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1963 Studebaker Avanti

1963 Studebaker Avanti

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.


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Fiat 500 Nuova – Italy’s Original City Car

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Fiat 500 Nuova Fiat 500 Nuova

Cinquecento – The original city car

By the time my family moved to Rome in 1962 the Fiat 500 Nuova was celebrating its 5th birthday. It was perfectly designed for the Italian roads and could easily squeeze into the underground parking in our apartment building while our 1963 Opel Caravan station wagon was relegated to the sun-blistered street parking.

The early 500s had a 479 cc two-cylinder air-cooled engine generating 13 horsepower. That pretty much matches my snow blower. As a weight saving measure, these early versions had a fabric roof folding right to the back of the car. Those early models did, however, have one feature later adopted by the early ‘60s Lincoln Continentals – “suicide doors”.

Top speed was 85 km/h. The first model got off to a slow start. To many, it was too stripped down. No back seat and a price very close to the more powerful and faster 600 (95 km/h), which could accommodate 4 passengers, made people think twice. Fiat quickly remedied this with the addition of a back seat, slight power increase, a few added features and a price reduction. The rest, as they say, is history.

One of my earliest recollections of the “Cinquecento” was one attempting to climb a very steep road in Rome. It just didn’t have what it took to get up the hill. But the innovative driver wasn’t going to give up. He turned the car around, put it in reverse and backed up the hill. Problem solved! The Fiat 500 was very practical for the European road conditions and was very popular. It kept its basic shape from 1957 until production stopped in 1975, with over 3,800,000 produced. As Italy came of age during the sixties, the 500 was updated with changing tastes.

My illustration shows the Fiat 500 L (Lusso). This car was designed to meet the growing demands for a more “luxurious” car. Chrome nudge bars were added to the front and rear bumpers. The front and rear light groups were updated and turn indicators and rear lights enlarged. Lots of chrome was added and the interior went upscale with improved seats and storage. As is appropriate for such an upscale version, my backdrop is the resort town of Portofino in the Italian Riviera, made famous by the theatre and movie glitterati of the fifties and sixties.

Fiat 500 Retirement Living

Fiat 500 Retirement in Tuscany

While walking on the back roads between the villages of Lamole and Volpaia in the Chianti region of Tuscany, I discovered a quaint retirement meadow hosting a forlorn Fiat 500 Lusso. Needless to say, I thought it looked sad and missed its days showing up Vespas on the back streets of  Florence and Siena. I think I captured its mood at having been “put out to pasture”, so to speak. As they say, all good things…

Prints of this painting are available at www.thedrawingroomgallery.com.  [/or_column_text][/or_column][/or_row]

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1969 Chevrolet Camaro SS

1969 Chevrolet Camaro

1969 Chevrolet Camaro SS

The Pony Wars Heat Up

My very first awareness of the 1969 Chevrolet Camaro was in September 1969. I got a new temporary roommate in my grade 12 dorm room. His family was in the process of moving to Rome, Italy from the US. He stayed in the dorm until his family’s accommodations were up and running. I got introduced to 2 things that September – the audio cassette tape and the first generation Camaro. I would actually only want one of those today… I remember him showing photos of the Camaro when we first met. Very cool! The Camaro was their family car. And he had set up his tape cassette system in the dorm room, next to the rather cumbersome reel to reel.

Chevrolet knew that with the runaway success of the Ford Mustang, the Corvair just wasn’t going to cut it as Mustang competition, especially with all the recent bad publicity. Enter the Camaro.

The first-generation Camaro, based on the Chevy Nova, appeared in September 1966 as the 1967 model year. This new Chevy, a rear-wheel drive 2-door coupé and convertible with 2+2 seating,  was designed to accept a variety of power plants in the engine bay, offering a similar something-for-everone approach that Mustang initiated. The ’69 could be ordered with one of 14 different engines, which allowed for a lot of customization. The base engine was a 250 cubic inch six cylinder engine producing 155 horsepower. At the other end of the spectrum was a 427 cubic inch V-8 with 430 horsepower. That range gave this car an almost universal appeal.

The first-generation Camaro would last until the 1969 model year and would eventually inspire the design of the new retro fifth-generation Camaro.

The 1969 Camaro featured entirely new, sportier, more aggressive looking sheet metal and a revised grille, with the vehicle exhibiting a wider looking stance for the earlier years.

As with the Mustang, Camaro was available with different packages. The RS package included a special grill with concealed headlights and washers, chrome wheel well moldings, drip rails, pinstripes, and RS badging. It was available on any model.

The SS performance package consisted of a 350 or 396 cu in V8 engine and chassis upgrades for better handling and to deal with the additional power. The SS featured non-functional air inlets on the hood, special striping, and SS badging.

The Z/28 performance package was designed with additional modifications to compete in the SCCA Trans-Am series. It included a solid-lifter 302 V8, 4-speed transmission, power disc brakes, and two wide stripes down the hood and deckled.

Variable-ratio steering was introduced in 1969. All 1969 Camaros with four-speed transmissions came with Hurst shift linkages. The 1969 Camaro was the only model year to have headlight washers. The system was operated by vacuum much like windshield washers.

The Camaro was almost called Panther — Chevrolet took its time coming up with a name for the Camaro. For quite a while, it was referred to internally as the Chevrolet Panther. Chevy’s preference for names beginning with a “C” finally won out, and the Panther name died. “Camaro” means nothing — The name was actually a contrived moniker.

Although the Camaro came 2½ years after the Mustang debut and was often outsold by the Mustang, it has a healthy lead in the Indianapolis 500. The ’69 Camaro paced the Indy 500, as did the ’67. The Camaro has been the official pace car at Indy six times, versus just three for the Mustang.

This 1969 Camaro represents the peak of the pony car era. 

Prints of this painting are available at www.thedrawingroomgallery.com.


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