Cars We Love: The 1963 – 1964 Studebaker Avanti

Cars We Love: The 1963 - 1964 Studebaker Avanti
Cars We Love: The 1963 – 1964 Studebaker Avanti

Renowned designer Raymond Loewy faced an impossible task. New Studebaker president Sherwood Egbert hired Loewy to design an all-new, eye-grabbing, high-performance sports car to entice customers into Studebaker showrooms and Egbert needed the completed design, along with a scale clay model, in six weeks. Loewy and his small team isolated themselves in a rented house away from all distractions and worked virtually non-stop. Six weeks later they presented Egbert with the design and the clay model. Egbert now had to get the design approved by his board of directors and the new Avanti into dealer’s showrooms in time to save Studebaker from financial disaster.

Studebaker National Museum Celebrates Avanti’s 60th Birthday

The Studebaker Avanti, one of America’s most imaginative and sensational vehicles, made its public debut on April 26, 1962. Automobile Quarterly called it “one of the more significant milestones of the postwar industry.” In celebration of its 60th birthday, the Avanti will be the subject of one of the Studebaker National Museum’s major exhibitions in 2022. “The Avanti: America’s Most Advanced Vehicle” exhibit will explore the story of Avanti’s improbable origin and its place in the 1963 automotive landscape. The exhibit will also take a look at contemporary reviews and road tests, as well as promotional materials and media.

Studebaker National Museum
Studebaker National Museum

Opening on April 4, 2022, the exhibit will run through September 5, 2022. If you can’t make it to South Bend, Indiana to see it in person, you may take a virtual tour on the Studebaker National Museum’s website.

Sherwood Egbert – The Impetus Behind the Avanti

The story of the Avanti begins at the dawn of the 1960s when Studebaker found itself in financial difficulties and was in dire need of fresh corporate leadership. Their search for a new president led them to Sherwood Egbert, a 41-year-old former Marine, then an executive vice-president of McCulloch Corporation. Egbert’s resume included the rescue of McCulloch from the jaws of financial calamity, exactly the experience Studebaker desperately needed. Egbert’s energetic and charismatic personality sealed the deal and he became president of Studebaker-Packard Corporation beginning on February 1, 1961.

Author Thomas Bonsall, in his book More Than They Promised – The Studebaker Story, said of  the problems confronting Egbert: “After assuming control of Studebaker, Egbert was faced with the unenviable task of revitalizing an automotive operation that almost everybody in the industry, including its own board of directors, had given up for dead.” Channeling all of his business acumen, Egbert concluded that virtually all of Studebaker’s money-making sedan lineup needed to be redesigned, which would take time Studebaker didn’t have. The company’s finances simply wouldn’t hold out until the makeover could be completed. Egbert’s solution was a so-called halo car for Studebaker – a drop-dead gorgeous high-performance car that could generate Studebaker showroom traffic, publicity, and sales while the sedans were redesigned.

Raymond Loewy (left) and Sherwood Egbert with new Avanti
Raymond Loewy (left) and Sherwood Egbert with new Avanti

Egbert had no formal automotive design training and knew he didn’t have the time to learn, so he called in someone who had created successful Studebaker designs in the past – famous industrial designer Raymond Loewy. Loewy agreed to design the new car, sculpt the scale clay model for Studebaker, and have the results for Egbert within six weeks. Once Loewy and his small design team came through, Egbert and the Studebaker team were responsible for making full-size clay models and securing approval from the board of directors to put the new car into production as fast as humanly possible.

The Studebaker design team completed the full-size clay model by April 27, 1961 and Egbert presented it to the board the same day. Much to Egbert’s relief, the board of directors approved the production of the new car and gave Egbert a standing ovation. The program had the ‘green light’ for production.

Studebaker Turns Loewy’s Design into Running Prototypes

Raymond Loewy’s contract with Studebaker was only for the body design and it was now up to the Studebaker team to put their heads together to turn the scale clay model into running prototypes. In view of the short available time and to keep the costs down, it was decided to make the body of fiberglass. Fiberglass body panels would not require the long lead time for making expensive tooling necessary to make steel body panels and would be lighter than metal, giving the car better performance. Studebaker contracted with experienced auto body builder Molded Fiberglass Products Company in Ohio to make and assemble the 130-plus individual panels that made up each body.

