In the early 1960s, innocence gave way to cool, and big, round automobiles were replaced by fast cars with sleek lines. Avanti “means” forward in Italian and the car made by Studebaker in the early 1960s was a symbol of modern form and function.
“New things were coming out like crazy and the Avanti was part of it,” said Richard Vaux, owner of the 1964 Avanti on view in California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way.
At the end of this month, Vaux’s turquoise Avanti joins 200 other examples of design from 1930 to 1965 that celebrate the innovation of California designers.
Innovative is certainly a word Vaux, a former Air Force pilot, would use to describe the Avanti. “I got in that thing and it was like getting in the cockpit of a fighter,” he said, of the car’s overhead console with red glimmering lights and bucket seats.
The Avanti was the first American car to offer front disc brakes. It had a highly powerful engine and engineering that supposedly kept the roof from collapsing if the car rolled in an accident.
The museum found Vaux, who lives less than an hour away in New Hampshire, through an Avanti club. There could be no bigger enthusiast. Vaux worked for Studebaker in the early ‘60s, managing East Coast distribution, and was there when the first Avanti rolled off the line.
“It was supposed to be the savior for the Studebaker Corporation,” he said.
The Avanti started as a sketch by the president of Studebaker. It then became a Raymond Loewy design. The French designer is responsible for the look of such American icons as Air Force One, Coca-Cola vending machines and the seashell-shaped sign for Shell gasoline. Loewy launched the car at the 1962 New York Motor Show. Time magazine described it as “finless, aerodynamically clean and fast.”
Only two years later Studebaker couldn’t make the Fiberglas bodies fast enough to keep up with demand. Vaux’s secretary came running to tell him the bad news. That’s when he arranged to buy one for himself.
Then in 2002, he heard of an Avanti that needed saving. This one had lived in a garage for more than 30 years because its owner didn’t want to part with her late husband’s most prized possession. Finally, her son decided the car must go to someone who would care for it. It took Vaux three years to restore the 1964 model.
During this period he started noticing the extra accessories, studying the serial number and speculating that he was familiar with this exact car. It was one of only 15 show Avantis made for publicity and TV commercials.
Studebaker custom manufactured fewer than 5,500 Avantis. But these cars always got around. According to Vaux, Ian Fleming, who penned the James Bond spy novels, had a jet black Avanti. The cars have been shipped to Africa. While flying for TWA, Vaux spotted one in a garage in Athens, Greece.
Over the years, Vaux has trailered his Avanti to car shows where he wins top awards, including Best Avanti in 2012. But he feels that being part of the PEM exhibition is something uniquely special.
“The Smithsonian thought it was a milestone design. They had one for a while as a bona fide work of art. I think it’s great. The car will be where it should be.”