A life of highs and Loewys. Two years as a Studebaker spawned a colourful run spanning decades.
Raymond Loewy was a designer from a time before the term meant someone who sketches a new frock every six months. The French-born Loewy, who died in 1986, aged 92, spent most of his career in the US, where his industrial designs included streamlined locomotives and Greyhound buses, and his graphic designs included logos for Hoover, Shell and Studebaker. Loewy began working with Studebaker in 1936, and during World War II collaborated with chief designer Virgil Exner on post-war models including the Starlight coupe and the Hawk. However, all was not well at Studebaker, which entered an uncomfortable merger in 1954 with Packard. In 1961, company president Sherwood Egbert commissioned Loewy to design a high-performance, luxury 2+2 coupe to elevate the marque.
The body styling, sparked by a loose sketch by Egbert, went from drawing board to April 1962 show car in 13 months. The long, enclosed nose and tucked Italian tail demanded production in fibreglass, the body mounted to a shortened Studebaker Lark chassis. It carried the company’s most potent, 4.7-litre Jet Thrust V8, with an optional supercharged R2 version.
Egbert targeted 20,000 Avantis per year, and the pricing was attractive, the Avanti’s US$4445 being just $193 more than a Corvette Sting Ray coupe. Only 3834 were built for the 1963 model year and 809 for ’64. In December ’63, Studebaker’s nosediving sedan sales forced the closure of the South Bend, Indiana plant, and with it, Avanti production ceased.
In 1965, South Bend Studebaker dealer Newman & Altman bought the rights to the design. Using a Corvette 5.3-litre V8 and with bodies by Molded Fibreglass Co, the Avanti II was built at around 100-165 per year, until the company was sold in 1982.
The new owner introduced 1980s styling cues, like a chin spoiler and rectangular headlights, and added a convertible. Annual production reached 289 cars in 1983, but three years later a new owner was taking over the bankrupted business, re-engineering the Avanti for GM’s G-body (Chev Monte Carlo) chassis. Around 400 cars, including 90 awkward four-door variants, were produced before this venture faltered in 1991. Since then, there have been fits and starts, with handfuls of Avantis built from 2001, on Pontiac and then Ford Mustang chassis. Production moved to Mexico in early 2006 but ceased that December when the company’s owner was arrested for financial fraud. It’s believed that only 3446 Avantis have been built since 1965, still short of Studebaker’s 4643.
Initial 1963 Avantis had round headlights, ’64s square-framed. European themes abounded, including asymmetric bonnet hump, offset front badge, grille-less nose and Italian rear, sporty instrumentation, front bucket seats, front hydraulic disc brakes, anti-roll bars (leaf-spring rear) and optional LSD. Kerb weight was 1404kg.
The R1 version’s Jet Thrust (10.25:1 compression, solid lifters, four-barrel Carter carbs, dual exhaust) made 179kW at 5000rpm/380Nm at 4200rpm (0-100km/h 8.6sec via a three-speed auto; three/ four-speed manuals were offered). Supercharged R2s with a 0.3 bar boost made 215kW/411Nm. The R3 had a 300kW 5.0-litre blown V8.
AVANTIS BUILT IN 1962-’63
OVERALL LENGTH, IN MILLIMETRES 4643
R3 VERSIONS BUILT, WITH MODS BY GRANATELLI RACING 9