1963-1964 Studebaker Avanti
As the decade of the sixties began, Studebaker was in serious financial trouble. Detroit's Big Three (Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Chrysler Corporation) started dominating American car sales, and the smaller independent companies could not compete. In February of 1961, newly appointed president Sherwood Egbert proposed designing and building a sports car to help boost the company's image and attract younger buyers. He contacted industrial designer Raymond Loewy.
French-born Loewy was already established as a great designer by this time. To his credit were such diverse items as steam locomotives, jukeboxes, cigarette packs and refrigerators (he would go on to design the Zippo lighter, the Shell logo, the interior of the Nasa Skylab, and others). Loewy had worked with Studebaker previously; the Starlight and Starliner models were his designs. Egbert asked Loewy if he could create a new sporty car, and have a full-scale clay model ready within a six-week period. A design team was assembled in quick order and the scale model car was completed on schedule.
To get the car produced quickly, fiberglass body panels were chosen over conventional sheet metal. There were two main reasons for this - there would not be enough time for the tooling process required for steel panels, and a fiberglass car would be lighter (Loewy has been quoted as saying, "Weight is the enemy"). After debate of whether or not to mold the fiberglass panels in their own factory, Studebaker contracted them out to Molded Fiberglass Products Company, the same outfit that had been making the Chevrolet Corvette bodies. This would prove to be a bad decision.
Perhaps the most unique feature of the Avanti (Italian for "forward") is the smooth nose - Loewy considered front grilles far too commonplace. To ensure the engine would be cooled properly, a special radiator was designed, used in conjunction with a bottom air dam. Front disc-brakes were standard - a first for a major American car manufacturer. There is also a roll-bar built into the roof, T-tops were suggested but were too expensive to manufacture.
The budget for the Avanti project allowed for a new body only, so the frame and suspension had to be taken from an existing model. The 109-inch wheelbase of the Lark convertible's was chosen, but for the Avanti body it was too short in the front and too long in the back. To remedy this, engineers cut the frame just behind the rear leaf springs. Front coil springs were from the Lark's heavy-duty police package, with rear leaf-springs borrowed from the Lark station wagon. Measuring just over 192 inches, the Avanti weighed in at nearly 3,700 pounds.
As to the curious bulge on the left side of the hood, Loewy explained, "If you were on a straight highway standing at the steering wheel, that panel was oriented forward where the roadway would bend with the horizon, parallel to the centerline of the chassis frame. It made the car and driver integral, like the sight of a gun."
Inside, the Avanti featured bucket seats, full instrumentation, and a console. The dash panel was padded for safety as well as aesthetics, with the light switches moved above to the aircraft-inspired overhead panel. Options included air conditioning, power steering and electric windows. All early Avantis came equipped with a 140-mph speedometer.
Avanti Engine Options
Powering the Avanti was a 289-cid V8 borrowed from the Studebaker Hawk model. In standard trim, the 10.25:1 compression motor with a single four-barrel carburetor produced 240 horsepower. Several engine options were available, including a belt-driven centrifugal supercharged unit, boosting horsepower to 289. Standard transmission was a stick-shift three-speed manual, with most cars being fitted with either a four-speed manual or three-speed automatic. Dual exhaust was standard.
With the base 289 engine, 0-60 mph times were about 9.5 seconds. The supercharged option cut that figure to 7.5 seconds. The Avanti's shape, being very aerodynamic, was well-suited for high-speed runs. In October of 1963, a specially-prepared model fitted with a Paxton supercharger set a flying-mile record of 168.15 mph at Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats. 28 other production-car records were also set. The "world's fastest production automobile" was driven by famed racer Andy Granatelli, and equipped with full roll-cage, additional instrumentation, and extra oil and supercharger cooling systems.
After great initial reception and an encouraging amount of pre-orders, the factory ran into serious production issues. The tolerances of the 100+ fiberglass body parts and panels were off, and the cars could not be assembled. There were reports of the rear window glass popping out at high speeds due to air pressure. Months rolled on and production backed up. The car was introduced in dealer showrooms in the fall of 1962.
Avanti Production Figures
Studebaker's financial situation got worse, and the South Bend, Indiana factory was forced to close its doors in December 1963. Only 3,834 Avantis were built in 1963 and a mere 809 for 1964. (The first-year Avanti had round headlight surrounds, the 1964 models were square.) Originally intending to sell tens of thousands of these beautiful cars, the final total for its 18 months of production was 4,643.
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