By on August 27, 2013

1960corvairc

The Earth has been made small by air travel. Despite the barriers thrown up by airport security, it is easy to step aboard a jet aircraft and, just hours later, emerge a full 12 time zones away, quite literally on the other side of the planet. Ground travel is nowhere near as fast or efficient. You can count the few, truly great, distance-spanning routes on one hand and have two fingers left over. They are: The Trans Siberian Railway, traversable by train, the Silk Road, traversable by camel, and the Pan American Highway which is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest “motorable roadway” on Earth.

At almost 30,000 miles in length, the Pan American Highway links two of the Earth’s four corners. It traverses 18 countries as it wends its way from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska on the extreme Northern edge of the North American Continent to the city of Ushuaia on the very tip of South America’s Isla Grand de Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina. In some places, the road is gravel, in others hard cement, and in still others it is a simple dirt path. In one place, it’s even imaginary. Yes I said imaginary, because, you see, the truth is that the Pan American Highway is a fraud. Thanks to 57 mile stretch of swampy, dense jungle that forms the border between Colombia and Panama, an area known as the Darien Gap, the Northern and Southern portions of the Highway are not joined together. That fact, however, mattered little when, in 1961, Chevrolet decided that their recently introduced Corvair would make the trip, road or not.

In 1960, Chevrolet was anxious to prove that its new Corvair which, with its air cooled, rear mounted engine, was a radical departure from the cars the brand traditionally sold to middle America. As the Germans had demonstrated to great effect, air cooling had some real advantages in cold climates so Chevrolet, in order to make a promotional film, sent three Corvairs to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in the Arctic Circle, and set them on the southward course to the southern end of the Northern half of the Pan American Highway. The cars performed well and they, along with their team of support vehicles, reached the Northern end of the Darien Gap in Panama without trouble. At the end of the trip, they turned around and came home.

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The next year, Chevrolet decided that the remainder of the trip would make another excellent promotional film so they sent the same three cars, from where they were being kept at a dealership in Chicago, back to Panama. The cars were filmed zooming around Panama City prior to beginning the passage and then, with the initial scenes of the movie completed, they headed south on a gravel road to the muddy banks of the Yaviza river. After being floated across on wooden boats, the cars and their drivers pushed their way through the underbrush at the water’s edge and off into history.

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Day by day, inch by inch, the adventurers cut their way through the thick growth on the floor of the great rainforest with machetes, driving the cars through the gaps wherever possible or pulling them through with ropes, muscle and the winches of their support trucks when they could not move forward on their own. In the twilight beneath the high jungle canopy, obstacles loomed up and were overcome with American know-how. When the cars broke down, the men repaired them. When a river or gully threatened to stop them cold, the men felled trees and used the logs to make rickety bridges, a reported 180 in all, to allow the cars to cross. It took months, but eventually the men and two of the Corvairs emerged from the southern edge of the gap. With the worst firmly behind them, the remaining cars began the long run to Argentina where they were eventually filmed zooming triumphantly about Buenos Aires. The trip completed, the men packed up their cameras and film and left the cars there. What became of them, no one knows.

While the two cars that finished the trip have vanished into history, the other Corvair remains to this day in the jungle of the Darien Gap. It is, they say, near a place called the Palo de Letras, the “tree of letters,” an immense, ancient mahogany upon which the few travelers who have managed to reach it have, over the years, carved their initials to memorialize their passage. The car sits there, alone amid the trees in perpetual twilight, its red paint mottled by fungus and its body hidden beneath the voracious jungle vines that overrun everything in their quest to for light and life, an odd remnant of modern man where we would expect only the sights and sounds of nature. Is it a tribute to man’s desire to conquer nature and to link the far corners of the Earth or just a stupid stunt? You decide.

Special thanks to The City Paper, Bogota. Check out their wonderfully written article, here.

timthumb

Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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69 Comments on “Into the Gap: Three Cars Enter, Two Cars Leave...”


  • avatar
    morbo

    That Corvair has held up better than my 2003 Bonneville ever did.

  • avatar
    Rick T.

    Thanks! Had not heard this automotive version of Fitzcarraldo before.

