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 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 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.
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)
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Wheelbase: 109.0 inch
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