USA dealer Tom and his appreciation of this unusual V8 classic.
Ok... So it wasn't a full-fledged, 007-class vehicle. Not yet, anyhow. But none other than Ian Flemming, author and creator of James Bond, would argue that point with you.
As much as that gentleman wrote of the glories of the Aston-Martin, his own choice for the British highway system was a black, Studebaker Avanti.
So what did he see that almost everyone else on this side of the Atlantic missed?
Why is it that when this country gets even close to producing great, innovative machinery for the road, the thing dies? (Excluding some very credible engines, that is.*)
Alas, it's the same impulse that let Deusenberg, Packard, and Auburn Cord fade away and end up in odd corners of Leno's garage. That very same Zeitgeist that let the likes of good old, 'My Way or The Highway' Henry Ford, the GM boys, and Walter Chrysler provide such bountiful shelter for junkyard rats was let loose once again on the automotive world in the beginning of the 1960's. This time the unwitting target was Studebaker. How dare they introduce artistry into automotive manufacturing!?
We were always a mass culture before anything else. A friendly lot, but otherwise a bit on the dense side when it came to the arts. Originality -- an American feature for sure -- always seems to get lost in the mass rush for security, standardization, complacency, and of course, the bottom line. The basic inventor (whose novel innovations are often stunning from the get-go) eventually succumbs to the easy, supply-side charts of his new MBA hirelings who had nothing to do with the product in the first place, and yet, somehow, manage to go on and completely ruin the original concept. (Ford was one of the few innovators who didn't need MBA's to do it. He practically invented the bottom line when he devised the assembly line.)
But Studebaker was of a different breed. And Studebaker's last President, Sherwood Egbert, would've been the last man on earth to utter Henry Ford's immortal dictum to his production team: 'Make it any color you want, so long as it's black!' And that, of course, is precisely why he was Studebaker's last president. In American automotive history, the best businessmen finished first, and were not necessarily the best carmakers.
Studebaker - like Kaiser, Hudson, Tucker, Franklin, etcetera, etcetera before it -- was at the end of its run when the idea for the Avanti - a last-ditch effort to save the company from an inept public that was always too price-conscious for its own good - came into being. But a smashing, artistic rendering of all that the car could be - a rolling exclamation point of visionary excellence - might... just might, awaken a deadpan public, caught in a Stepford-like trance, single file, one generation after another, succumbing to the planned obsolescent nightmares that came out of Detroit, year after boring year.
Everything that was good from those folks - the development of the fabulous 327 small-block Corvette engine, Shelby's grand entrance at Ford, the Mopar experiments at Chrysler - great innovations that could and should have stayed on line, came as a result of great in-house fisticuffs with the artists, racers and visionary engineers losing out almost every time to the MBA's who knew not transaxle from drum brake. We were lucky to have seen what little of the good stuff that we did!
And all because those MBA's knew the bottom line, and, dear reader, they knew YOU!
"Drop the price for the short term then sell the family 10 to 15 cars in their lifetime!" "Change the style every two years, add innovations one at a time, drive the word, 'Chevy', 'Ford', or 'Dodge' into that part of their brains where they salivate like wind-up rednecks - and just keep 'em comin' to the showroom floor!" (I swear, these people must have been laughing at our parents in the same way that the ENRON execs were caught laughing at us. Think what you will of the Japanese Car Invasion of the early '70's - these guys saved Detroit from themselves!)
OK, so ol' Sherwood obviously hadn't a clue to these effective sales techniques and really showed it when he went after Raymond Loewy, an internationally renowned artist, of all things, to design the Avanti. The guy who gave us the design for Air Force One; the fabulous, original red, over-the-counter coke dispensers of our youth (currently right up there with Wurlitzer juke-boxes on eBay); and some of the more fantastic, streamlined locomotives (before Mc-Amtrak took command and ruined what was once the premier train system of the world).
This guy!? The one named the world's premier design engineer and placed on the cover of Time Magazine (Oct. 1949)? The one who designed the dazzling, one-off prototype of the BMW 507 Roadster? To design an American car? Where the hell did Egbert think he was? In Europe where the likes of Pininfarina and Giugiaro were sculpting collectibles right off the shop floor?
No chance Senor Egbert! Not here you don't!!
And here he didn't.
'T'was a noble failure, but a grand one. Good-bye Studebaker.
But this fabulous, wild-from-any-angle, piece of rolling art is still among us, reiterated every few years by start-up impresarios who cannot leave this timeless design alone.
The hour-glass shape of the body came from Mr. Loewy's first-hand experience with the sensuous curves of the Coca-Cola bottle; the preference for an above-the-window control-panel from his experience with Air Force One; and the grill-less front-end from his sense of the sublime.
Had more development money been put into this thing... Who knows!... America's first Aston-Martin? America's - and the world's - first Super Car?
The common notion in Europe these days is that America is the only one of the great car manufacturing nations that never lived up to its potential. The standard joke is that this crowd (you and I) wouldn't know a great car if it jumped up and bit them in the arse.
The Avanti was such a car. It jumped higher in design originality than anything from Italian design engineers - reputed to be the best in the world, and it bit hard at Bonneville.
