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

Classic Cars (UK) - - Contents - Words SAM DAWSON Pho­tog­ra­phy RICHARD PAR­DON

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)

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