The many afterlives of the Avanti.
As a Studebaker, the Avanti was short-lived and proved unable to prevent the venerable independent automaker’s demise not long after its launch. The death of Studebaker did not mean the end for the Avanti, however, not by a long shot.
In fact, even while Studebaker was still an active car manufacturer, albeit in Canada instead of South Bend, Indiana, as before, the first Avanti resuscitation was already underway. In July 1964, Nathan Altman and Leo Newman, two South Bend Studebaker dealers, signed an agreement with the company whereby they acquired the rights to the design, moulds and tooling for the Avanti as well as the rights to use the Avanti name and trademark. The two men were also allowed to utilize part of the now defunct South Bend factory. By hiring laid-off Studebaker workers and former engineer Eugene Hardig, they embarked on the plan to continue production of the Avanti, but this time with the emphasis on exclusivity, luxury and personalisation options.
This different approach, combined with a limited production capability, inevitably meant that the price of the car when relaunched in 1965 and renamed Avanti II would increase substantially: a tab of US $6,500 before options meant that it was slightly more expensive than a Jaguar E-Type and markedly pricier than a Chevrolet Corvette.
Speaking of which, since the old Studebaker engines were no longer available, Altman and Newman fitted a Chevrolet engine in the Avanti II, the 327 cubic inch (5.3-litre) Turbo Fire V8 delivering 300bhp. The rest of the Avanti II remained almost unchanged from the original, although the pronounced forward rake was eliminated. After 1969, a larger 350 cubic inch (5.7-litre) V8 would power the Avanti II, followed by an even larger 400 cubic inch (6.5-litre) mill in 1972.
In the first year, 45 Avanti IIs were sold, 59 the next, and there would be a steady rise thereafter, with the 100 car-a-year barrier being first cleared in 1968. Throughout the 1970s, well over 100 Avanti IIs were manufactured annually, with 195 cars in 1981 as the zenith for Altman and Newman production.
Federal regulation requirements necessitated the fitting of ‘5mph’ bumpers in 1973, which did the looks of the car no favours. Then, in 1976, Nathan Altman died unexpectedly while on vacation in Europe. He would be replaced by his brother, Arnold, but from that point on, the quality of workmanship started to decline.
In 1981, near the end of the Altman and Newman era, a smaller 305 cubic inch (5.0-litre) Chevrolet V8 coupled to an automatic gearbox with taller gearing replaced the previous engine in the interests of improving the fuel economy of the Avanti II.
By this time, however, Altman and Newman had had enough and eventually sold the company to Stephen Blake in October 1982. Blake, a successful real estate broker and avid car collector, had enquired about buying the Avanti Motor Corporation repeatedly over the previous few years and now his wish had come true, at a cost of slightly over US $4 million.
Blake made a real effort and revitalized the atmosphere at Avanti, immediately setting to work with the aim of modernizing the Avanti II where necessary, while bringing fit and finish back up to the level expected for that price of car. Blake’s Avanti – the ‘II’ suffix now dropped- was launched in 1984 and now had rectangular headlights, more snugly fitting Kevlar bumpers and a revised interior with original Recaro sports seats. (Those Recaro seats were manufactured just sixty miles away, which helped in terms of logistics.) The characteristic rake was reinstated as well, as Blake believed that was how the Avanti was originally intended to look.
Mechanically, the Avanti was updated as well, with variable-ratio power steering and front brakes from the Chevrolet Camaro Z28. The Camaro also provided the newly optional V8 engine, which was still 305 cubic inches and delivered 190bhp, resulting in a 0 to 62mph time of just under 9 seconds. The impression of quality was noticeably better than before, which was a good thing since the base price of the Avanti had now reached between US $25,000 and $32,000, which was Jaguar XJ-S money at the time.
A year later, a 205bhp fuel-injected version of the 305 engine became available as an option, and there was talk of a return of the 350 cubic inch engine. With the help of a former Pontiac engineer, Blake developed an all-round independent double-wishbone suspension, which was fitted to an experimental Avanti. Blake also started to enter an Avanti in racing competitions, but these costly activities soon caused creditors to lose faith in the company’s future.
