A night out in London with the Avanti II, a Sixties celebrity A-lister – if ‘A’ represented alternative, ambitious, American and audaciously priced
European GT sophistication, American-style – the Avanti broke free of its Studebaker parentage to become something unique. We take this darling of Sixties celebrities on a night trip to London
Maybe it’s the blood-red backlighting of its instruments, maybe it’s the cackle from its exhausts, but there’s something Satanic about the Avanti I’m piloting down the A1 towards central London. It’s 11pm and traffic is sparse, but even lorry drivers shuffle into the inside lane to let us through. Gold paint flashing beneath scudding streetlights, nose-down stance, broad-shouldered and assertive through corners, it has the kind of presence only the best Sixties grand tourers possess. And yet there really is something of the night about it. While a square-jawed hero might pilot a familiar Jensen Interceptor or an Aston Martin DB6, the enigmatic masked-nosed Avanti feels like a car for a high-class villain. No-one knows what it is but they feel obliged to get out of its way.
Nocturnal London seems the natural prowling ground for an Avanti. Even though the majority of these American grand tourers were sold in its homeland, they became an instant hit among globetrotting showbusiness stars. Shirley Bassey had a 1963 Studebaker Avanti, as did Frank Sinatra. Ian Fleming owned the first to arrive in the UK – the first to be finished in black – and in the April 1963 issue of Sporting
Motorist claimed it was better than many GTS twice the price. Fleming could easily have afforded the Aston Martin he’d just equipped James Bond with in Goldfinger.
It certainly offers a far more sophisticated driving style than the American opposition of the era. It pulls away from rest with its three-speed automatic gearbox in second, not blaring off the line in a cloud of muscle-car tyre smoke but rather chugging away smoothly on a persistent delivery of low-down 360lb ft shove, a torque curve that refuses to falter deep into the midrange, and all the while eschewing the clichéd American loose V8 roar in favour of a very marine-sounding bass drumroll. Despite this 1967 car having the same engine as a contemporary Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray, its restraint is testament to sophisticated exhaust manifold design and well-matched gear ratios that prioritise midrange lunge ahead of 0-60mph blasts.
A Studebaker with a GM engine? Well, yes, but by 1967 the Avanti was no longer a Studebaker, and its price no longer undercut the Ford Thunderbird that Fleming had traded in four years earlier. From the perspective of its French designer Raymond Loewy, the Avanti was the production-ready evolution of a concept-car series originally based on a Lancia, Jaguar and BMW, but Studebaker adopted it as a halo car to reverse flagging sales in the face of ferocious Detroit ‘big three’ opposition. However, despite a claimed 160mph from the optional Paxton supercharged ‘R2’ version it arrived too late, selling 4643 examples in the 1963 model year before Studebaker’s US factory closed its doors. And yet just one year later, in the hands of charismatic Studebaker dealer Nate Altman, it was reborn as America’s answer to the Jensen C-V8. Its new $7200 price tag would’ve bought a Mercedes-benz 250 SL, a Porsche 911S, or one-and-ahalf Corvette Sting Rays. With the exception of a change in V8 from Studebaker 4.7 to GM 5.3 small-block and a minor
frontal restyle with square headlight surrounds, the Avanti II was unchanged from its $4500 previous-year predecessor.
But it convinces. As traffic is sparse tonight I attack the succession of roundabouts through Borehamwood and Barnet at hot-hatch speed, and it’s clear the Avanti possesses a wieldy quality completely absent in most American cars of the period. Engineer Gene Hardig mounted Loewy’s glassfibre bodyshell on a stiffened X-shaped chassis derived from the compact Studebaker Lark Convertible, resulting in a low centre of gravity. Couple this with firm European-inspired springing rates and neat unequallength double-wishbone front suspension, and it corners as a big European GT should. Pitch it hard into a bend and it doesn’t lean severely on the way in and lope excessively on the exit as Fleming’s Thunderbird might. Instead it muscles its way through, remaining flatly assertive, the rear end kept in check by a securely-located axle.
