Car of the Week: 1963 Studebaker Avanti

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By Brian Earnest

Studebaker enthusiasts have a reputation for being among the most brand-loyal car lovers around. Chances are, if you run into a “Studebaker guy,” he’s owned a bunch of them in his life, and odds are good he still has more than one at home.

Studebaker lovers always seem to have cars — and parts ­— in large quantities, and while they many own cars of other ilks, they generally make no secrets about where their devotion lies.

Ben Dusenbery of Sedalia, Col., is a quintessential “Studebaker guy.” His dad was a Studebaker dealer back in the 1950s and early 1960s. He and his brothers grew up neck-deep in Studebakers from as far back as the remember, and they have always seemed to have at least one in their garages.

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Ben’s father Jim opened a service station in Aztec, N.M. back in 1934 and began selling Studebakers in 1939. Over the years, Jim wound up selling many things to pay the bills in the following three decades — Maytag appliances, Philco electronics, outdoor and hunting gear, fishing tackle … whatever it took to keep the lights on. When Studebaker ran out of gas as a company in the early 1960s, the business switched over to selling Datsuns, but for Ben and his brothers Bob and Bill, the bond with Studebakers was permanent.

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“My dad put us all to work as soon as we were old enough. We were all involved with them all the time and we always thought the Studabaker was a superior vehicle when we were kids,” he says. “In the 1950s, Studebakers pretty well took off. They started selling pretty good for him and he made a pretty good living with them for a while. We worked on them so much we could just about tell you anything about them, at least to ’50s, late ’40s, especially my older brother. He could tell you the part number on just about every part on every car from those years. All along we were Studebaker nuts. We’d buy up any old Studebakers that somebody wanted to get rid of and kept all ours running.”

These days, Dusenbery’s pride and joy is a 1963 Avanti that he found in slightly tired original condition and remade into a stellar show car and cool weekend driver. Dusenbery found the car back in 1995, and the chance to restore one of racy, funky, futuristic sports coupes was good to pass up.

“I bought it in Chicago. I was looking for one to fix up, and I found it on eBay,” Dusenbery recalled. “A Dodge dealer had it in his showroom on display. It was in fair condition, I would say.

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“I was living in Florida at the time. I moved to Denver in 2005 and I finally started working on it in 2011. I stripped it it down and went though the entire car and did it like I like it to be. It’s in ‘10’ condition, maybe 9.9 condition maybe. Very few things could use any attention on it, I don’t think … A lot of things I worked on were just design problems from the factory — getting the doors to fit and the windows. A lot of that stuff was never quite fit right from the factory.”

Rust had taken its toll on the undercarriage. The interior was complete, but the fabrics had hardened and began to crack.

Dusenbery stripped the Avanti down to the bare body, worked on the undercarriage rust issues, and reupholstered the interior in leather. The body was painted with a two-part part SW Dimension automotive paint system. The drivetrain — Studebaker 289 V-8 with Carter AFB carburetion and three-speed Borg Warner automatic transmission — was rebuilt front to back and the twin traction rear axle gear ratio was updated to 3:07, lowering the engine RPM for cruising. The factory A/C system was rebuilt and modified to R134A. The power steering, windows and power disc brake systems were similarly rebuilt. The dash was died red to match the red leather seats and carpeting, and all the gauges were reconditioned, along with the mirror/vanity tray in the glove box. The original built-in roll bar cover was refinished to match the color scheme of the interior. An updated retro-radio and electric antenna was added, giving AM/FM/M. Halogen sealed-beam headlights were also added, as was a modern battery, neatly hidden in the trunk — the original battery setup was left under the hood. Among the final touches were rechromed bumpers and an electric fuel pump for better starting and reliability.

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“The fuel pumps in the old Studes were probably one of the weakest systems. And the battery, they had an old utility battery. It was a damn tractor battery!” Dusenbery laughs. “You can’t buy that battery, never could, with any kind of capacity. It was very common to have the battery go bad do on you in cold conditions. So I put new system in the trunk, like a lot of hot-rodders do. You don’t even know it’s there, but it sure helps.

“The leather interior is because I wanted something I could really be proud of , and it really turned out nice. Hands down it’s an improvement.”

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Studebaker’s time traveler

As a symbol of space age forward thinking, the Studebaker Avanti was intended to be the bolt of lightning that would help the company change its image and prove to buyers it could make fun, exciting, technologically advanced cars. Although the effort ended in failure, the Avanti certainly didn’t fall short when it came to styling, originality and performance.

The Avanti was Studebaker’s first all-new body style since 1953. The unique, wedge-shaped body with sharp lines sat on a modified Lark Daytona convertible chassis. The under-the-bumper radiator air intake and round headlight design gave the Avanti a facial expression all its own.

