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How Avanti Cars Work


Michael Kelly Revives Avanti
The 2006 Avanti Studebaker SUV reflects a new design philosophy at Avanti.

After setting up in a 74,000-square-foot former hosiery mill, the Kelly/Seaton enterprise turned out its first cars as 2001 models, selling 52 convertibles and T-top coupes for that calendar year. All used a 305-bhp GM 350-cid V-8 allied to a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual transmission. Antilock brakes were included along with other stock Firebird features.

Base prices were $79,000 for the coupe, $83,000 for the convertible. A supercharger option, pegged at a heroic $10,000, was added for 2002, swelling horsepower to 470. Though GM canceled the Firebird after model-year '02, Avanti stockpiled enough rolling chassis to continue production for several more years with no major change.

This it did in true "custom car" fashion worthy of the Newman/Altman days -- and with sales to match: 77 in '02, another 88 in '03, and 102 in 2004. Predictably, perhaps, most were convertibles.

For 2005, the Avanti was reengineered around the new S197 Ford Mustang platform. Michael Kelly himself headed the effort, which involved most of the company's small workforce (just 36 employees) -- everyone from accountants to craftspersons.

And so much the better. As sales manager Dan Schwartz later said, "We're all cross-trained." The result was almost indistinguishable from the Firebird-based Avanti, a tribute to the team's skill and passion. So, too, was a new and unique Avanti instrument panel with airbags, one of many changes necessitated by the government's latest safety and emissions rules. By ­this time, Seaton had left (in late 2001) and Leonard Kelly, Michael's father, had been installed as president.

Only a convertible was offered for 2005, equipped with a 300-bhp Mustang 4.6-liter V-8, manual or automatic transmission, plus all-wheel antilock disc brakes, traction control, Ford Traction-Lok limited-slip rear differential, 17-inch polished wheels, leather interior, and full power accessories. Though the base price was slashed to $63,000, just 46 cars were sold that calendar year. Then again, Avanti sales were still mainly a word-of-mouth customer-to-factory proposition, and many would-be buyers likely didn't know the car was still around.

To reach a broader audience, a V-8 coupe was added for 2006, plus a lower-priced coupe and convertible using the base Mustang's 210-hp 4.0-liter V-6. Prices were adjusted, ranging from around $65,000 to near $76,000. At this writing, Avanti hoped to sell 75 to 100 units total, including a special GT model, possibly supercharged to around 390 bhp, slated for introduction in July 2006.

Meantime, Michael Kelly, doubtless with an eye to history, realized that his new Avanti concern wouldn't likely survive, let alone thrive, with just one basic product. Accordingly, he formed a division called SVO to create a pair of "component cars," sports-racers very closely modeled on the late '50s Lister-Jaguar and early '60s Porsche 904.

Engineered by Chuck Beck, famed for his authentic, high-quality Porsche Spyder and Speedster replicas, both employ Avanti-fabricated frames, with Corvette C4 suspension and GM small-block V-8s. As "owner-assembled" cars, they're exempt from certain costly federal regulations, a major plus for tiny Avanti, and they help the bottom line, even though each is planned to see only about 25 copies a year. Though intended largely for vintage racing and other off-road use, both the Lister and 904 are easily licensed and usable on the street.

The replicas are beyond the scope of this article, as is the latest twist in the Avanti story: a big new sport-utility wagon reviving the historic Studebaker name. Planned to start sale in mid 2006, this Avanti Studebaker is based on Ford's Super Duty truck chassis and is thus about the same size as the GM-marketed Hummer H2.

It also looks much like the military-influenced Hummer -- boxy and purposeful -- a resemblance that caused no small legal hassle when Avanti showed a concept model in 2004. But the wrangling has been settled, leaving the SUV to go forward with a choice of a gasoline V-10 or turbo­diesel V-8, both Ford sourced.

Ironically, the newest Studebaker is pitched at the very top of its market, tentatively tagged at $75,000-$80,000. But that's only to be expected from a company that aims to produce "unique, handcrafted automobiles of the finest quality, for the most discerning clients, providing them the utmost expression of their individuality."

With all this, Avanti survives into the twenty-first century with a brighter future than at any time since Leo Newman and Nate Altman picked up where Studebaker left off. Considering all that's happened since then, that's a most remarkable achievement.

For more on defunct American cars, see: