The Studebaker Avanti was the perfect marriage between a designer and a manufacturer. An artistic eye and a flair for salesmanship made Raymond Loewy the most famous industrial designer of his day. None of his was lost on former client Studebaker, which turned to Loewy again in 1961 when a new president decided to add some magic to its lineup with the Studebaker Avanti.
During the 1940s and early 1950s, Studebaker and Raymond Loewy were closely linked in the minds of many Americans, certainly more so than any other car maker and designer. Although Loewy "designed" everything from locomotives to Bulova watches, his Studebakers, particularly the 1947 and 1953 models, made him a household name. Time Magazine even put him on its cover in 1949.
For 1956, Loewy supervised a thorough makeover of the sleek 1953 Studebaker coupe to produce the Hawk line of "family sports cars," then promptly lost his South Bend contract. It may have been just as well, for Studebaker was in dire straits by then, partly from taking over Packard in 1954.
Over the next few years, Studebaker-Packard Corporation changed its management, axed Packard, and narrowly avoided collapse by fielding the popular compact Lark for 1959. Then the Big Three introduced compacts of their own and Studebaker again faced trouble by 1961. Desperate for something new to reinvigorate its lineup and its image, S-P knew to whom it should turn for help: Raymond Loewy.
Remarkably, Loewy was not an auto designer per se. Rather, he excelled as a "front man," a consummate salesman who could sell design ideas to other salesmen. (Indeed, the actual designs of the 1947 and 1953 Studebakers might more accurately be attributed to Virgil Exnei and Robert Bourke, respectively).
Loewy knew which ideas the public would buy. His intuition was so good that in time he became the world's most famous and successful industrial designer, an international icon. Besides the ability to sell his services to hundreds of companies worldwide, Loewy had an unfailing eye for talent. He was also a master at organizing and managing the designers who did the actual work in his name.
To learn about Raymond Loewy's early life, continue on to the next page.
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Raymond Loewy's Early Life
Raymond Fernand Loewy -- designer of the Studebaker Avanti -- was born in Paris on November 5,1893, the youngest of three boys. His father was an Austrian-French journalist. His mother liked to remind her sons: "It's better to be envied than pitied."
One of Loewy's brothers became a surgeon, another a banker. Young Raymond showed a lively interest in motorcars, airplanes, and locomotives, sketching them endlessly in school.
Raymond was also very bright. At the age of only 12, he entered the University of Paris, where he majored in electrical engineering. Three years later, in 1908, he designed a rubber-band-powered model airplane that won a J. Gordon Bennett competition by flying further than all rivals. Still in his teens, Loewy patented this design, manufactured airplane kits, and sold them in France and England.
In 1910, he enrolled in the Ecole de Laneau, hoping to earn an advanced engineering degree. But World War I intervened, and Loewy enlisted in the French army corps of engineers, rising from private to captain by the time he mustered out in 1918.
Loewy later enjoyed telling people that his first uniform was so baggy he couldn't stand to wear it, so he had it tailored to fit like a fine suit. Loewy also decorated his muddy trench with Parisian wallpaper and artwork.
Laying telegraph cable was an early wartime task for Loewy. He ran it night after night from lonely French outposts as far as possible into German territory, usually squirming on his belly while dragging a great spool of wire.
Loewy received the Croix de Guerre with four citations, plus an Inter-Allied medal. Toward the end of the war, he served as a French liaison officer to the U.S. Expeditionary Forces, an assignment that helped him polish his English.
Loewy finished college after the war. Then in 1919, with just $40 and only his blue officer's uniform to wear, he boarded a ship bound for America. His brother, Georges, a doctor and medical researcher in New York, paid his way.
On the way over, someone asked Raymond for a charitable donation; since he had little money, he sketched a portrait of a young lady who was on board and put it up for auction. To his surprise, the drawing brought $150.
The buyer was none other than the British consul in New York, Sir Harry Armstrong, who was so taken with Loewy's charm and talent that he introduced him to Conde Nast, the publisher of Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines.
