COAL: 1961 Corvair Monza Coupe – We Can Do It!

Finally. After three months, I finally have my car back and can tell her story!

This Corvair is sixty years old, and sadly, I only know a small percentage of her history thus far. Sometime in the mid 90’s, this little car was picked up by a high school shop class to use as one of its teaching vehicles. One student, who was in shop all four years of his high school career, ended up buying it from the school and giving it to his mother as a birthday gift. From roughly 1998 until 2009, it was used as her daily driver until she passed away from cancer.

I found all this out from that woman’s husband, who I’ll call Al. He owns a large piece of land out in a little town north of Dallas. We met through the dealership where I work, and a mutual love for Curbside Classic. One day in late March, he asked if I could help him out on his land doing some yard work, as he’s getting too old to do it himself. Al had also said there was a car he was wanting to show me if l had the time.

After a few hours of mowing and helping cut down shrubs off the property fence line, he led me to a cylindrical building that looked like something from a military base. He explained the story I told above, and opened the big double doors to reveal a little red Corvair, covered in dust, half buried in gardening tools and other junk.

Al climbed in with a grimace and started her up, blowing dust up from behind with a throaty growl from the tailpipes. I stood there and listened, taking it all in. I could tell Al was lost in memories as he let it idle for a minute, staring into the middle distance. He explained that he had tried to drive the car every so often, but that at his age, it was hard to get in and out of. Since his wife’s passing, it remained in a sort of limbo. Too painful to want to drive each day like she did, yet too full of memories to want to get rid of. Eventually, he stuck it in this out building out of sight, but never out of mind.

Al didn’t want it to sit and rot, saying his wife would’ve wanted it to go to someone who was going to care for it. It was time to let go of all the emotions keeping it locked in a barn, because it deserved better.

It was at that time, he offered to give me the Corvair, saying it would be in exchange for the help I’d given him that day, provided I took care of it.

I enthusiastically agreed and a few weeks later, Al dropped it off outside my work. He’d said he had to pick up a car in Fort Worth and needed the trailer, so why not kill two birds with one stone?

That morning before work, I parked my Mazda right next to the little red coupe and quickly opened the door to look everything over. Despite the rip in the black vinyl seat, everything else looked to be in great condition. Reaching under the seat to where Al said he’d left them, I pulled out a small key ring. Excitedly, I pressed the tiny brass key shaped like a stop sign into the ignition and turned it. From behind me, I could hear the starter motor whir and after a few quick pumps of the gas, heard the little flat six finally thrum to life.

Working for Streetside, I have had the chance to drive many different cars. Some of which have been air cooled. Of them, I had the most experience with VW’s. Namely, a Karmann Ghia and a late model Porsche 911. The thing about those cars, I discovered, is that they feel… whole. The engine and car seem to go together in such a way that neither one distracts from the other.

My least favorite cars to drive in that regard have been most of the Chevelles I’ve been in. Most of them have been turned into “clone” and “tribute” cars, stuffed with 396’s and 427’s. The SS badge is such a common sight on them that the few we’ve got in that we’re not this way have been a rarity. Those cars feel like the entire vehicle is about the ENGINE, in huge bold letters. You turn the key, and the entire car shakes and bucks and makes a huge racket. Who cares that the automatic shifter most come with feels plasticky and cheap? Who cares if it’s difficult to see out the back or the brakes are only there in name? You’ve got a fancy number on your fender, and for most people, that’s enough.

On the flip side of this, has been my experience with Tesla. I have only driven it a handful of times, but the 2014 P85-D my showroom features has done nothing but leave me cold. Instead of feeling like the entire car is in service of the engine, the Tesla feels like it’s in service of itself. The electric motors are quiet and move the car instantly when the switch pedal is pressed. It gives no sensation other than acceleration. The door handles are electric and slide out when you approach, the “gear” selector is a switch you flick to change what direction you move in. The massive screen reminds me of something from 1984, and is a constant reminder that the car is always watching and sensing, ready to give a warning when you are too close to something. I understand why people like them, however, to me, the Tesla is a giant rolling iPhone. To me, it feels cold and clinical. I have no real control over the machine. IT watches. IT sees. IT decides what’s best. Perhaps I’m being melodramatic, but I’ll pass. Driving an electric car is an experience I don’t care if I never do again, personally.

Rosie, on the other hand, is a car I absolutely love driving, because she feels in harmony with herself. The engine note is pleasant and can be a throaty growl if the gas pedal is pressed, though it isn’t headache inducing. Everything I touch has a direct link to the car. The gear selector is a thin, wonderfully curved little bar of metal with a tiny white shift knob on top. The gauges are simple, showing speed and fuel remaining, with a couple warning lights for the generator and fan. Everything is surrounded in bright metalwork. The wide bucket seats that do little to hold me in place in turns are comfortable, if locked into a slightly too upright position.

Unfortunately, I only got to enjoy her for a total of five days before something terrible happened. As I was driving to work after walking in the park, suddenly her engine ground to a halt and both warning lights came on at once. Fearing the belt might have slipped off, which I’ve heard is a common problem with Corvairs, I carefully coasted into neighborhood and pulled over to the curb at the nearest house. Popping the engine cover, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, and the belt was in place. After a few tries to start the engine, and my being due at work, I reluctantly called a tow truck. The owner of the house, a very nice lady whose name has sadly escaped me, came out to talk as I waited. Apparently, she had been expecting her handyman that morning and looked out the window to see an old red sports car broken down outside instead. She gave me a bottle of water and wished me luck as the tow truck came and picked up both me and my ride, dropping us off in the parking lot of my work.

Finding a shop willing to work on her was a nightmare and talking about it will just be a waste. I’ll skip ahead three months and just say that a valve guide broke in the engine that punched a hole in one of my pistons. It wasn’t cheap to repair and I’m glad it’s over. Now comes the fun part!

I got four new tires for her, and took an Uber up to the shop in Dallas after work as soon as she was ready. I got the tires put on at a tiny Mom and Pop shop literally across the street. They came out with four jacks and stands, mounted the tires in fifteen minutes and l was back on the road. I was sad to lose the white walls, but seeing as they were from 2009, I’ll sacrifice some style for safety!

The drive took an hour and a half on back roads, and I stopped every half hour to let her engine cool off and let me take a break from driving. Thirty minutes isn’t a huge amount of time, but when you just spent what I did getting your 60 year old car fixed, you don’t take chances.

The above picture was taken at my first stop to get dinner at a little pizza joint.

The next leg of the trip found me outside a gas station where I grabbed a candy bar and a water. So far, I had been talked to three times at stop lights by people asking me about my car. It was nice, and helped ease the tension of the mini road trip I was on. A man with his daughter offered to take the above picture after seeing me struggle to take one myself.

The last half an hour was spent with Rosie’s little round headlights peering into the darkness at the sun set. Driving her had become easy, and something that, while the butterflies in my stomach hadn’t quite settled down, I was learning to love. While Rosie was in the shop, the mechanic had informed me that her engine had already had some work done to it in the past. It had been slightly bored out, had electronic ignition installed, and dual exhaust to replace the single it would’ve had. Also, thanks to my own research, this car was originally dark red with a black interior. It was repainted in Roman Red sometime in her past. All in all, someone loved this car and I’m honored to have the chance to continue that! We made it safely back to my dealership where I gave her a well deserved rest and drove my Mazda back home.

While my short ownership experience hasn’t been perfect thus far, and I know there will be trails ahead, I feel comfortable in saying that just like the famous poster that inspired her name, Rosie and I… We can do it!