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.
This story makes me wanna put Lorraine the 280E up for sale on Craigslist and finally give in to Corvair Lust. The one you had is almost identical to my #3 choice. The things you say about the quality interior and just the general eagerness to gobble up curves confirms everything thought I’d enjoy about the Corvair beyond the styling and the “queer” aspect of it among American Cars.
I need to ask for that raise. It never seriously gets cold in the Bay Area and Highway 1 to Big Sur with Dionne Warwick’s first 5 LPs coming out of the single dash speaker (hooked to an ipod hidden in the glove box) is calling my name.
…Off to Craigslist and to the bank.
What a great read! Thanks for letting us in on your first-car memories.
I may be able to solve your “rusty eyebrows” mystery. When I owned my ’59 Fury, it was doing the same thing. One evening I stuck my fingers up into the inner fender to see if I could find out what was in there. Surprise, there was no inner fender. What was there was 20 years accumulation of dirt packed into the fender eyebrow. What a perfect recipe for rust: fill with dirt and keep perpetually moist from wheel spray. Probably the same thing with the Corvair.
On the quirky handling, John Delorean went into this in some detail in “On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors.” After the first test unit got flipped its first time out, a group of high-ranking engineers (Charlie Chayne, among others) started a campaign to modify the rear suspension design. Ed Cole thought the design was fine and won the argument. Thereafter, the engineers who lost the argument turned their attention to Pontiac to lobby against building the version planned for Pontiac. Bunkie Knudson (Division Chief) and Pete Estes (Chief Engineer) lobbied GM for permission to work from the Olds/Buick compact instead of from the Corvair as Pontiac’s ’61 compact. Thus the Tempest. DeLorean said that it was only all the lawsuits coming in that forced Chevrolet to finally put the sway bar on the rear of the Corvair for ’64.
I always wondered why Corvair got hammered over its swing axles but VW did not. (Apart from GM pissing off Nader with its PIs.)
Paul, you wrote, “Americans used to front-heavy understeering cars simply didn’t understand that the Corvair had to be treated differently at the limit”. Now I think I get it. Corvairs were just little Chevys, that’s how they were sold anyway. Why would ordinary Americans think they should be driven or maintained any differently?
VWs were those funny foreign cars from across the sea, so any strange behavior would be expected, even embraced. (Remember the stick-on wind-up keys?)
I’m surprised and disappointed that engineer Ed Cole was the one who nixed the sway bar. Always figured it was some greedy top brass.
I believe Nader did write a book about similar complaints on the VW Old Beetle’s handling characteristics. The only reason it wasn’t as popular as “Unsafe At Any Speed” was because so many people loved the Old Beetle (remember, this was the 1960’s) and it was on the USDM landscape much longer than the ‘Vair so it was also more established. If there was as much love for the ‘Vair as there was for the Old Beetle, Ralph Nader would be much more less-known and most people probably wouldn’t know about “Unsafe At Any Speed”.
The Corvair was just one chapter of “Unsafe At Any Speed”. Have you ever read it? You can read it here: http://www.american-buddha.com/nader.unsafeanyspeed.toc.htm
Nader’s book didn’t come out until 1965. By that time, the Corvair’s future was already well sealed.
Nader didn’t write a book about the VW.
Ha! I found exactly the same problem with my 1958 Belvedere. In fact, there was actually a low spot for the water to pool up there so it would rot the piece of steel that was next to the comparable panel on the front of the hood. Part of my maintenance routine became keeping that area free of dirt.
Tell us more about the bear eating your dinner! Were you in a campground? Did you retreat to the inside of the car and watch it? Enquiring minds want to know . . .
Regarding stupid things we used to do with my cars, I’ll have to write up how crazy I used to drive my 1969 Cadillac Ambulance while in college (4-wheel-drifts were my specialty).
It was a bear that was used to scavenging in the campground (at Smokey Mts NP). I was cooking liver and onions on my camp stove, and I backed away, and it just scooped it out of my frying pan. I then followed it as it went on its rounds in the campground, and it walked right into an open door of a trailer where a woman was cooking. She shrieked a bit, and jumped up into a bunk while the bear helped itself from her stove.
I imagine the bears are better controlled now; or?
Nar but they trained 4em to knock first
Liver and onions? You Tyroleans are all the same… 🙂
Great story Paul.
If you ever do one on a 1969 Ford Torino, let me know…
Paul, if you saw a red ’67 VW Beetle attempting to do donuts at about the same spot of ice on the Rez, I may or may not have been in that car.
It would have been loud. We tore off the exhaust system in the Macbride parking lot and welded a series of Orange Crush cans together to replace it.
Nice! I wasn’t doing donuts in the usual sense; it was just throwing the Corvair into an endless power-off spin as it zoomed across the smooth ice. But donuts were on the menu too, of course.
Lift off oversteer great fun
“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.”
Truer words were never written.
My first…that was really mine…was a Super Beetle, not a Corvair; but I done many of the same dumb things, including deal with a dead starter for weeks on end. It was an eight-foot snowbank, not a railroad crossing, that got me…the accelerator pedal, floor-hinged, had an ice buildup from the pathetic heater and overnight freezing. I got, I thought, good at yanking it up with one hand on the road. Until that time…took my eyes off the road for – I swear, Officer! – just a SECOND…and managed to get off the road, up on the snowbank…rode it right up like a toboggan, snapped my bent-over head onto the gearshift…and there I was, perched way up, on nothing but plowed snow.
A local passer-by in a Scout was kind enough to lend me towrope and yank me off.
Those were different cars we had, you and I; but both unlike typical Detroit iron and both lending to dedication…memories. Both were sold on whim…and now, in our middle years, both the source of regret.
My father had a similar car (red exterior) but it had that little lever on the dash – Powerglide. I wasn’t driving yet so I can’t comment on the experience. It was fairly roomy for passengers for a compact car.
I do remember helping my father on several occasions to re-install the fan belt. The belt made a 90-degree turn to get up to the fan pulley on top of the engine.
I had a swing axle Triumph the sedan that begat the Shitfire, a Herald zero performance and in hard cornering rear jacking if you chickened out. always only do two things in a corner steer and feed the power in it worked in the Herald, Im still here the car aint it threw a leg outa bed loud bang hole in the block back to the junkyard it snatural home.
WOW gas was cheap back then 35 cents OMG an american gallon is 3.7 litres our gas when I was licenced at 15 in 73 was 48cents for 4.5 L $3 to fill the Herald from bone dry thats still 10 cents per litre now $2 per L here but diesel is only $141 and Ive disconnected the taxometer which helps we get taxed for each kilometer driven paid in advance.
Being an owner of a ’62 Corvair I would have to say it looks more like a 1960 Pontiac than the Oldsmobile you mentioned, very simi;iar front and rear body design including the seam completely around the car. Used to own one in ’66