Club AVANTI

IT WAS AN IGNOMINIOUS END FOR A COMPANY THAT HAD RISEN FROM BLACKSMITHING ORIGINS TO BECOME A CAR INDUSTRY PIONEER

WORDS STEVE NALLY

Itís sadly ironic that Studebakerís most advanced car would also spell the end for the American manufacturer. The rakish Avanti coupe was ahead of its time in styling, performance and features but had only a two-year lifespan.

Studebaker could not keep up with the initial demand for the expensive Avanti, the base model of which cost more than a Corvette Sting Ray, plus there were difficulties marrying its fibreglass body to the chassis. Even with a second production line running to try to fill orders Studebaker was losing money and not just on Avanti.

So, production of Avanti and Hawk sports cars and Studebaker trucks ended at its South Bend, Indiana, plant at the end of 1963. The last Studebaker, a Lark sedan, came off the companyís Ontario, Canada, production line in March 1966. Only 4647 original Avantis were ever built and designated 1963 and í64 models.

It was an ignominious end for a company that could trace its origins to a blacksmithing business in Germany (1736-50), its US beginnings in 1852, and production of its first automobiles Ė an electric car (1902) and a petrol-powered model (1904) Ė at the start of the 20th century.

In the US, Studebaker started by building horse-drawn wagons and celebrated its 100th year as a vehicle manufacturer 50 years before Ford, Buick and Cadillac did, but the company never had the marketing clout or sales firepower of Detroit giants GM, Ford and Chrysler.

The sporty Avanti (Avanti is Italian for Ďforwardí) was to be the car that saved struggling Studebaker but even if it had stayed in production, the launch of Fordís phenomenally successful Mustang in 1964 probably would have been the nail in its fibreglass coffin.

Stylistically, Avanti was the successor to Studebakerís beautiful Hawk sports coupes of the 50s and its shape was the work of a talented team under design genius Raymond Loewy, a Frenchman whose company (which once included the great Virgil Exner of Chrysler ĎForward Lookí fame) had styled Studebakers since 1938.

Loewy, whose industrial design work was not limited to cars (he designed the Coke bottle), has been called 'The Man Who Shaped America' and 'The Father of Streamlining' and in 1961 his team was sequestered in a house and given just 40 days to design and produce a scale model of the Avanti which would be based on a modified Lark Daytona convertible chassis. It would be the first mass-produced, fibreglass-bodied, four-seat American car and the first to use disc brakes, Bendix units made under licence from Dunlop.

Avanti style polarises, you either love 'em or hate 'em, but when the car debuted at the 1962 New York Auto Show it caused a sensation. That year it also became ĎAmericaís Fastest Production Carí when a top-spec R3 model broke 29 speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. So it had the shape and the speed to match.

The main distinguishing feature between models is its headlights which are recessed behind thin extended fenders. The 1963 Avanti had large, recessed round headlights giving it a startled, bug-eyed look and for 1964 these were changed to have rectangular surrounds and owners will argue long into the night over which looks better.

The other interesting point about the Avantiís front end is the lack of a traditional grille opening. Instead of filling the space between the headlights, an air scoop is located below the sleek chromed bumper. That was radical in the early 60s but radiators on modern cars are now fed air from grille openings below the bumper. Evidently Loewy hated grillesÖ

Avantiís futuristic shape was recognised 35 years after it was launched in the 1997 science fiction film, Gattaca. In perhaps an unintended nod to the first Studebaker, an Avanti glides around stark modernist Gattaca streets with a whining electric motor soundtrack, not its normal V8 rumble.

Avanti was powered by Studebakerís venerable 289ci V8 (it was the cheapest option) and there were three versions: the naturally aspirated R1 (178kW) and supercharged R2 (216kW) and R3 (246kW). Under the bonnets of the R2 and R3, a Paxton SN-60 centrifugal supercharger forced air into a sealed four-barrel Carter carburettor and the R2 engine (a $200 option) made a benchmark one horsepower per cubic inch. Conveniently, Studebaker owned Paxton Superchargers but the engines had to be shipped to California to be modified by Paxton and sent back to Indiana for installation, which must have added to production costs.

