NOTE: this is one of my favorite modern cars. Probably because I can fit in it.
As it rolled into the LeMay America’s Car Museum in 2001, the Avanti didn’t run, was painted metalflake green, and looked like it’d gone 10 rounds with Tyson. Renee Crist, the collections manager at the museum, said she probably could have made the argument to keep it green and refurbish or even preserve it, but that approach wouldn’t have done the car justice – it was the first production Studebaker Avanti, after all, and it deserved a full restoration, which is now entering its final stages. “It sparkled like a hot tub,” Renee said. “It was truly a piece of art, and we were really trying to find out why it was painted the way it was – was it for an art gallery, was it for some kind of show?” Investigating the car’s history produced plenty of dead ends. A Tacoma, Washington, collector had donated it and another Avanti – the latter claimed to be the last Studebaker-built Avanti – both in dilapidated condition, to the museum after realizing he would never get around to restoring them. While the other Avanti ultimately proved to be a late-production example, but not the very last, the green metalflake-painted Avanti indeed was serial number 1001 and still had its original engine (engine number 1002) and original seats to boot.
According to Studebaker Avanti historians, that meant that it was one of the first 10 production Avantis assigned with a so-called “born-on date” of April 26, 1962, the day that Studebaker introduced the fiberglass-bodied coupe to the public simultaneously in New York City and in South Bend. “They’re kind of like racehorses, which are all assigned a birthdate of January 1, regardless of when they were born,” said Dave Kinney, who recently made national news for commissioning the restoration of the second production Avanti, serial number 1002, which went on to win its class at this year’s Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. “Studebaker obviously didn’t build all 10 of those Avantis in one day, and some people say they were built many months before then.” John Hull, author of Avanti: The Complete Story, said that all Avantis were essentially handbuilt cars – prototype, pre-production, and production alike – so there wasn’t an assembly line as we typically think of it. Instead, the earliest production Avantis were probably built in batches of three or four at a time in South Bend, much like how Nate Altman’s Avanti Motor Company built the first Avanti IIs. What Hull did discover was that in June of 1962 Studebaker designated the first five or six Avantis – all painted white and fitted with deluxe orange interiors – to the company’s regional technical training centers for use in developing shop manuals and in training the company’s mechanics on how to service the cars. Serial number 1001 – built with an R2 supercharged 289-cu.in. V-8, four-speed manual transmission, and Twin-Traction limited-slip differential – went to the South Bend training center, while the others went to training centers in New York, Atlanta, Kansas City, and San Francisco. What happened to 1001 after its time at the South Bend training center is anybody’s guess, but by January 1970 it had made its way to Boston, racked up nearly 40,000 miles, and become separated from its Paxton supercharger. It then bounced around New York and New Jersey until the collector who donated the Avanti to the museum bought it and took it out West. When he gave it to the museum, its odometer displayed almost 69,000 miles
Renee Crist said that while the museum does have modified vehicles in its collection and uses them to show the trends of specific eras, she and the museum’s directors decided that “it was much more important to tell the story of the Avanti,” of Raymond Loewy, and of what Studebaker was trying to do with the car than to have to explain why the car had been painted green. So in 2011, she – along with Studebaker collector James Bell – took on the role of project manager for the restoration of 1001 and began raising the funds to pay for a full mechanical restoration. Enough donations came in, both monetary and in the form of parts and promised labor (Renee has estimated the total so far at around $50,000 and growing), to allow the museum to begin the Avanti’s restoration in October 2011. Despite the fact that the Avanti had been used as a daily driver in the Northeast, she said that it had surprisingly little rust underneath. “We had to replace one crossmember on the frame, but the hog troughs were solid,” she said. Of more concern was some damage to the left front corner that had at one point been poorly fixed and that would need to be addressed. And then the museum staff had to sort out the actual damage to the car from the infamous poor build quality of the early Avantis. As both Kinney and Hull related, Studebaker initially contracted with the Molded Fiberglass Company of Ashtabula, Ohio – the same company that had supplied Chevrolet with fiberglass parts for the early Corvette bodies – to build complete bodies for the Avanti, but kept running into production issues. “MFC built parts, but they weren’t really an assembler,” Hull said. “Avantis had about 110 fiberglass parts to put together, so they were like a giant jigsaw puzzle, so parts wouldn’t line up, the back windows wouldn’t fit, and the doors wouldn’t seal.” The poor build quality eventually led Studebaker to bring Avanti body production in-house.
Renee said the museum decided to restore the Avanti back to the way it was when it left the showroom, relying on Ron Hochhalter at Advanced Collision Repair in Sunnyside, Washington, to repair the damaged bodywork and to strip off the bass boat green paint before repainting it in Avanti White. Restoration has progressed since then, as documented on the LeMay’s website: The original (and once again supercharged) R2 engine has been rebuilt, body and paint work is now done as is the chrome, and the car is currently at the upholstery shop.
While Renee said she anticipates the Avanti’s restoration – the museum’s first complete restoration – wrapping up this fall, she said she’s still trying to track down some important parts to complete the restoration, including the Avanti-specific tuxedo orange and black carpet, a pair of glass headlamp lenses in good condition and a windshield in good shape.
“Once it’s done, it’ll be one of our crown jewels here,” she said. “It’ll be one of our star cars.”Kinney even said he’d like to show it together with his 1002 and possibly even a few of the other early Avantis, most of which are still around. “I’m really excited for the museum,” he said. “I think we’re about to see a renaissance with these cars.”
photo credit: © 2014 LeMay Museum
text credit: © 2014 Daniel Strohl via hemmings.com