Story and photos by Brian Earnest
It probably isn’t 100 percent accurate to call Jason Ford’s 1963 Studebaker Avanti his “daily driver.”
But it’s close.
The Luxemburg, Wis., resident doesn’t drive his stunning gray Avanti when there is salt or sand on the Wisconsin roads, and he usually has to shut the car down for at least a few weeks in the dead of winter.
But if there are no flakes in sight and no snowplows to dodge, Ford will usually have his R2 on the road. He’s rolled up more than 113,000 miles in the past 15 years, and the Avanti’s odometer has turned over twice already — it went past 200,000 last summer.
Ford flew from Wisconsin to Washington state to look at the car back in 1997. He promptly drove it about 2,000 miles home and he’s rarely had it off the road since.
“I drive it as much as I can. As long as the weather is nice, it’s out,” he says. “I bought it to drive it, not to look at it. It’s always out until at least Thanksgiving, and there have been a few years I’ve had it out until Christmas if it hasn’t snowed much. If they don’t salt the roads, I’ll keep driving it.”
The only time the Avanti has been out of commission for any length of time came a few years back when Ford was driving home from the Iola Old Car Show in Iola, Wis., and had an unplanned meeting with a deer. “It was surprising that on this fiberglass body car you hardly even notice [you hit it],” Ford recalled. “A deer jumped right out in front of me. I didn’t have time to do anything, but I didn’t even really feel it hit the car. I thought maybe I missed it somehow, but then I thought I’d better stop and take a look at it, and when I slowed down, steam started to come out. And when I got out, I could see it had punched a hole right in the front end… That would have been right around '99 or 2000.”
If there was a silver lining to the mishap, it was that it gave Ford a reason to again make the car look like it did when it came from the Studebaker factory. That meant sanding off all the red paint that had been sprayed on it sometime during its life and repainting it the Avanti Gray Iridescent that it wore originally. The color has made a head-turning car even more of an attention getter.
“This was a rare color on these cars and I couldn’t even find a picture of a car this color, so I didn’t really know how it would look,” Ford said. “But I figured if I was going to go to the trouble of painting it, I’d put it back to the original color, and I love the color.
“In the original lineup they didn’t have this color. They had black in place of this gray… But they found that black showed all the little lines and imperfections, so they started using gray. They only did that for a couple months, then they brought the black back. It was only available for three months or so. It’s very rare. I’ve never seen another gray one… I’ve gone to national shows and I’ve never seen another one. I don’t know how many they painted gray. I’m sure it’s less than 100, and I’d guess 10 to 20 of them.”
Of course, any Avanti is a scarce machine these days. Studebaker built just 3,834 examples in 1963 and 809 in 1964 before the company’s financial troubles brought a premature death to one of the most innovative and promising vehicles of the era.
The Avanti was intended to help save Studebaker from extinction by shaking it loose from its musty and stodgy image. Although this effort ended in failure, history will judge the Avanti to be a success in many ways. It was part sports car, part pony car and part muscle car, with space age looks and enough go-fast ability that it could run with any crowd. More than anything, the Avanti was fun and different. It didn’t look like anything else, yet it was traditional enough, with its back seat and V-8 power, that it didn’t scare everybody away.
Three engine alternatives were offered for the 1963 Avanti: the base R1 power plant, the supercharged R2 and the seldom-seen and expensive R3. The R1 featured a 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 brand of performance rather different from that of the 400-plus-cid V-8s generally available in the mid-1960s.
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 Output of the R2 was impressive: 289 hp at 5200 rpm and 330 lbs.-ft. of torque at 3600 rpm.
Ford was one of those guys who loved the Avantis from the start, even before he became a Studebaker loyalist. “I had been looking for one since I was in high school. I saw my first one of these at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit,” he said. “I went to high school in Detroit and just loved the car, but obviously I didn’t have any money then. It was probably 10 or 15 years later when I thought I could buy one.”
