The Ford Thunderbird pioneered the personal luxury car, inspiring numerous competitors including one-time fastest car in the world, the Studebaker Avanti.
The segment of “personal luxury car,” pioneered by the Ford Thunderbird, has gone effectively extinct, at least in terms of automotive marketing parlance. Sure, there are grand tourers like the Lexus LC500 and the Mercedes-Benz SL that are similar in spirit, sporty two-seaters. But the key to the original ethos of the personal luxury car was that it provided a luxury-level experience with a mass-market price tag. The success of Ford’s Thunderbird inspired many imitators, including the original Chevrolet Corvette, Studebaker Speedster, and later cars like the Buick Rivera and Oldsmobile Toronado.
The Ford Thunderbird saw ten consecutive generations stretching from 1955 through 1997 along with a brief eleventh generation in the early 2000s. And while some imitators survived and even thrived, see Corvette, there were many personal luxury cars that failed to make much of a splash. One of the more notable historically was the radically styled Studebaker Avanti, one-time fastest production car in the world.
By the early 1960s, Studebaker had long been teetering on the brink. A 1954 merger with luxury brand Packard failed to improve the company’s fortunes (and doomed Packard). In a bid to reassert its market relevance, Studebaker head Sherwood Egbert conceived of an ambitious Thunderbird competitor capable of capturing the buying public’s attention. The design by Raymond Loewy & Associates was both striking and unusual with the car’s most prominent feature being the “grille-less” front end that hid the air intake. The car’s fiberglass body allowed for its curvaceous design and lightweight (3,095) and was manufactured at the same Ashtabula, OH plant that did the Corvette’s fiberglass bodies.
The Studebaker Avanti was powered by a 289 cu.-in. V8 making 240 horsepower. With the optional supercharger that figure jumped to 290 horsepower. Interestingly, because of the tight fit of the engine bay, supercharged models were not available with air conditioning. A rarely optioned three-speed manual was offered alongside a four-speed manual and a three-speed automatic. The Avanti lived up to its name, Italian for onward, by setting 29 production car speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats including a top speed of over 170 mph, making the fastest production car in the world.
Even if the Avanti had the styling and the power to make for a compelling car, Studebaker was not up to the task of getting it to market. Of a planned 20,000 units for its initial 1962 production, Studebaker was able to muster a mere 1,200 cars. Updates to the car for 1963 (1964 model year) included square headlight housing and lenses, a wood grain steering wheel, and the elimination of the car’s two-tone interior scheme.
Production on the Studebaker Avanti concluded in December of 1963. Tooling and the Avanti name were sold off to a pair of Sout Bend Studebaker dealers, Nate and Arnold Altman and Leo Newman, who resurrected the car as the Avanti II. Studebaker struggled on for a few more, finally calling it quits in 1967.
Forging a new segment in the personal luxury car via the Thunderbird was hugely successful for Ford. A full eleven generations and over forty years of production gave us a lot of memorable iterations of the T-Bird. Contemporaneous with the Studebaker Avanti was the third-generation Ford Thunderbird. A 1960 redesign had given the Thunderbird a toned-down, decidedly streamlined look as automotive styling shifted away from the gaudiness of the late 1950s. The Thunderbird could be had in either coupe or convertible and came with high-end appointments like power steering and power brakes, optional power seats, power windows, AC, and an AM radio.
Under the hood was a 390 cu.-in. V8 with 275 horsepower paired with a three-speed Cruise-O-Matic automatic transmission. The “M-code” option for 1962 upgraded the 390 V8 with three two-barrel Holley carburetors raising output to 340 horsepower. That same year new styling options added a Landau Coupe and a Sports Roadster with a fiberglass tonneau cover (adding an eye-watering $5,400 to the car’s price tag).
The elegantly styled “Bullet Bird” Thunderbird was only produced for a scant three model years before being succeeded by a fourth-gen T-Bird for 1964 which evolved rather than overhauled the third-gen’s styling.
The Ford Thunderbird was something of a sales darling for Ford, selling some 200,000 units for the newly revamped 1961 model. Recall that the Avanti, in its debut year, barely hit 1,200 units. Add to that the sleek styling of the Thunderbird versus the “novel” look of the Avanti, and you might easily call any competition between the two easily for the Ford.
However, automotive legacies are built on more than sales numbers. The Studebaker Avanti’s unique look, sparse numbers, and record-breaking speed make it the more historically significant and compelling collectable today. Despite the vast gulf in total numbers, both cars in good condition run between $35,000 and $50,000 today.