The decision to drive the Corvair on a work/vacation trip in December, 2012, was not made lightly. I'd completed the trip in years past in my '66 Land Rover II-A and my '80 Triumph TR-7 Spider. Driving that same seven hours in the Land Rover had left my ears ringing, my body vibrating and my wallet lighter due to its 18 mpg.
The same distance the following year in the TR-7 made for 25 mpg, less vibration, less assurance [it is a TR-7 after all] and a feeling that I'd sat in a space capsule for 6 hours. It also left me with a December dilemma at a Portland, ME motel one morning - how to get the door locks thawed out? The only successful method was to heat the key with the room's hair dryer so hot that it popped the circuit breaker in the dryer, then to run down two flights of stairs to insert the key into the lock before it cooled down. The second time was a charm.
So this year I felt the Corvair should do the honors. Work schedules meant that I could not allow myself an extra day [in case of breakdowns]; I would absolutely, positively have to get there on time on Saturday. My hesitation was based on the car's annoying habit of these past two years of wanting to die off on the side of the road when underway for an hour or more. No mechanic or Corvair expert had been able to figure out the source of this problem.
I booked the Corvair into the island's garage for the mechanic to check under the car. All the suspension pieces, steering components and wheel bearings seemed tight. I did the usual tune-up of points, condenser, rotor, distributor cap and spark plugs, and checked the timing. An oil/filter change had been done in October. I ordered a spare fan belt and fuel pump from Clark's and bought a used oil cooler from Maine's specialty shop, Maplewood Motors, in Cape Neddick. I packed tools, charged the cellphone and said a prayer.
On Friday I boarded the ferry for the 90 minute ride to the mainland and then started on my way south. I made it to Portland late that afternoon, booked myself into an inexpensive motel and then joined a group of Land Rover friends as the Sebago Brewpub in nearby Scarborough. Saturday morning I packed up again and headed out on the Maine Turnpike, to I-495 in Massachusetts and then onto the Mass Pike towards Connecticut. After stopping for fuel and water [for me, not the car], I started the car and noticed it did not want to accelerate out of the rest area. Just as it had done in the past it began to bog down instead of going faster. As I approached the turnpike entrance I wondered about proceeding ahead at all; you could not turn around and go back on the highway. Instead I plowed ahead and suddenly the car seemed to run on all 6 cylinders and both carburetors. This would happen again at a rest stop in Connecticut but other than that, the car ran flawlessly. Oh, and I got 28 mpg at 60-75 mph. The car received a few odd stares and one memorable moment. On I-91 between Hartford and New Haven I drove in the center lane when I noticed a Mazda sedan, driven by a young guy, close to my rear bumper. I pulled over into the right lane and he followed me. When I looked in my rear view mirror I saw the passenger with a camera and noticed a flash. The car pulled up alongside me as they continued to take photos of the car from a few angles. Less surprising but equally pleasurable was a time when a new Corvette, with a man and a woman aboard, passed me as the the driver gave the Monza a "thumbs up." Seat technology, particularly for "compact cars," had not advanced far in the 1960's. Add to this the reality that my driver's seat consisted of some crushed foam and a sheepskin seat cover and you wind up with an uncomfortable perch for a 6 hour drive. Also, as is often the case with rear engine cars the pedals sit a bit skewed towards the right; you feel as though your right leg is stretched out rather far to hold the accelerator towards the floor. This really became an issue on the trip home when I felt like I had injured a right knee ligament; it took a couple of days to recover.
After a week of enjoying New York City, my hosts in Cos Cob, CT, a trip to Land Rover North America's headquarters in New Jesey, and a night in PA, I started the trip home to Maine. Naturally the weather turned truly awful - sheets of wind-blown rain, gusts from 35 - 50 mph along the entire distance from CT to Maine. Traveling on a Friday meant the traffic might be lighter but every truck threw up a wall of rain and mist. Every gust slammed against the car with a fury. Some water leaked past the windshield and dribbled onto the floor. The defroster could barely keep up.
The Corvair, however, behaved perfectly. It ran at 55 - 65 mph depending on driving conditions. The winds hit the car but rarely made it budge within its lane. Stopping for fuel did not result in any bogging down or poor acceleration. I also achieved another 28 MPG for the entire trip. In the total 715 mile round trip I used one quart of oil, probably more from a front seal leak than from blowby or burning in the cylinders.
