Auto-Biography Part 13: 1963 Corvair Monza – The Tilt-A-Vair

In the fall of 1972, my hitchhiking adventures came to a sudden halt as the result of an unexpected happy event: my older brother bequeathed me his 1963 Corvair, as he was heading off for a job in Greenland. Corvairs are known for their superb traction in snow and ice, but I guess he decided the shipping expense wasn’t worth it to confirm that. And there’s that crappy heater.

But winter would arrive soon enough in Iowa, so I took it upon myself to test the ‘Vair’s vaunted virtues in the white. Let me just say that my experiments could easily have ended at the bottom of Coralville Reservoir. If they had, I’d at least have gone to an icy grave in my Corvair with memories of a fabulous fall road trip.

Needless to say, the Corvair already had special place in my heart before my brother suddenly showed up in Iowa City in one. And what a nice example it was; in fact, if it would probably be exactly what I would have ordered myself given the opportunity. The other day I said I’d take a coupe. I’ve been see-sawing on the coupe vs. sedan issue ever since 1960. Ultimately, the sedan wins out more often, as it’s a more harmonious and balanced design.

Anyway, there it was: a 1963 white Monza four-door with black interior (pictures not of my car). When he told me had bought form an old lady in Towson for $75, I instantly thought “Powerglide”. Wrong! There it was, that lovely little curved chrome stick shift with the white cue-ball on top, poking up between the black vinyl bucket seat. And just to be sure, it had the four-speed pattern on it.  And the four speed turned out to be an accurate predictor of there being the higher performance 102 (gross) hp Turbo-Air out back. Old lady car? Maybe her son talked her into it.

The body was in very good condition except for the near-inevitable rust pin-holes on the top of the fenders right over the headlights. There must have been some kind of trap for water or salt there, because it was so common, and there was no rust anywhere else. Wouldn’t have been that hard to fix, but I was in a hurry to hit the road.

The black interior was like new; complete with very high-quality vinyl and genuine metal bright-work. (GM’s molded Rubbermaid interiors were still some years away). I was blown away; not quite a ’63 Riviera, but very nice indeed. What did I do to deserve this, especially since this was a bit uncharacteristic of my brother. I got my answer as soon as I started it up” an ominous knocking sound from the engine. I didn’t say anything, seeing it was a gift, and drove him to the airport with that engine rattling away.

Seeing a rectangular gallon can (remember those?) of ultra-cheap Pep Boys non-detergent oil in the trunk (my brother is thrifty), I quickly drained it and treated the air-cooled six to some quality vital fluids. Lo! The knocking disappeared almost instantly, and the flat six purred its appreciation from then on.

A celebratory road trip was definitely in order: I mapped out a 2500 mile back-roads scenic loop to the Appalachian Mountains and back, via southern Indiana and Kentucky. The highlight was Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway, a virtually deserted (back then) 600 mile driving nirvana. I followed the last fall colors south into the Smoky Mountains, where I lost a staring contest with a bear intent on my dinner.

The Monza was in its element on the endless winding roads. It wasn’t really an American Porsche, since its ride was a bit too soft and the steering too slow. Of course, those could both be easily fixed. But it eagerly gobbled up the endless curves, and hour after hour, day after day, I delicately probed the Corvair’s outer limits. Never got myself into trouble once, but the roads were smooth, the tire pressures were optimized, and I knew not to touch the brakes if I did take a turn a bit fast: let the gently-oversteering rear tires scrub off the extra speed.

If undisturbed, the Corvair’s swing-axle suspended rear stayed low, and the body’s moderate roll meant that the fairly fat rear tires (for the times) would stay almost ideally perpendicular to the road, or even with a bit of negative camber.

But hit the brakes, and the weight shifted forward, unloading the rear tires, which would then tuck under the car with massive positive camber, jacking up the rear end, and further unintended consequences (here shown on a Spitfire).