From the get-go, this car was breaking land speed records at Bonneville... Just under 170 MPH -- in the early 60's! It was deemed the world's fastest production car, shattering some 20+ speed records in that year alone. And there were some back-alley boys who continued developing the car on their own, matching the hefty F-50 Ferraris, Mercedes, and McLarens of today by reaching 200 MPH some ten years ago!
We'll never know what might have been because Studebaker went "sayonara" at the end of 1963. America just wasn't ready for Prime Time.
The originals are still the real investment, especially the R models, which are equipped with ever more powerful Paxton superchargers as the numbers rise. The R2, R3 and - if you can find it - the R4 version with twin Paxtons on board should make your trip to the grocers a real hoot. (There's even one R5 out there somewhere, I am told.)
You might have better chance, though, getting hold of the next version that came out, the Avanti II. And, because this one uses the less complicated, easier to replace GM driveline, for sure you would have an easier time on the maintenance end of things. (Voilą! Score one for mass production!)
Even the snootiest of Europeans cannot gainsay Detroit its due when it comes to cheap horsepower. The V8 really was 'an American thing' - our gift to the world (well, after Bourbon, of course).
Now I am not one to put 350 Chevy engines in everything under the sun. (We all know people like this, right? They lift a perfectly good 4.2 engine from an XKE -- thereby ruining its collectability and replace it with the Chev. Huh? What's up with that?) But a bona fide factory repro is something else again.
So, if you're looking for one of these stunning automobiles, do check out Avanti II. It was done in limited numbers and in a factory setting. Since Studebaker could not stay around long enough to perfect the thing, the Avanti II boys - Leo Newman and Nathan Altman - did the next best thing by powering that beautiful design with the most reliable drive train on hand. They took over the factory in 1965 and continued to 1982, so you do have a few good ones to choose from out there. (Though some aficionados rate their 60's models the best.)
Mine was - soon to be is, I will have another soon - the best (of course!). A 1969, Hurst 4-speed with the great, 327 Corvette engine. 350 HP of glorious, straight-ahead harrumph! So you want to take something truly unique to tool around Europe? Take this!
An avid group of wealthy Swiss Avanti nuts, residing on the upper-crust coast of Lake Constance, know what you should know: This thing rocks! And these are guys who can afford anything. The Europeans are dazzled by it (even the Italians). Their letterhead is great: A black Avanti in silhouette being stopped by a fully-extended parachute on the Salt Flats of Bonneville.
I'm telling you... One of these will get you far more serious, interested looks than anything coming out of Detroit, Stuttgart, Bavaria, Britain, Tokyo or even Maranello today. Who even cares when someone shows up in a Mercedes these days? Believe me, next to this Mona Lisa from South Bend they are all a big YAWN!
*There are 3 American V8 engines that are collectors all on their own. Many of these found greater honor and glory in combined efforts with European manufacturers, who took better advantage of America's one, true, automotive gift than we did and gave us some startling examples of Euro Show + American Go. I would add this critical addition: They also gave us far greater handling capability. Without the Alpine challenge, American builders were content to focus on straight-on, down-the-highway power. With highways that went thousands of miles in any direction, who needs to turn ...or even brake in any great hurry!?
First of all, there is the small block, Corvette 327 - and only the Corvette 327 version - the engine that was better than most of the cars it was put in -- the Avanti, the Bizzarrini and a few others excepted. (But who wouldn't kill for the first Corvette that carried it? Even GM has had its victories over the MBA's.)
Then there's the fabulous Ford 351 Cleveland engine. (Not to be confused with the more common, Windsor, version and, certainly, not the truck engine.) Now this is real cache. And with gas ports as big as Arnold's biceps, bring your travelers checks to the gas pumps. I suppose its greatest platform was and is in the Detomasso Pantera. One look in that mid-engine bay will stop you cold. (When Mustang finally got access to the engine in the early 70's, it was in the worst body type imaginable for that model -- compared with the earlier, spectacular coupes).
But for my money, hunt down an Iso Grifo -- a rare enough car as it is, but when powered with the Cleveland, a real find!
And, if you want something a bit easier on the wallet and still unusual -- and that's what we're all about in the collector game, isn't it? Cheap now, expensive later? -- go for an Italia Intermeccanica with that engine. (Say what? Oh... Now he's giving us homework.)
And, of course, there's Chrysler's legendary Hemi which is the only one of the three that always came in American packages you could live with and, with the money they're bringing in at the auctions, die for today! The Dodge Charger comes most immediately to mind, as does the original, Chrysler 300 series. And then there was Cunningham in his classy, Le Mans racer (for which, I would consider donating an arm).
On the Euro end of the spectrum, the gorgeous (French) Facel-Vega used an early version of this engine.
OK, the 409 and GTO 389's were no slouches either. But still, I could not put them (or the Six-Packs, Wedgies and what have you) in category of the Big Three listed above. They just didn't ripple out through the American & the world car cultures as did these others - a few memorable Beach Boy tunes touting their glories or not.
By the way. It's just as easy to pick up two when I go shopping for my next one. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Next time! - And what car would Steve McQueen really not like to see in his rearview mirrors on the streets of San Francisco???
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