Sales volumes had increased compared to the Altman and Newman era: 188 cars in 1982, 276 in 1983 and 380 in 1984. Alas, this was still not enough to sustain the company and, in late 1985, Avanti had to file for bankruptcy. The evidence points to a man who meant well, but who had bitten off more than he could chew.
In an interview in 1989, Blake had this to say: “I still think it is one of the best-looking cars in the world, but I bought a mom-and-pop company that was building a 20-year-old car on a 40-year-old chassis with 70-year-old workers in a 100-year-old plant.” As they say, caveat emptor.
In 1986, and for approximately US $725,000, which was quite a bit less than Blake had paid, a Texas-based entrepreneur named Michael Kelly purchased the Avanti assets. Kelly ambitiously announced the launch of a convertible version, a long-wheelbase coupé, a four-door version and even a stretched limousine variant. Only the convertible and the long-wheelbase coupé would actually become a reality during Kelly’s first term, however. An interesting variant that recalled the famous Paxton supercharged Avanti R2 was the so-called Silver Anniversary model which was powered by a supercharged 305 cubic inch V8. Fifty of these were made.
The price of the Avanti had skyrocketed, with the long-wheelbase coupé now close to US $56,000. Considering the age of the design and the fact that the Avanti now had many far more modern and better performing competitors, it is no surprise that sales volumes were not nearly enough to keep the business afloat.
Thus, in the late summer of 1988, J.J. Cafaro, a real estate developer like Stephen Blake, became the next owner of Avanti. History and local goodwill notwithstanding, Cafaro decided to leave the outdated South Bend factory and move the company to a more modern facility in Youngstown, Ohio. Cafaro stopped making the long-wheelbase coupé but did present a four-door version under the name ‘Touring Sedan’. According to an ex-employee, the Touring Sedan was developed in just nine months, using an original four-door prototype mockup done at Studebaker by designers Bob Andrews and John Ebstein as a starting point.
Riding on a Chevrolet Caprice chassis with a wheelbase of 116 inches, the Touring Sedan looked somewhat ungainly to most eyes and only 80 found owners. When Cafaro’s tenure ended, around ten unused bare Touring Sedan bodyshells were left over.
Even though Avanti managed to sell 350 cars in 1990 during Cafaro’s reign, the high overheads and production costs, elevated price, dated basic design and naively ambitious attitude meant that another bankruptcy became unavoidable. The factory in Youngstown closed its doors in 1991 after just 405 Avantis were manufactured there.
Avanti lay dormant for a while until 1993 when long-time Avanti aficionado, Jim Bunting, enlisted one of the original Avanti designers, Tom Kellogg, to design a totally new version. After evaluating a few possible candidates for the base such as the Acura Legend coupé, Cadillac Eldorado and Chevrolet Corvette, a fibreglass-bodied prototype of the resulting design was built, using the platform and mechanicals of the Pontiac Firebird as a base.
Bunting displayed the car, christened ‘AVX’, at several Studebaker club meetings during 1996 and established AVX Cars the following year, announcing that the car would go into small-scale production. Although AVX Cars constructed another two prototypes, that was as far as it went: Bunting sold AVX Cars to John Hull and John Seaton in 1998.
Hull and Seaton were soon joined by a familiar name, Michael Kelly. The company was renamed ‘Avanti Motor Corporation’ and the trio announced that a new factory would be built in Georgia (the US state, not the country) to build the AVX under the familiar Avanti name.
In 2001 the first Avantis were indeed produced, in coupé or convertible guise. Like Bunting’s prototypes, the production Avanti used the Pontiac Firebird as a base and thus provided good performance and reasonably up-to-date safety features. However, at close to US $80,000, the Avanti cost twice as much as its donor car and was no faster, so it took a determined and affluent Avanti fan to take the plunge. Still, 129 Avantis were sold during 2001 and 2002.
The elimination of Firebird and Camaro production from GM’s lineup of vehicles in 2002 presented Avanti Motor Corporation with an impending problem but, reportedly, the stock of donor cars available was enough to continue Avanti production until the end of 2004. Ultimately, 319 Firebird-based Avantis were constructed.
