Studebaker Avanti - And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them?

In October 1963, Motor Trend ran an article on some of the new model year cars. Among them, the Studebaker Avanti.
In the sixties, the car industry was still woozy from the "cars should look like airplanes" trend of the fifties. Fins were shrinking and pretend rocket engines were slowly turning back into normal tail light lenses once again. If you ask me, the fifties were a  time of juvenile car design. Everybody was thrilled with the "space age" and anything that could be made to look like a rocket, should look like a rocket. Nobody seemed to bother to ask "why?". Why should a family car, that rarely if ever exceeds fifty miles per hour, have little wings on the back? Answer: Because grownups are just large children.

To be fair, this motivation hasn't really gone away. Four out of five 1990-something Honda Civics have a giant picnic table wing pop-riveted to the trunk because it "looks cool". never mind the fact that the car is front wheel drive and a rear wing is intended to provide downforce for the rear wheels which tend to break loose under hard cornering if and only if the car is rear wheel drive.

So, there we were, in 1963, with the entire American auto industry just staggering out of bed, wondering what it drank in the fifties, and tripping over an empty bottle of "Tail Fin Tequila". Then, Studebaker bursts in the front door, morning sunlight beaming in. Studebaker is bright and cheery, wondering if Buick, Chevy and Ford want to go jogging. This was the Studebaker Avanti. The Big Three invited Studebaker to go fuck itself.

The Avanti has always been a very modern car, especially considering the age of the design. There's not much to explain. You look at it and you think it's a 1986 something or other. Then somebody points out that it's a '63 Studebaker and you go "Whaaaaaaa??????". That's what I did.

When you say "Studebaker" to most people, they think of the '51 Studebaker Commander that Fozzie and Kermit drove in The Muppet Movie. This makes it even weirder that in 1962, Studebaker came up with the Avanti, a design that would look more at home twenty or thirty years in the future. I don't mean that in the "That car look like it's from the future." way. I mean that from the perspective of someone several decades in the future who thinks the design would be more at home here and now than in 1963 America.

By comparison, here's a picture of a 1964 Mustang - one of the Avanti's competitors and a car that enjoys a much bigger following than the Avanti. It looks pretty clunky by comparison, if you ask me.

The Studebaker factory closed in December 1963, two months after this issue of Motor Trend hit the shelves. There can be lots of reasons a business calls it quits, but one way of interpreting the closure is that people weren't ready for the Avanti. The rest of the industry still had to go 28 years before saying "Oooooh, I get it now!" and making a car that looked even a little bit like the Avanti.

After the death of Studebaker, the Avanti was still produced in small numbers through 1987, the tooling having been purchased by one entrepreneur after another, being built in small quantities for collectors and enthusiasts. That tells you something.

I'm trying to think of a current car that won't be appreciated fully for another twenty or so years. Well there's plenty of unforgivably ugly cars out there. The Pontiac Aztek, Toyota Venza, and any given SUV spring to mind. Does that mean we'll come around in a few decades to give them their due? I doubt that. What's super modern and misunderstood? Errr. If I knew that I'd be rich.


JOE said...

This article states: "After the death of Studebaker, the Avanti was still produced in small numbers through 1987, the tooling having been purchased by one entrepreneur after another, being built in small quantities for collectors and enthusiasts. That tells you something.

In fact Avanti’s were made in 90's and last Avanti produced was a 2007.

For a supprise to those who do not know of the power of the Studebaker Avanti go to You Tube and search Avanti Bonneville. Link -

An Avinti Owner

steve Miller said...

The last Avantis were actually named "AVX" -- reskinned* Firebirds... but a very successful reinterpretation of the original car. The designer was Tom Kellog. Kellog was part of the four-member team recruited by Raymond Loewy to create the original Studebaker Avanti.

Studebaker -- through its contracted design services from the Loewy organization -- had an astounding number of stunning designs. The 1946 "which way is it going" Starlight coupe, which presaged the "bullet nose" design so deeply associated with Studebaker, the 1953 "Loewy Coupe" (though the designer was Bob Bourke, the super salesman got the credit), and the Avanti. Also notable was Bourke's 1949 2-R pickup truck, whose design cues still live today in the Dodge RAM (heck, that grill cues the whole line today).

The 1946 Studabaker was the work of Virgil Exner, while he was still with Loewy. Exner would go on to head design at Chrysler in the '60s. He is the reason Chrysler, Plymouth, and Dodge designs were such interesting (and idiosyncratic) statements in comparison to rather bland Ford and GM products of the same age.

You could write a dissertation on the reasons for Studebaker's failure -- unions, the company's sense of paternalism, its mile-wide and inch-deep dealer network -- but the board of directors saw (and, arguably, worked for) the coming collapse of its auto business. An aggressive acquisition and diversification program transferred and protected the shareholders' assets, though it would take some research to come up with Studebaker-Worthington's full history.

*The Avanti was essentially a "Studebaker Lark in drag." But, oh! what drag! Cash strapped, the Lark was essentially the full-sized Studebaker of 1950-1958 with the nose and tail lopped off. The Lark continued to be produced in South Bend through December, 1963. Then, until the ultimate demise of Studebaker's car production in 1967, cars were built in Hamilton, Ontario. 1965 and 1966 models were powered by McKinnon (Canadian GM) engines as Studebaker's South Bend foundry was shuttered along with the car plants.

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