1963-64 Studebaker Avanti

The rakish 1963-64 Studebaker Avanti was among the most daring 1960s American cars, a modern masterpiece with totally unique American styling that even top exotic Italian auto stylists wouldn't attempt to do.

The Avanti had advanced safety features, when no U.S. automaker particularly gave a darn about safety. Such features included a built-in roll bar, padded interior and door latches that became structural body members when closed.

Performance? An Avanti with a supercharged V-8 was one of the fastest 1960s autos. A supercharged model hit 168 mph, while a modified version reached 196 mph--a staggering speed for a 1960s production street car. Some 29 Bonneville speed records were smashed by a supercharged Avanti.

Safety? The Avanti (Italian for "forward") was the first mass-produced fiberglass-body four-passenger American car. It also was the first such car to use caliper-style disc brakes.

Sexy? James Bond author Ian Fleming ordered a black Avanti and shipped it to foreign countries he visited outside his native England. Ricky Nelson, the second most popular (behind Elvis) rock and roll singer of the late 1950s and early 1960s, also owned an Avanti (which I drove one evening in the 1980s because it was for sale at a Ft. Lauderdale exotic car dealer). In short, the Avanti was a modern masterpiece. Too bad it didn't last long enough to help the veteran Studebaker Corp. from failing in the United States in late 1963.

Studebaker was more than 100 years old when the Avanti debuted. It began making horse-drawn wagons in 1862 and produced its first cars--electric models--in 1902. But "Stude" was in deep trouble by the mid-1950s. It lacked the economy of scale of larger U.S. automakers and thus its cars, although good, weren't cost-competitive against giants such as General Motors.

However, Studebaker survived the 1950s by producing compact economy Lark models, which sold well in the depressed economy late in that decade, along with some sporty Hawk models, such as the now-classic 1956-58 Golden Hawk.

But then the prosperous 1960s arrived, and Studebaker again had to offer winners from its South Bend, Indiana, headquarters and plants because Lark volume fell by more than half for 1961.

Hard-charging young Sherwood Egbert arrived as Studebaker's new president in 1961 and quickly had Lark and Hawk styling updated on a crash basis by noted Milwaukee-based designer Brooks Stevens.

Stevens did the best he could while dealing with Studebaker's dated cars and engines, and Egbert felt Studebaker needed a dramatic new car. It had to really grab the public's attention to help generate much-needed sales and to rejuvenate the automaker's rather staid image.

Egbert's star car was the Avanti. With Stevens updating higher-volume models, Egbert recruited flamboyant Raymond Loewy, a world-famous industrial designer who had considerable auto design experience. Loewy had come up with the startling, slick 1953 Studebaker coupe--arguably the best-styled American car of the 1950s.

Given a rough idea of what Egbert wanted the new car to look like, Loewy had the Avanti's styling done under his supervision by his hand-picked team of young Tom Kellogg and seasoned Bob Andrews and John Ebstein.

To avoid distractions and interference from Studebaker executives, Loewy sequestered his highly talented team in a rented desert ranch house near Palm Springs, Calif.. The team knew the car was urgent business, so they worked 16 hours daily for weeks.

Loewy gave his men instructions that established the Avanti's design theme, such as "Coke-shape a must" and "wedgy silhouette." In fact, GM's most famous styling chiefs worked the same way, initially giving general directions and then specific instructions.

However, Loewy personally designed the Avanti's wheel openings, which had a shape similar to the flight trajectory of the sensational Russian Sputnik space satellite. He knew Egberrt loved flying, so the Avanti got an aircraft-style cockpit.

The Loewy group gathered in Palm Springs on March 19, 1961. It rapidly developed a clay scale model of the Avanti, which Loewy rushed to Studebakr's headquarters. Egbert wasn't a "car guy," but knew a winner when he saw one. He was delighted with the car, and Studebaker's board approved its construction just five weeks after Loewy's team began work on it. No major American automaker had ever done a car so quickly.

The Avanti had a coke-bottle "waist" and thin-section roof with an extra-large rear window and the built-in roll bar. Razor-edged front fenders swept back into the curved rear end and into a jacked-up tail.

