Curbside Classic: 1963 Studebaker Avanti – Remembering A Mentor

I have been waiting a decade to find a genuine CC/driver-quality Studebaker Avanti.  I have now checked another life-box after I stumbled across this one several weeks ago.  My delight is hard to describe, finding one of these in less-than-perfect condition and being used for a routine family errand.  But this find has far more significance to me than as a mere car.

Right after Labor Day of 1964, I was being sent off to school for the first time  – an educational process that would last many more years.  An elementary school within walking distance was under construction in my neighborhood (these were the baby boom years, remember) but was still a year away from being  opened.  Therefore, some of mothers in the neighborhood assembled a carpool to ferry the fresh-faced kindergarteners to and from the school on the other side of a busy highway.

One of those other moms lived about six houses up the street and her oldest son, Tim, was going to be in that carpool.  Up to then, I had not ventured beyond houses within eyesight of my own when it came to making friends.  I was disappointed that Kevin (next door) and Jon (across the street) were a little younger than I was and would not be starting the Big  K until next year.  My mother and Tim’s mother probably thought it was a good idea for the two kids to meet before carpooling really began.

I don’t remember much about that first meeting, but I do remember it.  As a budding car nut, I was still excited about the dark green 1964 Oldsmobile Cutlass hardtop that my mother was driving – we had probably only had the car for a month or two.  “We have a new car” is what I remember telling Tim as it sat in his driveway while our mothers talked.  “We have a new car too” was his reply, and he added “it’s an Avanti!”.  I had no idea what an Avanti was in the early fall of 1964, but I was about to find out.

I still remember the kids in that carpool, and the cars their mothers drove.  Danny Mejer’s mother had a copper 1960 Chevy station wagon and Kevin Young’s family had a pair of Fords – a purplish-gray/white 1958 that was soon augmented by a brand new white 1965 Galaxie 500.  But of those kids it was Tim who became my best friend.  It took awhile for me to see the Avanti because his father drove that one to work every day.

Tim’s mother drove a white 1960 Lark VIII 2-door sedan – much like the one above, only with the signature Studebaker rust stain going down the trailing edge of the front fenders.  I was fascinated by all of the cars, but most of all the Lark – probably because my parents told me that the company that made it was out of business, just as they had explained my grandma’s DeSoto to me.

After that year, Tim went to the Catholic grade school and other neighborhood kids joined me at the new public school.  But Tim and I had bonded enough by then that he became my best friend and we spent hours and hours together over the next several years.  It was usually at his house, especially after my mother went back to work around the time of my parents separation in the fall of 1966.  It was on one of those play sessions on a weekend that I first saw the Avanti.

I have written before about Tim’s family.  His father, Bill, would eventually become my first mentor when it came to cars.  Bill was a fan of racing, hot rods, and Studebakers.  He was also very handy with a wrench and had a large collection of tools.  There were not many kids who got to spend lots of time around an Avanti, and I had no idea then how rare the cars were.  Studebaker only made 4,647 of them and the one owned by Tim’s father was one of the later ones.

Bill’s car was a 1964, and therefore had woodgrain trim on both the dash face and on the steering wheel rim.  When Kevin Bordner’s mom got a new ’66 GTO with a woodgrain dash and steering wheel, it seemed kind of ho-hum.

Bill’s favorite color was red, and therefore so was his Avanti.  That Avanti was also notable for having the supercharged “R2” engine and a 4-speed stick shift.  Bill had also fitted some aftermarket wheels (and put the Avanti’s wheel covers onto the Lark).  Once I learned these things about it I became convinced that it had to be the next thing to a race car.  I could always hear Bill driving to work on summer mornings because he was very gentle in warming up his car, and would usually shift into second right around our house.  The combination of the exhaust rumble through the glass-packs and the whine of the supercharger made the Avanti unmistakable even if I had not yet rolled out of bed.

As I got older I spent hours and hours leaning over the fender of that red Avanti as Bill did this or that to it.  Tune ups, belts, plug wires, radiator hoses, you name it.  I soaked up all the wisdom he cared to offer during those sessions, and he offered plenty.  He may have been the most patient man I ever met and he never made me feel stupid or silly no matter what I asked.  I am sure that Tim felt neglected whenever I latched onto his Dad when there was car work being done in the driveway.

I got several rides in the Avanti, the longest when Bill hooked up his go kart trailer and took Tim, Tim’s little brother Mark and me to a track that was probably an hour or more away from home.  Bill had a couple of serious go karts, with either 25 or 50 horsepower motors on the back and disc brakes to get them stopped.  I remember being blown away when the sun went down on the way home and the dash lights came on – they were RED!  When BMWs became known for their red instrument lights in the 80s, I felt like they were old news.

