This Studebaker Avanti eats Hellcats

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy declared, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” That same year, the Studebaker Corporation gambled it all on a flagship 2+2 grand tourer with V-8 power. One dream made it, one didn’t. Yet Studebaker’s moonshot still stokes passion.

Thundering like a Saturn V fallen to earth, Laurie Peterson’s Pro-Touring 1963 Avanti sucks down boost and fuel and rockets up the mountainside with alarming pace. It’s a chilly British Columbia evening, and a gear-driven Procharger F-1R centrifugal supercharger force feeds the 6.2-liter V-8 cold air. Peterson grabs another gear from the Camaro-sourced Tremec manual transmission and rolls into the throttle, unleashing some 724 hp to the rear wheels, on par with a modern Dodge Hellcat but pushing far fewer pounds. Avanti: Italian for “Forward!” Blown V-8: American for “Let’s light this candle.”

Quite famously, nearly all the Apollo astronauts drove Corvettes. But in some parallel universe, we’ve just left the likes of Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom in the dust, scratching their heads and wondering what just blew the doors off their Stingrays.

An experienced mechanic and hot-rod builder, Peterson’s custom Avanti is unique and thoroughly sorted. The LS3 V-8 sits well back in the engine bay, taking some weight off the nose. Underneath, the car features an Art Morrison chassis, complete with C6 Corvette-sourced 14-inch rotors and 6-piston calipers. Out back is a three-link rear suspension and a Ford 9-inch rear end. There’s a carbon-fiber front splitter. The interior is orange.

“There’s not much middle ground,” Peterson chuckles, “People either love this thing, or they absolutely hate it.”

Fifty-six years after the last Avanti left the South Bend, Indiana factory with a handwritten note in its trunk, you have to think the original Studebaker workers would cheer this ballistic tribute. The Avanti was an audacious undertaking, and building one into a fire-breathing missile puts an exclamation point on the daring of its creators.

Peterson grew up with Studebakers, from the 1963 Hawk GT he learned to drive in, to his father’s 1957 Golden Hawk. Roy Peterson, Laurie’s father, was a nationally-acclaimed editorial cartoonist, known for the accuracy with which his pen skewered politicians, and both father and son fell for the flowing lines of Studebaker styling. Roy even made a scrapbook of ads when the Avanti came out.

In the early 1960s, however, most of the ink around the Studebaker offices was red. The company had been in dire straits since the mid-1950s, managing to stagger on via a takeover bid by Packard, the American distribution of Mercedes-Benz, and military truck production. A flurry of sales of the Lark compact, introduced in 1959, brought a temporary infusion of cash.

Instead of battening down the hatches and trying to ride out the coming storm, Studebaker’s new president Sherwood Egbert was apparently seized with post-war optimism. Egbert, an ex-Marine, was hired on from a chainsaw manufacturer. His mission was to diversify Studebaker and eventually take the company out of automaking altogether. Instead, he surprised everyone. He sketched out a vision on a cocktail napkin and set about making it a reality, defying

Designer Raymond Loewy was hired and given a nearly impossible mandate: build a complete full-scale model in just forty days. He brought in experienced employees John Ebstein and Bob Andrews, and an Art Center College of Design student named Tom Kellogg. The foursome locked themselves in a rented house in Palm Springs and got to work.

Kellogg would go on to design the original Star Trek shuttlecraft, and his work on the Avanti was likewise cosmic. Instead of a grille, Studebaker’s new flagship gulped air from beneath. It was narrow, yet wasp-waisted, featuring the coke-bottle styling that would become so popular through the years. There were no straight lines on the car, the bumpers had the flair of an Art Deco piece, and the hood featured asymmetric badging.

When the car debuted in April of 1962, jaws dropped. Sports Car World said, “The Avanti has caused raised eyebrows among diehards in the American motor industry, who have already nicknamed it America’s ‘Ferrari’.” Road & Track was less effusive, titling its review, “A Lark in a gilded cage.”

R&T had put its finger right on the major issue with the Avanti: beneath its avant-garde fibreglass construction was the frame of the compact Lark, a rather elderly design. Still, Ford would later base the Mustang on the Ford Falcon, and few ever complain about that.

European styling, American V-8 power, and seating for four made Studebaker’s gamble an attractive alternative to the Corvette or Thunderbird for the family man. And, despite its outdated underpinnings, the Avanti mostly delivered on performance.