With that, Loewy began his American career as a fashion illustrator. It wasn't long, however, before he turned to the budding business of industrial design and began landing major clients like Gestetner, Westinghouse, Hupmobile, and Sears-Roebuck. He added Studebaker in 1936, and soon designed its most popular car in years, the 1939 Champion.
By 1953, Raymond Loewy and Associates had grown to a firm with 200 employees, an annual income of over $3 million, a posh New York headquarters, and branch offices in London, Paris, Sao Paolo, Los Angeles, Chicago, and -- just for Studebaker -- South Bend, Indiana.
For more information on Raymond Loewy and the Studebaker Avanti, continue on to the next page.
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Raymond Loewy and Studebaker
Studebaker Avanti designer Raymond Loewy was often mistaken for debonair movie idol Ronald Colman. Standing five feet ten, he held his weight to 165 pounds through careful dieting and an exercise regime of fencing, boxing, and hiking.
Loewy wore a medium mustache and, according to Life Magazine, changed clothes "at least three times a day." His typical business attire consisted of a double-breasted sky-grey suit, salmon-pink shirt, and silvered tie.
Loewy always spoke in muted, French-accented tones (some felt he enriched his accent at will), and could present different personalities in different situations. Some thought him timid, yet he could hold a group spellbound when the occasion demanded.
At 56, "Lucky Ramon" divorced his wife of 14 years and married a former model half his age. The couple maintained no fewer than six homes: apartments in New York and Paris; houses in Mexico and Palm Springs, California; a red-tiled villa overlooking the Cote dAzur at Saint-Tropez; and a 16th-century chateau near Paris.
The Palm Springs residence featured a large indoor/outdoor pool that entered the living room under a glass wall. When a guest accidentally fell in during one particular party, Loewy jumped in after him fully clothed, not to effect a rescue but simply to neutralize any social embarrassment.
Such was the man to whom new S-P President Sherwood Egbert turned in 1961. In February of that year, Harold Churchill stepped aside as the corporation's president, replaced by the energetic 40-year-old Egbert.
Egbert came from McCulloch Corporation in California, makers of superchargers and chainsaws. An avid pilot as well as a car buff, he was a breath of fresh air in South Bend: young, eager, charismatic.
Soon after he arrived, Egbert was shown full-sized fiberglass models of Studebaker's 1962 passenger cars. Due to poor lamination and a hot Indiana summer, the mock-ups had warped, making it difficult for him to read what his designers had in mind.
Recalling Loewy's prior achievements, Egbert phoned the designer and asked him to fly to South Bend to render his verdict. Loewy came in from New York with his assistant, John W. Ebstein. They looked at the mockups and told Egbert to forget them. Warped or not, the designs just wouldn't sell.
Egbert took Loewy to dinner that evening, saying that what Studebaker really needed was a new sport coupe, something more sophisticated than the Hawk (which hadn't changed much since 1956), a car to lure younger buyers into Studebaker showrooms.
Loewy concurred, and assured Egbert that he could design just such a car. Indeed, he had already created half a dozen personal-luxury coupes for his own use. A contract was drawn up and everything seemed set. The one problem was time. Because Egbert wanted the new car for 1963, he needed a finished design and scale model in just 40 days.
To learn about the development of the Studebaker Avanti, go on to the next page.
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The Development of the Studebaker Avanti
Loewy immediately flew to his home in Palm Springs and asked Ebstein to join him in designing the Studebaker Avanti. "When we got there," as Ebstein later recalled, "Mr. Loewy told me he had just hired a young student out of the Art Center by the name of Tom Kellogg.
"He was very impressed with Kellogg, [but] he asked me who else to get. I suggested Bob Andrews, who'd been in and out of the Loewy organization so many times before. We all got together in Palm Springs, and Loewy leased a house there. We didn't want to do the work in his private home."