The front had no conventional grille--just an air scoop below a thin bumper. The hood had an asymmetrical hump, and the interior featured aircraft-style instrumentation and controls, some placed above the windshield. Occupants sat in four slim-section bucket seats similar to those in an Alfa Romeo sports car.

No time or resources existed for wind-tunnel testing, but the Avanti nevertheless was highly aerodynamic--one reason it could hit nearly 200 mph. Loewy and his team had just guessed at the car's slippery shape.

There also was no time or money for steel body dies, so the Avanti body was made of fiberglass. The car was enormously strong, with a shortened, beefy Lark convertible frame and sport suspension with front/rear anti-sway bars and rear radius rods for superior handling.

Powering the Avanti was a modified version of Studebaker's dated but sturdy 289-cubic-inch V-8. This "Jet Thrust" engine developed 240 horsepower in standard "R1" form, with such items as a 3/4-race high-lift camshaft, dual-breaker distributor, four-barrel carburetor and dual exhausts. It developed 290 horsepower in supercharged "R2" form.

There also were a few supercharged "R3" V-8s with 335 horsepower and an experimental non-supercharged "R4" 280-horsepower V-8 with dual four-barrel carburetors. Then there was an amazing twin-supercharged, fuel-injected "R5" V-8 with magneto ignition. It produced an astounding 575 horsepower.

To Studebaker's delight, the public was crazy about the Avanti, which drew many to Studebaker showrooms. It was upscale and nicely equipped. The 1963 and 1964 models each had a $4,445 base price, when a less practical Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray two-seat coupe cost $4,252.

But quality problems arose because Egbert rushed the car into production, knowing time was running out for Studebaker. It didn't help that production was delayed for months because Molded Fiberglass Co., which also built Corvette fiberglass body parts, botched Avanti bodies--forcing Studebaker to set up its own fiberglass production.

Many Avanti buyers canceled advance orders and bought a Corvette or other sporty cars.

Making matters worse, the word was out that Studebaker was on the ropes and might go out of business. In fact, it closed its South Bend operation in December, 1963, when the last 1964 Avanti barely left its plant.

Suffering from ill health, Egbert had left that November. Studebaker built Larks and a few other models in Canada until 1966. The Avanti 240- and 290-horsepower V-8s actually were available for some 1964 models. But Studebaker engines were gone by 1965, so two Chevy engines were offered for 1965 and 1966, when Studebaker production ceased after totaling 8,947 cars that year.

Only 3,834 Avantis were built in 1963 and just 809 were classified as 1964 models. The general rule is that the 1964 Avanti had round headlight surrounds and the 1964 model had square ones.

A fair number of Studebaker Avantis have survived because of their no-rust fiberglass body and solid construction. A 1963-64 R1 is valued at $10,800 in good condition and at $20,500 if in excellent shape, according to the Cars of Particular Interest guide. It says a supercharged 1963-64 R2 is worth $12,000 in good shape and $22,800 in excellent condition.

However, the Sports Car Market value guide puts figures for an R1 at $16,000 to $28,000 and at $20,000 to $32,000 for an R2.

The Avanti was too good to die quickly. It lasted for decades after 1963 with Chevy V-8s after being initially rescued by two successful South Bend Studebaker dealers, Nate Altman and Leo Newman.

Altman and Newman bought all rights to the car, formed Avanti Motor Corp., and continued to have it hand-built for years in an old Studebaker plant as the "Avanti II," powered by a Corvette V-8. The revived car's chief engineer was Gene Hardig, the original Avanti head engineer.

"The Avanti was too sensational for us to just let it go," Altman told me during an interview at the Avanti II factory. He was wildly enthusiastic about the Avanti and worked tirelessly for more than a decade to make it successful.

The Avanti II was nearly the same as the Studebaker version, although Altman removed the car's slight front rake, substituted the modern Corvette V-8, gave it much higher quality and let buyers choose various high-grade interior materials such as carpets.

Other individuals continued to build the car for years when Altman passed away in the mid-1970s and the Altman family sold the operation.

The Avanti still turns heads. No car has ever looked like it, and none probably ever will.