Doomed: Studebaker Avanti - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Doomed: Studebaker Avanti
Studebaker Avanti (Shutterstock/Barry Blackburn)

If you’ve ever hunted deer, you know that a dead deer can run for a surprising distance before it realizes it’s dead.

So it was with Studebaker, one of America’s most famous deceased car companies. Though doomed by competition it could no longer compete with — the company wasn’t making enough money selling cars to have money to design and manufacture new cars — it had one last leap left in it.

This was the Avanti — the final Studebaker.   

It is a car many people still know about today, even people who couldn’t tell you anything about Studebaker. Probably in part because of its arrestingly original appearance but also because even after Studebaker went for a sleep with the fishes in 1966 (two years after the last Studebaker-built car rolled off the line) the Avanti resurrected itself a number of times, as various interested parties acquired the right to the name and the tooling needed to build more of them.

But the last one made by Studebaker was back in ’63 (for the ’64 model year) a mere one year after the car was first brought out as the last-best hope for Studebaker.

It’s a shame that Studebaker didn’t make it sooner.

By the time it did, it was already too late.

In the early ‘60s, the South Bend, Indiana, automaker was rapidly running out of money, despite a merger with Packard (also doomed) in 1956 that was supposed to have pumped up the bottom line by merging the means of two companies into one.

But Packard — by 1956 — was about as healthy as Colin Powell in 2021.

Though favored By Stalin, after the war, Americans had lost interest in Packards — which had once ranked with and even ahead of Cadillacs and Lincolns … before the war. Probably because after the war, Cadillac and Lincoln began outfitting their cars with modern overhead valve V8s while post-war Packards were still powered by increasingly obsolete flathead in-line sixes and eights that dated to the  pre-war era. These were installed in controversial body shapes that one automotive writer — the legendary Tom McCahilll of Modern Mechanix — dubbed as having the appearance of “a dowager in a Queen Mary Hat.”

Attempts were made to make post-war Packards more appealing to other-than-dowagers, including the ’53 Caribbean convertible — which was supposed to sway potential buyers away from Cadillacs and Lincolns.

But it was like using a squeegee on the Titanic’s windshield to prevent her from sinking.

Nothing could stop the deluge — or rather, the hemorrhage. GM and Ford sensed Packard’s weakness and made for the kill by under-pricing their popular models, management knowing they could afford to eat the loss — but Packard (and Studebaker) could not.

Even combined.

The merger did result, temporarily, in America’s fourth-largest car company — the Studebaker-Packard Corporation. But the underlying problems weren’t resolved; rather they were concentrated. For a few years, Studebakers were sold as Packards — or rather, an attempt was made to sell them that way. Not many bought them. Also, Packard’s number-crunchers had apparently not been fully aware of just how broke Studebaker was until after the merger, when it was too late to erase the signatures on the contracts.

But Packard would not go down alone.

Just first.

Packard ceased even trying to sell cars after 1958, leaving that to the Studebaker remainder of the partnership. There were some interesting models, such as the Lark series, which were among the first cars American of the era designed to appeal to the emerging youth market and as alternatives to small, economy-minded cars from European manufacturers.

The cars were offered in two and four-door versions as well as a two-and-four-door wagon iterations. A convertible was added to the mix in 1960 (1959 being the first year for the Lark series). Despite offering a modern V8 engine as an option and features such as a folding cloth “Skytop” roof, these Studebakers weren’t able to make much headway against the offerings of GM, Ford, Chrysler and even the Nash-Hudson combo that became AMC (not yet terminal; the death of AMC being still decades in the future).

Apparently, economy wasn’t doing the trick.

Maybe something beautiful would    

Raymond Loewy was just the man to conjure it up.

He had been doing so for the past 30 years-plus.

Technically he was an industrial designer. But his work was art. Many today do not register his name. But everyone knows what a Coca-Cola bottle looks like. Loewy designed that. Also the blue over white with gold trim and black lettering color scheme applied to Air Force One, which he did at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy for JFK’s Boeing 707.

Prior to that, he penned the iconic look of the Streamliner (GGI) class of high-speed electric locomotives operated by the Pennsylvania Railroad, beginning in 1934.

These showcased a number of innovations, including a frame that could bend slightly at a center joint (using a ball and socket to connect the two halves) which allowed for higher speed around curves. But it was their rifle-bullet looks that made them industrial-era icons.  

