By on April 14, 2007

On a sunny February morning I left my family behind, hitchhiking west out of Baltimore. By Ohio I was barreling through a night-time blizzard in the cab of a semi. I reached Iowa the following morning. It was ten degrees; I needed to stop and warm up. California would have to wait.

Iowa City offered refuge and comfort to a homeless and penniless kid. From this Midwest base, I hitchhiked all over the country. Back then, thumbing was a joyously unpredictable adventure: an endless chain of new rides, drivers and experiences. I never knew where I would end up– in someone’s warm bed or shivering in a damp sleeping bag.

In 1972, my older brother decided to pursue his ambitions abroad. Out of the blue, he bequeathed me his white ’63 Corvair Monza four door. I was thrilled with the donation– and the fact that the Chevy didn’t have a Powerglide transmission.

The black interior was like new; complete with high-quality vinyl and genuine metal bright-work. (GM’s molded Rubbermaid interiors were still some years away.) It’s only flaws: the ubiquitous rust pin-holes on the headlight “eyebrows” and an ominous knocking sounding coming from the engine. Perhaps that’s why he gave it to me.

Seeing the can of ultra-cheap non-detergent oil in the trunk (my brother is thrifty), I treated the air-cooled six to some quality vital fluids. It purred its appreciation for good oil from then on. It was a sweet ride.

A celebratory road trip was definitely in order. I decided to take the car on a 2500 mile back-roads scenic loop to the Appalachian Mountains. The highlight was Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway, a virtually deserted (at the time) 600 mile driving nirvana. I followed the last fall colors south into the Smoky Mountains, where I lost a staring contest with a bear intent on my dinner.

The Monza was in its element on the endless winding roads. Oversteer was my newfound friend (Ralph Nader just didn’t know how to drive). I felt safe at any speed the ‘Vair could muster. It wasn’t exactly the poor-man’s Porsche some made it out to be. The steering was indirect, the shifter throws were too long, and the power modest. But then I didn’t have a Fitch-prepped Turbo Spyder.

The Corvair’s exaggerated rear-weight bias was a cornucopia of winter amusement. Every blizzard was my cue to cut fresh tracks on deserted streets and indulge in oversteer hi-jinks. Eventually, my endless quest to test the traction limits of the Corvair progressed to the ultimate rear-engine winter thrill/stupidity.

Driving around unplowed park roads by the reservoir, I came across a boat ramp. I shot down the hill to it, hit the ice at about 50, and flicked the steering wheel while giving the emergency brake a good yank. The Monza pirouetted across the reservoir in a crack-the-whip blur. It was just like the Tilt-A-Whirl at the carnival; we strained to keep our heads upright.

One day while diligently practicing for the prospective new Winter Olympic sport of Corvair-curling, I saw a distant figure on the far shore beckoning me to him. Brain scrambled from all the spinning, I drove to him. This easily-avoidable encounter resulted in a death-invoking lecture and my first-ever ticket. I decided never to be more obliging to the law than necessary.

My next Corvair misadventure was straight out of a silent movie. The starter was out– I procrastinated fixing it in the cold– so I parked on hills. Coming home late from a bar, the Monza stalled right on the main-line tracks of a deeply-rutted railroad crossing. All my heaving and swearing wouldn’t free it.

Seeing the control light change, I switched to plan B. I retrieved a screwdriver from the trunk, removed the plates and hid nearby. A distant train whistle triggered a surge of adrenaline. Without thinking, I jumped from the bushes and gave the car one final push. She left the tracks and started downhill. I just managed to dive in before it rolled away.

I had to drop the engine out of it twice to fix a noise from the flywheel– alone, in a barn, with one scissors jack, some blocks of wood and a John Mayall album playing over and over. It dampened my enthusiasm for the little Chevy and Mr. Mayall.

Like most first cars, thinking of the Corvair brings back a flood of memories– good and bad. Driving to the quarry on summer days to go skinny-dipping with girlfriends.  Walking five miles down a frozen moon-lit country road at one in the morning, lugging its heavy flywheel.  Watching the sun sparkle on the freshly waxed hood. Reluctantly saying goodbye to it.

And most of all, knowing then that I should have found a barn to save it for my middle age.

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17 Comments on “Auto-Biography 12: Training Wheels...”

  • avatar

    Another great story! My first car was a ’64 Corvair Monza 2 dr coupe given to me by my grandparents. They had used the car for many years as their “station car” (commute from home to the train station), and it came complete with rusty floors and a robin’s egg blue Rust-O-Leum paint job (which they painted on with a brush!)

    I had the Powerglide model. There was no Park gear and the parking brake was more for amusement value only. I used to carry a half cement block to prop the car on hills when parking.

