Reaching back to the days of the Conestoga Wagon that helped carry the nation westward, Studebaker had a long and storied history. It was one of the few buggy and wagon manufacturers to make a successful transition into the car business. For a long while, Studebaker enjoyed a reputation for quality and innovation through much of its time, but by the early sixties the company was in a difficult financial position. Studebaker's president, Sherwood Egbert, decided that a showroom traffic builder was needed and called upon the talents of an old friend of Studebaker, industrial designing legend Raymond Loewy, to come up with something new.
Values stuck (R1)
Some parts difficult to source
Loewy's last major contribution to the company had come with the chic, bold and stylish 1953 line-up, which to some degree was still in use when this new project was being organized. Going through a number of tasteful facelifts, the Hawk family of cars was still in production, and for 1962 a new Gran Turismo would use the original basic body shell once again. But these were based on old designs and Egbert felt that a new bold, fresh look based on the Lark's platform (there was no money available for a new platform) would serve to build showroom traffic and give sales a shot in the arm.
In addition to his work for Studebaker, Loewy had accomplished a number of other important designs including the line of Coldspot refrigerators and appliances, the familiar Shell Oil company logos and just before the Avanti the graphics for a new passenger jet called Air Force One.
In March 1961, Loewy was given the basic design parameters for this new Studebaker sports model, and immediately went to work. He gathered a trio of talented designers and shuttled them to a secret location where they could work undisturbed. Time was of the essence. They chose a rather comfortable house in Palm Springs, California, that just happened to be President Egbert's home, and wasted no time getting to work. Loewy, along with Robert "Bob" Andrews, John Ebstein and Thomas Kellogg, started with a few basic ideas borrowing from some previous Loewy works such as a specially created BMW 507 coupe that he had totally redesigned. Working around the clock in just ten days they emerged from the house with drawings and a rough 1/8th scale model of a design dripping with both elegance and style.
Working at a very rapid clip, a full-size mock-up was produced back in South Bend by the end of April 1961 with only a few minor changes from the original concept. By June of that year, a test-mule running prototype was on the road with further refinements incorporated on a daily basis. With sales and cash dwindling, Studebaker needed help in a hurry, so approval was given to go ahead with production of the new Avanti.
Using the classic formula of a long hood, compact passenger cabin and almost no rear deck at all, the team's swooping back-slant front end and rakish front A-pillars translated into speed standing still. Among the major changes initiated into the production units that differed from the original proposals was the heavier accented "Coke bottle" pinched waistline Loewy had taken from Formula race cars, a dual-headlight system rather than a quad set-up and a reduction to the slant of the A-pillar after Egbert complained about getting into and out of the driver's seat. In order to keep expenses in check, the new Avanti's body would be constructed of fiberglass. Bumper to bumper this new Studebaker measured out at 16 feet.
From its under-the-bumper air intakes for engine cooling to the unique wrap-around backglass, the Loewy team's design was a winner from every angle. Trend-setting and stylish, Avanti looked liked nothing on the road. Inside was distinctive, too. Executed in the European GT tradition, The Avanti was well appointed and sported bucket seats, console, floor mounted shifter and a well designed dashboard with full gauges.
Powering the new Avanti was a 289 cubic inch V8 engine. Standard was the "R-1" version which featured 10.25:1 compression, four-barrel intake and 240 horses. The optional "R-2" version was topped off with a Paxton supercharger, 9.0:1 compression and pumped out 289 horses. Production of the R-2 totaled 1,883. The third, the R-3, is extremely rare, with reportedly only 9 installed in 1964 models. It was tuned to a whopping 335hp.
Shifting the Avanti was done through a standard manual three speed, or the optional "Power-Shift" automatic. Those who really were performance minded could opt for the four-speed manual supplied to Studebaker from Borg-Warner. Less than 500 customers did. Stiffer suspension packages were used to improve this new sporty Studebaker's handling and - unheard of in an American car - Dunlop front disc brakes were included in keeping with the its performance appeal.
One of the biggest promoters of Studebaker in the early 1960s was Andy Granatelli, who used an R3 experimental variation of the production 289 in a highly modified Avanti at the Daytona Speed Weeks to establish 29 new records. This fete whetted the appetites of the journalists in attendance and volumes of positive ink were penned on the newest product from South Bend.
Despite a superb advertising campaign with a catch line, "Performance car... for first nighters", which expressed both the speed and luxury available, combined with the kudos from the motoring press, just 3,834 customers could be rounded up to buy a new Avanti for the model year 1963, its first season.
A few minor details were added to the 1964 version, most notably the use of rectangular headlight bezels introduced shortly after the model year started. Improved interior appointments included the use of wood-grain appliques on the dash board and console, plus smoother more rounded control knobs on the dashboard.
Unfortunately, the Avanti came too late to help the ailing company. At the end of December 1963, just a few months into the 1964 model year, Studebaker closed down its South Bend, Indiana, assembly plant, shifting all future production to their Canadian facilities. There were no plans for Avanti to make the move, so just 809 were rolled off the line for '64. All in all a total 4,633 Avantis were produced, and then they were gone.
With the use of fiberglass bodies there is nothing to worry about in regards to panel rust-out. However, when checking out an Avanti there are several areas that should be given a close look. First and foremost is the chassis, as winter weather and corrosive materials can wreak havoc here. As with early Corvettes, careful inspection of the body for repairs and stress cracks should be completed both outside and inside all panels. Look for little things like water leaks or staining around the windshield and backglass. Desirable options are factory air conditioning (R-1 only) and power windows.
In addition to the R1 and R2 versions of the Studebaker 289ci V8, there was also a two-barrel edition that was available in other Studebaker models and some of these could have found their way into an Avanti over the years. Fortunately, during 1963 and 1964, the Avanti engines could be ordered in most other passenger car models including the Challenger, Commander, Daytona and the Gran Turismo Hawk, so there is a fair supply of them. While many of the Avanti's other mechanical bits came right from the corporate parts bin, some of its specific parts can be difficult to find, so take that into consideration when making an offer on one.
Fortunately, despite being out of production for over 40 years, there is a strong support network for Avanti owners in securing both mechanical parts and some trim and body items. There are several owner groups and Avantis are most welcome in the Studebaker Drivers Club, one of the larger single-marque organizations in the world.
Unlike some cars that become orphans, the Avanti was treasured by its owners. From the moment they went out of production clubs and groups started to gather to celebrate these unique vehicles. Curiously, despite their positive appeal, their prices have lagged behind other sports coupes from this era.
One of the great mysteries of the collector car world (to us, anyway) is the relatively low value of all Avantis. With all it's attributes, it doesn make sense. The Avanti even has a strong international following. Yes, values have slowly and steadily risen over the years, but barely moved during the big muscle car run up. You can get in a #3, low option, R1 car for well under $20,000, and even a #1 tops out in the thirties. Add another 30% or so for the R-2, still quite a bargain. Short term, we look for these values to hold steady, regardless of the overall collector car market. Eventually, though, they've got to break out. Update 2019: The R2, fully restored now commands $100,000, with an R1 settling in the $40,000 range. Incredibly, you can still pick up that #3 R1 for less than $20,000 all day long, actually making cheaper today (in constant dollars) than it was when this article was first written!
(C) Copyright 2004- VMR International, Inc. All rights reserved. This article first appeared in the May 2004 issue of Collector Car & Truck Market Guide, with additional information from a 2008 Market Snapshot. It was further updated in 2019.