Studebaker Avanti: The car that (almost) changed the world

Photography by John Webber

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

Although it’s best known today for its distinctive styling, back in the fall of 1962 Studebaker advertised its Avanti as “The World’s Fastest Production Car.” They backed up the claim with 29 new American national stock car records from the Bonneville Salt Flats, including the flying mile at 168.15 mph and 10 miles at 163.9 mph–and these were two-way averages. On the return leg of the 20-mile record run, the Avanti reached 178.5 mph.

The slippery Studebaker shattered record after record, blowing through the previous American Class C benchmark (held by a Dodge) by more than 50 mph. Fast indeed for a barely dry model that only 16 months earlier had been on the drawing board.

Was it a publicity stunt? Sure, but the United States Auto Club sanctioned each of these records. They also certified the Avanti R-3 as completely stock and fueled with Mobil premium pump gas.

Hotshoe Andy Granatelli, who knew a thing or two about driving fast–and even more about promoting merchandise-was president of Paxton Products at the time, and one of his superchargers wailed under the Avanti’s hood. In a letter to Studebaker President Sherwood Egbert, Granatelli wrote, “The thing that never ceases to amaze me is the ease in handling the Avanti. I took four people [including the L.A. Times auto editor] for a ride at speeds from 166.6 to 172.5 mph, and in each instance I let go of the steering wheel for several thousand feet to prove how stable the Avanti really is.”

A year after he set the production car marks, Granatelli returned to Bonneville with an experimental, twin-supercharged Avanti and ran a blazing 196 mph.

Those records were important, because the Avanti was conceived as the halo car that just might enable Studebaker–which was teetering on the edge of collapse-to hang on. Sketched by Sherwood Egbert himself (who had an aircraft background) and designed by the already legendary Raymond Loewy, the sporty Avanti came together on paper and as a scale model in early 1961 after a secret, five-week design session outside Palm Springs, California. Studebaker’s board hastily approved the concept and rushed the car into production.

Just 14 months later, on April 25, 1962, the first prototype was introduced to the public at the New York Auto Show.

The radical Avanti galvanized the crowd, its attention-grabbing shape at once revered and reviled. Reviews ranged from “sensational” to “bold and fresh” to “contrived, straining for visual impact to the exclusion of utility, efficiency or grace.”

Right after the show, Studebaker loaded its only two driving examples on a Flying Boxcar and took off on a well-publicized, 16-day, 24-city tour. In the frenetic advertising blitz that followed, the company blanketed the bases, touting the Avanti’s USAC speed records, calling it “America’s Most Advanced Car,” and promoting it as a luxurious, four-place GT. The campaign worked, and crowds of potential buyers lined up and placed deposits.

Studebaker’s problem, as it turned out, was that they couldn’t fill those orders. The car’s styling may have been sensational, but the 129-piece fiberglass body proved difficult to produce. Ohio-based Molded Fiberglass Products, the vendor that also fabricated Corvettes, turned out bodies that didn’t fit together, and extensive reworking at Studebaker dragged production far behind schedule. The company had planned to build 1000 cars per month, but was able to turn out only a fraction of that number.

Studebaker, in desperation, set up a separate fiberglass production line in their South Bend, Indiana, plant, but the production slippages were too far gone. After months of waiting, Avanti’s once-eager buyers grew tired and canceled. By the end of 1963, Studebaker had shipped only 3834 cars. The supply was so short that many dealerships couldn’t even get a display example.

The company’s fiscal woes deepened, and as word got out, people became afraid to buy any Studebaker. On December 9, 1963, Studebaker announced that it was closing the South Bend plant. The last Avanti rolled off the line on New Year’s Eve. During the car’s 18-month production run, the manufacturer built just 4643 units.

America's Only Four-Passenger, High-Performance Personal Car

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That’s what Studebaker called the Avanti, adding, “It is a prestige car, a fast car, a safe car and certainly the most advanced car produced in America today.”