    It was probably the most fun hoonmobile a teenager in the ’70s could have had. Sometimes I wish I still owned it too!

  • avatar

    Thanks, Paul – my first car was a ’63 Renault Caravelle which came with a mind-numbing 51 hp from its 956 cc rear-mounted four cylinder. And, like you I learned to drive in a car with heavy rear weight bias and swing axles, snow pirouettes and all. While I occasionally feel that my young and ignorant life was saved by the lack of horsepower (0-60 in a breathtaking 17 seconds!), I also feel that learning to drive a car which demanded some degree of concentration was an altogether great experience. A good friend in college had a ’64 Corvair which he had mildly hotted up with suspension and engine mods, and it was a really fun car to drive, and surprisingly fast for the late ’60’s ‘sporty car’.

    While I’m sure that there are kids today learning to hoon a variety of aging FWD Hondas, Hyundais and Toyotas, I doubt they’re having any more fun than these rear-engined “killers.” I find it ironic that many of the FWD econoboxes of today would easily spank full-fledged sports cars of the 60’s and do so in far greater safety.

    Great piece.

  • avatar

    I greatly admire Mr. Niedermeyer’s style- it evokes the smell of toasty clutches and pubescent girls.

  • avatar

    I never heard of Mr. Mayall.

  • avatar

    Having a corvair as a 1st car is pretty cool. You were lucky in two ways. 1st by having the corvair and 2nd by having hitchiked in benevolent 70s instead of today.

  • avatar

    My first driver was a ’62 Corvair, one of the literally dozens of $400 cars my dad went through in the ’60s. Got my driving license on a Saturday morning, spun the Corvair out for the first time Saturday afternoon. Oh, first rule, don’t take your foot off the gas in the middle of a corner (the same concept applies to motorcycling actually). I still hate Nader to this day for destroying that car, especially since the Bug a had later was a phenomenally more evil handling machine. Also began my wondering about what the hell kind of management GM had…
    While the ’62 did have some handling issues, the ’65 140bhp model was the best small car ever built by GM. My goodness, that was a nice car, but my buddy traded his in for a 427 ’66 Vette. Back in the day when a 22 year old middle class kid could actually afford to drive something like that.

  • avatar

    In keeping with my life long passion of anything Pontiac My first real,legal on the road car a 1962 Canadian Pontiac[US full size Pontiac with a chevy drive train] 2dr pillar 6 cyl 3 on the tree standard steering and brakes.She had an inline 261 cu. in. chevy six.On a good day she would do 95 mph with 3 buddies riding on shaky 14 inch nylon tires.Ah the carelessnes of youth.
    Tooling along in my home town late August 1972 with an interview at GM the next day.Life couldn,t get any better.
    As fate would have it, Police officer decides my beloved Poncho needs to go for a safety check.
    So I report to the “safety lane”Well lets see bald snow tire on the front thats no good.Inch of play in the ball joints?I guess they didn’t like that either.Instead of house brick I had a chunk of maple [we are Canadian don’t you know]
    The minstry of transport didn’t consider the chunk of maple as a legitimate park brake.
    After they discovered the 6 pack sized holes in the floor [guess how I knew a six pack would fit through the hole]the minstry guy took a pair of metal cutters to my licence plates.
    Well I borrowed some tools and removed my 8 track stereo,and speakers and walked home.I heard the minstry guy saying, somebody better tow this pos out of here.

    I never looked back that was the last I saw or heard of my first car

  • avatar

    My first new car was a ’61 Corvair basic coupe — the twin-carb engine with 98 (?) hp and a 4-speed manual. No buckets. Special order, since no one was expected to want the cheapest body style with more than the basic engine and 3-speed manual or PowerSlide auto. It was my introduction to cheap-car hell with a dealer that wasn’t inclined to be helpful for so few dollars. As delivered, the dealer prep had polished off the Cosmoline (shipping coating) on the front deck all the way through the metallic blue paint right down to bare metal. They were insensed that I would demand a repaint to fix their ham-handed cleanup. They installed my after-market radio under the dash OK, but fed the antenna wire from a front fender down through the cowl vent and into the cockipt sans caulking. A Chicago thunderstorm, encountered on the way home from the initial delivery, came into the floor pans unimpeeded. Also noticed on that first trip after delivery was that the front passenger’s seatback fell off its hinge. No retaining washer. Not even in the parts catalog. They couldn’t get a replacement without replacing the whole seat assembly (yeah, right). I had to drill the metal stub and insert a bent nail to keep the seatback from falling off every time it was moved.
    Oversteer was certainly a feature, as was amazing traction in snow. With knobby tires in back it was unstoppable in any snow that wouldn’t turn the underbody into a toboggan.
    Soon added were two indispensable suspension mods – front sway bar and a “camber compensator” transverse leaf spring in the back. The handling became much more neutral and tossable — those parts were to become standard on the 1964 model, just before the full 1965 changeover to Stingray-type independent rear axles. The only remaining bothers were brakes that were terrifyingly inadequate at highway speeds (how did Ralph nader miss that one?) and an athsmatic-sounding heating system that was best suited to milder climes. Still, a fun ride for a college kid.