  • avatar
    55_wrench

    I can personally attest to the ability of those cars to get deep into places other cars couldn’t.

    A lesser version of the above tale went like this.

    My older brother had a ’61 4-door, 84HP 3-speed. One fine day we decided to go dirt donking above Page Mill Road. Off Page Mill, There was a plateau populated by Jeeps of various sorts, but beyond that was a trail that beckoned into the weeds. The track got narrower, grass got taller, the crown rose higher until we decided it was time to retreat.
    So he attempted a 3-point (really 8-10 points) turn to come back the way we came, and the rear weight bias kicked in, and the right rear of the car headed down a small ravine leaving the left front tire about 6″ in the air.
    Not wanting to risk losing the car, and since it didn’t have Positraction, we decided to call a tow truck.

    Truck #1 made it to the plateau after a couple of tries, whereupon he called truck #2 for backup. The rest of the time was spent with them helping each other out of little jams on the way up to where our car was.
    Some hippie in a panel truck offered us some tea (no, really it was just that)while we waited..
    8 hours later the car was back on level ground. From a spot we just drove into.

    IIRC the bill was north of 600 bucks, 12X the purchase price of the car.

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    To merely call your story ideas inventive shows my paucity of vocabulary.

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    If you ask me, Ralph Nader did more harm than good by his book, “Unsafe at any speed”. Cars were already improving even without his help, but by making it a political statement, he forced added cost on everybody. We will never know how many lives he “saved” through his actions, but the cost of those lives means we all pay as much for a car today as we paid for a home back then. Home prices have only gone up about 4x from their 1960′s levels; Car prices have gone up 10x and more.

    • 0 avatar
      rpol35

      Ralph Nader is unsafe at any speed (and Al Gore might tell you unsafe at political elections).

      Anyway, he ought to put this article in his pipe and smoke it!

    • 0 avatar
      NMGOM

      Vulpine – -

      I fully agree. Had a ’64 Corvair, dark red, 4-door, for a while. Best car I ever had. Sold it to a fellow student, when I needed cash for school.

      Ralph Nader essentially derailed the American car industry. The rear-engine design just needed refinement, not demise. And air-cooling could have morphed into water-cooling easily enough.
      To this day, no American manufacturer makes a rear-engined passenger car, despite all that Porsche has taught us about how to do it properly. Now we have characterless FWD econoboxes to deal with!

      Go to any Sunday afternoon car show around this great land, and you will almost invariably see a little contingent of Corvairs on display, usually shepherded by bearded old me (like me), who have great affection for their little charges, and fond thoughts over what could have been…

      Mr Nader (rather, Nadir!), I hope you are satisfied….

      ———-

    • 0 avatar
      Sam P

      ” Home prices have only gone up about 4x from their 1960′s levels”

      Starter homes in Seattle go for $350-400k today and were even higher during the late 2000′s housing bubble. Are you really saying that those same homes were priced at 75-100k in 1961??

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        In most cases, yes, I am. My own parents bought a house brand new in 1964 that priced about $45K. That house today is valued at about $200K+/-.

        • 0 avatar

          Seattle is something of a special case. In the early 1960s, when my folks got there, it was just a smallish city on the American frontier, something like what we would expect to find in Alaska today.

          The economy really exploded in the mid 60s when Boeing hit its stride and started producing commercial jet airliners there. Then it imploded when Boeing had trouble a few years later and everyone split town. Then it clawed its way back and has continued to do well economically (more or less) ever since.

          Housing prices there went crazy in the 1990s and early 2000s before the bubble burst. My house lost about a third of its value in 2008/09. It is still worth less than what I paid for it, but it seems like the price has stabilized for now and may even be headed up again. I plan on hanging onto it, so I’m not especailly worried about it right now.

        • 0 avatar

          my parents bought the house they live in now, in 1970, it was $20,000 for a 1400 square foot, 3 bedroom house in a Dallas suburb. Now it’s worth $160,000. At the time it was an 8 year old house.

        • 0 avatar
          Sam P

          http://www.jparsons.net/housingbubble/

          Average US nominal house price was $25k in 1970. It’s about 175k today.

