Analysing three different takes on the personal luxury car of 1963.
The personal luxury car is a uniquely American phenomenon; its closest cousin in concept would have been the European GT, but this transatlantic specimen was a larger, softer (but on a straight piece of road not necessarily slower) breed. There is a fairly general consensus that Ford was the first to introduce the genre with the first four-seater Thunderbird of 1958.
Even though the 1955-1957 two-seater Thunderbirds were only a few years old, they already had created a strong following and many customers lamented the fattening up of the Square Bird with the loss of its two-seat configuration at the time. Ford would be proven right in changing course nonetheless, because sales of the new and larger Thunderbird immediately increased by a sizeable margin; the 1958 model sold more than the previous two model years together, and this in a recession year.
It would take a few years for the competition to react. Pontiac had its answer of sorts for the 1962 model year with the Grand Prix, but in essence this was a sporty version of the regular full-size Pontiac. Brooks Stevens cleverly facelifted the old Loewy/Burke Studebaker Hawk to create the 1962 Gran Turismo Hawk. At least for the first decade, personal luxury cars were usually, with a few exceptions, intermediate sized, seating four to five.
It was not until the 1963 model year that the Thunderbird was confronted with some serious competition: the Buick Riviera and the Studebaker Avanti.
The Riviera was initially planned to revive the La Salle nameplate but Cadillac management was not interested, and neither was Chevrolet. However, both Buick and Pontiac expressed a strong interest in the car. Ultimately, it was decided to give the Riviera to Buick because the Flint nameplate was in trouble after the sales highs it enjoyed in the early to mid fifties and it was hoped this new model might revive its fortunes.
Studebaker; not enjoying the luxury of being part of a large automotive empire like Buick, was by this time in dire straits, making the fact that they were capable of producing a car like the Avanti at all even more impressive. It was styled in record time in a rented holiday bungalow by a team of young designers under the guidance of Raymond Loewy; few realised that the modern, svelte fiberglass body was sitting on top of a slightly modified Lark Convertible chassis.
Instead of the Avanti, the Gran Turismo Hawk could have been included in this comparison but as the Avanti was newer it prevailed for the purpose of this article.
The projectile look Thunderbird was first introduced for the 1961 model year, and apart from a character line added to its previously smooth flanks, some trim shuffling and a change from a generator to an alternator, it had not changed much. Under the skin, the Thunderbirds shared a cowl and windshield with the Lincoln Continental; they were also built on the same assembly line in the Wixom, Michigan factory.
Dimensionally, the Thunderbird and Riviera were reasonably close. The Ford has a wheelbase of 113 inches while the Buick’s is 4 inches longer. The Avanti’s front and rear wheel centres are 109 inches apart; a result of the more compact base of its underpinnings.
As one would expect, all three offered a standard V8 engine. The Thunderbird was powered by a 390 cubic inch V8 delivering 300 horsepower, with a 340 horsepower version optionally available. The Riviera had a 325 horsepower 401 cubic inch Nailhead V8 under the bonnet; a 340 horsepower 425 cubic inch version could be ordered as an option.
An interesting fact about these Buick V8s is that they were used to assist the starting up of the jet engines of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird spyplane; a so-called start cart with two V8 engines on board revved the jets up to about 3000 Rpm after which they could be fired up completely.
Studebaker offered not two but three different V8 engines, named R1, R2 and R3; the standard R1 was rated at 240 horsepower. With the R2 a supercharger was added which increased the rating to 285 horses. The also supercharged R3 engine delivered well over 300 horsepower but was very rarely fitted.
As far as pricing was concerned the three contenders were quite evenly matched: the Riviera was the cheapest at $4333, the Thunderbird and Avanti both left their respective showrooms for $4445.
After the 1963 model year had drawn to a close, a clear winner had emerged: the Ford Thunderbird with total sales of 63,313 vehicles. Impressive for a car that was on the last of its three-year styling cycle. The Riviera did not disappoint either – around 40,000 found owners – it played an important role in restoring Buick’s fortunes after some difficult years. For unforunate Studebaker the Avanti’s sales results were disheartening: only 3834 cars were sold.
Comparing the three brochures, the Thunderbird is victorious in that it displays the nicest production values of the three with a simple but stylish white cover that has “Thunderbird by Ford” embossed upon it in a fancy script. Inside, the first and last pages are onion-skin paper and the choice of photography and models are pure JFK-era Camelot.
Both Riviera and Avanti brochures are smaller and less elaborate; that of the Studebaker also having its name embossed on the white cover. Somewhat puzzling is the red-white-and blue motif that looks like a French tricolour – Avanti being an Italian word after all. Did Loewy want to remind people that the styling of the Avanti was done under his supervision? The photography and locations evoke a noticeably more modern style compared to the Thunderbird catalogue.
Finally, the Buick sits between the two in terms of both size and choice of photography: neither expressly modern nor fashionably contemporary. Unlike the two other cars, most of the photography inside the Riviera brochure appears to have been carried out in a studio which was not yet very common at the time.
Because of its low sales, the Avanti brochure is the most difficult to find, nowadays. More common is simpler folder, which is not as attractive. For the Riviera, two different brochures were printed of which the one illustrated here is the more elaborate. The other item is smaller and square in format (about the size of a CD box) but uses mostly the same photography and is easier to obtain. For the Thunderbird only this plush catalogue was produced, but as quite a lot were printed, it is, relatively speaking, the easiest of the three to acquire today.