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» Home » Articles » Classic Car Reviews » Add - Classic Car Reviews » 1962 Studebaker Avanti Review

1962 Studebaker Avanti Review

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05/11/2009   By MURRAY HUBBARD  

There's only so often car makers can play automotive catch-up and survive. Henry Ford did it with the Model-T which lasted almost 20 years without major changes. Another American manufacturer, Studebaker was not so lucky. Yet, in the process of trying to go forward Studebaker of Southbend, Ohio went backward and created one of the great automotive tragedies. Studebaker Avanti. In some ways the Avanti was akin to a gamblers last big bet. A whopping, do-it-or-die, punt.

 
Studebaker Avanti 1963 front
 

Studebaker won the battle – the car was awesome – but lost the war. The company that manufactured automobiles was not making money. Even the streamlined, powerful, sleek, smooth, fast, fibreglass, Avanti, the car that was to be Studebaker's future, could not save Studebaker as a car maker. They simply closed the doors, laid off workers to concentrate on other money-making aspects of the business.

 
Studebaker Avant side rear view
 

Studebaker as a vehicle manufacturer was a victim of it's own poor management. Yet, the company facade – the cars themselves – were in many cases design masterpieces. We have featured on this site the Champion (below) and Commander cars from the flamboyant pen of the Raymond Loewy design studio – cars of the ilk not seen before, or since. Up against the likes of Ford and Chevrolet, Studebaker had the reputation for innovative design. The cars known as the `bullet-nose' led the brigade and were inspired by WW2 fighter aircraft. But, this was a fad. It drew customers into the showrooms in the very early 1950's but by the time they went to buy their next car, they expected the latest, modern design. At Studebaker that continual change and improvement was simply too slow.

 
 
Studebaker Champion

By the mid-1950s the company was struggling. They did not have the economies of scale of a high-production Ford or GM. What kept them going was the contemporary Lark. It was compact and economical. I can recall the Victoria Police Service using Larks and Cruisers in the late 1950s or early 1960s. At the same time as the Lark was used to chase down Melbourne crims the company produced the stunning Hawk, Golden Hawk and Gran Turismo (below) models.

 
Studebaker Hawk Gran Turismo
 

In the early 1960s even Lark sales faltered and the company's products were in desperate need of at least a face lift and at best, all-new models. In 1961 Sherwood Egbert took over the reins at Studebaker and his first priority was to order urgent styling updates to Lark (below) and Hawk. Egbert also realised this would not be enough to put Studebaker back on buyer's radar. A new flagship was needed. The quicker the better.

 
Studebaker Lark convertible
 

Loewy had not worked for Studebaker since the mid 1950s and a call was put out by Egbert to the industrial designer. He wanted nothing short of a dramatic new product. Loewy briefed a team of designers on what he wanted: Tom Kellogg, Bob Andrews and John Ebstein. What happened next borders on the incredible. They were basically locked up in a rented desert ranch near Palm Springs – with no hope of distractions – and worked for weeks up to 18 hours a day on the Avanti design. The brief had some basic tenents: the car must have a Coke-bottle sides and a wedge-style silhouette. Once again Loewy returned to an aviation theme and the interior had touches of a pilot's cabin. There was no grille as such, which gave the car a unique front, but an air scoop under the bumper to capture the breeze and cool the 289 cubic inch V8.

 
1963 Studebaker Avanti headlight
 

The Avanti – which means forward, the direction the car was supposed to take Studebaker – was built between 1962-64 and now enjoys cult status thanks to its radical design. It's about the same size as an early Ford Mustang and seats four passengers. From the rear it has similarities to Jensen Interceptor. It was ahead of its time with seat belts as an option, roll-over protection from a structural roll-cage and front disc brakes. The interior is simply breathtaking with a futuristic console and an instrument binnacle resembling the layout of a small aircraft. There's padding everywhere, great bucket seats, a ski-hatch and a beauty vanity for the passenger with pop-up mirror, make-up tray, accessory shelf and drinks tray. Despite the latest gimmickry Avanti rode on the shortened chassis of the Lark convertible. But, the Avanti was not just a pretty face. The R-1 variant of the 289 cubic inch V8 put out 240 hp (176 kW).

