Rolling COAL: A Firebird, A T-Bird, And A Corvair Go On A Drive – Day Trips And A Short Discussion Of Ownership Philosophy

There’s no point in belaboring the fact that it’s been an odd year for just about everybody.  Just recently, I mentioned how a dearth of car events this summer has led to my renewed appreciation for something, anything resembling a car show.  Anecdotally, I’m not alone.  There have been far fewer old car sightings in my travels than I’m accustomed to, but I’m always determined to be middle-class, buttoned-down rebellious if I can manage it.  Therefore, despite the fact that there have been fewer concrete destinations, I’ve managed to keep my odometers turning as much as I normally do.

Despite some inborn cynicism, I do my best to keep the shiny side up when faced with creeping malaise.  For the entirety of this forgettable year, gasoline has been incredibly inexpensive.  This is a boon when one has a predilection for driving wasteful American classics with a lower case “c” (I don’t want to run afoul of the Classic Car Club of America).  The Firebird is a thirsty beast, with 15 mpg being a cause for celebration.  Would you believe 12.75 for a long trip in my ’63 T-Bird?

With all that in mind, my lovely bride and I recently loaded up our Firebird with snacks and headed up to Michigan’s Rifle River Recreation Area.  When we arrived, the main entrance was closed, leaving us to sneak in the “back way” through some glorified two-track trails.  Needless to say, we slowly inched along as far as we could before the Firebird’s limited ground clearance threatened its ancient exhaust system.

At that point, we decided that there was nothing to do but turn around and head into the woods for a walk.

Michigan is quite nice this time of year, aside from the niggling realization that it can’t last.  Nevertheless, a few hours in the trees with the fresh air and the allergens leaves one with a runny nose and an unclenched jaw.

In juxtaposition with a contemplative walk in the woods is the eardrum punching noise of a drag strip, such as Mid-Michigan Motorplex, which is located in the middle of a field in Stanton, MI.  Almost without fail, we attend the annual Pure Stock Muscle Car Drags, which is an event that I recommend to anyone with an interest in muscle car-era machinery being beaten within an inch of its life.  The parking lot is almost as interesting as the race, and I always find fodder for future writing.

This year, the event thankfully took place as planned, although my wife and I sat in the less crowded bleachers at the end of the quarter-mile.  I decided to take my T-Bird on the 150-mile round trip, solely for the reason that it was at home and was light on yearly mileage compared to the other cars in the garage at the time.

The next day, I had planned to take my ’53 Special to the Sloan Museum Golden Memories Auto Show, but it started missing and bucking as I merged onto the freeway (I later diagnosed an almost broken points wire in the distributor – oops – I made that wire about five years ago to replace the original, and I made it a little short for proper articulation).  The T-Bird was parked in the front of the garage thanks to the previous day’s journey to the drag strip, so I made the unmannerly decision to drive a Ford to the birthplace of General Motors – Flint, MI.  I hope the spirits of Alfred Sloan and Billy Durant can forgive a poor trespasser such as I.

A week before that, we wandered an hour or so up the coast of Lake Huron in the Thumb region of Michigan to the tiny city of Caseville.  This time, we took our Corvair, a car with which I’ve broken every rule of intelligent antique car ownership.  I didn’t buy the best one I could afford, or even a decent one, and I have continued to spend money on it in many multiples of its current value.  And I cut corners on it all the time – “Do it once, do it right” does not apply to our Corvair, and (with apologies to Rob Siegel, a great automotive author and well-known hater of the phrase) it has always struck me as a pretentious thing to say anyway.

I’ve contemplated writing a very long sequel to my COAL about this car based on the last seven years of my ownership, but parts of it would be almost too embarrassing to mention (not that I embarrass easily or particularly care what anyone thinks about my stuff).  Sanding crank journals with some oil and a shoestring and dropping in new rod bearings because I didn’t want to split the case?  Yep, I did that.*  And I’ve driven it several thousand miles since then with no appreciable detritus in the last oil filter I cut open.  In fact, it’s fundamentally reliable, and other than the occasional image of dropped valve seats dancing in my head, I have no anxiety about taking it anywhere.

*To be fair to me and lest you think I’m a total hack, I mic’d the rod journals for roundness and clearance and had my machine shop resize the rods, so I mixed some right with some wrong.

And honestly, one needs to sometimes know when to say “when” on an old car or one goes insane.  I had the powertrain out to replace the pressure plate, flywheel, and clutch; and I figured, “While I’m in there, I’ll get the cylinders honed and replace the rings.”  I did that, but it could have, and maybe should have, escalated into a complete rebuild, and I simply didn’t want to do that.  After all, my yearly mileage is somewhat limited by the fact that my world is half-frozen and salt strewn, and that I have seven old cars.  Therefore, even half measures buy quite a few years of driving, so I almost always reflect on and maintain the proper perspective for me and my own (admittedly somewhat lower than average) standards of ownership.

I’ll assume you’ve excused my pseudo-philosophical digression or skipped past it.  Despite my complicated relationship with the Corvair, it certainly makes for a nice drive on lightly traveled two-lanes, getting 23 mpg while doing so.  Everything you’ve heard about second-generation Corvair handling is probably correct; the steering is light and vices are few.  It must be the most modern-handling American car of the 1960s.

It’s also a good looking thing.  Of course, I think all of my cars are good looking things (OK, maybe not the Dirty Dart), and there’s nothing better to do than to get out and drive an old car, whenever and wherever I can.  If you have a car that’s getting on in years and have been ignoring it, back it out of the garage and take a spin.  There’s almost never a bad time to do so, even 2020; and as long as you’re safe and your car’s safe, don’t worry too much about what others think of your shadetree hackery.