          That’s a 7x increase in housing prices from 10 years *after* the Corvair was introduced.

          • 0 avatar
            -Nate

            Sam P wrote : ” http://www.jparsons.net/housingbubble/

            Average US nominal house price was $25k in 1970. It’s about 175k today.

            That’s a 7x increase in housing prices from 10 years *after* the Corvair was introduced.”

            There you go again , using facts ~ the trolls and haters really get annoyed when you do this .

            -Nate

          • 0 avatar
            afflo

            From 1967 to 2010, the average nominal price of a car went up about 7.2 fold, from 3216 to 23186.

            http://www1.eere.energy.gov/vehiclesandfuels/facts/2010_fotw638.html

            I’m not sure how relative that is… After all, that’s the average price of a house, not the average price per square foot, and these days you hear families of four complaining that they’re busting out of the walls in a 1700 square foot house!

            That nominal increase is buying a lot more house… and a lot more car as well.

          • 0 avatar
            JimothyLite

            My parents’ SoCal house. Purchased $27,000 in 1964, sold $969,000 in 2006. 35x increase. Rickety old house, but on a big lot in a nice area. You could practically hear the air hissing out of the housing bubble as the moving van headed out of town.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        Real estate is really FAR too local to be used for this sort of comparison.

        You can talk about an “average” of this country, but it doesn’t really mean much. My folks built their house in ’77 for ~$28K (mortgage was 16.5%!!!). It is worth well north of $500K today, even post-bubble. But that reflects more the demand of people to live in that town (VERY wealthy suburb of Portland, ME – think Maine’s version of Greenwich CT) and the scarcity of buildable lots than the increased cost of building houses. You can just about buy a building lot in that town for $200K today. On the other hand, you can buy a starter castle in a Dallas a Atlanta suburb for $200K. Though probably not in the Dallas or Atlanta suburb that is the equivalent of my hometown. My folks house in the Portland, ME suburb (kinda gritty old blue-collar mill town) that I live in 15 miles away would be worth only 1/2 as much. As the old saying goes, all that matters in real estate is location.

        Cars cost roughly the same no matter where you are, completely different thing.

    • 0 avatar
      tech98

      I don’t know where you live, but in Southern California house prices have gone up about 30x since the early 60s, proportionally far greater than car prices.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Seems unlikely. Adjusted for simple inflation, cars are cheaper than they generally ever have been.

      Adjusted for content, they are unbelievably cheaper. The cheapest car you can buy today in America is better equipped, more reliable, infinitely safer, and given average care will last longer than the finest car available in the 60s. The average 60s car was transportation and nothing more. An engine, a rust-prone body, drum brakes, manual everything including brakes and steering in many cases, an AM radio, maybe, minimal safety features, and it polluted more sitting in a garage shut off than a modern car does running. A Cadillac might have had power brakes, steering, windows, locks and A/C, but it still rusted out in 5-6 years and needed more maintenance in the first 15000 miles than a modern car will need in 150K miles. Back then it was a miracle if a car made it to 100K miles, now that is considered just about broken in. The golden age is NOW.

    • 0 avatar
      kkt

      No, the American auto industry was making safer cars at a glacial pace, if at all. Left entirely up to the American auto industry, we might be getting seat belts as standard equipment by now.

      It’s really special to put responsibility for all the inflation of the last 50 years on Nader’s head. Maybe where you live housing prices have only gone up by 4x since the 1960s. Places where I’m aware of, it’s more like 20x.

      Cars are more expensive to buy new, but they also last longer, require less maintenance, and get better gas mileage. Total cost of ownership is probably lower, after allowing for inflation. Even aside from lower medical costs as a result of the safety improvements.

  • avatar
    Hummer

    What a coincidence, I was just looking up the possibility of driving from NA to SA, and found the Darien Gap to be the break..

    I read that trying to go through the Darien Gap today was a sure way to get kidnapped and held for ransom, but that a ferry exists to go around it.

    I forget why I was so interested in it…

  • avatar
    otter

    Thanks – nice article. One little thing, though – it’s “Colombia,” not “Columbia.”

