It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if you were to say that you had never heard of the Studebaker Avanti. After all, it lasted for just a couple of years, managing a production run of only around 1600 units. So why celebrate a failure? Well, because the Avanti was years ahead of its time.
Studebaker was in a financially precarious position in the early 1960s, and its new boss, Sherwood Egbert, thought a luxury coupé would revive the brand and be a commercial success, much like the Ford Thunderbird. He enlisted the French-born US industrial designer Raymond Loewy – whose CV included Lucky Strike packaging, Coca-Cola vending machines and the Greyhound Scenicruiser bus (Google it) – to pen Studebaker’s last hope.
Within six weeks, they had created a full-scale model that was promptly named Avanti – Italian for forward. It had numerous novelties, such as aircraft-style switches in the interior, an integrated roll-cage and front disc brakes – a first for an American production car. Also, its ‘face’ was devoid of a grille, with this being placed below the bumper in a bid to make the car look more streamlined.
To speed up production, the body was made from fibreglass and sat atop the chassis of the existing Lark compact car. However, early quality control problems delayed orders, with back windows popping out at high speeds and tolerances being a bit hit and miss. Impatient customers simply cancelled their orders and took their business elsewhere.
But if they had just held out, they would have found that the Avanti was an exceedingly good car, and faster than most in supercharged form. A souped-up one set 29 production-car speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats, hitting 178.5mph on one run.
The example we found for sale in the UK may not be quite so fast, but it is a Paxton-supercharged car with a manual gearbox instead of the rather lethargic three-speed automatic. It has also had a few subtle upgrades to make it more usable in today’s traffic.
And it would be a shame to hide away something so pretty. Although the Avanti couldn’t save Studebaker, it was a remarkable achievement, given the circumstances, and deserving of greater recognition.