That was the Corvair’s potentially deadly bite. Americans used to front-heavy understeering cars simply didn’t understand that the Corvair had to be treated differently at the limit, not that hitting the brake in a fast curve is a hot idea in just about any car. But that could literally be explosive in a Corvair, like hitting the hydraulic lifts in a low rider.

I seem to remember setting out on that month-long trip with $125. On the way home, I stopped in Galesburg, Illinois because I was out of gas. I turned my pockets inside out, and came up with $2.63, just barely enough to get me home (hungry) on 35¢ gas. My budgeting was cutting it a bit tight.

The Corvair’s exaggerated rear-weight bias was a cornucopia of winter amusement. Every blizzard was my cue to cut fresh tracks on deserted streets and indulge in oversteer hi-jinks. Eventually, my endless quest to test the traction limits of the Corvair progressed to the ultimate rear-engine winter thrill/stupidity.

Driving around unplowed park roads by the reservoir, I came across a nice long boat ramp. I looked at it and the light of brilliant stupidity went off. I shot down the ramp, hit the ice at about 50, and flicked the steering wheel while giving the emergency brake a good yank. The Monza pirouetted across the reservoir in a crack-the-whip blur, thanks to that heavy engine out back. It was just like the Tilt-A-Whirl at the carnival; we strained to keep our heads upright as it spun seemingly endlessly across the ice.

One day while diligently practicing for the prospective new Winter Olympic sport of Corvair-curling, I saw a distant figure on the far shore beckoning me to him. Brain scrambled from all the spinning, I drove to him. This easily-avoidable encounter resulted in a death-invoking lecture and my first-ever ticket. I decided never to be more obliging to the law than necessary.

My next Corvair misadventure was straight out of a silent movie, and so stupid and corny, I’m almost embarrassed to retell it. The starter was out– I procrastinated fixing it out in the cold – so I just parked on hills. Coming home late one night from a bar, the still-cold Monza stalled right on the main-line tracks of a deeply-rutted railroad crossing. All my heaving and swearing wouldn’t free it.

Seeing the control light down the tracks away change, I switched to plan B (I was a bit under the influence). I retrieved a screwdriver from the trunk, removed the plates and hid nearby. Seriously, I was going to sit behind a bush and watch my car be obliterated by a train.

Hearing the actual train whistle triggered a sudden surge of regret, or just adrenaline. I jumped from the bushes and gave the car one final push. She left the tracks and started downhill. I just managed to dive in before it rolled away.

Corvairs rode low to the ground, with something less than 5 1/2″ clearance. I found this out the hard way,when I suddenly encountered a highway sign laying in the middle of the road. It was mounted on a 6×6 wood pole, and it was right in the middle of the lane, long ways and parallel to the road. I came on it pretty quickly, and made the split-second choice to drive over it rather than risk a sudden sharp maneuver. I figured the car would clear it. I figured wrong.

The pole wedged under the middle of the Corvair, and now we were riding it, with little or no steering control. The poled Corvair skidded to a drifting halt off the side of the road. I had to use the jack to extricate it. A trickle of gas from the ruptured tank was the only damage. I made it home, and discovered the magic of JB Weld.

There were other trips and memories made, but I did end up having to drop the engine out of it twice to fix a noise from the flywheel– alone, in a barn, with one scissors jack, some blocks of wood and a John Mayall album playing over and over. That’s part of another story yet to come. But let’s just say it dampened my enthusiasm for the little Chevy and Mr. Mayall. And after a long hard year, the engine noise started to come back. I felt terrible about it at the time, but I essentially walked away from it, and bought my first VW.

Like most first cars, thinking of the Corvair brings back a flood of memories– good and bad. Driving to the quarry on summer days to go skinny-dipping with friends.  Walking five miles down a frozen moon-lit country road at one in the morning, lugging its heavy flywheel.  Watching the sun sparkle on the freshly waxed hood, pinholes and all. Gobbling up endless curves on Blue Ridge Parkway. Reluctantly saying goodbye to it.

And most of all, knowing then that I should have found a barn to save it for my middle age.