The cam-and-peg steering is a little long-winded at three-anda-half turns lock-to-lock, but compared with that Thunderbird it’s positively fast-acting. Its road manners are actually tidier than a period Corvette, which although well-controlled by Sixties American standards still suffers from poor secondary ride thanks to soft spring and damper rates that keep it bouncing for miles after encountering bumps.
Unlike the vinyl-lined Sting Ray, it’s genuinely luxurious inside in a uniquely American-modernist way courtesy of Loewy, whose interior-design work later included NASA’S Skylab space station. From the moment you tug on the rocket-shaped door handle, you’re left in no doubt that this is a product of the nascent space age. Rather than feeling cheap and lightweight, the substantial glassfibre-skinned doors with their barrel-curved, mirror-smooth finish feel like cockpit hatches on a Learjet 23. The aeronautical theme continues inside with a lozenge-shaped instrument binnacle, lighting controls in the ceiling, and a heater adjusted by heavy chromed throttle-style levers in the centre console.
It does sport fake wood veneer, but even then it avoids naffness. It’s that ambience that was crucial to the Avanti’s success. The cigar-smoking, tailored suit-favouring Altman clearly fancied himself as a specifically transatlantic David Brown, presiding over the finest handbuilt cars America had to offer, and his organisation of the South Bend, Indiana factory reflected this. Built by veteran Studebaker employees saved from redundancy when the plant closed, each Avanti was allocated a 30-man team. Avanti saw European-style craftsmanship combine with traditionally American customer service. There were no fewer than 400 colour options for the interiors, and the prospective Avanti customer could choose exactly how many pleats they wanted in their seat fabric. Although the engine arrived in a crate from Chevrolet, it was reassembled by hand and fitted with a Carter AFB carburettor, typical high-performance equipment in the early muscle-car era.
The front disc brakes – joint-engineered with Mercedes-benz and the first American production car to sport them – help lug the Avanti back to pottering speed as I enter its natural habitat of Marylebone and Fitzrovia. Embassies and clubs lurk down narrow streets attended by impassive, liveried footmen. Boodle’s, frequented by Fleming himself during his Avanti ownership, is in St James’s Street just south of Piccadilly. Fleming referenced it in Moonraker and took the name Blofeld – an old Eton schoolmate and father of cricket commentator Henry – from the members’ register.
On my right is Wimpole Mews, where Christine Keeler first met Lord Astor the same year Fleming first parked his Avanti, ‘8 EYR’, less than a mile away on St James’s. If I follow this road to Charing Cross I’ll end up outside the Hippodrome, called Talk of the Town in 1963 when Shirley Bassey enjoyed a virtual residency. At least some of the proceeds went on a Studebaker Avanti the same shade of gold as this one. Less than a year later, she recorded the theme to Fleming’s Goldfinger.
The Avanti – whether as Studebaker’s last stand or America’s only handbuilt grand tourer – has always inhabited this world of exclusivity and celebrity. The client list for the first-year Avantis included Richard Carpenter, Johnny Carson and Dick van Dyke. 1962 Indy 500 winner Rodger Ward bought the first one made. Interest intensified under the Altman regime.
Sadly it couldn’t last. Altman passed away in 1976, and although his brother Arnold kept the firm going with sales peaking at 165 in 1978, by 1982 the output of $23,000 Avanti IIS – equivalent to three Chevrolet Camaros – was at a trickle. A brief revival under new owner Stephen Blake, including a 27th-place finish at the 1983 Daytona 24 Hours, followed only to end in ignominy – new Ditzler Deltron paint failed to adhere to the body panels, bankrupting Avanti with warranty claims in 1986.
Three changes of floorplan, ownership and factory followed over the following 20 years before the firm finally collapsed in 2006. The world had forgotten about Avanti long before then, ensuring the marque will forever embody that world of gilt-edged, white-tie, space-age Kennedy-era cool where it deserves to stay.
‘Customers could choose how many pleats they wanted in their seat fabric’
Thanks DD Classics (ddclassics.com), ACA (angliacarauctions.co.uk)