Introducing the Studebaker Avanti
Perennially struggling Studebaker had saved itself by introducing the compact Lark for the 1959 model year but by 1961 was on the ropes again, having lost sales to the compact cars introduced by “the Big Three” for the 1960 model year.
Rather than investing in its car business after its profitable 1959 model year, Studebaker succumbed to the corporate fad du jour of becoming a “conglomerate.” The B-School theory behind conglomerates was that by buying different types of businesses, corporations could offset a down cycle in one part of their business with an up cycle in another. It looked good on paper and Studebaker bought into the theory. They took the money earned by the Lark – their first profitable year since the early 1950s – and bought Paxton Superchargers, Onan Electric, Garvey Plastics, STP Oil Treatment – and they even bought an airline, for heaven’s sake! The Paxton and STP purchases made sense. The airline – well, not so much …
Many on the Studebaker board of directors wanted to close the automobile operations. Newly-purchased Paxton was run by a Marine with the unlikely name of Sherwood Harry Egbert. The board tapped Egbert to run the automobile operations – with the directive to shut it down. Egbert wasn’t a “car guy,” but when he arrived at Studebaker in February of 1961, he quickly became one. Contrary to his directive from the board, he made a heroic effort to save Studebaker’s car business.
To that end, Egbert hired designer Brooks Stevens to make over the main line cars and he contacted Raymond Loewy to bring to life an image-building sporty car he had sketched out on a paper napkin. The result Loewy and his team produced was the Avanti, introduced at the New York Auto Show in April of 1962.
The Loewy team completed the design in 40 days. Studebaker did itself credit by cobbling together from its parts bins what became America’s most advanced automobile with the Avanti.
With neither money nor time to tool for an all-metal car, Studebaker made the Avanti a fiberglass-bodied car using a beefed up Lark convertible frame. They chose as their body supplier the same company that built bodies for the Chevrolet Corvette. But the producer of the bodies, Molded Fiber Glass Body Company, did a poor job with the initial bodies – and was receiving considerable pressure from GM in the form of threats to move Corvette body production elsewhere. The upshot of this was that Studebaker was forced to move Avanti body production in-house. This caused considerable delays in filling orders for the stunning new car – and it cost Studebaker thousands of sales become of cancelled orders. The botched introduction of the Avanti mirrored the botched introduction of the 1953 Studebaker Starliner/Starlight coupes.
Only about 4,300 Avantis were built, but a surprising number survive. It is a handsome design that has aged well.
Here is a fun promotional film Studebaker produced to introduce the Avanti.
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From napkin sketch to production: Bringing the Avanti to life:
The sketch below was done by Loewy himself:
Raymond Loewy (left) and Sherwood Egbert with an Avanti:
Old Car Oddities
(Hat tip: “Shirl”)