 10 (April 1994), pp. 124-127; Fred Fox, “Six Week Wonder: 1963 Studebaker Avanti,” Special Interest Autos #32 (January-February 1976), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Postwar American Independents: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), pp. 90-95, and “Studebaker R3 Avanti: America’s Fastest Car?” Special Interest Autos #96 (November-December 1986), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Studebakers: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000), pp. 110-117; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997), pp. 214-216; “Studebaker Avanti: It’s only a Lark in a gilded cage to some, while to others it is the newest, freshest design to come from a U.S. builder since the supercharged Cord 812,” Road & Track Vol. 14, No. 2 (October 1962), pp. 30-33; and David R. Crippen, “The Reminiscences of Robert F. Andrews” [interview], 2 August 1985, Automotive Design Oral History Project, Accession 1673, Benson Ford Research Center, www.autolife.umd. umich.edu/ Design/Andrews_interview.htm [transcript], accessed 9 June 2008. Some information on Raymond Loewy came from the Official Site of Raymond Loewy (Laurence Loewy, n.d., www.raymondloewy.com/, accessed 9 June 2008) and “Modern Living: Up from the Egg,” Time 31 October 1949, www.time. com/time/ magazine/article/0,9171,801030,00.html, accessed 9 June 2008.

Information on the Avanti II came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 Avanti II,” HowStuffWorks.com, 25 November 2007, auto.howstuffworks.com/1965-1969-avanti-ii1.htm, accessed 10 June 2008, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996), “How Avanti Cars Work,” HowStuffWorks.com, 13 June 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/avanti-cars.htm, accessed 9 June 2008; Matthew Chess, Avanti Source Home Page, 1999-2008, avantisource. com/ history.html, accessed 9 June 2008; the Avanti Motors company website (Avanti Motors, last updated 27 October 2006, www.avantimotors.com/, accessed 10 June 2008); Lindsay Chappell, “Avanti Arrest,” Automotive News 30 January 2007, www.autonews. com/apps/ pbcs.dll/ article?AID=/CW/20070130/FREE/70129017, accessed 9 June 2008; and Leslie Clark Stipek, “About Michael Eugene Kelly,” 9 May 2008, www.lesliestipek. com/ michaelekelly.asp, accessed 9 June 2008.

Technical information and some additional biographical details on the Avanti’s creators came from Richard Gallatin’s Avanti website (www.theavanti.com/, accessed 9 June 2008).

We also consulted the following period road tests: “Avanti: A Stunning New Studebaker,” Car Life July 1962; “First 1963 Road Test! Studebaker Avanti,” Motor Trend July 1962; “Studebaker’s New Avanti”, Road & Track October 1962; “Avanti: A Step Forward by Studebaker,” Hot Rod June 1963; “New Avanti II Road Test,” Auto Topics 1966; “Avanti II,” Road & Track 1966; “Timeless Beauty,” Car Life 1969; Bob Dinkel, and “Avanti II,” Road & Track 1984, most of which are reprinted in Avanti 1962-1991 Limited Edition Extra, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 2003).


13 Comments

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  1. I recalled in the early 1980s that Raymond Loewy had offered to design the Avanti replacement. However, Michael Kelly declined due to the limited funding.

    Whether Raymond Loewy had sketched the next generation Avanti or not, this remains mystery.

  2. The Avanti was one of the models that got me interested in Studebaker.
    It is a timeless shape that happened to use Studebaker under pinnings – virtually anyone’s would have done.
    For a 49 year old “shape” it still looks fresh today. I would like to have an original super-charged model!
    Thanks,

    Andrew

  3. Doing some research on the history of the Avanti, and while there’s plenty of info on the web, much of it is confusing and sketchy, particularly in regards to post-1987 history. This is best and most comprehensive story about this car I’ve found online. Job very well done.

  4. A very good overview –Thank you.

    -there is little to compare the Avanti to the early Mustang, as the Mustang had no frame, had a considerable lead time etc.: going from clay model to production within 12 months for any auto maker is remarkable. The Studie 289 engine was very strong and could develop horsepower, but it was heavy. Along with the full frame the Avanti weight was more than may “pony cars”. Many believe GM gave MFG an ultimatum –build our Corvette bodies or build for Studebaker-

    1. Well, I think the comparisons between the Mustang and the Avanti are more conceptual: both were based on mundane compact cars (although obviously the Lark was itself a scaled-down descendant of Studebaker’s 1953 platform), with new styling and a sporty image. That was the basic formula for all of the pony cars (and, I’d argue, non-U.S. pseudo-pony cars like the Ford Capri and Toyota Celica).