It was those many years of being in proximity to that Avanti that has had me wanting to write about one ever since I began writing for CC.  During that time I have found some mighty rare cars out in the wild, from a ’68 Imperial convertible to a Lamborghini Espada to a Marmon Sixteen.  And while I stumbled across the occasional old Studebaker, I never found an Avanti.  Until just a few weeks ago.

I had made a run to a local retailer and was leaving when I saw the unmistakable shape of an Avanti pass me by.

I had learned at an early age that the easy tell for a genuine Studebaker version was the keystone-shaped emblem on the big C pillar, and by golly it was there.  I have become pretty choosy in what cars I will stop to photograph these days.  If I see something interesting and if I have time, I may stop.  But on this day I saw the car turn into the Meijer parking lot and decided that I was going to see if I could find it.  The problem was that I had already left the lot and was in traffic, so had about a 5-minute trek to wind my way back into that parking lot.  I scanned back and forth for that unique combination of shape and color and suddenly there it was.

The owner was out with his family and had stopped so that his wife could run into the store.  I was beaming like a little kid when I got out of my car and asked if I could take pictures of his Avanti.  “Oh – you know what it is!” was his somewhat surprised reaction.  “Oh boy, but do I ever.  R1 or R2?” I asked, to see if it had the basic powerplant or the one with the big red supercharger on it.  It was then that I got a treat.

“This is the very first R1 built and the 8th car built overall” he told me.  He opened the trunk and pulled out a framed production chart that showed this as one of 24 cars built during the first month of Avanti production, which was June, 1962.

The owner told me that this car had been kept by the company for an extended time, possibly for testing purposes.  I asked if it was air conditioned – I knew from childhood that air was only offered on the R-1 cars because the R-2’s supercharger and an a/c compressor could not coexist within the tight confines of the engine compartment.  I was told that this car had not been originally built as an a/c car, but that it had been added – possibly while still under manufacturer ownership.

I really loved Bill’s metallic red Avanti, but those painted “Avanti Turquoise” were my favorites, so this car took my Avanti enthusiasm and turned it up to the limit.  In the five minutes I spent talking with the owner I re-lived the way I had once soaked in every surface, curve and detail of these cars.  Some cars can be appreciated in a single view, but this is not one of them.  The combination of simplicity and complexity of its lines take many viewings to appreciate, and this remains a car I could make an afternoon out of just looking at.

All too soon, the owner’s Mrs. came out after her errand and they had to leave.  As I listened to the car’s unique exhaust note, I decided way too late to capture it in a short video – which I have watched many times since despite its pathetic production values.

CC has been a great vehicle (yes, I meant to do that) for allowing me to immerse myself into a car for a short time before moving on to the next, all without the hassle and expense of ownership.  This car presented me with a next-level immersion, one that built on a long-term, slo-mo immersion from decades ago.

I had often wondered what had become of Bill’s Avanti.  I still occasionally stopped in to see him into the early 1990s, but then my mother moved away from my childhood home and we lost contact, as happens too often.  For quite a few years after, I would occasionally think about Bill and would wonder what had become of him.  I recall sitting on my sofa one day when the urge came upon me to Google his name and city to see if there might be an obit published at some point in the past.

I have experienced some really strange coincidences in my life, and would never have imagined what was about to unfold.  When I did my online search one day back in 2015 and I found an obit – one that announced that Bill had died only a day or two earlier and that his funeral would be held at a church in Fort Wayne the next morning.  I made up my mind that there was no way I was not going to take the day and pay my respects in person.

It was a sad but wonderful day that allowed me to reconnect with my childhood friends Tim and Mark  and tell them how much their father had meant to me for those many years.  They told me that he had weathered a long battle with dementia and had died peacefully.  They also told me that he had kept that Avanti, finally parking it at Tim’s house after he had moved into assisted living.  Tim told me that it was in need of quite a lot of work by then, and that Bill had agreed to sell it to Tim’s neighbor who had the time, money and interest to bring it back from its long decline.  Somewhere in northeast Indiana, the red 1964 Avanti from my childhood remains – but with a significant alteration.  I was told that the front of the car had been hit at some point and that the repairs were accomplished with rectangular headlights, which were far easier to find than the early round units.

The turquoise Avanti I saw recently also had deep roots with its owner’s family.  The man I spoke with told me that his father had owned the car for quite a few years, and that ownership only transferred after his father’s relatively recent death.  This may be the most meaningful encounter I have ever had with an old car, and its owner and I were able to share our love for the car and to remember the relationships that the car brought out of our memories.  Every car has a story, but this one told the story of a lifetime.