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History Hits: Avanti Motor Corporation


John Davis of Motorweek fame described the topic of this week’s History Hit—the Avanti—as a “rarefied exotic”. He continued to provide a qualification for what separates exotic cars from their more plebian relatives, namely handcrafted exteriors and interiors, small production numbers, and powerful running gear. Containing all of these from its inception in the 60’s through its death in the beginning of the 21st century, until the early 1990’s—and the birth of the Dodge Viper and the Qvale Mangusta a little later—the Avanti was the only car to fit the bill for an “American Exotic”. If you do not recognize the name “Avanti”, you can be forgiven, as less than 400 were generally produced yearly. The omission of the usual make designation in the name also impedes recognition. This omission is key to the Avanti’s history.

At the start of this history, in 1962, the Avanti did have both a make and model, as it began life as the Studebaker Avanti. Produced from 1962-164, the Avanti seemed destined to go the way of the Dodo almost from the moment of its birth, with the imminent death of Studebaker automotive production in 1964. Two dealer networks in Indiana had other plans, and with their joint-purchase of certain Studebaker tooling and rights, the Avanti’s four decade journey into private ownership, spanning five owners, four factories, and two countries, could begin. Below, we will trace the Avanti’s journey from its birth with Studebaker, through its various adoptive parents, to its eventual death in a Mexican resort town.

A Doomed Inception

Studebaker had been an ailing company in the Post-World War II world, with its European-inspired model line poorly received by the buying American public. Narrowly saved in the 50’s by a merger with the Packard Motor Company, by 1961 Studebaker was on the downward slope once again. Sherwood Egbert, former Marine and all-around do-er, was hired by the Studebaker’s board of directors to bring the company back in line, and almost immediately told his top-design man, one Raymond Loewy, to design a top-of-the-line, high performance automobile. Beginning in March of 1961, Egbert gave his design man until the April 1962 New York International Auto Show to have a completed product. Given the short time-frame, Loewy did what any good designer would do: he hired a crack design team spanning the age-groups, purchased art supplies—including 200 pounds of modeling clay—and locked them all together in a rented home in Palm Springs, CA with a directive to have something in 40 days.

An early design sketch of what would become the Avanti.

After deciding on a few key design concepts, such as the Coke-bottle shape and grill-less body—Loewy felt that they dated cars—the team go full steam ahead. After 8 days, and their supply of clay, the team had a double-sided model to present to Egbert. One side was a 2-seat sports-coupe, with the other being a four-seat sports-fastback. After deciding on the four seating positions, the Avanti’s design was sealed.

The final design—pictured as the header and above—was true to the design tenants, seating four, featuring Coke-bottle lines, and without a grill to be seen. Underneath the quickly-designed body, the mechanicals also reflected the short timeframe given to designers. Built on a heavily modified Studebaker Lark convertible chassis, the engine was a 289 (4.7L) Hawk engine, outputting 240bhp, with an optional supercharged variant producing 290bhp. There is documentation of an experimental engine, featuring dual Paxton superchargers, producing 575bhp, a credible number to this day.

To save time, and keep production costs low, the decision was made to produce the body out of fiberglass, much like their Corvette rivals. A side effect of this decision was to keep weight low as well. To complete the ‘exotic’ air of the car, Studebaker offered the Avanti with an almost completely customizable interior.

On the left is a more mundane example of an Avanti interior, while the right image showcases a splendidly-period colored interior.

Introduced in the end of 1962 as a 1963 model, the Avanti lived out it’s days with the Studebaker company until 1964, when the doors were shut on Studebaker production plants in America for the last time. The end of the Avanti seemed assured.

Saved from the Ashes: Avanti II

Two local Indiana dealers—Studebakers were historically produced in South Bend, Indiana—purchased the rights to Studebaker parts production, truck production, the rights to the Avanti, as well as a few ex-Studebaker buildings to house all of these new potential industries. These dealers—the Altman brothers network and the network owned by Leo Newman—started two new enterprises from these acquisitions: the immediately profitable parts supply network for Studebaker trucks and automobiles, and the new Avanti Automobile Corporation, with the newly-renamed Avanti II.

An Avanti II pictured with the characteristic grill-less design. The four-seat nature of the design can be seen by the large rear-quarter panel window, with a large quarter panel still behind it.

The new name was essentially the only new thing about the Avanti II. The new Avanti Motor Corp. took the opportunity to for-go the now impossible to find Hawk 289, and instead began to offer a succession of Chevrolet V8 engines. Initially using the 327cui engine out of the competing Corvette, this eventually grew to the Chevrolet sourced 400cui V8.

