Curbside Classic: 1964 Studebaker Avanti – Fall Forward Onto The Sword, Rise Like The Phoenix

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The Studebaker is the most Christ-like of all personal coupes. I’m not too sure that the end of production at South Bend fell on a Friday, or whether the revival of limited production models came on a Sunday. In a number of ways it was perfect, in other ways it was perfectly flawed. As we approach the 50th year anniversary of its resurrection, let’s look at what crosses it had to bear for the sins of Studebaker before arising to a bespoke role.

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Although Studebaker is not often credited as such, they delivered the personal coupe gospel to American buyers quicker than other manufacturers. Of course, 60+ years hindsight allows us to see that it was a botched attempt. Studebaker didn’t anticipate the high demand for their 1953  glamour coupes. Quality bug-a-boos and delays hindered sales, never mind the ancient Flathead Six or a milquetoast V8 underhood providing marginal to adequate performance for the times. If Studebaker had placed more faith and planning in the initial batch of coupes, they would have gotten a five year jump on Ford’s Squarebird. The original Starlight Coupe is still a milestone design, the St. John that prophesied the Avanti.

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It wasn’t for lack of trying to beat Ford to the punch; Studebaker’s first genuine premium coupe, the gaudy President Speedster arrived to mixed reviews in 1955. That specialty model developed into the rags-to-riches full line of Hawks in 1956, as basic Studebakers ditched any sporting pretenses and became literal squares. As the 50’s slid into a consistent cycle of planned obsolescence, the purity of the basic design lost some of the balancing elements in attempts to keep up with the times. The attempts proved to be futile as the plethora of plumage to be found on Hawks at Studebaker dealerships did marginal business in 1956, and it only went downhill from there through 1961.

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The tough old bird was given a make-over in 1962, in the form of the Gran Turismo Hawk, but one could still feel the creaky bones underneath the svelte new suit. In the brave new world of the early 1960’s, the majority of attention went to a bevy of Bucket Seat Bombs and the torpedo shaped Bullet Bird. Studebaker may have had a case of pneumonia by this point, but they weren’t in the mood to roll over and sweat out the fever.

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Take the magic brew of overenthusiastic new President Sherwood Egbert, throw in a challenge he gave to Raymond Loewy, give Loewy and his design team 40 days and 40 nights to come up with a clay model after showing them some rough sketches by Loewy of a Studebaker sports car. This is the result. To keep the insanity going, Egbert decided why the hell not? and presented the car to Studebaker’s board of directors for production. In the continuing fits of not necessarily rational decisions, the Board of Directors gave approval for production in April of 1961. Given that most crash programs for new models took some  2½ to 3 years, one can see how the Avanti’s genesis is on the level of immaculate conception, and close to the term of an actual human pregnancy.

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From approval in the Spring of 1961, it took under a year’s time for the Avanti to transition from being an in-house pipe dream to something customers could—theoretically—buy. Sadly, some ghosts from Studebaker’s last attempt to make a huge splash in the marketplace with a stylish new coupe reared their ugly heads. The rush to get the car into production meant  outsourced fiberglass bodies that didn’t fit together. Eventually Studebaker did the job themselves, but spent plenty of time doing their best with body production they weren’t exactly familiar with.

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By the time the Avanti was truly ready for sale, it found itself in a interestingly crowded field of competitors for 1963. In addition to competing somewhat with the Thunderbird in price, two surprising rivals for attention leapfrogged from General Motors in the fall of 1962. The razor sharp Buick Riviera and the stunning Corvette Sting Ray were both within shooting distance price-wise of the potential savior from South Bend. It can also be argued that both held a higher quotient of prestige, if not all out snob appeal, compared to the sinewy new Studebaker.

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It does beg the question of just where the Avanti did fit into the 1963 automotive market. It was initially conceived as a sports car, but due to limitations of the available chassis, it evolved into more of a Grand Tourer. The basic bones were essentially a Lark Daytona convertible frame that had roots in the same Old Testament frame that sat under every “standard” Studebaker since 1953. Tarting up basic bones is far from anything new in the automotive world; however there were inherent flaws and dated aspects in Studebaker’s chassis in 1953, never mind ten years down the road.

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Studebaker did do a good job in making the old bones perform well enough though. The hardly “Spring Chicken” 289 V8 was still able to scoot a basic R1 Avanti to 60 in under 10 seconds, which was a pipe dream for the deceptively overweight Thunderbird. Chosing R2, or R3  grade Avantis brought you into parity and beyond what a Buick Riviera was capable of in the straight line.  You could potentially scoot right up to what all but the most ferocious of Corvettes could do.

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Where the Avanti was truly let down was the aging chassis. While it was beefed up from Lark Daytona duty, and it probably was among above-average cars in 1963, it couldn’t match the polished refinement of rivals in its price class, especially for those leaning more to the luxury side of the equation of personal coupes. There was no hiding the fact that underneath it all, despite having three distinct-appearing car lines in showrooms, Studebaker was selling different branches of the same tree. No matter how long the list of features available larded on top off the variety of models (like the built in roll-bar and front disc brakes of the Avanti), it took a very unfocused eye to not notice all the new glitz, glamor and foliage hid some rotten roots.

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The Avanti does bring up more why questions than why-nots. It seems at cross purpose that Studebaker kept selling the cheaper but somewhat similar in terms of market position Gran Turismo Hawk in production alongside it. That begs the question of whether the Avanti was more a personal luxury coupe or more an authentic attempt at a four-seat sports car. Content-wise, the lushly appointed interior and reality that the majority of the units sold were set up as capable boulevard cruisers sides with the Personal Luxury assessment. The blazing (optional) performance tips the needle into “four-seat Corvette” territory.

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How the Avanti landed, however, was a curiosity that few indulged. A switch to square headlamp bezels dates our subject car as one of a depressing 809 of the 1964 models built before Studebaker shuttered their South Bend plant five days before Christmas 1963. Surprisingly, no one thought to fill the place in the automotive market that the Avanti once sat. Not as outsized as the Thunderbird, or Riviera, Oldsmobile did come close with the original concept of what would eventually become the Toronado. The American market was left void of a proper sized grand tourer, sort of.

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1965 was the Avanti’s Easter Sunday, as the Altman brothers and Leo Newman resurrected it as the Avanti II.  In the greatest form of irony, the Avanti found its Frankenstein monster pulse by using a Corvette-grade 327 small block V8 from Chevrolet. The Avanti found a second life as a bespoke grand tourer. In a lot of ways, the Avanti II developed into a softer four-seat Corvette that General Motors was too lazy or afraid to commit to. If you thought the Studebaker Starlight/Hawk was the Personal Coupe that wouldn’t die, variations of the Avanti II on the Studebaker Chassis lasted clear through 1987. Other variations and detours using the Avanti name came later, including a convertible and even a four door sedan.

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The Avanti lived a raucous life befitting its conception. Misunderstood at the time of birth, the concept of fine motoring that it offered whispered appeal to select converts once it was resurrected. Though not for everyone, it does offer a heady mix of design distinction and performance wrapped up in a fascinating origin story. The Avanti was a purely American confection, yet also one of the most internationally-flavored items conceived on American soil. As we move further into the 21st Century, I hope we keep the faith that one of our existing brands can bring this particular brew back to the marketplace. We could use a little grand touring magic that looks this gorgeous during evening dinner hours.

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