Curbside Classic: 1963 Studebaker Avanti – Flawed Brilliance

Avanti CC s2 cropcurbside Avanti images posted at the CC Cohort by Foden Alpha

(first posted 8/30/2013)    Every car has a story, but some are a hell of a lot more compelling than others. The Avanti’s may well take the cake; it’s the absolute antithesis of how cars are (and were) typically conceived, designed and built in Detroit. And it shows: it’s both utterly brilliant and flawed. What else to expect when you lock four designers in a house out in the desert for a few weeks, stop the clocks, cut the phone lines, and work them sixteen hours per day to create a car to be the Hail Mary pass for a dying Studebaker? That’s not quite the recipe of measured design trial and error that resulted in the timeless perfection of some of the other memorable new cars from 1963, like the Buick Riviera, Corvette Sting Ray and Porsche 911. No; perfect the Avanti wasn’t; but highly memorable it is, perhaps because of just that.

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Studebaker’s automotive business was in deep doo-doo when the energetic Sherwood Egbert (on left, with Raymond Loewy) took the driver’s seat in early 1961. After a brief flowering of profits from the perfectly-timed compact 1959 Lark, most of the money had been spent on non-automotive diversification acquisitions by a board that saw the inevitable writing on the car-factory wall. But Egbert was determined to shake things up and turn Studebaker’s car business around. Now that’s the makings of a spectacular Studebaker Death Watch series.

We’ve covered some of those chapters, like the 1962 Gran Turismo Hawk, and the 1963 Wagonaire; as well as what might have been, the ambitious Sceptre. Egbert was desperately trying to find a viable niche for Studebaker in a rapidly changing market, as the compact segment was suddenly very crowded. While trying to synthesize a sustainable formula for the longer haul, Egbert reverted to a common tactic: the quickie halo car, something to generate some buzz and floor-traffic for the tired Studebaker line, while figuring out how to fund a line of new cars.  A stylish sports car; that was the solution! Especially since that had worked so well for Kaiser.

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It was all rather familiar territory for Studebaker. Back in 1953, the brilliant Starliner coupe (1954 with non-stock fender skirts shown; CC here), commonly called the “Loewy coupe” for Raymond Loewy whose design firm had a lengthy contract with Studebaker for decades, generated a lot of excitement too (and subsequent disappointment). The Loewy contract had ended some years before Egbert arrived, but wanting to re-ignite the old magic, Egbert picked up the phone one day in January of 1961, and told Loewy to design him a “sports car”. “And it must be a knock-out”. And here’s the real kicker: the finished clay model was to be delivered in six weeks!

Avanti 001 925 image: Studebaker 1946-1966 Richard Langworth

Of course, Loewy told him he could do it, as long as he was left utterly alone, without any interference from South Bend. It was so agreed, and Loewy took three of his best men, Tom Kellogg, Bob Andrews and John Epstein, and sequestered themselves in a rented Palm Springs desert bungalow with no clocks. telephone or conjugal visits. They came with no idea what their mission was. Loewy arrived with a bunch of drawings, gave them the brief, and then the work started.

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Loewy’s initial drawings envisioned a more glassy green house, but that eventually gave way to the more enclosed upper body design. But there were four aspects that Loewy insisted on being preserved and developed: a wedgy stance, a Coke-bottle shape, an asymmetrical hump on the hood that terminated in a wrap-around instrument panel, and a grill-less front end. All were highly unconventional for the times, but the Avanti’s front end was the most revolutionary, at least for American cars, as the Citroen DS had one since 1955. It certainly was prescient, foreshadowing the bikini-wax front ends that came to dominate automotive design some twenty years later, right down to the faired-in headlights.

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Oddly, the clean original round lights were changed to rectangular surrounds for the 1964 MY, although some ’64s still had the round lights. Not an improvement to my eyes, and Avantiphiles will argue on this issue forever.

