c.2014 New York Times News Service

c.2014 New York Times News Service

Have you ever lost a car? Of course you have ó at the airport or in a snow bank, or maybe your roommate, spouse, mom or dad took off with it. And letís not forget the rented silver Altima you parked at the mall the week before Christmas.

I really did lose a car, and it stayed lost for more than 15 years. It wasnít just any car, but a 1963 Studebaker Avanti, and a rather desirable supercharged four-speed example at that.

Moreover, it was the second Avanti built, the oldest production model in private hands. A car that, when new, was sent to Studebakerís public relations department to be the new modelís introduction to the world.

The Avanti, if you donít remember, was Studebakerís last-ditch attempt at survival, arriving as the companyís finances unraveled. An advanced design by Raymond Loewy and his team, it was a two-door grand touring coupe with two-plus-two seating and impressive performance. The Avantiís futuristic look was embraced by many and despised by others.

Studebaker didnít have the luxury of time in 1962, when the car made its debut at the New York auto show. The Avantiís design had been hammered out by Loewyís team in a rented house in Palm Springs, Calif., over just five weeks, a fraction of the time normally needed to bring a set of design sketches to the clay model stage.

The Avanti was sexy but, at about $4,400 ($35,000 in todayís dollars), relatively expensive for a Studebaker. Problems with production of the fiberglass bodies led to canceled orders, and in December 1963, Studebaker ceased all automotive operations in the United States. Production of other models continued in Canada, but the original Avanti was dead after some 4,600 1963-4 models were made. Avantis adapted from the original design were made by various startups as late as 2007.

When I bought this Avanti in 1984, it was a wreck that had been in at least one major accident, a rollover that damaged much of the fiberglass body and, for good measure, managed to bend the frame. The built-in rollover bar kept the roof from collapsing fully, but much of the glass was broken, and the interior was in shambles.

A sorry car, well beyond a reasonable candidate for repair ó and thatís an expert opinion, because in my years as an appraiser and the publisher of a collector-car price guide, I have probably owned 100 Avantis ó it had suffered another major indignity. At some point, it had been painted metal-flake orange. Badly.

Weathered, neglected and missing many parts, it became mine, and it was going to be an extensive ó in other words very expensive ó restoration project. My goal in those pre-Internet times was to scour flea markets and specialty vendors for original, not reproduction, parts. The dealer who sold me the car, Gary Johnson of Avanti Northwest in Tacoma, Wash., provided indoor storage, and we discussed restoration at a future date.

Things changed in 1995, when the building that housed the car was sold, and I had to find new storage ó no small task, considering that I live in Virginia, nearly 2,800 miles away. Through some fairly iffy connections, storage was finally arranged; a local tow-truck driver would take my Avanti to a barn he owned in the country. Figuring that paying in advance would help, I negotiated a rate of $25 a month and sent a check for three years of storage.

Two years and eight months later, I sent another check for another three years of storage. The letter was returned ďaddressee unknown.Ē A trip to the West Coast revealed little except bad news. The tow-truck driver had moved to Alaska ó and off the grid, according to neighbors at his former business address. He left no forwarding or contact information. And no one knew anything about an orange car.

Crestfallen, I did what I think many people would do. I ignored the situation for a number of years. I hoped that the car would just show up, as if some mystical bonding would never let us part.

Magical thinking has its place, but it just wasnít working. So I called a lawyer.

His advice was solid: Show activity on the title; change the address from your home to your office and later to your post office box number. Hire a private detective and offer a reward for the carís return. Let other enthusiasts know that itís yours and that you are looking for it.

I did all three, although the detective was expensive for a car that cost $2,500 years earlier. My conversations with detective agencies were brief, but at least one liked the idea of a reward.

ďIf I see it, Iíll call you,Ē was the most hopeful response I received.


With the intention of setting up lost-car websites, I procured two domain names, lostavanti.com and missingavanti.com, but never followed through.

Even ignoring the matter of losing the carís purchase price, the fugitive Avanti made some aspects of life uncomfortable. More than once, when asking my wife how she could possibly lose the keys to a car she had driven home just hours before, I was reminded that I was the one who had lost an entire car. Ouch.


A few more years passed, and I continued to amass parts for a car I had no reasonable assurance of ever seeing again. Johnson and I were the only people who kept the faith, and his faith was stronger than mine.

ďAll the Avantis in the Northwest seem to eventually find their way here,Ē was his standard reply to my over a decade on-again, off-again despair over a car that might have been crushed or scavenged for the handful of still-valuable parts.

In June 2010, it happened. A customer came into Avanti Northwest looking for parts to repair a car that had been hit in the front. When the cost estimate ran past $1,700, the customerís reaction was that he could buy an entire parts car for $500. When Johnson heard the parts car described as orange, beat-up and ugly, he knew my Avanti had been found.


After a few days of waiting, faxing copies of the title and sorting out the proof of ownership, the car was delivered to Johnsonís shop, only a bit worse for wear. Never taken to the tow-truck driverís farm, the Avanti had spent nearly 15 years just a few blocks from where it was originally stored.

Magical thinking or just plain luck, it was back. Had I been paying $25 a month for storage all those years, I would have been poorer by more than $4,000.


Johnson started the restoration in 2011; the carís condition necessitated lifting the body off the frame and removing every nut, bolt and washer from the car. Usable parts were rebuilt, a process far more involved and expensive than buying new reproductions. Spares that were unused and in their original packaging ó known as new old stock, or NOS ó were fitted where possible.

When the job was completed, only a handful of reproduction parts had been used. The interior, once a shabby mess, is now like new, with door panels and carpet made a half-century ago but never installed in a car.

Designated as a display car for the public when Studebaker built it, on March 9 my Avanti will assume that role again, 51 years later, this time as a competitor on the lawn of the Amelia Island Concours dí…lťgance in Florida.