The Avanti project was always less-than profitable. However, the concurrently set-up Studebaker parts company allowed the Avanti project to continue until 1982. During this time the Avanti had been slowed with Malaise-era Chevrolet engines—first a 350cui V8 and then a 305cui V8—and the supply of running Studebaker trucks in need of parts dwindled. By 1982, the two dealers from Indiana were willing to hang up their hats.

New Lease on Life: Stephen H. Blake’s Ownership

At this time, a man named Stephen H Blake—who had an extensive history in real estate—was loaned $1.9 million dollars by the state of Indiana to purchase the Avanti name, and restart production. Dropping the “II” the car became the Avanti once again, although changes were limited to visual modifications. The round headlights in rectangular fittings were instead replaced with fully rectangular enclosures, and the front and rear received body-colored bumpers.

An Avanti showing off the rectangular headlights.

Mr. Blake seemed to be better at managing real estate than an automotive ambition, and this iteration of the Avanti Motor Corp closed its doors in 1986.

Troubled Times: Bouncing Around

At this point, with an underpowered engine and an almost 30 year-old chassis from a defunct automaker, the Avanti might well be truly dead. However, the name still held value, and as such a Mr. Michael E. Kelly briefly held control of the company before selling it to Mr. John J. Cafaro in 1987, who decided to keep producing the Avanti essentially unchanged at the beginning of his tenure. While selling off the remaining stock, and utilizing the pre-existing facilities for a while, the Cafaro-operated Avanti Motors closed down the historic Indiana facilities and moved the operation to the Rust Belt in Youngstown, Ohio.

With this move other changes were brought into play. To celebrate the 25th anniversary(!) of the Avanti, a convertible was released, being sold from 1986-1989. While it is reported that Monte Carlo chassis’ may have been used prior to 1989, this year did bring about the first serial structural change: the switch to the Chevrolet Caprice platform. With this change, Mr. Cafaro decided to diversify the Avanti range, by adding a four-door model. This ’89-’91 four-door model is considered a loss of faith by Avanti purists, and the buying public may have agreed, with only 90 being produced.

The four-door, Caprice based Avanti. Reminds me of a Grand National.

With such dismal numbers as that, the operation could still not be considered a success. Mr. John Cafaro decided to close the doors on Avanti production for what seemed to be the final time, almost a complete 30 years after initial inception.

A Nip and a Tuck, Not Enough: Death of the Avanti

While the Cafaro-owned operation could have been the end of a long and glamourous career for the Avanti, Mr. Kelly—the third owner from before, briefly—decided to actually try his hand at running the company. Mr. Kelly re-purchased the Avanti rights, tooling, and stock, in 1999, a full 9 years after  Utilizing the existing showroom stock to buy him time to move the operations for a third time—to Georgia—he continued to utilize the Caprice platform. In 2005, the third major change in the Avanti’s life occurred, and with it the switch to Ford-based platforms. From MY2005 onwards, the Avanti was built on a Mustang chassis, with a Mustang engine—either the V6 or V8—and signs of the Mustang on the interior.

The Mustang-based Avanti.
It’s a game. Spot the Ford parts!

Despite the drastic changes beneath the skin, the Avanti—40 years and 5 owners on—still stuck to the classic Coke-bottle shape and grill-less design. As well as switching manufactures, Mr. Kelly decided to switch production countries, building a new showroom/factory in Cancun Mexico. In 2006, the Federal Government had other things in mind for Mr. Kelly, who was suddenly arrested on charges relating to fraud and a Ponzi scheme he ran. With this arrest, the Avanti project seems to finally be finished. As a final nail in the coffin for the case for a future Avanti, in 2011 the showroom, factory, and all remaining stock were sold off in a public auction. Many, including myself, are calling this the end of the Avanti story, although the company did come alive after little ‘breaks’ before…

While the story of Avanti may be an odd one, it is an important saga in American automotive history. As a car designed for a small crowd—one may say an enthusiast—it is perhaps the only car to be kept alive for so long by dealers, investors, and fans. With the imminent demise of the Dodge Viper, I can only dream that fans may one day revive the Viper nameplate, or salvage the platform/engine. Sadly, for now, fans will have to limit themselves to attempting lap records.

What cars do you want to see saved or brought back by fans? Let me know down below and leave a like and share!

Stephen Hyden View All

I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.

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