How Avanti Cars Work


The Avanti II managed to find success where the original never did. Each one was custom-built by hand for its owner.

Studebaker fled to Canada in late 1963 and left the auto business three years later. By that time, Leo Newman and Nathan Altman had resurrected the Avanti, Studebaker's most interesting car of the '60s.

Designed by a team under Raymond Loewy, the Avanti had failed Studebaker in the marketplace but succeeded greatly with enthusiasts -- the only Studebaker in two generations to inspire such interest. Before its phaseout upon Studebaker's departure from South Bend, the Avanti had broken virtually every major U.S. Auto Club speed record.

Newman and Altman were partners in a South Bend Studebaker dealership, one of the oldest. Knowing the Avanti was too good to lose, they bought the name, production rights, tooling, and a portion of the century-old South Bend plant where the Avanti had been built. In 1965, they began turning out a revised version called Avanti II. They hoped to make 300 a year, which they'd never manage, but output was adequate and consistent.

Unlike the original, Avanti II was a commercial success. Its fiberglass body meant no expensive sheetmetal dies to maintain. And because Newman and Altman had conceived their Avanti as more exclusive than Studebaker's, they could build it carefully and largely by hand on a small assembly line. That meant they could tailor each car to the customer's wishes.

Well-heeled buyers could push the $6550 base price beyond $10,000. Options included Hurst four-speed manual transmission, power steering, air conditioning, electric window lifts, tinted glass, AM/FM radio, Eppe fog or driving lights, limited-slip differential, Magnum 500 chrome wheels, and Firestone bias-ply or Michelin radial tires.

Early Avanti IIs had vinyl interiors, but textured "Raphael vinyl" could be ordered for $200. Genuine leather seat and door trim added $300, full leather $500. Paint colors were anything a buyer wanted, as were interior trims in later years. Though this led to some bizarre cars, it was part of the "custom-built" aura and it helped sales.

Early IIs retained the original Avanti's modified Lark convertible frame, but Studebaker V-8s were gone by the time Newman and Altman started, so they followed Studebaker's own lead by adopting the same 327-cubic-inch Chevrolet small-block in 300-horsepower Corvette tune.

Chevy then introduced a 350-cid enlargement, and Avantis got it in 1969, though rated power was unchanged. Transmissions were either a fully synchronized Borg-Warner four-speed manual or a "Power-Shift" automatic that permitted manual hold of first and second gears.

These new mechanicals resided in a body almost identical to the original Avanti's. The main visual differences were a more level stance (Altman's customers disliked the Studebaker's marked front-end rake), Avanti logos with suffix Roman-numeral IIs, and reduced-radius wheel openings.

Corvette power made for fine performance in the sleek four-place Avanti. The typical automatic car could run 0-60 mph in under nine seconds and hit 125 mph with a 3.54:1 rear axle. Better still, the Chevy engines were lighter than the old Studebaker V-8, so front/rear weight balance improved from 59/41 percent to 57/43. Power front-disc/rear-drum brakes resisted fade admirably, while providing quick deceleration of nearly 1g in 80-mph panic stops. Obviously, Newman and Altman cared about safety as much as straight-line performance.

Being custom-built, the Avanti II necessarily cost more than Studebaker's version, competing in Cadillac Eldorado territory instead of Chrysler country like the $4,445 original. Realizing this meant a change in market orientation, Newman and Altman pitched the II more on "personal-luxury" than performance.

And indeed, the car was in its element on the open road. Magazine testers gave it points for safety, quietness, structural rigidity, and a firm but comfortable ride. "In this day of great concern over automotive safety," wrote John R. Bond in 1966, "the Avanti II should make new friends, for obviously there was more thought given to safety in its conception than in most American cars ... It's a better car than it was three years ago."

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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.

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Avanti Changes Hands

The 1989 Avanti Coupe Convertible was a bold new step for Avanti -- it was the company's first convertible model.

Avanti might have died right there had it not been for Michael Kelly, a 36-year-old Texas ethanol baron who acquired Blake's interests for just $725,000 in April 1985. Operating as New Avanti Motor Corporation, Kelly's regime began building Blake's convertible alongside the familiar coupe in 1987.

Both models received new seats, a "cockpit" dash, altered bumpers, and improved cooling and climate systems. The coupe still listed for about $30,000; the convertible was some $10,000 more. With this changing of the guard, no 1986 Avantis were built.

Even more ambitious than Blake, Kelly moved production to a new plant in Youngstown, Ohio. This occurred in August 1987, thus closing the old Studebaker factory at last. Avantis would still be mostly hand-built, but the modern facilities promised great strides in quality -- and volume, which Kelly predicted would eventually reach an unprecedented 1,000 cars a year.

To achieve that, Kelly literally stretched the Avanti line by adding three new models: a 117-inch-wheelbase Luxury Sport Coupe, an even longer four-door Luxury Touring Sedan on a 123-inch chassis, and a jumbo limousine on a huge 174-inch span.

Purists moaned, though designer Loewy (who died in late 1987) had mocked up a pair of "Avanti-styled" sedans as '65-66 Studebakers. At least the LSC looked as good as the standard coupe, a tribute to the "rightness" of the original design.

Besides 40 LSCs, Kelly's company managed 50 Silver Anniversary coupes in 1988 to honor Avanti's 25th birthday. These carried Chevy 305 V-8s that were muscled up to 250 bhp (from 170 standard) via Paxton superchargers supplied by the Granatelli brothers, just as in Studebaker days.

