Classic Cars: 1964 Studebaker Avanti R3

Classic Cars: 1964 Studebaker Avanti R3

Story and photos by Cam Hutchins

The Avanti R3 in this article is truly an astounding piece of automotive history. Built by the Studebaker Engineering department, this car was a 1962 Model R Engineering Prototype. From the Studebaker “Passenger Car Production Order – Final Assembly Line” form, this car’s final assembly date was April 26 1962.

It is documented to be the fourth Avanti built, and was serial number EX-2947 (63R X9). Its journey to Canada is a long and complicated tale, as interesting as the car itself. In 1973, John Bainbridge and his wife were in Los Angeles to pick up the in-laws, and he saw in the LA Times a classified ad for an Avanti R3 for $3,400 in Santa Monica. After looking at the car, his offer of $3,200 was rejected by owner Ray Kush.

Once home in Canada, Bainbridge decided he really wanted the car. He phoned the President of the local Avanti Club, Mac McClure, and asked him to take a look and try to buy the car on his behalf. The car’s green paint was all cracked, and the car was finally sold for $3,200.

Bainbridge sent his two friends down in his 1969 Ford Torino with a Cobra Jet 428 to bring the car home. The long race home to Canada was too much for the Avanti’s supercharger and it limped home after too many long sections at speed. This was pre-55 mph days.

But the car was not welcomed into Canada, as it was not 15 years old. Bainbridge craftily stored the car with various members of the Studebaker Club until he was able to bring her home. Being a mechanic, Bainbridge got to work rebuilding the supercharger, but was limited to driving the car on weekends until 1979, when he finally was able to drive the car home. At that time, there were only about six Avantis in the Lower Mainland of B.C.

The car had aftermarket wheels built by the Hollywood Rim and Wheel Company in L.A. The “Apache” wheels were also shown in the ’60s on Camaro and Mustang show cars. The car was painted metallic green, but needed to be stripped and painted, so the Christmas vacation of 1974 was spent painting the car.

The unrestored car has had the front bushings changed, a rebuild of the steering box hydraulics, and the brakes done. The interior is original except for newer carpets. Showing just 35,427 miles on her as of August 2018, the car has stood up remarkably well, although it is waiting for a new paint job with the colour yet to be nailed down…possibly its original red colour with something extra added.

Bainbridge was always curious to know more about his Prototype’s history. Around eight years ago, Bainbridge spoke to a fellow from Washington State who had been a Studebaker dealer. He said that Paxton had sent more than a dozen specially-built R3 supercharged engines to Studebaker and around four had not been installed in the Avantis when production was halted. With Studebaker no longer building cars in the States, they called Paxton and told them to come get the remainder of the engines and this car.

Paxton continued to produce these engines for a few years from the 304 cu. in. castings that Studebaker had provided them, with the bigger supercharger and newly-designed heads and manifold and all the other go-fast parts for R3 status. They sold to car owners that needed more power, and some boat owners.

Bainbridge also tracked down Ken Curry, who had bought off Vince Granatelli who was working at Paxton’s shop in Santa Monica in 1965 (but unfortunately no confirmation whether that was Vince Sr. or Andy Granatelli’s son Vince. Vince Jr. has been contacted and does not remember making the deal on this car).

Curry, who was in his early 20s at the time, was the first registered owner of the car in California. The car had freshly been painted green and looked fantastic. He soon got an angle on some experimental “hopped up” Mopar that was being sent back East from California and he had to sell the Avanti to buy it. Ray Kush, also of Santa Monica, was the next owner and loved it until six months later, when the engine failed.

He went back to Curry, and the both of them went to Paxton, and Vince (Sr. maybe, but not Junior) told them he had one of the blocks that had been to the Salt Flats and he could rebuild it for them. Curry and Kush split the new engine’s cost…one paying for parts and one paying for labour. Curry went back to Avantis after the Mopar, and owned four in total.

The new engine was a 289 cu. in. that had been bored to 299, and during a recent inspection of the engine while rebuilding, Bainbridge noticed the oil pan was bent outward….this oil pan had been on an engine that had had a rod go “sideways” sometime in its life (possibly at the hands of Kush, as Vince Jr. assured me no Avanti engine blew in all the high-speed runs his Dad ran at Bonneville). The engine has run beautifully, and the odometer only has around 36,000 miles, but the winter seemed like a good time to clean up the engine bay and freshen the engine.

The Avanti had originally been designed to be the saviour of Studebaker. Never called a “Sports Car” by Studebaker, its performance was left up to the Granatellis for improvement. Studebaker had recently bought Paxton Superchargers, and its President, Andy Granatelli, famed Indy 500 team owner, knew a thing or two about making cars go fast. He also reworked the front suspension to improve handling.

Knowing “speed sells,” Andy Granatelli took a red four-speed R3 to the Bonneville Salt Flats and established 29 world stock car speed records, attaining a maximum speed of 178.5 mph. Further adding to the allure of speed, the Avanti was the first American car to offer disc brakes and built-in roll bar as standard equipment.

The Avanti ended up with two supercharged versions, an R2 and an R3, both initially built using the time-tested Studebaker 289 cu. in. V8. One was tested by Road & Track magazine in 1963 with a zero-to-60 mph (100 km/h) time of 5.5 seconds. Astounding for that era.….but it could have been a souped-up wringer that was given to the journalists doing the tests. The supercharged versions could reach 168 mph and a highly modified version reached 196 mph.

This R3 and the other three first cars were originally produced as serial no. EX-2947 (63R X9). The four prototypes were renumbered when Studebaker shut down Avanti production, and probably needed to sell these cars to fulfil dealer orders. Possibly this is when the square headlight enclosure trim was added to make it look newer, or possibly it was added by one of the previous owners. The Canadian Factory in Hamilton continued to build other Studebaker models until March 1966.

