CCOTY 1962 Nomination # 3: Studebaker Avanti – The Parting Gift

Studebaker wasn’t going to go out with a whimper–at least not if its youthful and energetic President, Sherwood Egbert, had anything to say about it. He wanted a sports car, and Raymond Loewy gave him one. From day one, the Avanti was as doomed as the company itself, but certainly no one in 1962 expected anything like it from Studebaker; a parting gift, one might say, for which I thank you! And it’s a lasting gift at that: It made my day in 1962, and it continues to do so today.

At least in America, the introduction of the Avanti was one of the most unexpected events of 1962. You see, this car, like the 1953 Studebaker coupes, was the work of Raymond Loewy (seen here, in the foreground, with Studebaker President Harold Egbert). Loewy always kept one foot in Europe, and it showed; who else would work so hard to eliminate the traditional bold front grille decades before the aero-look cars of the ’80s?

I am including Loewy’s ‘53 coupe here since it and the Avanti are so quintessentially Loewy (regardless of who did most of the actual design work), and also rather similar. They share a wind-splitting front end whose center crease rises from those delicate front bumpers, a looong front hood, a beltline that drops down from the windshield and, of course, that forward-slanting C-pillar.

Could the backdrop in the top photograph have been deliberately chosen in recognition that Loewy’s team designed the Avanti in just 40 days, working at a rented house in Palm Springs? Although the Avanti was a team effort, Loewy himself contributed many of its signature features, including its Coke-bottle shape, bladed fenders and no grille. Here’s an excellent article on those eventful 40 days.

The Avanti was a true Studebaker, inasmuch as its design and execution both suffered from certain shortcomings. The Avanti looks fabulous from certain angles, yet a bit awkward from others. Nonetheless, it was a noble effort to revitalize Studebaker’s ailing mid-’60s image.

The original Avanti’s profile had a decidedly NASCAR-ish rake. It’s odd that among the first changes made for its revival as the Avanti II was a jacked-up the front end that took away the original’s beautifully faired-in round headlights.

Although you won’t find a single “Euro-sport” badge anywhere, the Avanti was as close as America got to producing a truly European-style GT coupe, an achievement that likely wasn’t necessary, or even desirable, at the time. If Loewy’s sensibilities had a decidedly European bent, the Avanti was ultimately an all-American experiment that was thoroughly confident in both attitude and execution. Soon that  confidence would dissipate, as the rise of Mercedes would scatter seeds of insecurity throughout the great American automotive industry.

But in 1962, the Avanti shone brightly, if somewhat unsteadily, as a brilliant attempt to redefine what an American sports-luxury coupe could be. Despite its inability to somehow spark a miraculous, last-ditch turnaround at dying Studebaker, its coming was a completely unexpected and delightful gift. Looking back, who could possibly have predicted the Avanti? The spice of life is surprise, and in 1962 this was a big one. The big one.