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
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