The bigger displacement (304ci) R3 V8 was hand-built, race-spec engine and only nine Avantis left the factory with this powerplant. Studebaker also built a high-performance non-supercharged R4 and an experimental twin-supercharged R5 version of the R3 which never went into production. Transmissions were Borg-Warner three-speed (R1 only) or four-speed (T-10) manuals and the three-speed ĎPower Shiftí auto which could be shifted manually

"AVANTIí FUTURISTIC SHAPE WAS RECOGNISED 35 YEARS AFTER IT WAS LAUNCHED IN THE 1997 SCIENCE FICTION FILM, GATTACA"

Avantiís luxurious interior was just as artfully designed as the body and featured the then popular cockpit-style dash with beautiful gauges (that glow red at night) and switches and an elegant two-spoke steering wheel. There is even an integrated roll bar dissecting the roof and overhead switchgear.

R2 owners, though, sweltered in summer because air-con was not available in supercharged models, there just wasnít enough room under the bonnet to fit one (although one Aussie owner has got around that problem (see breakout).

But itís the design details that really make Avanti stand out on closer inspection, from the off-centre bonnet power bulge to exquisite, almost art deco badges and fonts, this swansong Studebaker screams originality and style. And itís that, plus its small-block performance and rarity that makes them so collectable today. Ask any Avanti owner what sold them on the car and they will say itís the way it looks and the way it drives.

The Avanti couldnít save Studebaker but luckily there are dedicated Studebaker lovers saving Avantis.

STUDEBAKER AVANTI

Engine 4734cc V8 naturally-aspirated (R1) or supercharged (R2); 4982cc V8 supercharged (R3)

Power 178W (R1); 216kW (R2); 246kW (R3)

Torque 379Nm (R1); 410Nm (R2); 434Nm (R3)

Gearbox 3-speed & 4-speed manuals; 3-speed auto

Suspension wishbones, coil springs (f); live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs (r)

Brakes 11.5-inch discs (f) 11-inch finned drums (r) 0-100km/h 7.3sec (R2)

1963 AVANTI SUPERCHARGED R2

Ian Mckellar

Iíve Been into Studebakers since 1990, I just like their unique style. I was never particularly excited about the Avanti but they grow on you and Iíve got two now. A friend lent me a supercharged Avanti for a day and they donít drive like a 50-year-old car, they are ahead of their time. Once youíve driven one youíre smitten.

Iíd put this car up against any Ď80s or Ď90s car. Theyíre smooth, the handling, power, ergonomics, seating position and styleÖ I canít go anywhere without somebody asking ĎWhat the hell is that?í. Avanti styling is so divisive. If two guys look at the car one will say, íThatís the ugliest car Iíve ever seení and the other will say, ĎThatís the most beautiful carí.

ďIT COST ME $63,000 LANDED BUT YOU COULDN'T RESTORE ONE FOR UNDER $100,000"

This supercharged R2 came from Ontario, Canada, and the owner restored it. Itís an early car, number 106 on the production line. Iíve lowered it a couple of inches to get the aesthetics right and put factory option Halibrand wheels on it but itís basically how it arrived, immaculate. The only thing different is the radio and a five-speed gearbox, the rest is all factory. The five-speed transformed it because the [diff] gearing is 3.7:1.

It cost me $63,000 landed, as my wife keeps reminding me. However, I think thatís a cheap car, I donít think you could restore one [to this standard] for under $100,000. Iíve also got a supercharged í58 Golden Hawk, a supercharged í62 GT Hawk and a í63 that Iím making into a salt flats racer with an injected 400ci small block. This is the first one Iíve bought that had been restored by somebody else.

I drive it as much as the Historic permit allows but donít take it out in the rain. The only thing Iíd add is air-conditioning because theyíre a bit hot to drive in summer. Is it a keeper? F**k yeah!

1963 AVANTI SUPERCHARGED R2

Marie Judd

I have been around cars my whole life. My father and three brothers were car mad and that just rubbed off. I have been in the Studebaker club for over 25 years and have owned several Studebakers. Iíve had my Avanti for 22 years and Iím the third owner and possibly the only female (original) Avanti owner in Australia. Itís a factory-black car, which is rare because although black was available, it wasnít offered because they had a lot of trouble [with that colour] on the fibreglass body. Apparently only seven black cars came out of the factory and were special orders.