  • avatar

    Had a ’60 Corvair with a 3-speed. This was the first year for the model, and it had a gas heater (driver incinerator?)in the trunk just in front of the glove box. Turn it on and you were treated to an explosive “poof” and the smell of burning fuel. The engine had a single carb–the next year Chevy switched to twin carbs. As I recall, the entire engine and transaxle were held in place by three mounts. One day I hit a big pot hole at about 50 mph, the single rear motor mount snapped, and the entire back end of the engine/transaxle fell to the ground. After skidding to a stop, I bought a long bolt at the local hardware store, jacked the whole she-bang back in place, and gingerly drove it home. Try that with a new Porsche!

  • avatar

    Ever see this?

    A 1959 GM promotional film showing the Corvair doing all sorts of wacky stuff.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    jdizzle: Yes, I ran across this gem a couple of months ago. Loved it. Reminded me of some of my antics with it.

    I think the springs on my Corvair were probably sagging a little by the time I got it, because some of the off-roading looked like even something I wouldn’t have tried, in fear of high-centering, or putting a hole in the gas tank (which I did in another way).

    Thank you all for your Corvair stories – loved them. It was a refreshingly different US car; the auto world would have been a lot duller without it.


  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    An applicance repair shop where my dad worked, when I was about 12, had several Chevrolet Corvair Rampside pickups; that always seemed like a such a good idea, seems someone would bring it back.

    Just like the name implies, a ramp could be dropped down from the passenger side. It was great for loading and unloading washers, dryers or even refrigerators.

    Then, a couple years after that, a high school friend’s sister traded in her Corvair for a then-new ’64-and-a-half (actually a ’65, but not in Ford’s advertising or legend) Ford Mustang. She liked the Corvair, but tired of having to travel with spare engine belts, to replace the ones that seemed to routinely come off that right-hand bend made from the crankshaft pulley to another on the top of the engine (for what purpose, can’t recall).

    Her Mustang was the first car I myself ever drove, around the back roads of Gig Harbor, Washington, with my friend’s mother in the passenger seat – wonder where that car is now.

    There are still those who blame Ralph Nader for killing the Corvair. But the Ford Mustang and a plethora of immitators might have really done that job, more than all Mr. Nader’s lawsuits and hearings.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Paul, as you know your fellow Eugenian Frau K, let me tell you about her former husband.

    He was an immensely kind man from Poland, an architect by education, who flew for the RAF during the war, and liked no car better than the Corvair. I remember him telling me how its controls were sweet, its handling was smooth, and how Nadar was a demagogue.

  • avatar

    In ’83, I met Nadar, don’t quite remember the circumstances, but I thnk he had spoken, or something. At the time, I was not at all a car nut, and thought pretty highly of Nadar (and actually still do, or did, until the 2000 election). I said to him, as a joke, that I ‘d never forgiven him for what he did to the Corvair. He looked at me rather crestfallen.

    That’s my only Corvair story.

    AS far as spinning cars around on ice and snow, when I was 14 and we’d gone to the ski lodge, my father let me drive the Peugeot 404 around an empty parking lot at some point, and I got some thrills. Two years later, out on an early solo cruise in the same car, I made a turn where I didn’t see the ice on the road, and did a 360.

    It’s great hearing all thse Corvair stories.

  • avatar

    I love these articles, your passion for automobiles and life in general is very entertaining and inspiring to read.

  • avatar

    so…… what Mayall album was it????

  • avatar

    Brought back memories. I’m 18 and buy a maroon 1963 Corvair in 1976. The car has been obviously garaged its whole life. Had 36,000 miles. Bought it for all of $500. Still had the owners manual in the glove box. Never drove a 4-speed stick before I picked it up. Learned on my way home.

    I took a road trip with a buddy, similar to what you’re talking about, not long after I bought the thing.

    I bought it just in time to start college. Drove it there and, two months later, learned Nader’s lesson, when I took a curve too sharply and rolled it down a 70-foot embankment. Nobody hurt, fortunately.

    The thing had its warts, namely leaky seals and a nasty predilection for the occasional gasping for power. When it was in its mood, 55 mph was a wish, rarely a reality.

    Nice memories with that car. But, it’s best left in the past.

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