The Lark was a great sales success for Studebaker, as the Champion had been 20 years earlier. In 1959, the first model year of the Lark, Studebaker sold 138,866 cars compared to 53,866 the previous year and the company made a profit for the first time in five years. But the good times did not last long. Studebaker and Rambler had the "compact car" market to themselves in 1959, but in 1960, the "big three" automakers entered the compact car market with a vengeance. That year Ford sold 436,000 Falcons, Chevy sold 250,000 Corvairs and Plymouth sold 194,000 Valiants. That was only the first wave of small cars. In 1962, Chevrolet introduced the Chevy II (Nova) and sold nearly 407,000 that year. They were soon followed by Mercury Meteors, Pontiac Tempests and Dodge Darts as millions of other compact cars joined the Larks and Ramblers. A good example of the Studebaker Lark's influence on compact car design is demonstrated below by two advertisements from the April, 1962 Taxicab Industry Auto Rental News shown below. Which one is the Studebaker?

    By 1961 Studebaker sold only 70,898 cars and was losing money again. The "Lark" name had lost its positive sales appeal, and in early 1961, Sherwood Egbert was appointed as president of the corporation and chairman of the board. He was associated with the company that made Paxton superchargers and with the Andy Granatelli racing team. He attempted to change Studebaker's image from the builder of boring economy cars to cars that were "different by design" such as supercharged Gran Turismo (GT) Hawks, Daytonas, Challengers and Avantis. But Studebaker's most exciting car was the Avanti, which Sherwood Egbert intended to be Studebaker's Corvette. However, except for its fiberglass body, it had more in common with the four-passenger Ford Thunderbird.

    The Avanti was a unique and exciting car. I clearly remember the first time I saw one. It was a gold one, waiting at a traffic light on North Avenue in Chicago, when our 1951 Champion stopped behind it. Although I could see only the back of it, I was impressed by the large back window and the wonderful sound coming from its twin chrome exhaust pipes. They emitted a deep "gurgle" as it idled at that stop light. The "gurgle" became a rumbling growl when the light turned green and the Avanti accelerated away. Although I never had the chance to see the front of it, I did get a side view when it turned left ahead of us and immediately wanted to own one of those beautiful cars. I accomplished that goal when I was nineteen years old.

    If you were not interested in cars in April, 1962, it might be difficult to imagine how "different" the Avanti was, inside and out. That was two years before the Mustang and four years before the Camaro appeared. Studebaker called the Avanti "America's most advanced automobile" for good reason. Viewed from behind, the tail lights were blended into the corners of the body at a time when tail lights on other cars protruded or were located on decorative tail fins. The rear window was so large and the trunk was so short that the car appeared to be a "fastback" design. Viewed from the side, there was the "aerodynamic wedge" design at a time when most Indianapolis race cars still looked like water heaters on wheels. The front was long, the rear was short and the body narrowed before the rear wheels imitating the "Coke bottle"shape of supersonic aircraft. Except for identification strips, there was no chrome used solely for decorative purposes. The wheel covers looked like "mag wheels," and better than most of the real ones.

    But the Avanti was most exceptional when viewed from the front. In 1962, the only cars that did not have a chrome grille above the front bumper also had their engines in the rear (VW, Corvair, Renault). The Avanti had no grille in the front; it had a large air scoop located under the narrow bumper. I thought the car looked like a shark, while those misguided pundits who didn't like the design dubbed it "the anteater."

    The inside of the Avanti was different as well, beginning with a padded roll cage that framed the interior ceiling. The interior (including the sun visors) was padded all over as a safety feature. Between small sun visors were overhead rocker switches to control the various lights and the heater/defroster fan. There were no "idiot lights" on the instrument panel. Instead, there were eight gauges, including a tachometer and vacuum-pressure gauge which informed the driver if the engine was running economically or if the supercharger was providing "blower boost" to the intake manifold. The gauges, overhead switches and air vent controls located in the console were illuminated with red light bulbs, which made the Avanti interior look like an airplane cockpit at night. Finally, there was the "beauty vanity" with the make-up mirror in the glove box. As the advertisement above says, "This will certainly interest the ladies."

    Of course, there was always some disparaging wag who would say that the Avanti was not fast because it did not have the cubic inches or horsepower of the Ford Thunderbird or Buick Riviera which was also introduced in 1963. However, the Avanti was 1,000 pounds lighter than the "T-Bird" and 1,600 pounds lighter than the Buick. I found that the Avanti was willing to go much faster than I was willing to drive it, and I once traveled at 120 mph, according to its speedometer which was numbered to 140 mph. A friend and I were on the Indiana Toll Road returning to Chicago from South Bend when we saw an exit sign that said "La Porte - 2 miles." We decided to see if we could get there in less than a minute (i.e., 120 miles per hour). This friend was always talking about how fast Porches traveled on the German Autobahn, so I decided to show him how fast South Bend's finest could go. We did not arrive at the La Porte exit in less than a minute because we both got scared when the speedometer showed 120 mph with no indication of slowing down, so I eased off on the gas pedal. We did get there in about a minute and fifteen seconds however. Now whenever I travel that road and see the La Porte exit sign I think of the time I tried to, and nearly did cover that distance in less than a minute.