I bought the car in Indiana, I looked at a few when I was over there but this one took my fancy. I have all the paper work and everything on the car is original except for the Cragar wheels. I did about 10,000 miles in it in America, which was fantastic, and apart from the clutch giving out right at the end it ran faultlessly. Itís had a ground-up restoration over the last five years and my friend Guido did most of the work for me.

I love the styling and they are beautiful to drive. Mineís a four-speed manual, which is the desirable R2 version. Most people donít know what it is, they think itís a European car. My favourite part of the car is the rear end, itís very sexy. Because itís black and fibreglass and they do run hot and it can be a little uncomfortable to drive on a warm day, but Iíve had it for more than 20 years and I have no intentions of parting with it.

1963 AVANTI R1

Michael Pink

This is a 1963 four-speed manual R1 Avanti which Iíve had for 10 years. It has single four-barrel carburettor and is rated at about 280hp. Itís pretty much the base model.

A mate bought it in from Texas where it had been sitting for 15 years. but he didnít much with it and it sat in his shed for about 5 years. Iím the sixth owner and Iíve been able to track it back to the third owner in the US.

My dad has Studebakers and I was brought up with them and always thought they were pretty cool looking. Then a friend took me for a ride in a supercharged Avanti and scared the bejesus out of me. After that I had to have one.

I got it for a good price, got it roadworthy, and drove it for a few years. In 2011, I decided to drive to a Studebaker meet in Perth (from Victoria) but when we pulled the motor out we found I wouldnít have made to Adelaide. So the car has been rebuilt mechanically.

The paint is as I bought it, and itís held up pretty well considering how long it sat in sheds. It was last painted in 1971 and was originally gold but Iím not a fan of gold. Iíve re-upholstered and rewired it and the only thing I havenít touched is the external cosmetics. Apart from the tinted glass. which I did to hide the upholstery before I did the interior, the car is pretty much stock.

What I like most about Avantis is they are different. I can go to a car show and Iím generally the only one there with an Avanti. Most people have no idea what it is. I think there are only 50-60 on the road in Australia and I drive mine regularly, itís not a trailer queen. Iíd sell a kidney before Iíd part with it.

1964 STUDEBAKER AVANTI R3

Max Arbrew

Mfirst car was a Studebaker Ė an Australian-delivered í63 Lark that cost me $500 when I was 18 Ė and Iíve probably had 10-15 Studebakers, but one day I drove an Avanti and I fell in love with it. It had a real sports car feeling about it. None of the production in Australia had a supercharged engine and it was a really nice car for the era.

I bought this car out of the US. The í64 squareheadlight version really appealed to me and I like the woodgrain interior and supercharged engine.

I started restoring it in 1990 and it took four and half years including doing the right-hand drive conversion, which I had to do if I wanted to drive it in Victoria then.

Studebaker made two R3 versions, with 380hp and 420hp 304ci engines, and mine has the high-output 420hp V8, factory four-speed and heavy-duty clutch. Studebaker sent engines to Paxton and they rebuilt them with forged pistons, different cams, valve springs and heads, blueprinted and dynoed them, and sent back to Indiana. My R3 has two, four-barrel Carters under a pressurised air box and the front carby is different to the rear.

ďYOU PUT YOUR FOOT DOWN IN A CORNER AND IT'LL GO SIDEWAYS. IT'S LIKE A DRIFT CAR"

The í64 is pretty rare, they only made about 830 and not many in Avanti Grey. Mine has an AM/FM radio, which was an expensive option back then, power steering and air-conditioning, which R3s normally didnít have because of the position of the supercharger. The internals of the air-con are factory and I fitted a compressor where you canít see it. It did have the factory wheels on it but I wanted wider rubber Ė especially when it had the 4.09:1 diff Ė and fitted Boyd Coddington alloys.

Itís awesome to drive. I like the power-tohandling balance. You put your foot down in a corner and itíll go sideways but youíre under control, itís like a drift car. It weighs 1750kg, like a Commodore, but it handles so well.

