The Staff of Motorsport Marketing
The Staff of Motorsport Marketing Writer
7/23/18 3:03 p.m.


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Story and Photos by John Webber

Although it’s best known today for its distinctive styling, back in the fall of 1962 Studebaker advertised its Avanti as “The World’s Fastest Production Car.” They backed up the claim with 29 new American national stock car records from the Bonneville Salt Flats, including the flying mile at 168.15 mph and 10 miles at 163.9 mph–and these were two-way averages. On the return leg of the 20-mile record run, the Avanti reached 178.5 mph.

The slippery Studebaker shattered record after record, blowing through the previous American Class C benchmark (held by a Dodge) by more than 50 mph. Fast indeed for a barely dry model that only 16 months earlier had been on the drawing board.

Was it a publicity stunt? Sure, but the United States Auto Club sanctioned each of these records. They also certified the Avanti R-3 as completely stock and fueled with Mobil premium pump gas.

Hotshoe Andy Granatelli, who knew a thing or two about driving fast–and even more about promoting merchandise-was president of Paxton Products at the time, and one of his superchargers wailed under the Avanti’s hood. In a letter to Studebaker President Sherwood Egbert, Granatelli wrote, “The thing that never ceases to amaze me is the ease in handling the Avanti. I took four people [including the L.A. Times auto editor] for a ride at speeds from 166.6 to 172.5 mph, and in each instance I let go of the steering wheel for several thousand feet to prove how stable the Avanti really is.”

A year after he set the production car marks, Granatelli returned to Bonneville with an experimental, twin-supercharged Avanti and ran a blazing 196 mph.

Those records were important, because the Avanti was conceived as the halo car that just might enable Studebaker–which was teetering on the edge of collapse-to hang on. Sketched by Sherwood Egbert himself (who had an aircraft background) and designed by the already legendary Raymond Loewy, the sporty Avanti came together on paper and as a scale model in early 1961 after a secret, five-week design session outside Palm Springs, California. Studebaker’s board hastily approved the concept and rushed the car into production.

Just 14 months later, on April 25, 1962, the first prototype was introduced to the public at the New York Auto Show.

The radical Avanti galvanized the crowd, its attention-grabbing shape at once revered and reviled. Reviews ranged from “sensational” to “bold and fresh” to “contrived, straining for visual impact to the exclusion of utility, efficiency or grace.”

Right after the show, Studebaker loaded its only two driving examples on a Flying Boxcar and took off on a well-publicized, 16-day, 24-city tour. In the frenetic advertising blitz that followed, the company blanketed the bases, touting the Avanti’s USAC speed records, calling it “America’s Most Advanced Car,” and promoting it as a luxurious, four-place GT. The campaign worked, and crowds of potential buyers lined up and placed deposits.

Studebaker’s problem, as it turned out, was that they couldn’t fill those orders. The car’s styling may have been sensational, but the 129-piece fiberglass body proved difficult to produce. Ohio-based Molded Fiberglass Products, the vendor that also fabricated Corvettes, turned out bodies that didn’t fit together, and extensive reworking at Studebaker dragged production far behind schedule. The company had planned to build 1000 cars per month, but was able to turn out only a fraction of that number.

Studebaker, in desperation, set up a separate fiberglass production line in their South Bend, Indiana, plant, but the production slippages were too far gone. After months of waiting, Avanti’s once-eager buyers grew tired and canceled. By the end of 1963, Studebaker had shipped only 3834 cars. The supply was so short that many dealerships couldn’t even get a display example.

The company’s fiscal woes deepened, and as word got out, people became afraid to buy any Studebaker. On December 9, 1963, Studebaker announced that it was closing the South Bend plant. The last Avanti rolled off the line on New Year’s Eve. During the car’s 18-month production run, the manufacturer built just 4643 units.

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