Naturally, Ford wasn’t really looking for an Avanti when he came across the red R2 that he would eventually own. “When I found this one I was actually looking for parts for my Studebaker Hawk,” he said. “There was a guy out in Seattle that had parts and he also had this car, so I had him send me pictures of it and we were actually planning on taking a trip out there anyway, so I told the guy to hold off on the parts and I’ll take a look at the car when I get out there.
“So I looked at the car and fell in love with it and it was exactly what I wanted. I always wanted a four-speed, supercharged, round-headlight car and it was just what I wanted. The guy let us keep it overnight and we drove it around and we loved it and decided to buy it, and my wife [Bev] flew home and I drove the car home.”
Ford did some routine maintenance on the R2 and later pulled the engine and transmission and rebuilt them after breaking a ring. Beyond replacing the upholstery on the seats, he left the interior largely original. The car got lots of miles on the road almost immediately, then got even more after the deer incident. “The paint was good enough so I figured I didn’t need to do it right away, but once I had to do some bodywork on it, I knew it was time to paint it,” Ford said. “The interior other than seat covers is original. Nothing has been touched. The carpeting, side panels, dash — all that is all original. Everything else has been gone through a little at a time, I guess. We didn’t really restore the car all at once.”
Ford has never really thought the R2 felt or drove like an “old car," which is why he hasn’t treated the Avanti like its fragile. He’s been working on Studebakers for years, and if something breaks he fixes it.
“It drives like a modern car. It really does. The very modern cars are more comfortable than this, but if you go back into the ’90s, this car drives just like a car from the ’90s. It’s not like the old ’60s cars that are real stiff and don’t handle well. This car rides and handles real well,” Ford said. “Performance-wise, it’s got everything you’d want. It will snap you right back in your seat. In fact, I broke a rear axle once just fooling around, taking off from the line. It’s got all kinds of torque and all kinds of power [laughs]. The top end is supposed to be 160. I’ve never gone that fast in them, but I’ve had it up to 145 and it still was pretty stable… It was the first American production car with the front disc brakes. It’s got a built-in roll bar built into the roof. It’s got a door lock that won’t pop open in an accident. It’s got a lot of safety features.”
Ford’s car came with the four-speed manual. The Avantis also came with a three-speed or an automatic with overdrive. A previous owner put a Hurst shifter in Ford’s car, and that’s just fine with him. He has the original shifter, but he doesn’t plan to swap it back in. “The Studebaker shifters were pretty sloppy. A lot of people don’t like them,” he said. I’ve never driven the Avanti with the original shifter. This is the only shifter I’ve driven, but all the guys I talk to say they are sloppy and they have a real long stroke that’s hard to get into gear. The Hurst shifter is real tight, real easy to get into gear, so I don’t think I’ll ever take the Hurst shifter out. I do have the original one at home so if I ever sell it, somebody will have the original shifter with it if they want it.”
The car also has an aftermarket steering wheel that was apparently installed long ago. Ford likes that, too, although he has tracked down an original steering wheel that may go in the car at some point. “The original wheels are ... next to impossible to find if you’re looking for one, and if you find them, they are $2,000 to $3,000 restored. So I didn’t really go looking for one because I like this one, but I always thought if I ran into a steering wheel I’d get it, and I happened to run into a guy who had one that needed to be restored and he said I could just have it, so I have that at home and one of these days I will restore it so I have an original one in there.”
Ford hasn’t been able to retrace the entire life story of his Avanti. He knows it was originally owned by someone in the Los Angeles area, then later bought by a doctor “who owned it for years and years. I haven’t been able to trace it back to its original owner. I do know it was a California car. A lot of the Avantis were bought up by people in California when they were new.”
The handsome gray Studebaker will be staying in Wisconsin for the foreseeable future, however. At the rate he is racking up miles, Ford could roll the odometer over yet again in a decade or so. He figures he’ll give it a good try, anyway.
“Unless I have to get rid of it, I’ll probably keep it until I’m gone and my kids will have to fight over it,” he laughs. “There are a couple of them that want it already.”
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