Studebaker’s Avanti: American
Design Dream of the Future
Written by Auto designer Raffi Minasian who knew Tom Kellogg.
In 1962 the world of fashion, design, and cultural norms were changing faster than we could keep track. Television was in more than 90% of all American homes. We welcomed the dashing and hatless John F. Kennedy, the European-influenced First Lady Jackie, and the commercial novelty of TV dinners. Lasers were being developed for warfare, the supersonic Concorde offered the dream of high speed commercial travel, John Glenn became the first man in outer space, Kennedy announced that we would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade and the Beatles released their first hit single “Love Me Do”. 1962 also spawned the clever animated TV comedy “The Jetsons” featuring the life of an average family in 2062. And, in the middle of a damp Northwestern outpost, the 1962 World’s Fair featured the now iconic Space Needle – Seattle’s monumental triumph of politics and futurism.
Amidst the Camelot of the Kennedy presidency and the dawn of a technologically fueled decade, four men assembled in Palm Springs, California to do what no other car company had ever done before – design and build a production-ready car in ONE year. The result would be “the car that would save Studebaker”. Inspired by the highly motivated Sherwood Egbert, President of the financially troubled Studebaker Corporation, Egbert convinced Studebaker’s Board of Directors that an all-new car of radical design, featuring new technology would change Studebaker’s conservative image and favorably alter its destiny. The Studebaker Avanti would be on the road to production in less than a year.
Raymond Loewy (left) with Sherwood Egbert and an Avanti
Rayond Loewy, by far the most well known member of the Avanti team, had become recently acquainted with a young graduate of the Art Center School, Tom Kellogg. Approached by Loewy, after a short stint in Detroit with Ford, the young Kellogg jumped at the chance to work in Palm Springs on this secret project. Kellogg favored clean and simple bodylines from European coachbuilders and was not shy in voicing his aesthetic opinions using his brilliant pencil sketches. Flanked by John Ebstein (an industrial designer and key person in the Loewy Studios) and Bob Andrews (clay modeler), the Avanti team developed a 1:8 scale clay model in a matter of weeks. The concept was accepted instantly by Studebaker management and immediately developed for market release.
The Avanti design team in Palm Springs: John Ebstein (l), Loewy, Bob Andrews (with pipe) and Tom Kellogg (r).
Loewy put his name on this early drawing of the Avanti as the design took shape. Loewy was known to do that – it was his company – but the drawing may actually be by Tom Kellogg.
Complete with safety innovations including front disc brakes (a first for an American production car), an integrated roll bar, a safety padded dash, and tinted glass, the Avanti also featured performance upgrades including two supercharged engine options. Effective use of the existing Studebaker Lark convertible chassis assisted the speed and cost savings required for this ambitious project.
Much has been written about the Avanti, the team of people who designed it and the factors that contributed to the demise of Studebaker. Although Studebaker saw the Avanti as a vision for their future and spent millions of dollars chasing that dream, it was simply not to be. Production problems, cost overruns, delivery issues, and internal management challenges plagued the Avanti project. Ironically, the Avanti ended up contributingto the demise rather than diverting it. Studebaker would indeed go out of business, but the Avanti would live on under the direction of the Altman brothers with the Avanti II continuing production for decades through different ownership.
From a design perspective, the Avanti never received universal praise or recognition as one of the most significant cars of the post war era partly because it was tied to the demise of Studebaker. Conceptualized in a world where space exploration, elliptical orbital paths, parabolic arcs, and radical aviation were deeply influencing design, the Avanti was conceived without a single straight line. Although brilliantly conceptual and way ahead of the curve, the concept itself was nearly doomed as a visual statement of advanced technology by the time it was released. For all the glory of 1962, the astonishing national reach toward the future, the vision of plastics changing our world, and the goals and aspirations of our Jetsonian future, it was all changing too fast for even this Bonneville land speed record breaker to catch. The Avanti, built and produced in record time, was too slow to outpace the movement of culture, the speed of lasers, and the microprocessors that would eclipse the instantly “dated” Avanti. Yes it was new, advanced, and visually remarkable. But it was a vision brought to market for a public that perhaps was only ready to dream about it through cartoon characters and novel Space Needles void of office space.
What the Avanti did accomplish, however, was to capture one of the most important moments in the American Dream and build it in a vehicle for the future. The Avanti would come to symbolize our national hope and vision for a future with flying cars, telephonic video communication, high-speed air travel, and slick executive lifestyles. Radical changes would come overnight in November of 1963 when America would awaken abruptly from their dreams as they watched in horror the events unfold from a Texas book depository and nearby grassy knoll. While we often hope for our future, dream about the way it might be and visualize it in our daily appliances, the world of 1962 evaporated as we deployed troops to Vietnam, passionate civic leaders were murdered before our very eyes, as civil rights protests escalated, gas wars emerged, and recession enveloped our country.
The Avanti will always embody a perfect conceptual capture of a time we will never see again. Delivered without corporate rumination, untainted by focus-group homogenization, and brought to life with modern safety and performance technology, the Avanti did what few American production cars dare to do – it left a legacy of emotional aspirations for all of us who dream about a future that may never be, but still persevere in the search for something new.
Above: Few cars represent the Mid-Century Modern design ethic as well as does Studebaker’s Avanti. Below: A row of Avantis at the annual Palm Springs Avanti event.
Tom Kellogg in later years. Kellogg died on 19 August 2003 after a car accident in Orange County. He was 71.
Kellogg, who had lived in Irvine for many years, died at Hoag Memorial Hospital – Presbyterian in Newport Beach, where he was taken after his Mercedes-Benz hit a center divider while he was driving to lunch. He had suffered for many years from congestive heart failure and lung disorders, sustained several broken ribs in the accident, which destroyed his car.