One of Loewy’s original clay scale models now in the Studebaker Museum
One of Loewy’s original clay scale models now in the Studebaker Museum

The chassis and drivetrains for the prototypes would have to come from other Studebaker cars as there was no budget to cover new designs. The frame from the Lark convertible was chosen, but had to be cut off just behind the rear leaf spring attachments to accommodate the shorter Avanti body. Front coil springs came from the Lark’s heavy-duty police package.

Studebaker’s venerable 289 cubic-inch V8 with a single four-barrel carburetor making 240 horsepower connected to a three-speed manual transmission made up the base model drivetrain. An optional R2 engine featured a belt-driven Paxton centrifugal supercharger added to the 289 cubic-inch V8 to boost the output to 289 horsepower. Later in the production run, an R3 engine option was added to the lineup. For the R3, the 289 V8 was enlarged to 304.5 cubic inches and combined with the Paxton supercharger. Records indicate that only nine R3 option cars were ever made. Dual exhausts were standard on all models. Optional transmissions included a four-speed manual and a three-speed automatic from Studebaker’s parts supply.

Avanti R2 supercharged engine
Avanti R2 supercharged engine

The new Studebaker’s interior was to be second-to-none. It included bucket seats, full instrumentation with a 140-mph speedometer on the base model and 160-mph speedometers on the R2 and R3 models, a roll-bar built into the roof structure, and a padded dash for passenger safety. Light switches mounted on an overhead panel provided an aircraft cockpit aura. Comfort and convenience options included air conditioning, power steering, power windows, heater, defroster, electric clock, tinted glass, and an AM radio.

The Avanti Makes a Spectacular Debut

Two running prototypes were built by the Studebaker team using hand-built fiberglass bodies. One prototype was introduced to the public at the New York International Auto Show on April 26, 1962 and the other prototype made its first public appearance at Studebaker’s annual shareholder’s meeting in South Bend, Indiana, both as 1963 models. The public reception at the auto show was spectacular and orders for the Avanti poured in. Priced at $4,445, about the same as a new Ford Thunderbird, the Avanti was the first American car with caliper-style disc brakes and an integral roll bar, living up to its promotion as “America’s most advanced automobile.”

Avanti interior
Avanti interior

To get the maximum exposure and publicity for the Avanti, Sherwood Egbert had two pre-production models flown via a Fairchild C-82 cargo airplane to twenty cities around the country presenting the new Avanti to Studebaker dealers and the press. The positive press and the customer orders continued throughout the spring of 1962, boosting Studebaker’s confidence in the Avanti.

Avanti Enjoys a Record-Breaking Trip to Bonneville     

Speed merchant Andy Granatelli, his crew, and two Avantis, one having an R3 engine, descended on the Bonneville Speedway in the Fall of 1962 and broke twenty-nine American land speed records in twelve hours. All twenty-nine records were the average speeds of a two-way run across the salt.

Record-breaking Avanti in the Studebaker Museum
Record-breaking Avanti in the Studebaker Museum

An Avanti powered by the prototype R3 engine set two major American class C records, one in the two-way flying mile at 168.15 mph and another in the standing-start mile at 92.03 mph. Studebaker cranked up its publicity machine and advertised the Avanti as the “World’s Fastest Production Car” making the Avanti the talk of the automotive world for several months. The successful Bonneville trip, coupled with the Avant’s spectacular auto show debut, generated a tremendous interest and buoyed Studebaker’s hopes that their new car could save the company. All the positive publicity blinded everyone to the fate that was lurking in the shadows.

Assembly Problems Delay Avanti Production

The warnings came from the Molded Fiberglass Products Company in the late spring of 1962. Avanti’s fiberglass body had about 130 separate fiberglass panels and Molded Fiberglass had discovered that the tolerances of some of the individual fiberglass parts and panels were not correct. As a result, the panels would not fit together and the bodies could not be properly assembled. There were reports of the rear window glass popping out at high speeds and numerous other issues. Studebaker sent horrified engineers to the Molded Fiberglass factory to see what could be done and set up its own assembly line to help correct the problems. A program of running changes tried to keep up with the engineering solutions and to assist the service people in the field.