Enthusiast magazine reviews were mixed, but it was hard to deny those USAC speed records. Road & Track praised the car’s quick steering, stout brakes, cockpit layout and bucket seats, but panned its handling and lack of traction in hard turns. “Performance is good, but not spectacular,” they said. Car and Driver called it a “genuine high-performance GT car.” Motor Trend said it was hard to keep engine revs under redline, because once on the boost, “it just wants to keep going.” And Mechanix Illustrated wrote, “It has high style, good performance and more conversation-piece gimmicks than any car that is due to come from Detroit for some time.”

Although it sported an undeniably Space Age fiberglass skin–that body weighed only 550 pounds–underneath it the Avanti sprang from various parts bins. Studebaker pulled the 289-cubic-inch V8 from the Hawk, the frame and suspension from the Lark, the supercharger from Paxton, the manual and automatic transmissions from BorgWarner, the limited-slip rear from Dana, the front disc brakes (which were the same as the Jaguar E-Type’s) from Bendix/Dunlop, and the finned rear drums from Lockheed.

Engine options included the naturally aspirated R-1 (240 horsepower), the supercharged R-2 (289 horsepower) and the R-3, which was massaged by Andy Granatelli to produce 335 horsepower. Studebaker built only nine Avantis with the R-3 engine, but after the company stopped production, Granatelli bought the remaining R-3 engines and retrofitted a few Avantis with this potent option.

Turquoise Tornado

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Michael Chernago, who splits his time between New York and Florida, is a lifelong Studebaker fan who owns five examples ranging from the biggest, a rare Detroit Diesel-powered semi-trailer tractor, to the sportiest, his Avanti.

He says he wanted an Avanti ever since he spotted one being unloaded at a Pennsylvania dealership in 1963: “I looked for the right one on and off for 20 years.”

Michael found this well-equipped R-2 in 1997, not long after it had undergone a two-year, frame-off restoration using NOS parts. It came with extensive records, and he’s the sixth owner of this bone-stock example— which is considered by experts to be a prime, never-molested Avanti. The only change he’s made is to replace the factory 4:09:1 gears in the Twin-Traction rear end with a cruising-friendly 3:73:1 ratio.

Michael and his wife, Dottie, love the way the car drives and the attention it commands. They’re active in the Avanti Club of Florida, attend several shows a year, and have the trophies to prove it. He says that for an obscure, low-production car, the Avanti has amassed a large, international following. “The Florida club is one of the most active in the country, and the Avanti Owners Association International has a great magazine and great technical tips,” he reports. “There is a lot of support out there.”

Stock Avantis are difficult to find, not only because the cars were used hard and often modified, but also because they were overlooked by collectors for so long. As Michael says, “They didn’t have the inherent value of most collector cars, so people were reluctant to invest the money to restore them to original.”

That is starting to change. “Recently the original Studebaker Avantis, especially the supercharged ones, are getting more attention,” Michael observes. “In 2014 Dave Kinney’s ‘63 supercharged Avanti won the top award in the American Production Class at Amelia Island.”

A Pony Before the Mustang?

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Talk to Avanti owners today, and they believe their car makes a pretty good case for itself. The model hit the streets in the fall of 1962—nearly two years before the Mustang-with the now-familiar formula: V8 power, long-hood, short-deck styling, and front bucket seats.

The Avanti offered three engine choices, either manual or automatic transmission, and a host of performance options and advanced safety features. The Mustang and Avanti were similar performers, although the Avanti had a slight edge: Road & Track timed an R-2 from zero to 60 in 7.3 seconds versus 7.6 for a Hi-Po Mustang, and both cars topped out at around 120 mph. On paper, the 335-horsepower R-3 Avanti matched well against the Shelby GT350–at least in a straight line–and, don’t forget, held 29 speed records.

Even if the Avanti had been able to stick around, however, it couldn’t compete on price. A well-equipped Avanti cost around $5000, while a loaded V8 Mustang could be bought for $1000 less. Just about the time the Mustang roared out of the gates to storm the market with more than a million first-generation examples, Studebaker sank from sight, taking the Avanti with it.

It’s one of those coulda, woulda stories for the ages.

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