The Avanti was Studebaker’s last roll of the dice, and with it the eccentric 100-year-old company excelled itself. Designer Raymond Loewy’s iconic vision would be built for an astonishing 40 years by a string of die-hard enthusiasts, but Studebaker’s 1963-64 originals are the purest examples. Even now, survivors of the 4,643 that left the factory in South Bend, Indiana, are still found in barns now and then and lovingly restored.
The Avanti concept was created by Loewy’s team of Tom Kellogg, Bob Andrews and John Ebstein in only 40 days in 1962. The wasp-waisted sports coupe featured a grille beneath the front bumper and featured a fiberglass body on a separate chassis.
The Avanti name is an Italian exhortation for “forward!” and cried out for an exclamation mark on the badge. Original cars have a pronounced forward rake to assist streamlining, and the car was marketed as “America’s only 4-passenger High-Performance Personal Car.”
Typical for a company in financial straits, Studebaker used as many common parts as possible. The Avanti’s 109-inch chassis came from the compact Lark, fitted with front disc brakes and powered by versions of the “Jet Thrust 289” cid overhead valve V-8 engine. The normally aspirated R1 engine produced 240 bhp, but adding a Paxton supercharger created the 289 bhp R2, with compression reduced to 9:1, from the R1’s 10.25:1. The R2 package was a bargain, adding only $210 to the Avanti’s $4,445 purchase price.
The even hotter R3 motor displaced 304.5 cubic inches and generated 280 bhp from dual four-barrel carburetors; and adding a supercharger raised that to 335 bhp. There was even an R4 motor that didn’t reach production, but it had fuel injection and hot cams, and was good for 575 bhp. Indy racer Andy Granatelli set Bonneville records in 1962 with a two-way run of 168.15 mph in an R3, while a near-stock R2 recorded 158 mph over the flying mile.
Just as Mercedes-Benz did in the 1920s, Studebaker made the mistake of pressurizing the carburetor in the supercharged cars, instead of mounting the blower behind it, but it worked quite well. Buyers could choose a four-speed T10 manual gearbox or three-speed Borg-Warner automatic transmission, but there was no room for both supercharger and air-conditioner. The dashboard was fully instrumented and additional switches were mounted above the windshield, like an aircraft.
The Avanti’s first year was the most successful, with 3,834 leaving the factory. Only 809 Avantis were sold in 1964, but the only real difference was the change to square headlights and the first 59 cars sold in 1964 had round headlights anyway. Of the 809 1964 Avantis, only 10 were supercharged R3s and only one was an R4 with the high-performance race motor. To close the chapter, Granatelli returned to Bonneville with an R3 in 1964 and recorded a two-way pass at 170.5 mph.
The Avanti was a bold move and an admirable design, but it was too late. The construction proved complicated and the body panels hard to fit. Management could not decide how to promote the car and many lingered at dealerships. It didn’t help that the Lark line splintered into 23 models, with supercharging offered on both Larks and Hawks. Perhaps the public was just confused. Studebaker’s sales skidded from 103,387 units in 1962 to just 67,918 in 1963.
The final whistle blew in South Bend on December 9th 1963, after a short 1964 production run. The American plant was closed after 101 years, although production continued in Hamilton, Ontario for a short time. Neither the Avanti nor the Hawk survived the transition, making them among the most elegant and collectible Studebakers.