Perhaps such a man could get Studebaker back on track. The president of the company, Sherwood Egbert, approached Loewy to see whether he might be willing to give it a try. What he came up with — in just six week’s time — was what ultimately became the 1963 Avanti, the last and arguably best car Studebaker ever produced.

It was without question one of the most distinctive-looking cars ever made, especially up to then. It was ultra-modern and sleek, characteristic of Loewy’s designs. The car was almost entirely free of the over-styled chromed embellishments that were typical of Americans cars of the period, It was streamlined, like JFK’s 707. There was no grill — perhaps the most striking thing about the car’s appearance. Cooling air for the engine was drawn from underneath the slim-line bumper that protected the twin pontoons of each front fender, with the headlights set flush in a body-colored panel that greatly enhanced the Avanti’s aerodynamics as well as completely set it apart visually from any other car on the road.

Viewed from the side, the car seemed poised to launch, with the rear suggestively higher than the front, like a cat getting ready to end an unsuspecting bird.

From behind the wheel, the road ahead was targeted by a raised “gunsight” that tapered from the cowl area to the forward part of the hood, where a stylized Studebaker lightning bolt emblem was affixed.

Loewy described this as designed to point “where the roadway would bend with the horizon.” The long hood was offset by a shortened trunk, which the passenger compartment seemed to flow toward over a large and very complex convex rear glass that provided a panorama view of what you’d just left behind.

Which was pretty much every car on the road back in ’63.

Three engines were available, beginning with a 289 cubic inch V8 advertising 240 horsepower. This was not a Ford 289 V8 engine. It was an entirely different engine, designed and built by Studebaker rather than bought from Ford and installed — as a number of people mistakenly assume. The R1 289 that became the Avanti’s standard engine was the latest iteration of Studebaker’s first post-war, overhead valve V8, which emulated the design of Cadillac’s first (1949) post-war OHV V8, the 331.These two engines are so close — in some ways — that a Cadillac intake will bolt directly to a Studebaker V8, although the ports won’t line up without some hogging out.

No parts except a few bolts interchange with a Ford small block V8.

It was not a large displacement V8 — as the Cadillac V8 eventually became. Its capacity was limited by piston design, which did not emulate the Cadillac’s “slipper” pistons. The Studebaker V8’s stroke was thus limited, hence its displacement — which was initially 232 cubic inches.

But it was a strong engine, with a big, heavy cast iron block that could safely handle high horsepower.  Bearing surfaces were large — especially for its size — and there were a number of unique design elements not shared with Cadillac’s V8, including a gear-driven camshaft. GM — and Ford’s — V8s as well as almost every other V8 used a timing chain, which would inevitably stretch over time, causing timing problems. Also unlike almost post-war V8s, the Studebaker V8 used mechanical rather than hydraulic lifters to open and close the valves. The latter offered the benefit of quieter running and zero maintenance — but the former allowed for higher RPM operation, because solid lifters don’t “float” at high RPM — which is why many of the highest-performance V8s offered by GM and Ford and others in the ‘60s also used solid  lifters.  

The 232 Studebaker V8 summoned 120 horses — which was competitive with the power produced by other early post-war OHV V8s, such as those offered by Cadillac and Oldsmobile (RIP). By 1955, the Commander V8 — as it was marketed by Studebaker — was making 162 horses – and up to 259 cubic inches. Better breathing — via larger intake and exhaust ports — were chiefly responsible for the power gains.

Even more power was gained when Studebaker decided to offer a factory supercharger option — available initially with the Golden Hawk of the late ‘50s. This “Sweepstakes” engine — now up to 289 cubic inches — developed 275 horses.

Engine — and car — would merge in 1963.

The R1 289 — and 240 horsepower — was just for openers. The R2 supercharged version belted (literally, the Paxton supercharger was mechanically driven by an accessory belt) out 290 horsepower. And if that wasn’t enough power, there was a third version — the R3. This was a very low production, also supercharged but custom-tweaked by Paxton’s Andy Granatelli who took an R3 Avanti up to 170-plus MPH on the Bonneville Salt Flats setting a new Class C production car speed record.

Avantis’ with the R1 engine weren’t quite that fast — top speed for them was just over 120 MPH. But they were pretty quick, capable of getting from zero to 60 in about nine seconds. This was excellent performance for the time but if more was desired, the R2 engine knocked two full seconds off the 0-60 run, making a ’63 Avanti one of the quickest cars available that year.

But as good as it looked — and as fast as it ran — the ’63 Avanti was a bit too forward for Studebaker, at the time. While the fiberglass used for the car’s body allowed for shapes that would have been difficult to render in stamped steel, fiberglass is also notorious for fit and finish problems and these plagued the Avanti, delaying and limiting production of the car and causing bad feelings among people who bought the handful of cars that were trickling off the line.

