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Arnold Altman, 88; Kept the Futuristic Avanti Alive After Studebaker's Demise

January 13, 2006|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Arnold "Arry" Altman, who was largely responsible for making the futuristic Studebaker Avanti "the car that refuses to die," has died. He was 88.

Altman died Saturday in his native South Bend, Ind., of lung cancer.

The Avanti, whose name means "forward," sprang from Indiana's car-building culture that began in the 1890s and produced such vintage marques as the Auburn, the Marmon and the Stutz.

Altman grew up steeped in that tradition. He earned an engineering degree at Purdue University, served in the Navy during World War II and went into business with his late brother, Nathan, and late partner, Leo Newman, in a South Bend automobile dealership, Newman and Altman.

The cars they sold were hometown products -- Studebakers and Packards -- and that's how they encountered the unconventional Avanti. It was love at first and lasting sight.

In 1961, Studebaker Corp. President Sherwood H. Egbert conceived of an exciting, quality American sports car as a last-ditch effort to save the venerable but failing company. He wanted the car to compete with the Maserati, the Morgan and the Jaguar.

Egbert hired industrial designer Raymond Loewy, a pioneer in modern streamline automobile design, and on April 26, 1962, the original 1963 Studebaker Avanti was introduced. The sleek newcomer was futuristic inside and out -- its fiberglass body enclosed the first disc brakes and the first full steel roll bar in an American-built car.

Critics, drivers and dealers -- including Altman -- raved. Avanti easily sold its 4,700 original models, but the attention-getting car could not save the corporation. After only two model years, Studebaker ceased operation in Indiana on Dec. 9, 1963, and shut down Avanti.

The company foundered in Canada for another two years before going out of business in 1966.

Enter the Altmans and Newman. In 1964, they and a few other investors bought the Avanti name and Studebaker's leftover inventory of parts, production tooling and two plants in South Bend. They also hired 20 Studebaker employees from the 6,000 put out of work when the company shut down.

Using General Motors drivetrains and a plethora of custom parts, they rolled out their first "Avanti II" in 1965. They were soon profitably producing about 200 hand-built cars annually, and selling them for more than $21,000 each -- cash only.

"I'm an engineer, and my brother was an engineer," Altman, who became president after Nathan Altman died in 1976, told Forbes magazine in 1981. "We're doing this because we love the car."

But beyond quality production, Altman was also a master at keeping customers happy. In the mid-1970s, he told the South Bend Tribune in 1995, an Avanti owner called from Chicago complaining that his car wouldn't start.

Instead of telling him to call the corner service station for a jump-start, Altman said, "I told him I had a guy coming into Chicago the next day and I would have him take a look at it."

Altman sent a new battery with the employee, and the car soon roared to life. The owner was so pleased with the service that he placed a standing order for a new Avanti every two years.

"I ended up selling him six cars," Altman said.

Altman kept the Avanti in steady production from 1965 until he sold the company in 1982.

The next owner went bankrupt in three years, primarily after trying a new paint that blistered and peeled, infuriating owners and dealers.

With production stymied by 1986, an estimated 7,300 of the beloved cars still remained on the road.

Sporadic production -- under ever-changing ownership -- moved to Youngstown, Ohio, in 1987, ceased in 1991, and was revived in 2000 at a plant in Villa Rica, Ga.

For Altman, however, no 21st century Avanti would ever be the one his employees had so lovingly built with 1,000 man-hours. He was also skeptical of any modern market for a hand-built car.

"I talk to young people," he said in 1995, "and they don't even know what the hell I am talking about when I say Avanti."

Altman is survived by his wife, Lillian, and two sons, Jonathan and Daniel.

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