1963 STUDEBAKER AVANTI R4

Brendan Collier

I was looking for something rarer than Ford, Chev or Holden. I had a Golden Hawk at the time and this Avanti was for sale and because it had one of only about 10 R4 engines ever built, I decided to buy it. The car was in Western Australia and it cost around $50,000 four years ago. Had originally been owned by a Singaporean from new. He had sent it back to America around 1966 where it had the R4 engine retro-fitted by Paxton Products then it was sent back to Singapore. R4 engines were specially built for racing by Paxton, Studebaker had already closed down by Ď66.

A British engineer purchased the car in the 70s to send back to England but first it went to Australia to get converted to right-hand drive. While it was here it was bought by a Studebaker club member then was eventually sold to a West Australian collector who had it for about 30 years.

R4 engines are normally aspirated with twin, four-barrel Carter AFB carbies and 12:1 compression and produced around 300hp. They had special blocks with a larger bores because the heads were specially built with bigger valves and larger ports and they canít be fitted to earlier engines.

ďSIX BLOKES WENT TO THE DESERT FOR SIX WEEKS AND CAME UP WITH THE AVANTI"

Itís got three-speed auto Ė similar to the early Ford FMX gearbox design Ė made for Studebaker by Borg-Warner, and a Dana differential. The Dayton wires were a factory dealer option. It originally had air-conditioning but that was removed when it was converted to right-hand drive.

The shape of the Avanti is what attracted me to it but I also liked the history behind it and the fact that six blokes went to the desert for six weeks and came up with the Avanti concept, which had a lot of European styling influences. The problem was Studebaker had to use existing engines and components. But itís a piece of art and this engine is very rare.

AVANTI'S MANY FALSE STARTS

The Avanti Reborn

Avanti is the car that just wouldnít die.

In 1965 two former Studebaker dealers purchased the rights and tooling and formed the Avanti Motor Corporation offering hand-built Avantis. Production continued until 1982 when the company was sold. The new owner introduced new including a 20th Anniversary Edition, a convertible, and racing versions but in 1985 the company folded.

OWNER Patricia Little

CAR 1988 Roadster

The New Avanti Motor Corporation started producing cars from 1987 including a Luxury Stretch Coupe and 25th Anniversary Edition before it too went belly up. Avanti was back in 1988 with a new owner and a new name, Avanti Automotive Corporation, and the car was Ďmodernisedí in 1989 by using a Chevrolet Caprice chassis and running gear. Both four-door and convertible models failed to sell and two years later Avanti was history again.

An Avanti enthusiast attempted to revive the car in 1995 with one of the original Avanti designers, calling it the AVX, and three versions were built but never went into production. AVX assets were purchased in 1999 and the 2001 Avanti was launched by yet another new company using GM chassis and drivetrains. A 2007 Avanti, to be made in Mexico, was launched in late 2006 based on a Ford platform but production ended soon after the car was introduced. And the Avanti story appears to end there.

1987 AVANTI CONVERTIBLE

Engine 5001cc V8

Power 138kW

Torque 326Nm

Gearbox 4-speed auto

Suspension wishbones, coil springs (f); live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs (r)

Brakes Discs (f), Drums (r)

0-100km/h 9.0 sec

FRENCH-AMERICAN Legendary industrial designer Raymond Loewy won his fame for penning iconic designs across an incredibly diverse product range. The Pennsylvania railroad for starters, the Avanti of course, and the interior of Air Force One for the late President John F Kennedy. Also the product that has been on everybody's lips Ė the modern Coca-Cola bottle.

Electric Avanti?

AVANTI FANS debating the relative merits of naturally aspirated V8s vs those relying on a bit of boost from a Paxton blower need to know there's been another whole new engine-choice elephant in the room for a while now. That's the electric-power option...

One Avanti enthusiast from Winnipeg, Canada, bought his secondhand in 1997 and, after enjoying its natural petrolpowered charms for almost 20 years, decided it was time for a change. A big one.

A 2013 Nissan Leaf electric car was cannibalised to provide all the electric underpinnings, and control systems.

What was a 180hp V8 front-engine/rearwheel-drive car became a 110hp electric-powered front-wheel-drive vehicle. The owner/builder claims equal 9.3sec 0-60mph times for the original and modified versions of his beloved Avanti.