It apparently wasn't hard for Loewy to put together the team. Most of the designers employed by him liked their boss and enjoyed working for him. In fact, many of those from the Studebaker days have volunteered that Loewy was the best boss they'd ever had. That may be because he made it a point to ask, "What do you think?" He certainly wasn't dictatorial, yet his designers eagerly did what he asked.
The now-deceased Andrews, who was instrumental in shaping the 1948 Hudson and worked on a number of Loewy projects, remembered him as a good motivator.
As Andrews said in a 1985 interview, "The best compliment I can give Mr. Loewy is that he was such a fine director that when you worked with him, it was the most important project in the world. I felt just great about it and did some of my best work for him."
Kellogg, then 29, had graduated five years earlier from L.A.'s Art Center School (now Art Center College of Design in Pasadena). By early 1961 he was designing boats for Dean Meyers & Associates in Newport Beach, California.
Kellogg said that he was sleeping late one morning when Loewy phoned, asking whether he might be interested in helping design a "new sport car" for Studebaker. "In my haze, all I could say was yes!"
On Monday: March 20, Loewy, Kellogg, Ebstein, and Andrews settled into the leased house on the outskirts of Palm Springs. Kellogg noticed that Loewy had taped to one wall a picture of the 1961 Lincoln Continental. Loewy said he liked that car's thin-bladed fenders.
He also had a picture of an E-Type Jaguar, plus a rough sketch, which he had himself done, showing a pinched, "Coke bottle" body shape in plan view. "And this is what we went by," said Ebstein. "We sat and drew. Bob Andrews started a little clay model, and Tom Kellogg made beautiful sketches."
Loewy also posted rough drawings of "hard points," the crucial dimensions for the new car. Kellogg requested that Loewy add photos of the personal coupes he had built on Lancia, Jaguar, and BMW chassis. Then, as Kellogg recalled, "Loewy explained about Egbert, what kind of person he was: a California guy, real aggressive, young with lots of energy, a pilot."
See the next page to find out how the Studebaker Avanti moved from a prototype to a reality.
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The Production of the Studebaker Avanti
Egbert met with Andrews, another avid aviator, while the design of the Studebaker Avanti was underway. Naturally, the two talked about airplanes.
Loewy said Egbert liked the customized Jaguar and wanted, as Kellogg put it, "something kind of California-ish -- tail up in the air." Loewy told his crew to visualize the car on posh Palmdale Boulevard in Palm Springs. Andrews said he imagined the typical owner would be a young airline pilot who enjoyed performance and style.
As Loewy's chief assistant, Ebstein was put in charge of the project, effectively a studio chief who conveyed Loewy's wishes to Andrews and Kellogg and guided them in the boss' absence. However, Loewy dropped by regularly, and, according to Kellogg, even did some sketching himself.
"I sat next to the fireplace at this tiny, ridiculous desk," Kellogg recalls. "Bob was working on the counter near the kitchen sink. He had a bunch of chunky little clay bits, and John just kind of oversaw us. So Bob came up with some sketches, and I came up with some sketches, and John encouraged us.
"But each of us was trying to pull in a different direction at first. Bob wanted to make the car a two-seater. I wanted to make it a four-seater. And Loewy had his ideas, too. So we had to put it all together.
"I was pushing more in the direction of his BMW coupe. Something about the roundness of the rear I liked. Bob [favored] a more downward-sloping rear end like the 1953 Studebaker, something more Terrari, more traditional."
Two weeks of intense work with little sleep took the team up to Easter. Loewy gave his designers a three-day weekend while he flew to South Bend with two scale models that he showed to Egbert, who approved Kellogg's four-passenger theme.
Back in Palm Springs, the Easter break brought an invasion of bikini-clad coeds. "And since we'd have to go downtown to eat, we'd see these girls," Kellogg recalls. "And we'd come back to our boards in rather a stimulated state. I'm sure the sensuality of the car was intensified [during that] week."
While most early concepts included a conventional grille, Loewy urged Andrews and Kellogg to substitute a simple large opening beneath the thin front bumper, something like that on the Citroen DS. The final sketches and clay model took another two weeks to complete.
