A breakthrough design introduced 50 years ago in a last-ditch attempt to salvage a gasping automaker, the Studebaker Avanti has been called the car that never dies.
Studebaker was gone just a few years later, but the car continued, living many lives. Avanti production in South Bend, Ind., lasted less than two years, but entrepreneurs enamored with its space-age lines — the mouthless front, crisp form and sporting performance — revived the car repeatedly through the decades, with its run ending, at least for now, only in 2007.
After years of low-volume production, the car's trademark and design patents are up for sale. Meanwhile, the man who ran the latest Avanti car company is in jail in Chicago, awaiting trial on federal fraud charges.
Avanti is no stranger to such twists and turns. The car was controversial in its day; the intrigue and the cast of characters surrounding its on-again, off-again existence are still debated by enthusiasts.
"The thing I love about the car is that it elicits emotion," says John Hull, an author of Avanti books and president of the Avanti Owners Association International. "People either love it or they hate it."
- Some of the many faces of the Avanti:
- 1963 Studebaker Avanti R-1: The original, with road-sniffing rake and round headlight trim. Worth $11,000-$33,000.
- 1983 Avanti: This was the last year of chrome bumpers. It has GM parts under the hood. Worth $8,000-$21,000.
- 1988 Avanti convertible: The open-top Avanti outsold all other models in this era, but it was prone to leaking. The body sat on a GM platform. Worth $9,500-$27,000.
- 1990 Avanti sedan: For some, this is when Avanti went too far. Others see the four-door as an extension of the car's portfolio. Worth $9,800-$30,000.
- 2003 Avanti convertible: A new design based on the AVX concept of 1997 and built on a Pontiac Firebird chassis. Later models were based on the Ford Mustang. Worth $15,000-$37,000.
Avanti began as a rakish grand touring car, the result of a whirlwind design program in 1961, and for many collectors, it still inspires. Raymond Loewy, the celebrated industrial designer, directed the development of its extraterrestrial styling.
Even so, the Avanti has not appreciated in value like other hallmark cars of its era. It remains a niche collectible, perhaps a result of the string of would-be carmakers who managed to keep the Avanti dream alive, assembling the cars by hand and making incremental changes to the Loewy design.
The public first saw the Avanti — its name means "forward" in Italian — at the New York auto show on April 26, 1962. The car shattered design and production norms. Moving from drawing board to assembly line in a year, Avanti offered buyers modern touches such as a fiberglass body, disc brakes and supercharged engines. Its nose positioned low and its rear end high, Loewy's design provided styling cues that this car was meant for speed.
Studebaker built some 4,600 Avantis for the 1963-64 model years, in three performance variations. Beyond the base 289-cubic-inch V-8, buyers could upgrade to the Paxton-supercharged R2 or R3 models. All used a modified version of the Lark convertible's frame.
The Avanti's style, performance and compact 2+2 seating area helped pave the way for the pony-car generation, some collectors say. Priced at about $4,400, the Avanti represented a new type of sporty luxury.
Enthusiasts typically distinguish the 1963 model by its round headlights, but Studebaker also produced dozens of "transition" Avantis for 1964 with the same front-end treatment before switching to a design with square bezels surrounding the headlights.
While many purists gravitate to the Studebaker-built cars, later-model Avantis have endured as cars whose specialized appeal has kept prices stable, yet affordable, through the years.
"There doesn't ever seem to be any shortage of them," says Rick Crawley, a car dealer and collector in Logansport, Ind., who owns a '78 Avanti II. "Apparently, they don't appeal to a broad spectrum of people."
The car's new name, sounding like a movie sequel, came after Studebaker sold the design to a pair of South Bend Studebaker dealers, Leo Newman and Nathan Altman, in 1965.
When Altman and Newman picked up Avanti production, they employed Corvette powertrains, retaining the Lark chassis while flattening the car's rake.
"The original one came sniffing the ground," Crawley says. "A lot of people don't care for the level look of the Avanti II, but I am more used to seeing them on the road."
The new company produced more than 100 cars a year through the 1970s and early 1980s. In 1982, a real estate developer and Avanti enthusiast, Stephen Blake, bought the Avanti Motor Corp., dropping the "II" from the name and initiating such design changes as body-color bumpers. He sought to update the Avanti with modern features, building a 20th-anniversary car for 1983 and a convertible.
When the company's fortunes again soured, an ethanol developer, Michael E. Kelly, bought the operation for $722,000. Production resumed in 1987, later relocating to Youngstown, Ohio, and lasted through 1991. Coupes, convertibles and sedans were built on various GM platforms.
After another downturn, Avanti received a new lease on life in 2001, again under Kelly's control and this time with a freshened design. The plant moved to Villa Rica, Ga., then to Cancun, Mexico. Cars produced through 2004 were built on a Pontiac Firebird platform. Later models rode on a Ford Mustang chassis.
"What people don't like to acknowledge is that with each generation, the technology was significantly better," says Hull, who served as the last company's chief financial officer in 2001-04.
Avanti built its last car in March 2007. The next year, the Justice Department charged Kelly with fraud in a real estate Ponzi scheme that ostensibly cost investors more than $300 million. Kelly, who pleaded not guilty, remains in custody and is cooperating in a restitution effort that includes liquidation of the Avanti intellectual property and his personal car collection.
Few nameplates have endured as long as Avanti, so enthusiasts may ask if it will get yet another reprieve. "Its nickname is the phoenix," Hull says. "It always rises from the dead."