Classic Projects: Studebaker Avanti

16 June 2014
By Nick Smith
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The Studebaker Avanti

The Studebaker Avanti

Date: Public launch 26 April 1962

Designer: Raymond Loewy

Cost: $4,445 (up to $30,000 today)

In the books, James Bond drives a Bentley, while in the movies we all know 007 gets from A to B in an Aston Martin DB5. But the creator of the fictional British Secret Service agent, Ian Fleming, preferred his 1963 Studebaker Avanti, which he considered to be "an infinitely higher class of machine".

Fleming visited the Studebaker facility in South Bend, Indiana, to place his order for a model in custom black. The paint never quite satisfactorily coated the car's fibreglass body, despite the addition of several extra layers. Despite this, Fleming's Avanti – vehicle registration plate 8 EYR – became a firm favourite with the author who liked his cars "fast as hell". The supercharged V8 model, topping out at 168mph, was one of the fastest production cars of the 1960s, while modified versions pushed the 200mph barrier, and in doing so set 29 land speed records at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

By the time the Avanti came along in the early 1960s, the Studebaker Company had been in business for a century. But commercially they were flagging with the falling off of sales of their economy Lark and Hawk models that had once sold well in the austerity economy of the American Depression. With a new decade, Studebaker's new president Sherwood Egbert commissioned designer Brooks Stevens to update the Lark and the Hawk. But there was still something missing, and to plug that gap he called on the flamboyant Raymond Loewy to design a sensational new car that would shake up the competition and bring customers back.

Loewy selected three designers to work with him on the project. The team lived and worked in a small house built in the desert landscape of Palm Springs. Aware of the urgency to come up with a design, they worked 16 hours a day on a concept with a 'coke bottle waist' and 'wedgy silhouette'. A mere five weeks later, the design was put to the Studebaker board members, who accepted it with a standing ovation. In the history of American automotive design, no flagship model had ever been conceptualised so quickly.

Egbert knew immediately that Loewy had come up with a winner. According to the official Avanti website, the car was a star almost from the moment of its inception. If further proof were needed, celebrities fell over themselves to get their hands on the latest must-have car. Big name drivers include the likes of Frank Sinatra, Alice Cooper, Dick Van Dyke and Shirley Bassey (who went on to perform three Bond themes).

Such was the pressing need to get the Avanti into the showrooms that there was simply no time to make the dies required to build the car out of steel. As a result it was decided to construct the bodywork out of glass fibre, which was then hung off a Lark convertible chassis. The result was a car of enormous strength, powered by a modified version of Studebaker's dated, but sturdy 289 cubic inch V-8.

But the rapidity with which the project was hurried through came with a hefty price. Despite a strong public affection for the car there were production problems, particularly with the fibreglass body parts. The outsourced manufacturer, which also made parts for the Chevrolet Corvette, was unable to meet demand to the standard required, forcing Studebaker into establishing their own fibreglass component manufacturing centre. Amid rumours that Studebaker was going out of business orders were cancelled and the South Bend assembly plant closed in December 1963. Fewer than 5,000 were made there.

Next month: The Penny Farthing bicycle

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