When I imagine the origin of the Studebaker Avanti, I envision a room filled with swirling smoke. Not just because those were the times — and perhaps I’ve watched too many episodes of Mad Men — but because the clouds of silvery haze and fog add a certain mysticism to something that has since become legendary.
The Avanti was a car that seemed to emerge from thin air, as though a magician conjured it with the snap of his fingers.
In a way, that’s exactly what happened.
When acclaimed French industrial designer Raymond Loewy was approached by Studebaker in 1961 to revive the company’s image, appeal to younger drivers, and rescue the business from financial ruin, he gathered a small team of innovative creators: John Ebstein, vice president of Loewy’s firm; seasoned car stylist Robert Andrews; and an up-and-coming designer fresh from ArtCenter College of Design, Tom Kellogg.
The guys holed up in a rental on Via Escuela in Palm Springs, working long hours through sunny spring days. They emerged less than two weeks later with a dramatic, unconventional design for a sports car. Legend has it the sketches were done on the back of a cocktail napkin
“Loewy wanted to have the guys here and experience what people in Palm Springs experienced,” says Gary Gand, an Avanti owner who is enamored of the mythology surrounding the car.
“People in Palm Springs didn’t look like people anywhere else in the country. There were guys wearing Gucci loafers and flaunting fine sportswear, and the women were wearing swimsuits. It was casual and glamorous. That’s what Loewy came here to capture for the rest of America.”
The result is a sun-soaked dreamscape of an automobile. The Avanti body is the automotive equivalent of someone tanning next to a saltwater pool, sleek as the swimmer who just emerged from the deep end. It couldn’t possibly be more Palm Springs, even if it were shaken and adorned with an olive.
“It’s the California lifestyle,” Gand says. “With an engine.”
Brunching in style at the home of Joan and Gary Gand.
Every year, Gary and Joan Gand host a brunch at their Palm Springs midcentury home for fellow Avanti owners and Loewy enthusiasts.
“When you’re out driving, other Avanti owners might notice your car and honk and wave, but there’s no real connection there. So we thought, why not have a party and meet some of them?” Joan says.
Brunch felt like a natural choice for the gathering, so everyone could see the cars in daylight. The annual event began with a core group of neighbors. (Until recently the Gands’ street had a particularly high concentration of Avantis, with four gold ones within a few steps of each other.) It has since expanded to about a dozen guests — the invitation is extended to anyone with an Avanti.
They roll up, one by one, like a Studebaker parade. No marching band required. These cars make their own rhythmic, rumbly sound.
Each car is parked at the same angle, with the front bumper facing the street for maximum exposure. They come in an array of gelato colors: cream, white, gold, and red, plus one deep-aqua Avanti that is the precise shade of the desert sky in April.
Gary points to what makes the Avanti look at once classic and fresh. There’s a panoramic back window, a grill-less front end with an air scoop under the bumper, and ridges along the fender.
The hood is topped with an asymmetrical hump, centered along the steering column. There’s hardly a straight line anywhere.
“It was a modern car when it came out, and to me it’s still a modern car,” says Bill Ruttan, owner of one of the shimmery gold Avantis. “A good design doesn’t age.”
Some of the car’s other attributes are less obvious to the casual observer. The fiberglass bodies stay pristine and sharp. The interior is aircraft-inspired, styled with some controls overhead, similar to a cockpit. It was the first car with an integrated roll bar.
Gary gestures to the car’s aerodynamic, wedge form. “This is a car that favors the driver,” he says. “When you’re in the car, you don’t really see the car. It disappears around you.”
While it might disappear for the driver, it’s certainly eye-catching for everyone else. “So many people screamed — actually screamed — when I drove my Avanti for the first time; it kind of scares you at first,” Gary says. “You wonder if you’ve run over someone.”
Passersby stop to admire the "rubberneck cars"; The spread at the midcentury-style brunch.
With 10 Avantis parked in a row for the brunch, people take notice. Pedestrians stop to take pictures. Cars slow to a crawl. A bicyclist rolls down the street, phone in hand, capturing the scene on video.
“We call these ‘rubberneck cars,’ ” says Frank Wenzel of Palm Springs, who owns 32 Studebakers and has several thousand Studebaker collectables. He’s wearing a black, Hawaiian-style shirt with a Studebaker print.
He’s passionate about the brand, but only because the cars have enriched his life in other ways. “I had Pontiacs, Cadillacs, and Buicks. But I never made any new friends until I had an Avanti,” he says. “Now I can hopscotch across America, and there’s always a place for me to stay or a person to greet me.
“Our cars are fabulous, but they are just the vehicle to which we enjoy people.
In the Gand home, brunch is in full swing. The quiche has been cut, alongside a platter of deviled eggs and an overflowing bowl of fruit salad. This is where the Loewy enthusiasts are, chatting about his work beyond the automobile world.
