1963 Studebaker Avanti
Moving Forward with a Supernova…
I’d moved to Rome in the summer of 1962. As a pre-teen enamoured with cars, I was inundated with a slue of new-to-me automotive marques that were alien to rural Eastern Canada, where I had just left. So of course I always checked out all the cars I encountered on my frequent wanders through urban Rome. I know. Pre-teens don’t have the freedom I had in the early sixties. Times were different.
One of the cars I encountered in my early to mid sixties’ Roman wanderings was an obviously Italian car. How could it not be with a name like Avanti, meaning “forward” in Italian. Though, for an Italian car, it seemed quite large, and the styling didn’t remind me of the cars I’d left back in Canada. It caught my eye and it wasn’t until later that I realized this was a uniquely American car from a company in its death throes. I guess you could call the Avanti a Supernova. (Def: A supernova is a stellar explosion that briefly outshines an entire galaxy, radiating as much energy as the Sun or any ordinary star is expected to emit over its entire life span, before fading from view over several weeks or months.) This car pretty well outshone anything Studebaker had ever produced, in my mind. And then Studebaker was gone. Actually, maybe it’s time to mix metaphors. Many actually nicknamed the Avanti “Phoenix”. From the ashes of Studebaker sprang the Avanti Motor Company, building the Avanti II, based on the original Avanti, for many years to come.
To avoid distractions and interference from Studebaker executives, the Avanti was designed in isolation in a desert ranch house near Palm Springs, California by the team of Bob Andrews, Tom Kellogg, and John Ebstein. The team knew the car was critical to Studebaker’s business survival, so they worked 16 hours daily for weeks.
The Avanti was sensational. It had a coke-bottle waist with a huge rear window and a built-in rollbar. Sharp-edged front fenders merged into the curved rear, then into an elevated tail. The conventional grille was gone, replaced with an air scoop under a thin front bumper, and an asymmetrical bulge in the hood. On the interior, abundant crash padding was combined with four vinyl bucket seats and a jet-age-style control panel. On the inside the Avanti really did resemble an airplane cockpit with aircraft-style controls and instruments with some placed above the windshield. Virtually no changes were made from the original small-scale model.
Since the design was so rushed, there was little time, let alone resources for wind-tunnel testing, but the Avanti was actually amazingly aerodynamic. The design team guessed at the car’s slick shape, but it paid off when the car could hit nearly 200 mph. Also because of tight time and money, the body was constructed of fiberglass. With a shortened Lark convertible frame and sport suspension with front and back anti-sway bars, the car was amazingly strong and also had Bear radius rods to give it exceptional handling.
At a time when safety wasn’t even on the radar of most U.S. automakers, Studebaker added features that included door latches that became structural body members when shut, a padded interior and a built-in roll bar. The Avanti became the first mass-produced fiberglass body four-passenger American car and the first to use caliper-style disc brakes.
The Avanti was introduced at the New York International Automobile Show in April 26 of 1962. Advertised by Studebaker as ‘America’s only 4 passenger high-performance personal car!’ it was in production until December, 1963. The public was enthusiastic over the arrival of the upscale Avanti, much to the delight of Studebaker. The 1963 and 1964 models had a base price of $4,445. Touted as ‘America’s Most Advanced Automobile’ the Avanti was the most expensive car in Studebaker’s lineup. The Avanti was designed to compete with the Buick Riviera, the Corvette Stingray and the Ford Thunderbird.
The plan was to sell 20,000 models in 1962, but unfortunately only 1,200 models were built. Molded Fiberglass Co., which also constructed Corvette fiberglass body parts, fumbled on the construction of Avanti bodies and production was delayed for months. Unfortunately cancelled orders ensued. Though Studebaker finally set up its own fiberglass production, most buyers ended up cancelling their order and buying a Corvette or other comparable sport car. Rumors spread at the same time that Studebaker was on the verge of bankruptcy and in December of 1963, closed their South Bend operation. The final 1964 Avanti was barely out the door when the plant finally closed. In 1963 a total of 3,835 Avanti’s were produced. The following year the numbers totaled at 809.
One of the fastest cars during the 1960’s, some Avanti models came with a Paxton supercharged V8 engine and had a top speed of 168 mph. A modified version could reach 196 mph, which was mind-blowing for a 1960s production street car.
The Avanti would break 29 records to become the “World’s fastest production car.” The Studebaker Avanti set several land speed records for factory stock vehicles, remained on the books for many years. Top speed was almost 169 miles per hour.
The car was controversial in its day; I for one have always and still love its unique automotive design.
Prints of this painting are available at www.thedrawingroomgallery.com.