 
1963 Studebaker Avanti R-2
 

There was also an optional engine, complete with a Paxton supercharger (above)  that put out 1hp for every cubic inch at 289 hp or 215 kW. This was a massive amount of power for this era. It easily out-gunned Ford's 289 V8 and was not eclipsed by the blue oval until the 302 V8 came along in 1968. But it was not all smooth sailing. Studebaker had farmed out the fibreglass body to Molded Fiberglass Products that had been building Chevrolet Corvette bodies since 1954. Yet, there were alignment issues. This lead to delivery delays with dealers having full order books, and buyers went elsewhere. Build quality was not a new issue for Studebaker – it suffered from similar problems in the 1950s – with similar results. As I recall the Studebaker Cruisers used by the Victoria Police had problems with windscreens popping out for no reason, suggesting poor fit or excessive body flex.

 
1964 Studebaker Avanti front
 

In addition to the R-1 and R-2 engines American racing legend Andy Granatelli worked with Studebaker to build an R-3 engine for the Avanti. Despite the car not having been designed with the assistance of wind-tunnel aerodynamics, the car's streamlining was suited to high-speed. Granatelli delivered an engine with major modifications: new cylinder heads, larger valves, larger ports and aluminium intake manifold, high lift cam (it already had a ¾ race cam) and a Paxton supercharger atop a four-barrel Carter carby situated in a pressurised aluminium box.

 
1963 Studebaker Avanti headlight
 

In late 1962 Granatelli – who operated the famous STP oil and petrol additive products – took the R-3 Avanti to the Bonneville Salt Flats where he steered the car to a speed of 170.78 miles per hour (274.84 km/h). In all the Avanti R-3 set or broke 34 U.S. land speed records.

 
1964 Studebaker Avanti headlight
 

Too soon it was all over for Avanti and Studebaker. Just 4643 Avantis up to an R-4 engine were manufactured between June 1962 and December 1963 when the company closed the doors at the South Bend factory. The Avanti was gone as were the Gran Turismo Hawk and all utes and trucks. Production continued in Canada with Commanders, Daytonas and Cruisers using GM engines. Two Studebaker dealers purchased the Avanti name, body moulds, etc and continued to manufacture the Avanti, which has since gone through a succession of owners.

AVANTI SPECIFICATIONS

Engines:

1962-3: 289 ci R-1 V8 . 3.56mm bore X 3.63mm stroke 240 bhp/R-2 supercharged 290 bhp

1964: 304.5 ci R-3 V8 . 3.65mm bore X 3.63mm stroke 335 bhp

Transmissions: four speed manual and three speed auto.

Brakes: Front disc. Rear: drum

Suspension: Front Coil spring. Rear: leaf springs

Wheelbase: 109.0 inch

STUDEBAKER HISTORY


Postage stamp of Studebaker Avanti
 

Somehow I can't just imagine driving a car called a Staudenbecker. Which is probably why none were produced. For that we can thank immigration clerks in Philadelphia who had trouble with pronouncing and spelling German names. So when the Staudenbecker family arrived in the U.S. in the early part of the 18th century to escape persecution, war, religious conflicts and lack of freedom they probably did not care too much if their name was misspelled. After all they had arrived in the land of opportunity. According to Studebaker family history the names written down by the clerks included Studenbecker, Studebaker, Studibaker and Studabaker ... among other variations.

The family were tradesmen – blademakers – and several went into blacksmithing and wagon-making ... an obvious transition, after all this was the wild-west era. Many of the Studebaker family settled in Ohio which is where they found many buyers for their wagons, particularly the Conestoga wagon. One family, that of John Studebaker, raised five sons who went into wagon building with two of the boys, Clement and Henry joining forces as the Studebaker Wagon Company.

But, the real start of the Studebaker success story can be put down to the humble wheelbarrow in a story that has many parallels with the Australian gold rush of the 1850s. Another Studebaker brother, John Mohler Studebaker headed west to California for the 1949 gold rush. When he got their he realised the best claims were already taken and saw an opportunity instead to service the miners. As a wagon-builder it was not hard to adapt his skills to making wheelbarrows – and rugged ones at that – to sell to those toiling in the diggings. In short, he made a killing and returned home to Ohio after the gold had dried up with a handsome sum of $8000. This money was injected into the Studebaker Wagon Company enabling it to go into mass production.

The Studebaker wagons had a fine reputation for being strongly built and able to withstand a lot of hard treatment so Studebaker was able gain contracts for wagons with the Union army during the American Civil War. In 1902 the company started producing automobiles and again played a significant part in a war – The Great War – manufacturing wagons, trucks, ambulances, tankers, gun carriages and various other vehicles for the American war effort. As noted in another Studebaker story on the mister-cars web site in classic cars, the Studebaker US6 truck also played a major role in WW2. (Information courtesy Studebaker Family National Association)


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