By the time Loewy took them back to South Bend, the design was very much like the soon-to-be-born Avanti: high haunches; pinched "Coke-bottle" waist with a horizontal "bone"; blade-like front fenders; "chin scoop" air intake instead of a grille; a "speed ramp" running up the left side of the hood, roof, and door lines reminiscent of Loewy's custom BMW and Lancia.
The rear was also rounded, and 1953-vintage Studebaker wheel-covers restamped with a "starfish" pattern over a brushed inner cap.
The result was "all of a piece" and totally non-derivative. Amazingly, the team made its 40-day deadline, though just barely.
A full-size clay mock-up was soon prepared in South Bend under Loewy and Ebstein's direction. The car's name was pure Loewy: Avanti is Italian for "forward."
The car that emerged for production was built on a modified 109-inch-wheel-base Lark chassis. Total length was 192.4 inches. The Avanti stood 53.8 inches high and 70.3 inches wide.
Andrews later said he was glad to hear that the first Avanti buyer was indeed an airline pilot. Kellogg recalled wondering whether the car would even be produced until he saw three Avantis roll out of a transport plane for the Los Angeles dealer introduction.
Go to the next page to learn how the Studebaker Avanti performed once it hit the market.
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The Success of the Studebaker Avanti
There were scarcely any Studebaker Avantis to show anyone in the fall of 1962. The reason was unexpected quality problems with the fiberglass bodies, which initially were supplied by Molded Fiberglass Company of Ashtabula, Ohio, the same firm that made Corvette shells for Chevrolet.
The problems were severe enough to cause lengthy production delays, so the Avanti didn't reach dealers in quantity until well after announcement day. This not only diluted the car's impact, but cost Studebaker a number of sales. A stunning new 1963 Corvette didn't help.
Nevertheless, Egbert was pleased with his new car, and he soon asked Loewy for an entire line of Avanti-inspired standard Studebakers as possible 1964 models. This time, Andrews and Kellogg worked out of Loewy's New York office, drawing up an Avanti-themed convertible, four-door sedan, and four-door wagon in just seven weeks.
Ebstein then flew to Paris to oversee construction of two running metal prototypes at Pichon et Parat, the coach-builder that had crafted the body for Loewy's personal BMW Both prototypes, a notch-back and a fastback, had two doors -- on one side and one door on the other, this to show body style permutations.
The prototypes were shipped to South Bend and driven on Studebaker's test track, but Egbert felt that neither proposal looked quite right. Accordingly, Loewy brought Kellogg to South Bend to supervise revisions to full-size clays of the sedan and wagon, a job Kellogg finished within a mere five days. This ultimately led to an unmounted fiberglass sedan body, again a "three-door."
But by that point, Studebaker had no money to go ahead with any of this, so the "Avanti II" program was scrapped in 1963 as the company continued to suffer falling car sales and mounting losses in the face of fast-withering public confidence.
"It kind of dragged out," Kellogg said of the passenger-car project, "but nothing happened. Loewy had me go in there a couple of times just to talk with Egbert and see if there was anything we could do to keep it going. He said, 'Boy, I'd love to keep it going even more than you guys.' But finally they closed down and moved out."
Tragically, Egbert's health began failing along with Studebaker's financial condition, and he resigned in 1963 due to inoperable cancer.
That December, Studebaker shuttered its historic South Bend factory ended production of both the Avanti and the Hawk, and retreated to building "common sense" sedans and wagons at its Canadian plant in Hamilton, Ontario. (Avanti production came to 4,643 units, including just 809 that were considered 1964 models.)
Studebaker built its last cars in 1966, at least until its revival many years later. Egbert died three years later at the age of only 49, but Raymond Loewy lived all the way until 1986.
To read an interview with Avanti-designer Tom Kellogg about his thoughts on the Stubaker Avanti, go on to the next page.