Celebrated by the Smithsonian Institution and honored on a postage stamp, Loewy is not just the father of industrial design; he curated the way we see the world today. His streamlined visions have blended seamlessly into modern lives, to the point where we don’t actively recognize them anymore. We consume them the way we see the sky or breathe air.
“Until Loewy, design was an afterthought,” says Jim Gaudineer, who lives in Loewy’s former Palm Springs home on West Panorama Road. “He made design an integral part of everyday life.”
Loewy was born in Paris, rose to the rank of captain in the French army during World War I (he was wounded in combat and won the Croix de Guerre for bravery), and immigrated to the U.S. in 1919. He began his career rather inauspiciously as a window dresser, demonstrating promise as a fashion illustrator before turning his sights to industrial design. He was responsible for the iconic Shell logo and the dramatic red pow of Lucky Strike cigarette packaging. The stately, contrasting blues of the Air Force One exterior, the polished Greyhound Scenicruiser bus, and the interior of the Concorde (and the cutlery used on board) were all his designs. There was seemingly nothing Loewy’s pen did not touch, from refrigerators to electric shavers to trains and pen sets.
“He was born in the 19th century. He designed the 20th century. And he’s still relevant in the 21st century,” says Jacques Caussin, co-founder of Palm Springs Modernism Week. He recently delivered a Loewy lecture to a sold-out crowd. “My God, what a guy! Definitely a visionary in the truest sense of the word.”
A few people at the party thumb through old copies of Avanti magazine, which contain Loewy-penned recipes for some of his culinary creations. (Yes, he cooked too — likely using tools from the line he designed for Le Creuset.) Bonnie Ruttan unveils two blueberry cheesecakes baked from Loewy’s recipe, which draw admiring sounds from other guests. It’s a custardy, bakery-quality version of the classic dessert — decidedly on brand.
“If my father had not become a legendary designer, he would have probably become one of the top New York restaurateurs,” Loewy’s late daughter Laurence wrote as part of an introduction to his recipe for beer-steamed clams.
It’s not a far-fetched idea. Loewy’s guiding principle for his work was “MAYA” — Most Advanced Yet Acceptable — a belief that the public isn’t necessarily ready to embrace a vast departure from what is already accepted as the norm. Push the boundaries, but gradually; it’s a strategy you can see at work in everything from the blueberry cheesecake to the cars parked outside.
Joe Zeiger of Torrance, California, is one of those Loewy aficionados, whose appreciation of the designer bloomed out of his love affair with the Avanti.
“So many people screamed — actually screamed — when I drove my Avanti for the first time; it kind of scares you at first. you wonder if you’ve run over someone.”Gary Gand
In 1962, Zeiger was a senior in high school when he went to a car dealership, sat in the driver’s seat of an Avanti, and vowed he would have one to call his own. It took him a few years, but he got his hands on one in 1968. Through a quirk of fate — Zeiger was at the right place at the right time — the car he purchased was the 1963 model first owned by Loewy himself. It was a distinctive, tricolor style with special placards affixed to the body noting the vehicle’s speed records.
“It had looks and speed. What more does any young man want?” he asks.
That car was acquired in 2014 by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the first operational car in its collection.
“The car had a style nobody could deny. Half the people loved it, and half the people hated it,” Zeiger says. “But I guess our side won out, since the art museum is getting it. What we have here is art.”
More than a deisgner, Raymond Loewy was a true renaissance man. An enthusiastic chef, he developed several recipes, including two here.
raymond loewy’s Blueberry-Topped Cheesecake
12 oz. softened cream cheese
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 cup water
2 cups fresh blueberries, washed
1 9-inch frozen honey- graham cracker pie shell
Preheat oven and baking sheet to 350 F.
In a bowl, beat cream cheese, 1/2 cup sugar, and eggs until smooth and well-blended.
Pour into pie crust and bake for 30 minutes or until filling is firm.
In a small saucepan, combine remaining sugar and cornstarch. Add water, stirring until smooth.
Cook and stir over medium heat until thickened and bubbly. Remove from heat and stir in blueberries. Spread blueberry mixture evenly over cream cheese filling.
Refrigerate 3 hours or until ready to serve.
Recipe from Avanti magazine.
raymond loewy’s Beer-Steamed Clams
with Fennel and Tarragon
1 fennel bulb, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 medium shallot, diced
2 celery stalks, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
8 dozen littleneck clams, cleaned
1 (12-ounce) bottle of pale ale beer
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon tarragon, chopped,
plus leaves for garnish
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped,
plus leaves for garnish
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a large Dutch oven set over medium-high heat, heat olive oil. Add garlic, shallot, fennel, and celery and sauté until translucent.
Add clams and beer. Reduce heat to medium, then cover and steam until the clams open.
Remove clams to a serving bowl and discard any that are closed.
Return the pot to medium-high heat and bring beer to a slow boil. Whisk in butter one tablespoon at a time until melted. Stir in chopped tarragon and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Pour hot beer sauce over clams. Garnish with tarragon and parsley leaves. Serve with focaccia or other crusty bread.
Recipe from Avanti magazine.