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How Avanti Cars Work

Stephen Blake Buys Avanti
The 1984 Avanti was one of the few Avanti models produced under the direction of Stephen Blake before he was forced to sell the company.

Avanti II saw few changes in the 1970s save those needed to meet federal safety and emissions rules. Among the more obvious -- and depressing -- was the ugly, rubber-tipped "cow catcher" grafted on to meet 1973's new five-mph bumper standard, although Avanti Motor Corporation was small enough to win exemption from the required 21/2-mph side-impact door beams.

Also for '73, the engine was changed to Chevrolet's new detoxed 400 V-8. With net horsepower ratings in force for '74, the 400 came in at an anemic 180-bhp SAE net (245 gross). The 350 returned for '77 and would remain standard into the early '80s.

With Nate Altman's untimely death in 1976, Avanti seemed to lose direction, at times appearing half-hearted about its product and its future. Workmanship declined even as prices, spurred by inflation, galloped upward (breaking $12,000 in '76 and pushing $23,000 in '82).

Federal dictates prompted detail interior changes (mainly to switchgear) wrought with an afterthought carelessness suggesting less-than-professional engineering and design work. On the plus side, the firm reduced its plethora of paint and trim choices in the interest of higher build quality and lower inventory costs. But little money and effort were going into updating the concept, as Altman had done. Both car and company were surviving, but hardly thriving.

That was about to change. After rebuffing several buyout offers over the years, the Altman family and other Avanti board members gave audience to Stephen Blake, a young Washington, D.C., construction tycoon. Alas, Altman's death came only days after the parties agreed to serious negotiations, and another seven years would pass before Blake became owner, president, and CEO of Avanti Motor Corporation in October 1982.

Blake blew into South Bend like a tornado, rearranging work flow in the crumbling remains of the old Studebaker plant for improved efficiency and quality. He also resisted the UAW and dismissed many dealers, inking more businesslike contracts with established Cadillac stores in major markets.

Recruiting needed engineering talent soon resulted in several improvements: a switch to premium DuPont Imron paint (as on Indy race cars), greater use of GM components, optional body-color bumpers and black trim, square headlights, revamped interior, minor chassis tweaks, and an optional 190-bhp 305-cid V-8 (versus 155 bhp standard) from the Chevy Camaro Z28. The name lost its Roman numeral "II" and returned to plain "Avanti." Most of these changes came together in a special 20th Anniversary 1983 coupe offered in solid black, white, red, or silver.

Bolder still were Blake's plans for the first Avanti convertible (unveiled as a prototype in late '83) and a new drop-floor chassis with independent rear suspension designed by Herb Adams. Blake even made a stab at racing, entering an Avanti "GT" in the 1983 Pepsi Challenge 24-hour enduro at Daytona. Though it finished only 27th out of 30 survivors from a starting field of 79, its merely showing up suggested Avanti was moving forward again.

Sadly, Blake tried to do too much too fast, and unexpected peeling problems with the new race-car paint cost a bundle to fix. By early 1985, Blake had spent himself into a credit crunch with his prime lender, a South Bend bank, and was forced to sell.

For more on defunct American cars, see: