Article by Mark V. Trotta of MarksGarage.net
Although the Studebaker company was around for over a century, they may be best known for a model they produced for only eighteen months. The South Bend, Indiana factory stopped manufacturing cars and trucks in 1963, but the Avanti lives on.
During the 1940’s, Studebaker was the fourth largest car company in America. After the Second World War ended, they were the first to offer freshly-styled cars to the American public, while their competitors could only re-hash prewar models.
Throughout the early Fifties Studebaker produced some beautiful and innovative cars, such as the Starlight and the Starliner models. 1950 was the company’s best year, but soon after started falling into the red. This led to an acquisition/merge with Packard in 1954. In another two years, however, Studebaker recorded a loss of 43 million dollars, partially due to poor marketing decisions. The new Lark model brought Studebaker hope in 1959, but was merely temporary.
As the Sixties began, the Big Three (Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Chrysler Corporation) started dominating American car sales and the smaller independent companies could not compete. In February of 1961, new Studebaker president Sherwood Egbert proposed designing and building a sports car to help boost the company’s image and attract younger buyers. He contacted industrial designer Raymond Loewy.
French-born Loewy was already established as a great designer by this time. To his credit were such diverse items as steam locomotives, jukeboxes, cigarette packs and refrigerators (he would go on to design the Zippo lighter, the Shell logo, the interior of the Nasa Skylab, and others). Loewy had worked with Studebaker previously; the Starlight and Starliner models were his designs. Egbert asked Loewy if he could create a new sporty car, and have a full-scale clay model ready within a six week period. A design team was assembled in quick order and the scale model car was completed on schedule.
The budget for the Avanti project allowed for a new body only; the frame and suspension were taken from the existing Lark convertible. To get the car produced quickly, fiberglass body panels were chosen over conventional sheet metal. There were two main reasons for this. First, there would not be enough time for the tooling process required for steel panels. Second, a fiberglass car would be lighter (Loewy has been quoted as saying, "Weight is the enemy"). After debate of whether or not to mold the fiberglass panels in their own factory, Studebaker contracted them out to Molded Fiberglass Products Company, the outfit that had been making the Corvette bodies for Chevrolet. This would prove to be a bad decision.
After great initial reception and an encouraging amount of pre-orders, the factory ran into serious production issues. The tolerances of the hundred-plus fiberglass body parts and panels were off, and the cars could not be assembled. There were reports of the rear window glass popping out at high speeds due to air pressure. Months rolled on and production backed up.
On a positive note, a specially-prepared Avanti established numerous speed records at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. The aerodynamic shape was well-suited for high-speed runs, and set a flying mile record of 168.15 mph.
Several engine options were available, top-rated was the 289 cubic-inch Paxton-supercharged engine, whose horsepower rating was also 289. Front disc-brakes were standard; a first for an American-made production car. There is a roll-bar built into the roof; T-tops were suggested but would not fit in the budget. The dash panel was padded for safety as well as aesthetics. As to the curious bulge on the left side of the hood, Loewy made this analogy: as a marksman looks down the sight of a rifle, the driver points and aims the car down the road.
Perhaps the most unique feature of the Avanti is its smooth nose; Loewy considered front grilles far too commonplace. To ensure proper cooling, he and his team came up with a special radiator which used a bottom air dam.
Studebaker’s financial situation got worse. They tried diversifying to stay afloat, and started to manufacture home appliances, aircraft missile parts, and farm tractors. The South Bend, Indiana factory closed its doors in December 1963. Originally intending to sell tens of thousands of these beautiful cars, the final total for its 18 months in production was 4,643. Several other Studebaker models continued to be built at their Ontario, Canada plant until March of 1966, when the company finally dissolved.
Two local Indiana Studebaker dealers, who knew there was still a great deal of interest in the car, bought the rights to the Avanti, as well as the tooling and space in the former factory. The car was re-named the Avanti Two, and released as a 1965 model. The cars were now hand-built, and the powerplant upgraded to the lighter, more powerful small-block Chevy engine. Power steering, air conditioning, electric windows, and an AM/FM radio were some of the options added. Production continued through the Sixties and Seventies, with nearly 200 cars being produced annually.
In 1982 the rights were sold again to another independent company. A convertible was introduced in the mid-Eighties, as well as a Twentieth-Anniversary edition. Starting in 1987, Avanti used a GM G-body (Monte-Carlo) chassis. Around this time, designer Tom Kellogg (a member of the original Raymond Loewy team) was asked to re-design the car. This car, often called the second-generation Avanti, was perched upon GM’s Camaro/Firebird chassis. Company ownership changed hands several other times. In 2005, rumors surfaced of a third-generation Avanti built with Ford Mustang running gear.
Before his death in 1986, Raymond Loewy called the Avanti “one of the most wonderful events of my career.” Throughout its years, the succession of small independent companies mark this car’s jagged history. No other model has survived so many builders, which seems to make the Avanti immortal.