Near the end of 2004, Kelly, who had by this time gained complete control of the Avanti Motor Corporation as Hull and Seaton had both left the enterprise, announced that the Avanti would be re-engineered in order to accept the Ford Mustang (the 2005-2014 generation) platform and engines. Initially, only a convertible version of the Mustang-based Avanti was available, powered by the 281 cubic inch (4.6-litre) V8. Later in 2005, a coupé version joined the lineup and a V6 engine provided an additional option.
In october 2006 the Avanti Motor Corporation left Georgia and moved to a new facility in Cancún, Mexico. A former MG Rover executive, David Sharples, was appointed to manage the operation. Kelly’s days at Avanti were numbered, however, as he was arrested on 22nd December that year on fraud charges concerning a multi-million dollar Ponzi scheme connected to Mexican timeshare properties.
Sharples declared that Kelly was no longer part of the corporation and that production of the AVX would continue in Cancún as planned. It did, briefly, but after just 38 cars were completed, the Cancún plant shut its doors in March 2007. The Securities and Exchange Commission accused Kelly of having used illegally obtained money to run the Avanti Motor Corporation. Kelly was released on bail awaiting trial. He would never appear before the judge, however, as he died in 2013. Kelly’s assets, including the Avanti Motor Corporation, its associated trademarks and physical assets, were liquidated in an effort to reimburse the victims of the Ponzi scheme.
This was thought to be the end of the story and therewith the Avanti, were it not for a certain Anthony Gordon Bennett (his real name, apparently) from Virginia, who was granted the patent rights for the Avanti trademark by the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) in February 2021.
On his (as yet, very basic) website, Avantimotors.com, Mr Bennett announces that, fully in accordance with current trends, an electrically-powered all-new Avanti will be forthcoming. No further detail information or design drawings are presented, so time will tell if the undead from South Bend will continue to roam the streets or not.
As far as the brochures illustrating this article are concerned, the Cafaro era produced easily the most professional looking material, followed by the early Avanti II. The later brochures for the Camaro and Mustang-based Avantis have a more amateurish quality to them, as evidenced by the layout and photography. What they all have in common is that they are….uncommon. While demand may not be very great, neither is the supply, which means you may have to fork out more than expected in some cases should you wish to acquire one of these pieces.
20 thoughts on “South Bend Undead”
Good morning, Bruno. I was aware of the Avanti being produced after Studebaker folded, but never realized the history was so complicated. Thanks for the research and uncovering this bit of automotive history.
The later Firebird and Mustang based cars are new to me. The design didn’t improve with the use of the donor cars as far as I’m concerned. I reckon the Avanti has always been an acquired taste, but I like them. The original Avanti never had a traditional grill, so maybe this design is fit for a BEV. It’s a tall order, though.
The interior is also something that is instantly recognizable to my eyes. I wonder if this is the car with the largest vanity mirror.
Vanity mirror AND a make-up tray for the little laydee! How very much of its time. As Freerk says, the looks are an acquired taste, and it’s amazing how long people persisted in trying to make it into a viable proposition. Great research, Bruno.
As a non-conforming, anti-establishment teenager when the Avanti was first launched, I thought it was great and so different from normal brash American automotive vulgarity. Opinions mellow with knowledge, age and experience – but I still like it and would place it firmly on my list of iconic motor cars. To my shame, I was only vaguely aware of its afterlife and so I add my thanks to you, Bruno, for such an extensively researched account – an excellent counterpoint to Eóin’s beautifully written Accidental E-Type.
I can highly recommend James Wasylyshyns YouTube review of a mid-seventies Avanti II. It was actually a revelation to me as I’ve always thought they were some kind of cheap kit car, but I would say the quality is outstanding for the money.
I would also say it is perhaps the only true GT coming from America, in the true Grand Touring/Gran Turismo sense. It isn’t so much an alternative Corvette for four times the price, but a true American alternative to Italian and British GT-cars from Maserati, Iso, Jensen, and Aston Martin.
At least they knew where they could source some proper door locks
A larger picture and some interesting text
“The characteristic rake was reinstated as well, as Blake believed that was how the Avanti was originally intended to look.”
