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The Automotive Chronicles

Monthly newsletter published by McLellan's Automotive History. Dedicated to literature collectors, restorers, museums, publishers, manufacturers and investors who collect and preserve automotive literature
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November 2009 Issue
 
ARTICLE
 
Happy 50th Birthday Corvair!
By Greg Riley
 

The Corvair is a little older than I am, but not by much. Corvair was born as a 1960 model, and I a 1962.

Growing up with the ‘Vair was a ubiquitous part of our daily life. Most people think the Corvair was a failure in the marketplace, and perhaps by the standards of the time, it was. However, I’ll bet that Chevy would kill today for a model that produced 1.7 million units over its ten-year lifetime. Most people have forgotten Bell Telephone’s fleets of Corvan service trucks. As a toddler one of my earliest memories was that of staring out of the window at our neighbor's Monza that was parked directly across the street. That same car is in the background of the pictures from my 4th birthday party.

In 1967 the first Corvair came home to the Riley household. Late in 1966 it was decided that my 20-year-old-brother should have a new car for his early college graduation and looming Grad school. Until that time his daily transport had been a ’59 Chevy Bel-Air two-door hardtop. He really wanted a new Mustang, but my dad (The Colonel) thought they were too expensive and that Fords generally were crap. My Dad was a dyed-in-the-wool Chrysler man, with a little GM on the side.

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The Colonel and I made almost weekly trips to Fort Polk where he spent time with his old army buddies and we shopped at the PX. Coming home late one evening the Colonel dozed for a minute, and I experienced my first car wreck… exit the ’59 Bel-Air.

From that moment the search for a new car was on! We visited all of the local new car stores and finally wound up at the local Chevy store, Beaumont Motor Co. There we saw it, a new bright red, Corvair 500 2-door hardtop. There had been a mistake when the car was ordered, matching the high horsepower 4-carb 140 engine with the low line 500 trim, and a three-speed manual transmission. This was also about 18 months after Ralph Nader published, “Unsafe at any Speed.”

Well they were very, very anxious to move that Corvair and within a few hours it was residing in our driveway… looking like a dwarf next to my Mom’s ’64 Chrysler New Yorker. I can’t tell you all of the places Bubba took me in his Corvair and all of the fun we had. All my life I’ve associated ‘Vairs with my Bubba.

I’ve owned more Corvairs than any sane human should. Near as I can figure my lifetime count hovers around 200. There was a time in the 1970s when people would literally abandon a Corvair with the most minor problem. My first one came home the Christmas of 1977 when I was fifteen. Beginning then, and until the early 1990s I bought, sold, repaired, and generally wheeled-n-dealed Corvairs like they were jelly beans. Most of these transactions only involved a few hundred dollars, with the most expensive car being less than $5,000.

I wouldn’t even know how to figure the many miles I’ve logged in a Corvair, but it would have to be nearly 500,000 miles. For many years Corvairs were my only transport and main passion in life.

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Which brings us back to Ralph Nader and his ridiculous book. Few people have heard of a book that uses actual science and engineering to rebut Nader -- it is Andrew J. White's excellent 1969 book, “Assassination of the Corvair.” Coincidentally I have a first edition copy in front of me now. Rather than try and rebut Nader point by point, I’ll just rebut it in the way I’ve always done. Nader doesn’t drive and I’ve personally logged hundreds of thousands of miles in Corvairs many of which were done very aggressively. If Nader’s assertions were correct I would probably have been dead in a ditch long ago.

On some other occasion I’ll write the story and share the photos of the radical ’68 Monza I built complete with NOS. Lots of guys in 5.0 Mustangs had their doors blow off. Or perhaps my trip in a ’64 Monza to Seattle in search of love, or perhaps the 14 days in the great American west in a ’64 Greenbrier. I could go on and on.

This isn’t to say the Corvair was without its flaws; chief of which were the damn oil leaks. However, we Corvair aficionados learned long ago how to address this issue. Generally speaking the cars are fun to drive, inexpensive to buy, cheap to run, and easy to fix. Repro parts are nearly as ubiquitous as a Camaro or Mustang.

But like any other passion in life, my relationship with the Corvair has had its peaks and valleys. For the last few years I haven’t even owned one. However, Brian starts driving in November and he really wanted one, so I’ve dove in again with a recent purchase of a 1963 Monza. I’ve kept all of my special Corvair tools, but the huge stash of parts is long gone.

Last weekend we drove her down south to help a fellow Corvair Club member with his Monza ragtop. We left Jeff’s place in Friendswood at 8 p.m. last Saturday evening to rendezvous at Rancho Grande with Ronnie and our grown daughter Joni. We hit the freeway and she was running so sweet, the weather great, and the sound out of the flowmasters was like mellow music. I opened her up and we ran that little ‘Vair 80MPH+ all the way and made it to the restaurant by 9:20. Ha, take that Ralph Nader!

So Happy Birthday Corvair! You look pretty damn good for a fifty-year-old, and I know we’ll be together for the rest of our lives.

 
Greg Riley can be reached at his website Garage DeLuxe
 
The Automotive Chronicles, November 2009
 
 
 
 
 
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