    Turning to more legally acceptable pursuits, I took the Avanti drag racing on the weekend at Island Drag Raceway in Hackettstown, New Jersey when I was a MP stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Rather than say what times I ran, I will rely upon the April, 1962 Motor Trend, which found that the model equipped with the automatic transmission covered the quarter-mile in 15.8 seconds at 91 mph.

    The Motor Trend road test was made at the Studebaker proving grounds in South Bend, and the article states, "This course was one of the first in the country and has been little improved since, so any car that handles at speed on the wavy black top oval can handle anywhere. At speeds in the 120 to 130 mph range, which this version of the Avanti is capable of on the short straight of the test course, braking and cornering were of prime importance." " ...acceleration times for both 0-60 and the quarter mile are very good. Punching the throttle at 60 mph, it takes but 12 seconds to hit 100 mph. Hardest thing to do in the Avanti is to keep the engine revs under 6000 rpm in any gear as it just wants to keep going and this was a redline imposed by Studebaker engineering who still had some tests to finish on this car."

    Put another way, since the Avanti was fast enough to keep the Granatelli brothers amused while setting speed records at the Bonneville salt flats, the average driver had no reason to complain about its performance. The Avanti was not designed to be a drag racer anyway. It was a car for the rich and famous, such as Ian Fleming, Sandy Koufax and Dick Van Dyke ( Van Dyke's car, now at the Petersen Auto museum in L.A., is exactly the same as mine).

    Avanti was the first American car offered with modern disc brakes as standard equipment. In fact, Bendix (which was also located in South Bend ) had to pay Dunlop of England licensing fees to manufacture them. It was the first and only fiberglass body car that could seat four passengers, which also made it the LARGEST fiberglass car body ever built. Unfortunately, when Studebaker attempted to mass-produce the Avanti, it found that the LARGEST AND MOST COMPLEX REAR WINDOW did not always fit into the LARGEST FIBERGLASS BODY. To add to the degree of difficulty, once the window was installed, it had to be STRONGLY ATTACHED because there was always a possibility that some fool would attempt to drive one down the Indiana Toll Road at 120 mph with the windows rolled down just to see how fast it would go.

    In 1953 the Corvette was the first car to have a fiberglass body, but it was a two-seat roadster with a small hard top added as an afterthought. Some of you might have noticed that the first Stingray, which was also introduced in 1963, came to be known as the "split window" Corvette because it actually has two small rear windows separated by a strip down the middle. The same company that made the fiberglass body panels for the Corvette promised to deliver to Studebaker complete Avanti bodies (without doors, hoods or windows attached) ready to drop on the frame. Unfortunately, the company was unable to deliver bodies built to the exact specifications required to fit the windows and doors without any adjustment, and fiberglass is impossible to "adjust." When fiberglass sets, its form is set and cannot be changed, unlike metal which can be bent or "adjusted."

    However, the Avanti's production problems did not affect the quality of the fine car that was sold to the public, although it definitely affected the quantity built. Actually, quality of those that were built was probably better as a result of the limited production because more time was devoted to each one that was assembled. Avantis were originally offered in black, white, turquoise, gold and red; but black was soon discontinued after Ian Fleming, (author of the James Bond novels) ordered one which ended up taking an unbelievable amount of time to prepare for painting in order to eliminate imperfections that were not visible with other colors.

    I liked my Avanti with its fiberglass body, because I finally owned a Studebaker that would never rust. I owned it for about twelve years and found it to be entirely dependable, fast and fun. The sound of the motor was awesome, especially when under acceleration. Unlike my Lark, it started on the coldest Chicago mornings, and if I still lived in an area where salt is spread on the streets every winter, I would still own it. I thought about sending it to Germany, where I was stationed with the Army for two years, but shipping costs and gasoline were too expensive, so I bought and restored a 1955 Messerschmitt, which I painted yellow in memory of my first Lark.

    I found the Avanti to be a strong and dependable car that did everything I asked of it, and I asked a lot. For example, when I was discharged from the Army, I shipped the Messerschmitt to Chicago, but soon decided to move to California. The photo below reflects my personal version of "The Grapes of Wrath."

    Sound Clip - "Avanti Speed Record" [click here]


    GO TO PAGE ONE - Studebaker Stories Introduction
    GO TO PAGE TWO - A Family of Craftsmen
    GO TO PAGE THREE - Builders of Champions...Commanders and Larks
    GO TO PAGE FIVE - Hello Commander, Goodbye Avanti
    GO TO PAGE SIX - Rolling Along for One Hundred and Fifty Years



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