A Michigan alumnus’s car sported a gold and blue color scheme, making it difficult to know whether to cry or hail it for a trip to the airport

Rob Sass’s article about the Avanti II in December’s SCM was excellent, well written, and well researched, even if the photo was a Studebaker Avanti. But it offered an opinion about Avantis that I just plain don’t agree with.

The Avanti has often been called the car that wouldn’t die. As a longtime and loyal Avanti fan, let me state categorically that the time to pull the plug was quite a few years ago.

The RQA (the serial number prefix) series of cars, easily identified by the low-back bucket seats, were, in a very real way, Studebakers with Chevy engines, and what’s wrong with that? Built from scads of leftover parts, the RQA cars were assembled with a great deal of care and were well-built, solid cars with decent performance and ever increasing levels of luxury features. You would be well advised to remember, however, that late ’60s luxury was defined by thicker carpet and a radio that picked up FM stations.

A BAD MORGAN PARODY

By the time the RQB series of car were introduced, more and more parts needed to be purchased from outside sources, and the car, in my opinion, started its first slide downhill.

The 1970s will not be known as the era of enlightenment for automobiles in general; for the Avanti, it was no different. With very little innovation, the Avanti was on its way to irrelevance. Becoming a bad American parody of Morgan was not in the game plan, but in effect, that’s what was happening.

Many Avanti II owners were returning to the factory to reorder the 1979 version of the same car they bought in 1969, and were finding both quality and especially performance were on the wane.

Avanti experimented with a number of Chevrolet power plants, starting with a 327-ci motor in earlier cars, then moving through a number of horsepower ranges of the 350-ci block.

TWIN MICE AND RUBBER BANDS

A few 400-ci cars were made, but these were hardly strong performers, as the 400 engine was at this time also quite anemic. Later came the twin mice with the rubber band-powered 305-ci motor, a true testament to what we had to put up with in the days before computer controls and fuel injection.

Also, even though Avantis were adequately braked for their time, they were equipped with disc brakes only on the front wheels for as long as the car was built on its original frame, an era that ended with the company’s bankruptcy-the first one-in 1985.

I have owned well over 100 Studebaker Avanti, Avanti II, and Avanti automobiles.
I have owned at least one of all years from 1963 through 1985, so I think my soapbox has some major support on this issue. I even bought a few of them new, making the pilgrimage to South Bend, IN, more times than I care to admit.

After the death of Avanti II co-founder Nate Altman in 1974, his brother Arnold took the reins. Where founders Nate Altman and Leo Newman were more or less dreamers of the sort known to exercise the folly of starting a car company, Arnold was more about counting beans, and it became clear that cutting costs would become paramount.

SURELY JUST A TUNE-UP?

I distinctly remember a cream yellow 1981 Avanti II that I had bought in 1983. It looked great, had plenty of options, but could barely get out of its own way. Using what I thought was logical progression, I guessed a full tune-up was in order. No changes to the performance.

A compression test? All cylinders were consistent.

I assumed that the catalytic converters were bad, and replaced them. No luck.

In desperation, I went to the local Chevy dealer and gave them the specs off the engine. (Avanti owners quickly learn to make up stories about what car your engine is in when ordering parts-avoiding the “we don’t carry no Avanni parts” dilemma). This tactic usually worked, and you could avoid all kinds of “no” answers as long as your story was compelling. I told the guy behind the counter that this block was going in a hot rod I was building.

When he told me my motor was a “fleet service” unit, I hoped that meant it was a police interceptor motor. He did all he could to stifle the laughs when he said that my block was the lowest horsepower motor they made in a V8, and the fleets in question were taxicabs.

I’m in total agreement with Rob Sass’s assessment that the early cars, the RQA models, are among the best ones to buy for keepers. Where we disagree, however, is in the 1984 and 1985 cars, the so-called “Blake Era” Avantis.

CONTEMPTIBLE COLORS

When Washington, DC-based real estate developer Steve Blake bought Avanti from the Altman and Newman families in late 1982, Avanti was bereft of innovation and likely at the start of a death spiral.

The final chrome bumper cars were built in 1983; in 1984 the “rubber” bumpers became standard fare. The chrome blades that served to accent the original lines of the car lasted an amazing 20 years, but made their exit because of two simple reasons-federal laws dictating increased crash standards and, more importantly, cost.

Blake’s idea was to make the Avanti II, now renamed Avanti, into an American version not of Morgan but of Porsche. Blake’s innovations included higher performance L69 305-ci motors, Recaro seats, Doug Nash 5-speed transmissions, and a host of other performance and cosmetic changes as well. Leather suppliers included Connolly and Elmosoft, replacing the standard seats ‘n sofa suppliers who provided the cowskins for Detroit.

I purchased one 1984 and two 1985 Avantis new. At the time I was also buying and selling Avantis as a part-time business. In numerous trips to the Avanti plant in this short period of time, I can bear witness to Rob’s claim of some truly tasteless and contemptible color and accessory combinations.

A University of Michigan alumnus’s car was being finished just in front of my black with tan leather convertible. Its two-toned gold and blue color scheme made it difficult to know whether to cry or hail it for a trip to the airport. I also remember a dark blue sparkling metallic car with a marble dash and a bar stool “marbleized” vinyl interior. No thanks.

NOTHING AFTER 1987

The Avantis built after 1987 hold little attraction for me. Even though to some they look the same, they lost the romance when they were merely bodies assembled on someone else’s chassis, no longer hand assembled and lovingly finished.

Only time will tell whether any Avanti will prove to be a good long-term collectible. My advice? Look for an RQA Series car with good equipment and good history. I’ve already put my money where my mouth is on the Blake era cars, as I still own two of the three I purchased new. My wife’s car is a black and saddle coupe with factory lowered front end, Koni shocks, and a five speed. My car is one of three convertibles built on the original chassis, also black with tan leather and a tan Hartz cloth top.

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