Right around Thanksgiving 2007, I was on a Corvair kick, and managed to scoop up this Ralph Nader Special for three grand. A four-speed 60s convertible for three grand? I thought I’d gotten a pretty good deal. Unfortunately, I soon found out that I was an idiot.
That’s because Corvairs are (monetarily) pretty worthless compared to their 1960s contemporaries. That’s a good thing for a guy like me. I own five cars 1965 and older, and do much of my own mechanical and body work. I buy low, dump a bunch of money into them, and then never sell anything. I thought, however, I was a pretty good judge of a car’s worth.
Unfortunately, I did little specific research at all on Corvairs, their typical maladies, and their values; therefore, I was the proud owner of a $2000 car at best. It had visible rust holes (no big deal in Michigan), but it ran and drove, so at least I had that going for me. I did have a few valid questions about the car, post-purchase, of course. “Do I hear a couple of ticking lifters?” “Why is this thing smoking from the back end like it’s on fire?” “Why is there no gear oil in the transaxle?”
Needless to say, I got to practice my skilled trades pretty much immediately.
I’ve done a billion things to this car in the six years I’ve owned it, and it’s still probably only worth six or seven grand. I’m over that, but it remains a painful truth. Among the first MAJOR projects I tackled was the valvetrain. My vacuum gauge was flapping all around like a bird in a birdbath at idle, but it was as steady as a winter west wind when revved. Valve guides. And exhaust valves, as it turns out. And lifters. And a replacement for a slightly bent pushrod. And new pushrod tube o-rings. Oh well, I had never worked on a Corvair’s engine before, so it was a learning experience. The new seals kept it from smoking at the McDonalds drive thru (oil was dripping right onto the exhaust manifolds from hardened o-rings). At least that embarrassment was behind me (no pun intended).
The engine isn’t original to the car (that isn’t a big concern among Corvair enthusiasts); it’s a nice low-compression 95 horsepower version from a 1968 model. These are nice engines because they run on low octane gasoline without pinging, and just run well on the street. They are not, however, very powerful, but there are four-carburetor 140s and Turbos out there for those who want to go a little faster.
After I had the Corvair running decently, I decided to change its “proud owner has a mullet” appearance. I started in 2010 by fixing the gaping holes in the quarter panels. I blended in the paint in my garage, and it looks pretty good. My cars are all just nice drivers, and a couple of imperfections here and there are par for the course. Besides, I have an excuse…I’m an English teacher, not a professional painter. As an aside, my Hobart Handler 140 with gas hookup is pretty much the best tool humanity has devised. I love that thing.
In the winter of 2010-11, I decided to do something about the chattering clutch and the gnarled transaxle gears (thanks to the no oil condition in the transaxle when I bought this orphan, an incessant howling was my constant companion). I dropped the whole powerpack in two hours and rebuilt the differential and transmission. Actually, I rebuilt a couple of spares I bought from a local Corvair parts hoarder before I pulled the powerteam; the originals were just too toasted. Even my new/used 4-speed needed a new third gear and a couple of countershaft needle bearings, but I managed to get that whole thing back together and on the road for the spring, just in time to decide that the rocker panels (the frame of a convertible Corvair) needed some work.
It turns out, the rocker panels in a Corvair are of the delightful “flush and dry” variety, which means that the cowl empties water right into them and “washes them out!” That works great until you get every leaf and pine needle in the neighborhood soaking up water like a greedy sponge. The right front of the rocker was toasted, but the left wasn’t too bad. I welded in 12 gauge patches from my favorite parts place, Clark’s Corvairs in Massachusetts.
While I was at it, I repaired the lower fender and a-pillars, along with some wheelwell rust. Measure twice, cut once, for sure! Above are some before and after shots; as you can imagine, the middle was a bare-knuckle barroom brawl. Once this was complete, the Corvair was starting to look and feel more like a car. I love driving it, and summer with the top down is better than just about anything in the world. But I still wasn’t done. The floors were a bit creepy. So, in 2012, I welded new floors in and did some general patching. I also installed a new carpet.
That took care of most of the rust. There are still a couple small bubbles on the doors, but for a summer “beater,” it’s all OK. Unfortunately, I’m not done tinkering on it yet. The clutch is chattering again (probably my fault, I didn’t seal the flywheel bolts correctly the first time, and oil and clutches don’t go together). I need to recover the seats this summer (it has 1970s-style super cheesy seat covers on non-matching black seats). The thing I’m proudest of is that I did much of this work while my family heirloom ’65 Mustang was down to a bare shell in the garage next to it (it’s now looking good, too). Maybe “I never learn” is not something to be proud of.
I think the message here is simple…before you buy your dream Corvair, be a smarter man than I am. Lest I sound disparaging, I’m not trying to talk anyone out of owning one, because they’re really fun cars to drive, they look great, and there are plenty of parts available. Like with anything else, unless you are a consummate tinkerer who loves time out in the garage, buy the best one you can afford–it’s cheaper!