Auto-Biography 12: Training Wheels
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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