Studebaker Saw America’s First GT as the Way Forward, But Nobody Could’ve Anticipated Anything Like This
Rest assured that someone, somewhere, is thoroughly disgusted by what Laurie Peterson did to this car.
For those who don’t know, the Avanti is sort of beyond reproach. Why Studebaker chose to create a flagship car when it couldn’t even cover its bottom line still puzzles historians. But its execution stands as an example of wonderful overcompensation: The car Studebaker created has a rich performance legacy as America’s first production Grand Tourer, first fiberglass four-seater, and its first production-supercharged sports car. With its high-design background, there’s no mistaking it for anything else and it retained that distinctive shape for most of its 43-year production run. It even survived the demise of several companies that produced it. As a result of these and more, the Avanti draws fans every bit as passionate as Mopar enthusiasts-if not even more quixotic (if that’s even possible). The Avanti was Studebaker’s swan song; it spun off the car’s production within a year, and two years later, Studebaker ceased to exist. The Avanti is sort of hallowed ground for some. You don’t mess with one without causing a few heart attacks.
But if there’s such a thing as the right person to butcher a high-design car, it’s Peterson. He comes from a Studebaker family; “It all started with a ’57 Golden Hawk my dad had,” he says, following up with a story about how the elder Peterson made a scrapbook of ads when the Avanti came out. He’s owned a string of other Studes, including a 1963 Hawk GT in which he learned to drive, a car that he still has (the engine out of it powers his 1937 Ford pickup). Twenty years ago, he built a 1953 Champion that cut low-10s in the quarter, a car that he converted from Pro Street to Pro Touring as the tides shifted in the New Millennium.
People either love it or hate it. There’s really no in between.”
But more than anything, it’s probably a ride in an Avanti that cast the die for this project. “In grade 11, I went to a Studebaker meet in Mount Hood,” he recalls. “Avantis sounded cool right from the factory-they had glass-pack mufflers. I knew that I wanted one. A really fast one.” Peterson indulged the urge in 2013 with a ’63, the most prized year as far as headlights and Studebaker provenance are concerned.
Studebaker so wanted to distinguish its car as progressive that it named it the Italian term for “forward.” But the lean times that inspired the car’s very existence meant the fancy new model sat on an existing chassis, a very recognizable descendent of the one that the company designed for its postwar cars. “I got a Max G chassis from Art Morrison-the first one and probably the only one,” he jokes. Typical for the series, it features basically everything from the front of a C6 Corvette down to the 14-inch rotors and six-pot PBR calipers. The rear consists of a three-bar setup with a Watts link welded to a Ford 9-inch-style housing. The Busch-series Monte Carlo he adapted to sports-car racing surrendered an REM-polished 3.50 gearset that bolts to an Eaton Truetrac limited-slip carrier.
Then he went shopping for a powertrain. “We found pretty much everything on eBay,” he notes. The search engine turned up a take-out GM LS3. “That was from Hennessey Performance in Texas when they were doing the supercharged Corvette swaps in Camaros. This car went right from a dealer to them, and they loaded the engine on eBay.” Internally, the engine remains largely stock, with its most noteworthy changes being valvesprings, 80-pound injectors, and a Tick Performance/Comp Stage II blower cam.
Ah, the blower. It’s another thing that makes purists cringe. Studebaker famously equipped the Avanti R2 and R3 models with centrifugal superchargers. The backstory is interesting: In 1957 the company began offering McCulloch superchargers as options, the second to do so (Kaiser did it in 1954 and Ford followed in mid-1957). To borrow a phrase, Studebaker liked the blowers so much that in 1962 it bought Paxton, the supercharger-production arm of McCulloch (from the Granatelli brothers no less, from whom Studebaker also bought STP the year earlier).
But Peterson’s allegiance doesn’t run as deep; he used a Procharger F1R on a Supercharger Store geardrive. He then fabricated 4-inch ducts to feed the entire system and bolted it to a Tremec T56, another Camaro take-out. The verdict: Neil Richards and Jordan Lazic wrung 724 whp, a full 324 more than the Studebaker’s top-dog R3 made at the crank. Bear in mind that engine that helped the Avanti break nearly 30 records at Bonneville, among them fastest production car (a stock one hit 168 mph). “There’s a lot more to go, but it’s really a matter of using that power,” Peterson admits. “As it is, it’s adequate to burn the tires off in any gear.
“It’s not set up as a drag car, so it won’t 60-foot real well…but once it comes out of the hole, it comes on real strong. I can’t say exactly how fast it is, but it’s definitely a 10-second car.” Ponder that for a moment; this is a fully tractable car that burns pump gas and its engine remains largely stock. “It kind of says something about the LS, if you ask me,” Peterson says.
And, finally, the body. Legendary designer and longtime Studebaker collaborator Raymond Loewy gets top billing, but the car owes its existence and at least some of its shape to Studebaker President Sherwood Egbert. Legend has it that Egbert, a McCulloch expat recruited in the early 1960s to turn around the former wagon maker, jotted the car’s basic profile on the most appropriate canvas for the period: a cocktail napkin.
Obviously, Peterson’s no purist, but he drew the line at changing the car’s overall shape. Part of what makes the Avanti so significant is its idealism and purity; then, just as now, marketing departments, focus groups, the tooling department, and accounting take whacks at a design as part of making it appealing to the broadest market. But according to the Avanti’s shape, an optimistic Egbert surely saw his buyers as playboys or at least well-tailored executives gamboling among flat-roof ramblers and glass-clad skyscrapers. In what must’ve amounted to a major coup, the imposing executive pushed to give Loewy extreme latitude. Loewy reportedly isolated his designers in a house in Palm Springs, at the time the West Coast bastion for the Modernist movement. And while Loewy granted his designers liberty, they quoted the maestro’s hallmark Coca-Cola bottle design in the car’s profile. Love it or hate it, this is hallowed ground.
“It’s so right in that quirky, asymmetric way,” Peterson says. “It’s not like you have to make it stand out from the crowd or anything.” To embrace the car’s newfound Pro Touring personality, he made just two external modifications: a carbon-fiber splitter up front and the slightest duckbill out back. Internally, he raised the floors to accommodate the taller Morrison frame, but that’s about the extent of changes. Studebaker actually tucked a roll bar into the sail panels, but anticipating the power, Peterson went one step further with an eight-point cage.
Confident in the body’s boldness of line, Peterson had Aron Tudor at A1 Collision in North Vancouver paint it Mini Pepper White. Brothers Colin and Donnie Macintosh at Delta Upholstery trimmed the interior with orange vinyl in a design evocative of the original. “My buddy, Steve Wright, persuaded me to do that color combination,” Peterson admits, explaining that he also has a Studebaker ad showing a similar one. “It’s a little more daring than I’d usually do, especially with the orange, but because it’s a ’60s sort of oddball car, I thought it would give [it] a little more wow factor.”
It’s so right in that quirky, asymmetric way. It’s not like you have to make it stand out from the crowd or anything.”
Peterson admits the Avanti-and specifically his Avanti-isn’t for everybody. He debuted it at the Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona, California. “Oh, I heard a few comments,” he says with a chuckle. “But it’s totally what I expected: ‘Why would anyone do that to that car?’ and ‘Whoa, that guy really f****d that thing up!’ But then I had a host of great comments. People either love it or hate it. There’s really no in between.”
But real quick you get the impression that Peterson, much like the iconoclastic Avanti itself, really isn’t concerned with what people think. “You only build it because you love it, right?” he asks. “Anything that comes after the fact is just a bonus.”