Three engine alternatives were offered: the base R1 power plant, the supercharged R2 and the seldom-seen and expensive R3. The R1 was 280-cid/240-hp V-8. The R3, although garnering a great deal of publicity, was an extremely rare commodity. The R2 was readily available and (at $210) not terribly expensive. It offered a different brand of performance from the 400-plus-cid V-8s generally available in the mid-1960s.

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While the R2 lacked the brute force of other muscle cars, the use of a supercharged and relatively small V-8, along with clever and resourceful use of existing Studebaker components, resulted in an American car that needed no apologies or alibis for either its acceleration or handling.

Officially listed as a 1963 model, the Avanti received a tremendous publicity boost through the successful assault upon existing American records by an R3-engineered Avanti in August. Among the new marks established was a two-way Flying Mile mark of 168.15 mph. Early in 1963, a four-speed-equipped R2 Avanti that was almost completely stock, except for its exhaust system, averaged 158.15 mph through the measured mile.

The R2 Avanti engine was based on Studebaker’s V-8, which had entered production in 1951 with a displacement of 232 cid and 120 hp. By 1963, this V-8 had evolved through several displacement changes and for the R2 had reached 289 cid. A sealed Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor was used in conjunction with a Paxton SN-60 centrifugal supercharger. Due to the supercharger, the compression ratio of the R2 was at 9.0:1 — lower than the R1’s 10.25:1. Output of the R2 was impressive: 289 hp at 5200 rpm and 330 lbs.-ft. of torque at 3600 rpm.

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Aside from having an engine that developed 1 hp per cubic inch, the Avanti was the first full-size American car to be endowed with front caliper disc brakes. These 11.5-inch units were supplied by Bendix and were produced under license from Dunlop. In their basic design they were similar to those used by Jaguar. Finned drums were used at the rear.

Neither the Avanti’s standard three-speed manual transmission nor its optional air conditioning were available with the R2 engine. Instead, customers selected either a four-speed Warner Gear T-10 all-synchromesh gearbox or a three-speed “power-shift” automatic produced by Borg-Warner, which permitted manual shifting if desired. Overall length of the Avanti was 192.4 inches and curb weight was approximately 3,400 lbs.

The performance and top-speed capability of the R2 was superb. Road and Track, October 1962, reported a 0-to-60 time for the four-speed model of 7.3 seconds. Motor Trend, July 1962, noted that a power-shift model needed 8 seconds for the same run.

With a total 1963 model year run of just 3,834 units, the Avanti was truly a limited-edition vehicle. The subsequent output of an additional 809 units in 1964 — as well as the regeneration of the Avanti in its various Avanti II permutations — has not diluted the appeal of the 1963 Avanti.

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On the road again

Dusenbery didn’t learn much about the history of his Avanti from the Dodge dealership that sold it to him. The odometer read 80,000-plus miles, “but I don’t even know if that was the original speedometer.” Judging by the brittle hoses and other rubber pieces on the car, Dusenbery guessed that it had been least a few years since the car had seen a road. “Obviously it hadn’t been driven much. Most of the rubber lines in the brake system were leaking. I just wasn’t in in great driving condition,” he recalls.

It took quite a while for Dusenbery to get the sporty Studebaker back to fighting condition, and he has been careful to keep it that way the past five years. He admits it doesn’t get driven as often as he’d like, but with so few nice examples remaining — indeed so few built to begin with — Dusenbery figures it’s more important to keep the car in good condition than it is to pile on the miles.

“It was just something I wanted to drive a little bit and mostly preserve. I don’t want to take the chance of somebody plowing into it or anything,” he says. “And with the undercarriage and everything, it’s just in like-new condition and I don’t want to foul that up.

“It just aggravates my wife. It sits in the garage covered up 9 months a year. During summer I get it out and take it to a couple shows. This summer there is a Studebaker meet in Colorado Springs, and I’m going to take it to that.”

Dusenbery had one other 1963 Studebaker that he sold a while back. He is restoring a 1960 Hawk and has a 1948 pickup with a 1953 coupe waiting in the wings. His brother Bob also has two Avantis as part of the extended family fleet. Dusenbery estimates that the brothers still have about 40 Studebakers between the three of them. “It was just the way we grew up. They are just like family to us, the old Studebakers,” he says.

Ben had one other 1963 Avanti that he sold a while back, “but that wasn’t as nice as this one.” He parted with his first one, but he’s had his current Avanti for about 22 years and he isn’t planning to let this one go.

“More than anything, I like them because they are so unique,” he says. “And this one has probably appreciated quite a bit in the last 6, 8 years. Studebakers for some reason are starting to take off. You used to be able to buy these for $10,000 or $12,000. Now to find a nice Avanti is upwards of $25,000.

“You won’t see a car that looks anything like an Avanti, with the front end and aerodynamic design and the way it tails off in the back end. When you’re driving the thing, it’s a head turner. You just don’t see them on the road, and in addition they’re a fun car to drive. They’re a quick-turning, very stable car — like a little go-cart. It takes corners as good as any car. They are neat little cars. They are sports cars for sure.”

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