CORSA Communique Article 2008
"The Sexiest Looking American car" - Car & Driver, October, 1964
Return to the Fold [Published in CORSA Communique]
By Jeffrey Aronson
In 1966 I bought my first car for college, a 1962 Morris Minor, for $250. That same year, Mr. Thomas Williams went to Banta Chevrolet in Madison, NJ, and bought his daughter Susan a brand new Corvair Monza Coupe, 110 hp, 4 speed, with a push button AM radio and a spare tire lock. He paid just over $2,200. While he was there he purchased a Chevelle Coupe for her mother. I know this because I have the original sales receipts. They came with the Corvair, now with 119,000 miles, that I bought from Susan Williams this past September.
It represented a return to the fold for me. As a student at the University of Vermont in 1969, I needed to replace my 6-year old, $600 Triumph Spitfire with something else in that price range. My father talked to a friend, a Buick dealer in Boston, who saw a chance to unload a 1964 Monza convertible 110 hp 4-speed.Reluctantly, I drove from Cape Cod to see the car. Jeez, it wasn’t British, it sat four, it was refrigerator white with a red interior, and it looked big. On the other hand, it had the manual convertible top, only 40,000 miles and would cost $450. The rear seat even folded down; who knew what might follow after that?
The Corvair took me through my undergraduate years at UVM. I scraped it against a post one day, still unused to its relative bulk. The generator bracket nearly but it gave enough notice to garner replacement before stranding me. The driver’s window required replacement after an incident at a drive in movie. A particularly fetching date and I had settled in for an evening’s activity when the voice over the speaker announced the projector had failed and everyone would have to leave. However, you would be granted a free pass that very night at a nearby drive-in. In my haste to take advantage of the potential good times I neglected to remove the speaker and it ripped out the window. The Buick dealer thought it so funny that he replaced the window for free.
When the Army told me it would draft me later, the Corvair took me to Ohio for graduate school. One weekend, it made a round-trip “I’m homesick” drive to Cape Cod, 14 hours each way. Approaching 70,000 miles, and confronted with a then-fiancée who didn’t like driving it, I sold it.
A long succession of British, French and German cars kept me on the road for decades but I never really forgot my Corvair. While I strove to keep my MG Midget as my daily driver car in Vermont, a friend seemed awfully happy with his 1968 Monza convertible. It looked great, had lots of room, handled wonderfully, and ran reliably – in contrast to my fiddly Midget.
Around 1990 I moved from Vermont to a fishing island 15 miles off the coast of Maine. Vinalhaven has 1,200 year round residents and a large summer population, one of whom as Susan Williams, who brought her Corvair to live at their new summer house. It was the only Corvair on the island and the first one I’d seen up close in a long time. One day, the headlights wouldn’t work and I helped John Williams fix the glitch by wiggling the contacts at the dimmer switch [my ’66 Land Rovers have the same arrangement]. Every so often we would talk about classic cars and I told him of my entertainment with my Corvair decades ago.
This past summer, the Williams made a monumental decision. They used the car less and less and it showed in its running condition. Fearing that it might fall apart in his shop, the local mechanic declined to work on it. Their family - raised on airbags, safety crumble zones and passive restraint systems - refused to drive it.John approached me one day with an offer to sell me the car.
I’m single, self-employed and the owner of two ’66 Land Rovers and an ’80 Triumph TR-7, all in need of work. I live on an island that’s barely 5 miles wide and 9 miles long. How many cars do I need?
This fall he approached me again. I dithered but took it out for a test drive. The driver’s seat was torn, the maroon paint was completely oxidized, the car blew out vast quantities of white smoke, the brakes locked up, the gearbox graunched between first and second, the radio played only static. I rolled the windows down for stylish effect and found myself enthralled. We dickered on the price and within one hour, found myself the owner of a $650 Monza.
I had to work the next day so Susan Williams agreed to bring the car into the village where we would transfer money for the keys. On the verge of tears she said “It’s the first time I’ve driven it in a long time. I don’t know if I want to sell it!” I waited for her decision and drove home with my second-ever Corvair. As I started it up the directional lever fell off in my hand. This was going to be a short honeymoon.
I’ve had enough used British cars to know that sitting does them no good. I decided to drive the Corvair as much as possible to determine what it needed to return to a daily driver. It smoked badly under load, pinged under load, and ran rough. The clutch did not seem to disengage properly. Several lights didn’t work. The heater/defroster fan worked but it offered little heating or defrosting.
First I needed to get it to run better. I opened up the trunk. The distributor and the carbs looked normal enough, but where were the fuel pump and the oil filter? What on earth is an “idler pulley?” I bought a Clark’s catalogue and a Factory Service Manual. I subscribed to the online Corvair Forum, joined Virtual Vairs and CORSA. Those sources gave me the information I needed to tune up the car.