A letter dated January 9, 1975, from John Shanahan, President of the Avanti Owners Association International, states that this car was listed as a Green R3-powered car. The letter goes on to state that it was one of four prototype Avantis built by the Engineering department as “EX” models and later assigned serial numbers beyond the production series. The production serial numbers ended at R 5646; the four prototypes were assigned production serial numbers in 1964 as 1963 cars. This car, being the fourth, got the new “1963” production serial number 63R-5650.

Many of us Car Nuts are familiar with the early Starlight and the later Hawk Coupes, and all the various versions of them over their decade-long run. They regularly show up at drag races and Bonneville Speedweek with vast mechanical changes, but with their graceful bodies often looking stock. The Studebaker Avanti had a much shorter production run, as Studebaker went out of the automotive production business, and some say it was the Avanti’s fault.

Knowing almost nothing about a car manufacturer that went out of business in the early ’60s is nothing to be ashamed about, but Studebaker was certainly a big player back in the day before the rise of imported cars. The saving grace for Studebaker after a few close calls at bankruptcy was supposed to be the Avanti, but it ended up being their Swan Song.

The entry into the automobile market at the turn of the century was not welcomed by all of the Studebaker brothers that made up the company, but they built their 1,000,000th automobile by 1926. They used racing to promote their vehicles and set a record for climbing Pikes Peak in 1929. Their company slogan became “The Builder of Champions.”

Studebaker had a pretty good run and had celebrated its one hundred-year anniversary in 1952. As a prominent buggy and carriage producer, they had built their 1,000,000th carriage by 1879.

The Starlight and wildly successful Lark were designed by French/American industrial designer Raymond Loewy. The new Studebaker President, Sherwood Egbert, entrusted Loewy to work his magic and create an all-new car that would take Studebaker back to the top. Basing the new car on the stronger Lark Convertible chassis with X-brace, Loewy had his work cut out for him.

With a small team of talented auto designers, Loewy set up shop in a rented bungalow in Palm Springs near his winter home. Setting strict guidelines of no wives or girlfriends welcome, the team worked 16-hour days, and had a car design ready in 40 days. It was instantly a big hit with the brass at Studebaker and the public, and Loewy insisted his name for the car, Avanti, (Italian for “forward”) was used.

The actual production of the fibreglass bodies was tasked to the original producer of the Corvette body, Molded Fiberglass Co. The overwhelming problems with the production of the bodies forced Studebaker into the fibreglass body business as they had to set up their own production of them.

Possibly the rush to production is the cause of the inferior bodies that caused massive delays of cars being ready to sell. The Studebaker team had amped up promotion and the public was ready to buy, but the long waits were another strike against the beleaguered company, and sales sagged on all their models. Studebaker shut down U.S. auto production in December of 1963, but the Avanti II was soon available with a Chevrolet engine from a pair of former Studebaker Dealers.

The unusual design of the Avanti lived on with versions built up into the ’80s. The car had a few unique design features. The “razor edge” front fenders, rearward sloping wheel wells and the slim “Coke Bottle” waist that was also used on the 1968 Corvette make the Avanti timeless. The asymmetrical hood bulge allowed for clearance of the brake booster, and the shape continued through the windshield to form the dash gauge cluster with aviation-inspired switches. The gauges include a tachometer, manifold pressure gauge and a clock, and were lit with red lights at night like an airplane. The headlight switches were above the windshield, a la aircraft.

The body-hugging bumpers were sleek and lightweight and had rubber pads at the most prominent edges. The opening allowing air to cool the radiator was under the bumper and was very unconventional for front-engined cars at the time. The rear taillights wrapped around to the sides of the car, and this was not adopted by the other manufacturers until 1968.

The interior was luxurious and the rear seats were also shaped as bucket seats, with a good amount of leg room. Incredibly, the “padded dash” was uncommon in 1963! The long hood and short rear deck was to be the “Go To” design for almost all the pony cars of the ’60s.

The sales literature of the day show the 1963 Studebaker Avanti R3 sold for $5,980 compared to the 1961 Jaguar E-Type that sold for $5,670.

The basic R3 package:

304.5 V8 (bored out 289 with Paxton Supercharger, 400 hp @ 6,000 rpm, Compression Ratio: 9.75:1

Base weight: 3,195 lbs

Body: Reinforced fibreglass

Transmission: Borg-Warner “Power-Shift”

Differential: “Twin Traction” with 3.73 axle ratio

Options: Alternator, “Climatizer” heater-defrost unit (AC not available with supercharged), tachometer, push-button radio, clock, Schwitzer viscous fan and Firestone 500 tires.


Standard equipment for all Avantis included:

  • Safety cone door latches
  • Contoured front bucket seats
  • Elevated rear seats
  • Overhead light switches
  • Direct reading gauges
  • Inside hood release
  • Glove compartment with built-in vanity tray
  • Central console gear-selection lever, map compartment, cigarette lighter, aircraft-type defrost and heat controls
  • Easy-to-reach trunk access, trunk area accessible from rear passenger compartment

Optional equipment:

  • Three-speed automatic or four-speed manual with “Hill Hold.”
  • Other options were introduced in September 1963 – AM/FM radio, tilt wheel (actually referred to as the Adjustomatic Steering Wheel) as well as Transistorized Ignition
  • Air Conditioning on non-supercharged cars
  • Power Steering, exceptionally fast with only three-and-one-half turns from full right to full left.
  • Push-button radio
  • Rear manual antenna
  • Rear speaker
  • Silent mufflers, resonator type
  • Front and rear springs – Heavy duty
  • Supercharger (Not available with AC)
  • Tinted glass with sun band windshield and rear window
  • Tinted glass on side windows
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