The scheduled release date of 1962 — as a new-for-1963 model — ended up being almost 1963. Only about 1,200 cars were shipped during the 1962 calendar year — and just under 4,000 cars in total were made during the 1963 calendar year. This was nowhere near the production volume necessary to make rather than lose money on the car — and by 1963, losing more money was something Studebaker could no longer afford.

The smell of death was in the air by now — and despite the Avanti’s stunning styling, buyers were shying away from a company that everyone could see was teetering on the edge of the grave. Few people want to buy a car orphaned by the demise of its parent. Parts and service dry up. Warranties aren’t worth much when the company that issued them no longer exists.

Avanti sales declined by more than two thirds for what proved to be the final year — for the Studebaker Avanti. However — and fortunately, for those who admire the Avanti — the car survived Studebaker, which bequeathed life after death to its final model by selling the tooling for the Avanti as well as the rights to produce it to Nathan Altman and Leo Newman, two Studebaker dealers who wanted to keep the Avanti alive.

It became the Avanti II — and was sold as the sole model of the new Avanti Motor Corporation. Visually, it was almost the same car but was now mechanically very different. With Studebaker gone, there were no new 289 Studebaker V8s available. So the Avanti II’s got Chevy-made 327 V8s, making 300 horses. The Chevy V8 was taller than the Studebaker V8, so the Avanti II’s hood and fenders had to be adjusted upward to make it fit.

It still didn’t sell especially well — probably because the Avanti II cost almost 50 percent more than a Studebaker-made (and powered) Avanti. This recreated the money problems that felled Studebaker. But the allure of the car was strong enough to keep Altman and Newman hanging in there through the early ’80s — and sufficient enough to persuade investor Stephen Blake to attempt another infusion of enthusiasm.

And cash.

A significant restyle was performed that shaved off the external chromed bumpers of the original car in favor of the then-trending (and now common) integrated/body-colored front and rear bumper covers along with an attempt to build a national dealer network to get the cars to potential buyers.

But ongoing problems with quality control — arising from lack of adequate funds to correct them — finally did to the Avanti II what they had done to Studebaker all those years before. The Avanti Motor Corporation went belly up in 1986 — 20 years to the year after Studebaker went for a permanent sleep with the fishes.

It is perhaps the only case in the history of cars of a dying car company’s last car being its most memorable and — arguably — its best car.

. . .

Studebaker Avanti (and Avanti II) Trivia:

    • The ’63-’64 Avanti offered three versions of the “Jet Thrust” 289 Studebaker V8 along with three different transmission options. There were two manual transmissions (a three and a four speed) as well as a three-speed automatic designed in-house by Studebaker. This transmission was set up for second-gear starts – for the sake of smoothness – unless the driver applied throttle pressure sufficient to force a downshift into first.        
    • Because its body was made entirely of fiberglass, the Avanti was a very light car for its size – and otherwise. Curb weight was just over 3,100 pounds. This was in keeping with Studebaker’s design philosophy and Raymond Loewy’s dictum that “weight is the enemy.”                  
    • Studebaker marketed the ’63 Avanti as being “America’s only four-passenger high-performance personal car,” anticipating (and inspiring) the muscle car explosion that began in 1964 with the introduction by Pontiac of the Tempest GTO. Studebaker hoped that the Avanti’s back seats would serve as a sales advantage over the two-seater Chevy Corvette and Ford Thunderbird.       
    • Standard equipment included power Bendix disc brakes, pleated “deluxe” vinyl upholstery and aircraft-style toggle switches, along with rear seat belts and a center console up front. Air conditioning was an available option – but only with the R1 (non supercharged) engine.        
    • The R2’s Paxton supercharger developed about 4.5 pounds of boost, which was sent through a Carter AFB four barrel carburetor housed in a special enclosed chamber to prevent pressurized air from escaping. The engine received a heavy-duty cooling system, a larger harmonic balancer and was equipped with a dual-point distributor. 
    • Though the Avanti’s bodywork is unique, its underlying chassis and suspension were based on the Lark series and many parts interchange.
    • Just before the lights went out for good, Studebaker had been developing an even higher-performance R4 variant of the 289 V8, which had its displacement bumped up to 304 cubic inches. However, none of these were event installed in a production car.

Excerpted from the forthcoming (soon!) book, Doomed.

Eric Peters
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