      Where I think the comparison falls down is less on mechanical or production details than on price. The Avanti was a lot more expensive than the Mustang — even adjusting for the equipment that was standard on the Studebaker and optional on the Ford, the spread was more than $1,000, which was an enormous gap at that point. The Avanti wasn’t priced like a pony car, it was priced like a specialty car, in the same realm as a Corvette, Riviera, or Thunderbird.

  5. The Avanti Owners Association International will be in South Bend, Indiana for the 50th anniversary Meet on July 29-August 4, 2012.
    (Combined with the Studebaker Drivers Club)
    We expect over 100 Avantis, all colors, models, engines, etc. This will probably be the only place to see this many cars in one place.
    The new Studebaker National Museum is open and is a wonderful place to visit.

  6. Voyez les articles historiques en France avec interview de Raymond Loewy dans la revue “Le Fanatique de l’automobile (années 1980). Auteur Michel Renou.

  7. I have to laugh when I read that an Avanti is a Lark in a gilded cage. This is like saying a Mustang is a Falcon in a gilded cage. People have always been snarky about the Avanti. It is a car that defies death, defies the negative, it lives – even now during this period of downtime. Don’t count this make out, it will likely return. Some Studebaker fans want to keep the make a dead make, so they can claim it only for themselves. Selfish and ignorant! Avanti will return, like it or not, love it or hate it. Those of us who love it will embrace it, the haters can slither off under their rocks, who cares what they think?

  8. When I was a child one of the church members drove his 1948 Studebaker Champion. In the late ’50s it had 3 of the original tires, all cracked and hard as rock.
    I especially liked the ’53-’54 Studes. They were my favorite car until is saw a 1:43 Corgi Citroën DS19! Which I still have!

    My father at age 19 went to South America in 1928 as a crewman of the SS Steel Inventor, a United States Steel ore ship, carrying a load of Erskines.

    My father and mother are buried in the same curbed area as Albert Russel Erskine, long-time president of Studebaker.

    A friend who had me repairing her Citroën ID19 borrowed an Avanti II from a friend and drove up to me.

    I seem to be attracted to cars that have a minimal to no grille. My Citroën SM had its grille tucked under the bumper.

    1. Other than styling, there isn’t really much reason for grilles on most modern cars. The high-pressure area under the bumper is more efficient and airflow through the grille can be detrimental to aerodynamics. In that respect, the Citroëns and Avantis were certainly ahead of their time.

  9. Before Mr. Bunting got hold of Tom Kellogg and put his design into production he built a two seater chop job out of an early Avanti. That put wheelbase at around 102 inches. like the 1997 Aston Martin DB7. However, in 1991 he put another important Avanti designer, Bob Doehler of Milwaukee to the task of drawing up such a car. No panels would have been shared, but all themes were respected. The car had an elliptical side window and deeper sloped windshield like the later Jag and Aston twins which it quite accurately predicted. The nose used two pairs of Integra round lamps, inners and outers. It was drawn up as a 100 inch wheelbase two seater. The tail was nearly indistinguishable from the original tail lamp and decklid groupings and rear bumper was as original. Grant Larson of Porsche was helpful to Bob in producing isometric views of the design and might have some available for your perusal.

  10. Before Mike Kelly’s past caught up with him he made some legitimate use in Billerica Georgia of the work of the well known Porsche specialist, named Beck, on a Lister Jaguar inspired C5 Corvette. I believe he considered marketing it. Similarly there was at some point an alleged tentative connection through the VW based Brazilian Puma, which was later involved I think in either commissioning or perhaps assembling some one of the three Porsche replica models that Mr. Beck has long been known for. Beck Porsche Spyders are not exacty kit cars, since they are highly refined and well crafted "rollers" lacking only power units etc. I offer this ony as hearsay, having chatted with Mr. Beck only twice. I am sure he would not like to remember any contacts with the aforesaid Mr. Kelly, a person I myself mistrusted the first time I met him.

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