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The final result is utterly unique, totally distinctive, and something of an acquired taste. Clearly, the Avanti would never have come out of Bill Mitchell’s GM studios. From some angles, like this one, it looks a bit amateurish, and as if its plastic body had started melting a bit. Look how the bottoms of the door heads upwards toward its jacked-up rear end. You sure wouldn’t see that on a Detroit-mobile.

Avanti CC rq2 still attracting stares 50 years on

That’s undoubtedly the result of the Avanti’s conception in a hermetically-sealed environment, with no objective outside perspective or the ability of the designers to step away for a while. It’s very much a true Loewy design, not unlike all of the cars he designed for his personal use.

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There are so many Avanti details that may seem odd, like the unusual wheel openings. They were inspired by the “reentry curves” of space capsules returning to earth, from Loewy’s work with NASA. The rather upright rake of the windshield was a compromise, after Egbert conked his head getting into the seating buck. There were others too, partly out of necessity of making the Avanti body fit the 109″ wb Lark convertible frame, itself an evolution of Studebaker frames going back to at least 1953. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it was a rather high, old-school affair, and achieving a low roof line meant practically sitting on the floor, as had been the practice on Stude coupes since 1953.

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From other angles, the Avanti works, quite superbly even, as long as one keeps in mind the limitations of its gestation and budget. Its Coke-bottle shape and clean flanks were certainly prescient, a theme that would soon be exploited by GM in 1965.

In its overall conception and target market, the Avanti is perhaps most analogous to some of the small coach-built British luxury coupes, like the Bristol and the Jensen. No doubt, the 1966 Jensen Interceptor’s giant wrap-around rear window, as well as much of its overall design, owes much to the Avanti.

Avanti II_convertible

Of course, the Avanti went on to have quite a long life like the Bristol, in its second and protracted incarnation as the Avanti II. But let’s not go down that road today, as it gets bumpier the further one goes. The Avanti’s original design, for better or for worse, did not lend itself well to “modernizing”; it should have just been left alone.

Avanti 63 int.

Egbert was open to either a two-passenger or four-passenger sports coupe, but Loewy insisted on the latter. Given the Thunderbird’s evolution and success, limited Corvette sales, and the growing interest in four-seat personal luxury coupes, it was obviously the wiser choice. But the Avanti’s seats, dash, console and other design aspects make it clear that it was targeted to a more active driver than the Thunderbird, starting with its integral roll bar, quite visible here.

Avanti 1963 4Speed-008image: vaultcars.com

The Avanti’s instrument panel was the antithesis of typical Detroit affairs, with their over-sized malformed speedometers spread across three feet of real estate, and a few “idiot lights”. The hood bulge terminated in a superb wrap-around panel, bedecked with a full complement of no-nonsense SW gauges. Rear differential oil temperature ok? It’s easy to see why Avanti owners are so enthusiastic about their them, when their cars communicate so effectively with them.

It wasn’t just the dash, of course, that endeared the Avanti to its drivers. The Avanti was the first American production car to have caliper disc brakes as standard (Dunlop-licensed design built by Bendix). And in order to give the disc brakes a workout, the Avanti offered different stages of tune on its venerable 289 CID V8. The base Jet-Thrust R1 already had a high-lift cam, heavy-duty internal components, four-barrel carb and dual exhausts, to yield an estimated 240 hp. The mufflers on the Avanti were notoriously loud, specifically so specified by Egbert; as if folks weren’t going to notice every Avanti on the streets anyway.

Avanti 289 R3image: studebakerdriver’sclub.com

Adding a Paxton belt-driven supercharger upped the ante to some 285-290 hp, in the R2. And nine production Avantis got the legendary R3, which was bored out to 304.5 cubic inches, and had transistorized ignition and higher boost, all resulting in at least 335 wooly horsepower. The R4 and R5 were strictly experimental units, with up to 575 hp.

avanti at-bonneville_1962image: stevemckelvie

Andy Granatelli took the Avanti to Bonneville and easily set a slew of international speed records. Mickey Thompson was after the same ones with a hot 421 tri-power Pontiac that probably had some 100 hp on the Avanti. But what gave the Avanti the advantage was its drastically more aerodynamic body, estimated to have a Cd of “in the high 0.30s”, as well as a much smaller frontal area.

