19 August 2013

Class of '63

When they hit the show floor, showroom and street, the Corvette Sting Ray, Studebaker Avanti and Buick Riviera turned heads and dropped jaws


There’s no question that 1963 was a transitional year. The world left 1950s sensibilities behind, the U.S. space program switched into high gear and three of the most stunning American cars ever made were revealed to the world.

The 1963 Corvette Split-Window coupe, the 1963 Buick Riviera and the 1963 Studebaker Avanti made everything around them look decades older, and they represented all of the confidence and headiness of America in its prime. In fact, no other year in U.S. or world automotive history produced three cars as notable.

Was it divine intervention? An alignment of the planets? Or did GM’s Bill Mitchell — who led the design of the Corvette and Riviera — and iconic industrial designer Raymond Loewy — who spearheaded the Avanti design — just happen to time their greatest work simultaneously? We may never know.

What we do know is that the three cars sent a signal to the world that American car design could compete anywhere and wasn’t just limited to the outrageous finned caricatures of the 1950s.

The Riviera was an all-new personal car for Buick. But it wasn’t originally meant to be a Buick. Bill Mitchell had envisioned a reborn LaSalle as a means of creating a smaller, sportier Cadillac. According to the late Chuck Jordan, Mitchell’s later successor as design staff chief, “Mitchell went to London, saw a Rolls-Royce in front of the Savoy Hotel and said, ‘You know what we’ve got to do? Make it a Ferrari-Rolls-Royce.’” “The Brits called it knife-edge or razor-edge,” says automotive historian Terry Boyce. “It was very much a theme of British design plus the egg-crate grille inspired by a Ferrari. Mitchell asked Ned Nickles, the man who designed the original ’49 Buick Riviera and ’53 Skylark, to come up with this knife-edge look. When Mitchell saw it, he knew it was the game-changing car he was looking for.”

Problem was, Cadillac didn’t want the car. But Buick General Manager Ed Rollert wasted no time in claiming the vehicle for his division. Rollert was keen to go after the personal car market that had been established by the four-passenger Ford Thunderbirds beginning in 1958.

The design drew international praise from Europeans who normally criticized the excesses of American cars. Jaguar’s Sir William Lyons and Italian studio master Sergio Pininfarina declared it one of the most beautiful American cars ever built. At its debut at the Paris Auto Show, even Raymond Loewy said the Riviera was the handsomest American production car — apart from his own Studebaker Avanti, of course.

The Riviera’s performance drew praise, too, even from the irascible Tom MacCahill of Mechanix Illustrated. “It’s as different from former models as a chorus girl is from a duck-billed platypus,” wrote Mac-Cahill in the October 1962 issue. “Under its lithe looks are a power plant and chassis that get it over the ground and around bends more like a Grand Prix [car] than a typical Michigan balloon. This is a great car for the sports-minded — in fact, a great car in any league.”

The Riviera was offered only as a hardtop coupe, with a standard 401-cubic-inch V-8 rated at 325 hp, while a 425 with 340 hp was optional. Buick built only 40,000 Rivieras in 1963 in order to maintain an aura of limited production.

The Avanti was one last gasp for Studebaker before it finally expired in March 1966. But what a statement it was. Under the direction of Paris native Loewy, the South Bend, Indiana-based company had a long legacy of superb designs, ranging from the postwar Champions and Commanders to the Golden Hawks. But the Avanti was literally the coupe de grâce.

The Avanti, Italian for “forward,” was inspired by then Studebaker CEO Sherwood Egbert, who wasn’t a car guy but felt compelled to do something that might save the company. “He was looking for a halo car, a home run, something that would indicate what they were still capable of,” says Studebaker historian John Hull.

Egbert supposedly drew a thumbnail sketch of the car while on a business trip and handed it over to Loewy’s design team to execute. The team included Tom Kellogg, John Ebstein and Bob Andrews. They had 40 days to arrive at a final proposal.

The public caught its first glimpse of the car at the New York Auto Show in April 1962. “It was new, daring, different, a shock,” says Hull.