Bruno, could you please explain for the cheap seats what is meant by this? (I am obviously too stupid to see the difference in the pictures).
The original car had a very distinctive forward rake with a nose down/ass up-stance. Like a sixties dragster…
Someone ordered rake? Gotcha 🙂
Good afternoon Fred,
As Ingvar correctly described it means a non-horizontal position of the body in relation to the road (I guess a rearward rake would also be possible although probably not very beneficial to the aerodynamics or driver visibility). The fact that you did not spot the difference in the pictures is no fault of yours; for some reason the car was photographed at angles that do not show it clearly. Only in the small photo showing a rear 3/4 view of a silver car can it be seen- a little.
Ah, now even I got it. Thank you all.
… or a 2CV?
Hi Freerk; now THAT’S a rake ! 🙂
JTC: Indeed, and the Renault 4 was similar.
Thank you, Bruno. They did consider a 4-door, originally – see the near side of the black car in this picture. It’s interesting to me to spot design themes – the front of the Gold car looks like a Bond Equipe, and from the side it looks a bit like a Datsun Cherry.
The Avanti always reminds me of the SAAB 99, too, especially at the rear. The SAAB came after the Avanti, of course.
As regards rake, I think the Imp sometimes had a touch of rearward rake.
Here is a photo showing Loewy with one of the proposals, presumably for an updated Lark:
And here’s Brooks Stevens with his rival proposal:
Here’s another rendering, I think signed by Loewy… It’s intriguing, but IMO he would have needed to put in far more effort and sweat equity into making it really work as a real car than he seemed to have attention for (see Lyons’ intense and relentless massaging of his “four door E-Type” idea, which worked out amazingly, as we know).
That estate reminds me of the Monkeemobile.
Thank you, Bruno, for an exhaustive (and perhaps long and exhausting to research…) history of the Avanti since Studebaker times. The car quite obviously captured a lot of hearts to bring that much investment in time and engineering.
I never knew a four-door version of the Avanti existed off paper. I like the idea of expanding the range but I’m not sure I’m enamored of the result shown. And I’m struck by how much the Firebird-based version seems to be a bit of a touch-up on what looks like a factory model Pontiac. I guess if you have to keep the hard points of the body it’s difficult to make it look much like something else.
My appreciation for this education!
In 1956 my father and I went to the Washington DC auto show, and while perched on my dad’s shoulders I saw the Packard Predictor show car in person, and I was from that point on, a dedicated Studebaker-Packard enthusiast. I’ve owned hundreds of Packards and Studebakers [still own several], but never had an Avanti. That said, I’ve worked on quite a few Avanti cars over the last 40 years, as my restoration shop specialized in Studebakers and Packards.
My best friend Richard Day and I drove to South Bend about 1970, headed straight for the Studebaker Automobile Sales Company [SASCO] parts building, where we found a huge treasure trove of what was leftover after the company stopped building cars. Back then the manager of the facility, a great guy named Denny, would let visitors roam thru the miles of shelved spare parts, literature, sales items, basically everything relating to the 2 brands. Between us, Richard and I owned about 8 Studebaker and Packard cars and we needed parts.
Sadly, as we were still in high school, we both were financially restricted to buying only what we actually needed for our cars, except for items we found were really a good buy. Some of those special deals included a 1966 Studebaker station wagon 16’x40′ color outdoor billboard, never used & still folded, for $10, a Champ pickup double sided light-up showroom sign for $5. In the office we found rows of file cabinets filled with original car owner’s manuals going back into the late 1930s, and each was only $1. I brought home several boxes of owner’s manuals, even some in Spanish! We had driven out in Richard’s parent’s car; a new 1970 Chrysler Imperial LeBaron, and we managed to fill it’s cavernous trunk and back seat area with great stuff.
Towards the end of our exploration of the 100 year old multi-story building, on one of the upper floors we discovered several of the Studebaker Avanti prototypes, all covered with about an inch of dust and bird droppings. When I saw the 4-door Avanti prototype, I became really excited, as I’d never heard of the car before, and it was evident it had not moved since the company closed the South Bend facility .