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Tom Kellogg and the Studebaker Avanti
During his interview, Tom Kellogg reminisced about the workings of the Studebaker Avanti design team back in 1961. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
Q: Please tell us a little about John Ebstein and Bob Andrews.
Kellogg: At first, I thought that they were sort of holding onto each other against this "mean man" Loewy, who I didn't see as mean at all. But they felt he would just order them to drop everything and come to someplace like the middle of the desert as though he had no feelings for them. But Loewy was all enthused, and his enthusiasm would sometimes cloud maybe how he treated people.
But I really enjoyed both of them. John was Loewy's right-hand man, and a super person in that he was very sensitive. He knew my needs and he was always very supportive. It was just fun working with him. And he was clever.
I didn't see him so much as a designer, but as a person who knew how to accomplish things in a very quick, easy way. Bob was very fanatical. He was always analyzing lines and scrutinizing things right down to the nth degree of tolerance. He was very thorough, slow but methodical.
Q: What did each of you contribute to the Avanti design?
Kellogg: I would say that John's major contribution was keeping us focused, and also following through on a lot of loose ends that we weren't able to complete within that five-week period.
Q: What sort of "loose ends?"
Kellogg: One was the grille, the big front scoop. At first it was just an open hole, and some people complained that it would look kind of dirty when bugs got in there. I'm not sure about this, but I believe it was John who came up with the idea of going to a stove manufacturer and having them make an insert, a stainless-steel insert like a stove rack. Which was a good idea, because it didn't cost that much.
Also, I believe he took the common Studebaker hubcap at that time and had it restamped with the star-shape on it. He did a lot of things like that. Plus, he followed through in South Bend from what we did in Palm Springs, making sure that everything was executed as Loewy had instructed. So John was both the team supervisor and Loewy's representative with Studebaker.
Q: What was Bob Andrews' role?
Kellogg: Bob always did a good job for Loewy and Loewy was always confident that Bob would execute things very tastefully, which he did. Bob had a very high level of taste, yet he was very American in his love for cars. And he was very dedicated. He'd never say, "This is good enough." He was a perfectionist.
His role was to work on the clay. He wasn't a professional modeler, but that was the medium in which he worked. He kept things from getting exaggerated here and there from the manufacturing standpoint. Bob had a good way of bringing things together into a very disciplined package. And he was just a neat person. You couldn't help but like him.
Q: And what about yourself?
Kellogg: I did most of the sketch-work. In a way, I was trying to become each person and express what they thought. Loewy said the most important thing he wanted me to do was to keep in mind the Coke-bottle shape, the lack of a grille in front, and the other criteria he laid down.
But he also said, "Don't let that keep you from doing what you think." So I didn't. I put in my own ideas once I did what I felt I needed to do to please him.
Q: What would be an example of that?
Kellogg: The roofline that was used, although I told Loewy that I got the idea from his BMW, except I trimmed it down. The treatment was something I liked. It had a look to it that I felt could be refined. Loewy liked it too. Bob wanted more of a Ferrari-type look, and so at first we sort of established two directions.
One side of the model that Bob was working on represented more his approach, the other side another approach. Later, after Loewy came back from seeing Egbert in South Bend, we focused on the direction I liked, which I was happy about. So then both sides of the model became closer to each other. I also did a lot of sketches for interior parts and the rear under-bumper treatment and other details.
Q: It sounds like the four of you worked very well together.
Kellogg: Oh, we did! We all hitched about certain things that seemed a little crazy to us at the time. But when it was finally done and we all got together and talked, we were really surprised by how well the Avanti came out.
That's when I concluded that Loewy had some magic way of putting the right people together and saying the right things and encouraging the right things in order to create something really great.
I remember shaking hands with Loewy when we were all finished and saying our goodbyes. He said, "Tom, it was really enjoyable working with you, but I hope that when the car comes out, you're not going to tell people that you designed it and I had nothing to do with it." I said, "No, I'm going to tell it just the way it was. It was your concept we evolved." And he said, "Oh, good!"
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