The novelty never wore off. Hull related a story how GM’s Chuck Jordan was the guest speaker at an International Avanti meet in Dearborn, Michigan, in the early 1980s. “Chuck had driven to the meet in a new-generation Camaro and Bob Andrews, one of Loewy’s designers on the Avanti, pulled up next to him in an Avanti. Jordan remarked at the time that the Avanti looked fresh enough to still be in production.”

While the Avanti was a stunning design, the Lark underpinnings were less than stellar. It was a very front-heavy car with a 65/35 weight distribution. But Car and Driver was able to achieve some fairly satisfying handling characteristics by inflating the rear tires to 36 psi versus 32 for the fronts.

The standard engine was a modified 289-cid Hawk V-8, but an optional Paxton supercharger was also available. The car was fitted with front disc brakes, which were British Dunlop units, made under license by Bendix. The cockpit was designed to appeal to pilots and featured some overhead switchgear. The production fiberglass body was made by Molded Fiberglass Companies, the same company that produced the original Corvette bodies.

But quality concerns stalled production, and Studebaker could neither build nor sell enough Avantis to save the foundering company. The Avanti model name, tooling, and plant space were sold off to Leo Newman and Nate Altman, who owned a Studebaker dealership in South Bend. They revived the car in 1965 as the Avanti II. Meanwhile, Studebaker disappeared for good in March 1966.

The Avanti lived on, however, produced on various chassis under various owners through 2007, a real tribute to the power of the Loewy-led design.

The 1963 Corvette Split-Window coupe looked so fast, it stopped traffic. Surely, this has to be the most impactful design in Chevrolet’s 101-year history. It was inspired by a series of Italian speed-record cars that Bill Mitchell had spotted at the Turin Auto Show in 1957. “These cars all had sharp beltlines and fender blips over the wheels,” says Peter Brock, who was a 19-year-old designer in the Chevrolet studio at the time. "Mitchell came back to Detroit with this pocket of photographs and handed them out to us.”

Mitchell gave his designers — Bob Veryzer, Chuck Pohlmann and Brock — several weeks to see what they could come up with. Each man drew a sketch, but one clearly stood out. It was Brock’s.

The basic shape was introduced to the public in the form of the Sting Ray Racer, which was built on Zora Arkus-Duntov’s Corvette SS mule chassis. The direction for the next production Corvette was set.

But for the production car, Mitchell also had something else in mind. It was a single wind-split that ran from nose to tail, culminating in a tapered fastback with a split rear window. Arkus-Duntov hated the split window because it obstructed the driver’s view. So he went to his boss, Ed Cole, and fought hard to have it removed. Duntov lost and the split window stayed — for one year.

The Corvette was available in coupe or convertible models and came with a 327 small-block V-8, with four available carburetor setups. Fuel injection was also an option.

When the Sting Ray debuted in fall 1962, it was a national sensation, as well as the darling of Hollywood, with people like Peter Fonda and the cast of Peyton Place being earlier adopters. And rock and rollers Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys quickly wove the new Chevy into the American folklore with the songs “Dead Man’s Curve” and “Shut Down.” Chevrolet sold 21,513 coupes and convertibles combined, and for the first time the Corvette actually made a profit.

Fifty years on, car design has stagnated and the space program has lost its romance, but the allure of the Riviera, Avanti and Split-Window Corvette is as strong as it was the first time we saw them.

3 Reader Comments

  • 1
    wallace linton washingtond.c. November 5, 2014 at 13:40
    the cars of the 50s 60s were cars its a shame that they do not make them like that any more iam saveing to one day to have a sweet 50s or 60s ride
  • 2
    Lewis Thomas Idabel, ok November 21, 2014 at 11:00
    I agree with Mr. Linton, the cars today have personality like the cars back then. They all look the same. You can see 10 different cars coming down he highway and can't tell the difference. I really miss those days.
  • 3
    Jim Preuss Kirkwood, MO September 15, 2016 at 16:36
    I graduated from high school in 1963 and it was an exciting time for car nuts like me. I managed to convince my parents to loan me money to buy a 1955 Jaguar XK140MC DHC since I lusted for the E-Type but couldn't afford one!

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