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The records were bagged, and it gave the Avanti bragging rights as the “World’s Fastest Production Car”. Unfortunately, that certainly wouldn’t apply to the Avanti’s production process or its sales take rate.

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The Avanti’s body was not originally conceived to be made of fiberglass, but the realities of tooling up for a steel one was out of the question. Most of all, time was of the essence; Egbert was an impatient man, and he knew he had limited time on his hands to perform a miracle. The molds for a GRP body were much quicker and cheaper to make than all the tooling for a steel body.

Egbert’s wanted the bodies to be made in the South Bend plant, but was wisely talked out of that, and its production was subbed out to Molded Fiberglass Products. But the initial molds were not properly sized for expansion and contraction, and the first 100 bodies were almost unusable, requiring massive amounts of hand cutting, patching and fitting. The result was an echo of 1953, when serious production snags held up the new Starliner coupes.

Some have speculated that Molded Fiberglass Products, which also built the Corvette’s bodies, sabotaged the Avanti with the ill-fitting shells, on the behest of GM. Makes for a good conspiracy theory, but in reality, Studebaker’s budget and time constraints were the real source of the problems. Haste makes waste…

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As alluded to earlier, the Avanti was as slow to leave the factory door as it was fast on the sands. A mere 3,834 of 1963 Avantis were sold, followed by 809 of the slightly-revised 1964s. And although some claim (still today) that the initial production snafus were the reason for the poor sales, the evidence clearly suggessts otherwise. Production issues were sorted out soon enough, after the first 100 bodies, and from then on the problem was unsold Avantis littering up the factory floor. Why?

Avanti CC rr

It just didn’t catch on; neither with the Studebaker sales force and dealers nor with the public. The Avanti was just too different and unusual, and was referred to as “the anteater from South Bend”, among other names. Americans want to buy into the next hot thing, car or otherwise, and the Avanti was just not it. It was a dud; one that buyers weren’t going to part their money with, especially when Buick had its new Riviera in the showrooms. And Chevrolet its new Sting Ray. And if that wouldn’t have done the deed, the Mustang was just around the corner.

Loewy Jag 1956

Raymond Loewy was born in Paris to Austrian and French parents, and his intrinsic taste was decidedly more continental than American. Although his design firm was responsible for a number of successful American industrial designs of all kinds–mostly not cars–the Avanti was the purest expression of  a Loewy-mobile ever put into production. His personal cars were hardly mainstream, and typically quite exotic, like this 1956 Jaguar-based coupe. Now before you pile in on it, keep in mind that there’s a big difference between designing something for your personal use and for a client. Still…

Loewy BMW 507

His 1957 custom-bodied BMW 507 coupe is one of the tamer ones, and already hints at a number of Avanti design elements to come.

Loewy Lancia Flamina 1960

The last car he designed and built for himself (in 1960) before the Avanti was this Lancia Flamina based coupe, called the Loraymo. Its anteater front end doesn’t hint at the Avanti in the least.

Loewy Lancia Flamina Loraymo 1960

But the rear half certainly does. Loewy’s renderings that he took to Palm Springs were essentially an evolution of the Loraymo, except with a very different front end; blunt, with four headlights.

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Sherwood Egbert essentially commissioned Loewy to design a car he might well have built for himself, and that was taking a substantial risk. In previous Studebaker design commissions, Loewy drew from a wider range of creative input, and the design process went through various stages of development with management feedback at each key step. There’s little doubt these affluent Americans enjoying their drinks in this Palm Springs house would have been better served with something a bit more familiar: a Manhattan or Martini instead of a Loewy on the rocks.

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But like many fine French wines, the Loewy Avanti has aged remarkably well. Fifty years after it first arrived, the Avanti is still a breath of…well…different air, if not exactly so fresh anymore. It’s as distinctive and unmistakable a car as it gets, which is a tribute to Raymond Loewy and his three co-prisoners. But it’s hardly what the buying public wanted, especially from a company that was on the rocks already.