R3-powered Avanti in the Studebaker Museum
R3-powered Avanti in the Studebaker Museum

As if the ill-fitting panels were not trouble enough, a strike at Molded Fiberglass caused even more delays resulting in an increasing number of cancelled orders. Avantis did not reach dealer’s showrooms until the fall of 1962.

Avanti Comes to the End of the Road

When the production problems became public knowledge, many customers cancelled their pre-orders and potential Avanti customers avoided Studebaker showrooms. Studebaker continued to struggle with Avanti production through 1962 and into 1963, but the problems were never completely overcome.  Studebaker did all it could do, but managed to build only 3,834 Avantis for the 1963 model year.

By the late fall of 1963, the Studebaker Board of Directors, facing continuing financial problems, voted to end automobile production in the United States. All Lark production would be shifted to their Canadian facilities. All Hawk models and Studebaker trucks ceased production on December 20, 1963 and the final Avanti was completed on December 31. It was traditional in the American car market at the time to introduce and sell a given model year vehicle during the Fall of the previous year. The 1964 Avantis were publicly introduced and on sale in the Fall of 1963, but only 809 ’64 Avantis were made before the Studebaker plant closed. The total number of  Avantis built in its eighteen-month production run was 4,643.

Epilogue

Although Studebaker’s production of the Avanti ceased in December of 1963, the Avanti name lived on. In July of 1964, the Avanti name, logo and tooling were sold to South Bend Studebaker dealers Nate Altman and Leo Newman. Leasing space in the old Studebaker factory, Altman and Newman managed to continue making the car, now called the Avanti II, using Chevrolet drivetrains. Following the deaths of Altman in 1976 and Newman in 1982, Avanti production followed a tortuous path lead by four different owners until 2007 when final “Avanti” was produced.

SOURCES

The Avanti https://www.theavanti.com/racing.html

Motor Trend    https://www.motortrend.com/features/1702-studebaker-granatelli-storm-bonneville-1963/

Classic Car History http://www.classic-car-history.com/studebaker-avanti.htm

Hemmings https://www.hemmings.com/auction/1963-studebaker-avanti-417349?utm_source=Twitter&utm_medium=PostLink&utm_campaign=AuctionLive

Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Studebaker_Avanti

Classic Motorsports https://classicmotorsports.com/articles/studebaker-avanti-worlds-fastest-production-car/

The Avanti Story https://aoai.org/the-avanti-story/

Via Retro  https://viaretro.com/2020/10/the-studebaker-avanti-andy-granatelli-and-stp-a-short-story-of-three-motoring-icons/

A Century of Automotive Style, John Lamm & Dave Holls, © Copyright 1996-2016, pages 214-216

More Than They Promised – The Studebaker Story, Thomas E. Bonsall, © Copyright 2000, pages 349-369

Bruce Troxell Bio

“There’s no shortage today of enthusiast automotive writers and bloggers. Bruce Troxell, however, is unique. He writes with an understanding of what truly makes cars and car people tick. Bruce is a storyteller, not just a writer. Once you start reading his lead, you can’t stop.”  Martyn Schorr – Editor, CarGuyChronicles.com

Bruce Troxell is a professional freelance writer who has been contributing articles on automotive and aviation topics to a variety of websites and print publications since 2009. Following careers as an engineer with a major automobile manufacturer and as a lawyer in private practice, Bruce discovered the joys of writing and has never looked back. He brings a unique perspective and an engaging conversational style to all his writings.

Bruce is a creative automotive storyteller always looking for the stories of the people behind the automobiles. His expertise in storytelling has been recognized by the Automotive Heritage Foundation in their annual journalism competition. In 2020, his story The Day Corvette Became a World Class Sports Car was awarded a Silver medal in the Best Heritage Motorsports Story category. In 2018, his blog Cars We Love came home with a Bronze Medal in the Best Blog or Column category.

An avid sports car fan since he saw his first professional race at Watkins Glen, New York, Bruce’s car interests have blossomed to include vintage cars, hot rods, and custom cars. He has participated in numerous vintage car rallies and is a concours veteran.

Born and raised in New Jersey, he and his wife Cindy now live in bucolic central Virginia with Max, a prescient stray cat who wandered into their lives several years ago and decided to stay.