I started by purchasing a distributor cap, rotor, points, condenser, and spark plugs, and installed them all. I used my timing light and my Unisyn to adjust the timing and the carbs and chokes. I jacked up the car and adjusted the clutch cable, which improved its action considerably.
The smoking and valve clatter under acceleration both bothered me. When I went to the dump one day, the dump master complimented me on the car and noted that a local had brought in some cans of old automotive products. I salvaged two cans of an oil additive that claimed to free rings and valves from sludge. Sure enough, after just a few miles, the smoking reduced itself substantially.
A stationary Corvair brought on a host of problems that just required fettling. Cleaning contacts and installing new bulbs made the taillights and dome light work again. I bought a set of Clark’s heater hoses, jacked the car up in the air and installed them; that restored heat and defrosting action. I replaced the bulbs behind the speedometer so I can read it at night and even got the cigarette lighter to work. A failing u-joint required the ministrations of our local mechanic who agreed to do the work for me.
I need to pay attention to the brakes; one wheel locks up under severe braking such as when the deer ran out in front of me last night. A wheel cylinder may be leaking as I’m losing brake fluid at the reservoir, too. I’m still concentrating on getting the lug nuts off the wheels without breaking a bolt; every few days I spray of penetrating oil over the threads.
Mild rubbing compound on the paint accomplished little but the most aggressive product started to remove some oxidation. I’ll finish the application before the winter just to see if I can live with the maroon paint.The interior is totally original and would require only the repair of the seat bottom and parcel shelf cardboard to be quite nice.
At heart I’m a driver. The most sublime experience with the Corvair has been its feel and its handling. You sit comfortably in the car (by 1966 standards). The thin windshield pillars [must tackle the rust there] and frameless windows provide an airy bright interior. The thin steering wheel is a joy to grip. The pedal offset to the right is disconcerting at first, as is the curious shift pattern on the Saginaw 4-speed, but the view down the sharp creases of the front fenders is exhilarating.
Island roads vary between narrow smooth and narrow rough – no shoulders, just rocks and spruce trees line the roads. The roads follow the contours of the landscape so we have lots of dips and curves and few straight stretches. Since everyone knows everyone’s car, you cannot drive anonymously. With the only Corvair on the island, everyone will know when I’m speeding. The Monza seduces me to drive fast, working the gearbox up and down constantly. Given clear weather and empty roads I’ve been able to learn just how brilliantly engineered the IRS is on the LM. You can go deeper than you think into a curve because you’re not going to slide as long as you don’t let off in the middle. The steering could be quicker but it certainly is light and responsive.
With winter weather approaching I’ve tinkered with the chokes to reduce the hard starting but I admit I’m torn about driving it during the winter. I remember an old VW Beetle ad of boots crunching through snow and a car door opening. The voiceover asked “Did you ever wonder how the man who drives the snowplow, gets to the snowplow?” The answer was rear wheel drive, which I’d love to test again with this Corvair.
On the other hand, I know that I’m the steward of this car, its caretaker, not its owner. The Williams’ let me buy the car because they knew I would drive it, enjoy it and maintain it. Maybe, just a few times, though, I’ll test it in the snow and relive the experience of my ’64 Monza in a winter storm.
Copyright 2007 by Jeffrey B. Aronson
Many enthusiasts prefer the 1960-1964 Early Models
Corvairs of New Mexico
A different version of the article, entitled Corvair in the Maine Woods, ran in the Corvairs of New Mexico News in 2008. The club is a chapter of CORSA - the Corvair Society of America. Click here to read the online edition of the New Mexico News.
Purchasing a Corvair
- Join CORSA and purchase a copy of The Corvair Basics. At times, it's free with membership. The chapters on purchasing, and starting up a car that has sat for a long time, are gems. CORSA has members around the US with state/regional chapters, full of members willing to help.
- Go online to the Corvair Forum and find an enthusiast in your area [they're everywhere]. Have him or her come with you to look at the car (the cars are so seductive that it's hard to say no, even to a rust heap!).
- Clarks Corvair also offers very useful advice of purchasing a Corvair. Their catalogues are virtual parts/technical manuals and well worth the cost.
Drum Brake Repairs on the Corvair
The brakes on a Corvair differ from contemporary disc brake setups; they're the older drum brakes, common on American and some British cars of this era.
Drum brakes can be repaired or rebuilt by anyone with patience and a few basic tools. Click here to read of my repairs on my Monza's brakes.
"The Land Rover is not a vehicle, it's a way of life."