17 January 2013

Studebaker Avanti Turns 50

The Studebaker Avanti dropped jaws when it debuted at the New York Auto Show in April 1962, and devotion to the striking design was largely responsible for the car outlasting the brand.

Avanti, Italian for “forward,” sounded sexy and conveyed the direction that Studebaker’s new, young and optimistic president, Sherwood Egbert, hoped a sporty car could take the failing carmaker. Betting on the elusive success of a halo model, Egbert sketched his ideas while on an airliner. Thus began the first chapter of a back story that by itself was enough to secure the Avanti’s place in automotive history.

To turn his ideas into a buildable car, Egbert summoned industrial-design icon Raymond Loewy, who had worked with Studebaker for many years. Thanks to Loewy’s self-promotion, the public knew about his influence on cars, streamlined buses and locomotives, vending machines, corporate logos and household appliances.

Loewy set up the team of John Ebstein, Bob Andrews and Tom Kellogg in a Palm Springs house, where, following his design theme, they went from sketches to a 1/8-scale clay model in five months. Less than a year later, an exciting new American GT coupe arrived to public and critical acclaim.

The Avanti was a stunner, a design without antecedent at a time when some cars still carried vestiges of late-1950s styling. The Avanti’s lack of a conventional grille reflected the aerodynamic jet-age ideas Loewy favored. Its pinched-waist body invited comparisons to the Coca-Cola bottle, which, contrary to some accounts, Loewy had not designed.

Studebaker built the Avanti on the tweaked chassis of its Lark compact. The coupe’s trim size, with a 109-inch wheelbase, 192.5-inch length and 54-inch height, bucked Detroit’s norms for “personal luxury.” Rendering the body in fiberglass reduced tool-up time and kept vehicle weight to about 3,200 pounds.

Advertised as “America’s most advanced car,” the Avanti introduced new safety features, including structural door latches, the first standard front disc brakes on an American car and a built-in rollbar. The fuel tank was placed between the trunk and back seat, an idea that Mercedes-Benz, which Studebaker distributed in the U.S. at that time, would adopt many years later.

The Avanti interior combined European GT themes, such as front bucket seats and full gauge instrumentation, with aircraft-like switches. Rear passengers sat a bit higher than those in front.

For the Avanti, Studebaker revved up performance of its 289 cubic-inch V-8. The standard R1 version with four-barrel carburetor and dual exhausts offered 240-horsepower. The Paxton-supercharged R2 version upped that to 290.

Motor Trend magazine recorded zero-to-60 in 8 seconds and a 15.8-second quarter-mile at 91 mph in an R2 model with a 4-speed manual transmission. Studebaker stoked the Avanti performance story, dispatching racing impresario Andy Granatelli to the Bonneville Salt Flats to set 29 production-car speed records with a “stock” Avanti.

Production delays and Studebaker’s sinking fortunes dampened excitement for the Avanti and dashed plans to sell 20,000 per year. The $4,445 base price, which could easily balloon to $5,000 with options, didn’t help. Just 4,643 were made before the company shuttered U.S. operations in December 1963. Production of Studebaker sedans and station wagons continued in Ontario, Canada, until March 1966.

Meanwhile, as if Hollywood were writing the script, Studebaker dealers Leo Newman and Nathan Altman rescued the Avanti, putting it back into limited production in Studebaker’s South Bend, Ind., plant in 1965. Called the Avanti II, the car used the 300-hp Corvette small-block V-8. With its $6,000 price tag came a promise of hand-built quality and a wide array of interior customization options. Various company owners would keep building the Avanti in small numbers and additional body styles until 1991.

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