Appropriately, the anniversary models were painted pearl silver. Interiors featured black or red leather, an "entertainment center" with TV, power moonroof, compact-disc player, and cellular telephone. There was also a fortified suspension with fat tires on handsome alloy wheels, and bodies gained a front spoiler with fog lamps, rocker-panel skirts, and reshaped bumpers.

Exceeding projected first-year production by 50 percent, New Avanti built 300 cars in 1987, the level Blake had hoped to attain but didn't. But Kelly, too, soon overreached himself, and this (plus legal hassles from one-time backers) forced him to sell in August 1988. The buyer turned out to be his principal partner, shopping-mall developer J.J. Cafaro, who changed the company name once again, this time to Avanti Automotive Corporation.

Both LSC and the planned limo were forgotten, but Cafaro did introduce a four-door Touring Sedan for 1990, though on a trimmer 116-inch wheelbase. Improbably, he claimed its body was molded directly from one of the old Loewy sedan mockups that had sat for years in the South Bend attic gathering dust and pigeon droppings.

Though distinctive, the four-door wasn't as handsome as the classic coupe, but was definitely built better. High-tech composites replaced steel for its roof and (belatedly adopted) door beams, and Kevlar was substituted for fiberglass in the floorpan, bumpers, and seatbelt and body mounts.

Cafaro's operation managed 150 Avantis in 1988 and some 350 in '89. Most were the standard coupe. The 1990 target was 500 cars, but actual output was much lower. There were heady plans for '91, including a switch to the 245-bhp Corvette L98 engine, plus a new chassis (engineered by Callaway Technologies) with all-independent suspension and the four-wheel disc brakes from Ford's Thunderbird Super Coupe.

But these plans were derailed by a sharp recession that hurt sales industrywide. Instead of building its planned 1000 cars in '91, Avanti Automotive Corporation filed for bankruptcy. The firm produced only 15 cars that year, mostly convertibles with a few cosmetic changes and body-material substitutions like those on the sedan.

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The Avanti Experimental AVX

The 1998 AVX stood for "AVanti eXperimental," since it was created during a period when Avanti didn't technically exist as a company.

A postscript to the Cafaro bankruptcy concerns one Robert Lucarell, who stayed as caretaker for the Youngstown plant. Lucarell sold handfuls of assorted leftover parts to die-hard owners, all the while insisting that the car and the company he loved would rise yet again. "Avanti is still a going business," he told Automotive News in May 1994. "I am here selling parts and helping people fix their cars over the telephone every day."

Among those customers was Jim Bunting, a retired advertising executive in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who'd bought his first Avanti in the mid '80s and became a fan. Bunting was intrigued by a two-seat Avanti drawn by the late Bob Andrews, a member of the Loewy team, and decided to build a real one.

But no crude hatchet job would do, so he contacted Tom Kellogg, the team member who had done considerable detail work and most of the renderings for the Avanti project. Kellogg obliged with drawings of how the two-seater should look, but sent along a sketch with a playful note reading, "Let's do this one next." It showed a modernized Avanti of the sort Kellogg had been doodling for years, with the basic look evolved just as Studebaker might have done had it not folded.

Bunting loved Kellogg's "Avanti for the '90s," and decided to make it real. To keep costs reasonable, he started with a '94 Pontiac Firebird -- a good choice, as its outer body panels were easily swapped for a new Avanti-look fiberglass skin custom-tailored by Kellogg.

The transformation took place at the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, shop of hot-rod builder Bill Lang and was finished in January 1996. By that point, other people had seen the car and wanted one, too. Bunting then showed it -- still in primer and a bit rough -- at a major swap meet, where more favorable inquiries convinced him to offer copies.

After further tweaks by Kellogg, the finished car was unveiled in June 1997 at the combined meet of the Studebaker and Avanti clubs. Because rights to the Avanti name were in limbo, the car was christened AVX -- "AVanti eXperimental."

Incorporating AVX Cars in Lancaster, Bunting contracted with Lang's Custom Auto to convert post-'92 Firebirds at the rate of two a month. The initial price was $33,900, plus the donor coupe or convertible. Echoing Newman & Altman, AVX owners could have their car most anyway they liked.

"Nothing is too outrageous," Bunting told Collectible Automobile® magazine. Several ready-made packages were contemplated: two for brakes, three for suspension, and four engine upgrades, including a Paxton-supercharged Corvette LS1 V-8 with 455 bhp up to an incredible 650.

While the AVX was well-timed for the late-1990s luxury-car sales boom, Bunting quickly found that running a car company, even a tiny one, was more than he bargained for. Thus, after overseeing the build of three prototypes (a coupe, a T-top coupe, and a convertible), he sold AVX Cars to investor John Seaton.

Surprisingly, Seaton soon teamed up with none other than Michael Kelly, who had never lost his enthusiasm for things Avanti. In August 1999, they formed a new Avanti Motor Corporation in Villa Rica, Georgia, just west of Atlanta, with Kelly as chairman and Seaton as CEO.

To the undoubted delight of Avanti enthusiasts, the new concern managed to acquire the assets of all the preceding Avanti companies and even artifacts from the Studebaker days. It also held title to the Avanti name and logo, which would soon grace converted Firebirds based on the AVX design.

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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.

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