  • avatar
    mars3941

    Pretty impressive car that got a bum rap. Then Chevrolet comes out in 1971 with the Vega, a car that was much more deserving of a bum rap by far.

  • avatar
    afflo

    Funny… Until this post, I never knew why I-35 in San Antonio is the Pan-Am(erica) Freeway. I always assumed there was some connection to Pan-Am airlines.

    I learn something new every day on here.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Was the trip worth it, or merely a stunt?

    A better question to ask: Was making a six-month covered wagon trip to California in 1849 worth it? I’m sure you’ll get different answers depending on whom you talk to. Was the space program and going to the moon worth it? Well, it made “Tang” famous and mom bought it!

    It really doesn’t matter if it was a stunt or not – a road is a place to drive on, and when one is completed, SOMEONE has to try it out! Has anyone ever driven coast-to-coast on the interstates without stopping?

    I say it was a remarkable feat, stunt or not, and I wish I had the moxie to do something like that!

    A really cool article, nonetheless! Thank you.

  • avatar
    Cubista

    My mom had a 1965 Corvair Corsa convertible…4×1 Webers and the 140hp engine, 4-speed manual shifting from the floor. It served her well. If I was a better son growing up than I’ve become since reaching adulthood, it would still be in our family today. To this DAY she curses every breath that keeps Ralph Nader alive.

    Great story…I feel good everytime I see one of these on the road, and feel better when I read just how capable they really were.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    Somewhere, there’s a document at GM which would detail the fate of those two cars. Had to be! Bet they were sold to local dignitary-type people. We should have Mark Reuss investigate.

    • 0 avatar
      otter

      My guess is that they were given to the local (BA) Chevrolet dealer and either sold to whomever for cheap (what with the condition they arrived in!) or just left to sit somewhere and eventually got moved around and lost.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    I loved and miss greatly , my old 1961 Corvair 700 Coupe ~ a basic mode of travel to be sure but it was very well built , no rattles . squeaks etc. in 2000 when I paid .15 CENTS the pound for it from the original owner and ran it hard for a year or so .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    djoelt1

    I rode through the Darien Gap on a bicycle in 1992 and saw the missing car a few hundred yards from the border stone, Palos De Las Letras. This was pre-internet, so it was quite a head scratcher for me and my cycling buddy as to how this vehicle got there.

    It took us about a week of cycling, hiking, fording rivers, and hitching rides in piraguas to get across from Yaviza to the River Attrato in Columbia. Maps were rudimentary at best and there is no dead reckoning in the jungle. We had a few written descriptions of the route but generally relied on local knowledge. The longest stretch between “towns” was 3 days. On the morning of the third day, thinking we were hopelessly lost, we abandoned our bikes and equipment and struck out for Columbia. We found a ranger station an hour later, then went back to retrieve our equipment.

    The rest of the trip, from San Francisco to Ecuador, was uneventful in comparison.

  • avatar
    mfgreen40

    Some of us still have these cars. My Corsa came with 4 OEM Rochester carbs. I had them apart many a time. They were rich at idle and lean at WOT. Webers would have been nice.

  • avatar
    April

    I hope they cleaned up all the oil they leaked on the ice during their Polar journey.

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    Thomas, I hope that when you are transferred overseas you keep writing for TTAC. Sort of “our man in Romania” or whatever. Probably give some pretty good local flavor.

    I was stationed in Panama in the early seventies. Heard there about some VW vans attacking the Darien. Tried to google it just now but got caught up and distracted (normal for me). One thing I did note though. The Ferry around the Darien appears to cost over $500 for a typical car. Really enjoyed riding my 250 Yamaha in the rain forest while I was there but think I will pass now. Panama seems like a good place to turn around and head north again.

  • avatar
    jimbob457

    They must have done a major part of the Alaskan leg on ice roads in the winter. The Dalton Highway from Deadhorse to Manley Hot Springs did not exist in the 1960′s. Possible, I guess. Somehow, I doubt it.

  • avatar

    This story is simply amazing. I had no idea this adventure had even taken place and thank you for sharing it with us.


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