Gallia Est In Tres Partes...
Timeless -- And Not So Timeless -- Beauty
Who says you can't go back?
It's 1964. Summer. My mother has to come with me because she's the responsible adult -- and has the credit if she buys into the concept.
We pull into the Chevy dealer out there on Clark St. Rd.(?) And there it is:
That red (green?) Corvair Monza convert with the white bucket seats.
OK, memory fading here -- as expected. But did I actually take my mother along to pick up Mitch later in the day, and give it a test run? Was she actually there when I ran the light on North Street? ... Can't be... We must have had a 24-hr. pass from the local franchise and I took it out -- without her -- later. (Did they do things like that back then?)
OK, anyway... I'm in this super-wide body (Remember? Corvairs were built like Victorian bath tubs) with luxuriously plush, bucket seats and a big, white shifter knob feeling just about right slicing through the gears.
'Twas the time in youth when mere buckets and a floor shift magnified something visceral in teenage boys. This was also a time when a complete retard could roam around town with his gray-primed, nose-high Dodge and get all manner of chicks to ride with him. (We who had to study Latin were certain that the deck was rigged from On High -- but just for effect. God was giving these guys 'their moment' early. Our reward was coming later.)
And, boy, do we remember those queens -- those 'Early Rewards' -- in the passenger seats! Honeybee do's stacked higher than a convertible could rightly protect them from the bugs they were named after. They reminded me more of Carvel ice-cream cones, swirled to a peak, than hairstyles. Strange, first-generation, Eastern European chicks, who ate various forms of potato dumplings and lived in basements. (But for us factory kids, that was Exotic!) Some -- the ones who were so certain that the fella' who invited them for the ride was 'Mr. Right and Forever' -- even felt secure enough to wear those huge, hairbun-building curlers -- out in broad daylight! Mingya! Looked more like the pipe-laying section of the DPW rather than preparation for the evening prom which is what it really was.*
Anyway, the Corvair just wasn't in the cards that summer. Mom couldn't use a standard shift.
We settled for the Chrysler competitor, the Plymouth Valiant, instead. (Which was cool enough! Of the three compacts that made their debut in 1960, only the Ford Falcon possessed 0 caché -- for sure, the lamest of the bunch. But, know what? I saw one the other day. And, compared with the crappy, dime-a-dozen styles out there now, I'll take it! Ever see one with that big V-8 stuffed in there? hot, Hot, HOT!!)
And as much as I loved pushing the shifter buttons on the dash of that crazy looking Valiant, the Corvair stuck in my head.
Next to the Studebaker Avanti, I always hold up this venerable innovation as proof that the US could be light-years ahead of the world had it chosen, instead of forever lying in the wake of Japanese engines that last forever and overpriced Euro vamps with their multi-valve dohc's - able to set their low-range cruising speeds right about where this year's NASCAR winner redlines.
And that flat six, air-cooled, Corvair rear-engine was a hooter! As much fun to screw around with, take apart and fire up as the Deuce Coupe was way back when and the VW is now. And, let's face it, the best innovation always seems to come from those kids out in the garage.
But it didn't catch on. Anti 'Whatever-is-Different' always seems to prevail in the Whitebread shallows of Grosse Pointe. Focus-group surveys in search of Mr. Milktoast will always snuff out originality. The Corvair was doomed long before Nader took his first ride. As were the two-door T-Bird, the totally gas-free, Chrysler Ghia Turbine (and, even, natural tomato coloring for your Heinz Ketchup).
Prescience. The rarest of the rare of attributes seems totally lacking among the auto execs. Whereas most of our favorite high-powered cars bit the dust during the 1973 gas crunch, gas was actually too cheap (!) in the late 60's as far as the Corvair's future was concerned. Why fool around with a sports car that was fun and fast -- but saved gas!? What's up with that? was the question on GM's corporate mind. Doesn't gas last forever? Bring on those thumping muscle cars!
Which they did, only to sputter into the long gas lines created by stingy OPEC ministers a few years later. Now I'm a fan of cheap horsepower as much as anyone** but where was that 'Corvair Option' in the 1970's when we needed it?
Prescience: The ability to plan. Need a lot more of it in Detroit.
But, anyway, subsequent research showed that I aimed too low. The Monza was not the top of the Corvair line.
Just as the BMW 2002 Turbo lingers in the deeper recesses of all 02 owners, reminding them that they are, at least, 30 horsepower short of perfection for their heartthrob, so also do Monza owners know that somewhere out there, there's a Corsa - the Corvair on steroids - ready to humble them.
(And the 02 turbo owner, likewise, must wonder about that Renault 5 Turbo he'd read about somewhere. -- Now there's a skins match made in heaven!)
Came out in '65; gone by '67.
You'll never hear this from Porsche and there's no longer a Corvair Division to brag about it, but it beat Porsche in fitting the first factory turbo to a passenger car by 10 years. You could get it with 140 HP or, rarest of all, the 180 HP thumper . And all of them came with Corvette-style suspension. Add a convertible top, and you were on top of the pile. Add a juicy, cherry red to offset that snow white top and, whoa, babe... You're Hot!
The Joan Baez fan who took a fancy to you in the weird Saab now gets nauseous when she sees you. But you couldn't care less. (You're not even sure that wasn't a drug reaction anyway.) Besides, all those Tuesday-Weld-looking chicks with the 'John-Edwards (remember him?) Breck-hairdos' are beginning to remember you! And now you know Latin!
OK, so the thing had the loosest steering I ever experienced and the turbo lagged until Wednesday. But it was still well inside the edge of the Sports Car/Boulevardier divide, weighing in at around 2750 lb.
(The weight of cars these days is astounding. Especially when you consider that many of these behemoths want to be considered, "sport cars". I went to college at a place where lithe, lean running backs with sidestepping speed -- Gayle Sayers types -- were preferred to brick-shaped powerhouses that plowed straight ahead for extra yardage -- Larry Csonka types. I still cannot accept a car that weighs in over 2 tons. I know, you can get all the luxuries of home if you are willing to go there, and with new engine efficiencies, you can raise the HP output to deal with all that extra metal. but come on...! The latest Bentley is well over 2 and one-half tons! -- and that's their small car! My Lord... Thirty minutes into the trip on one of these leviathans and no amount of Dolby Sound and leather options can keep me awake. Approaching a fast series of esses with the momentum of an oil tanker does not make me happy.)
Aside from The Corsa's light-middleweight stats, its advanced, Italianesque look was, and still is, timeless. Those shapely curves look just about road-perfect, as natural in its own environment as is a sailboat on a pretty lake. (Collector Alert! The original, box-design -- 1960 - 64 -- is now back in demand! And if your heart runs in that direction, try to find the 1963 Turbo Spyder -- for which will get you more $$ in the long run than even my Corsa. And if you ever come across that rare Monza with the four single, Rochester carbs... OK. No more about that. I want that one!)
The 'rarest of the rare' talk aside, there are still many good Corsas out there. And the price won't leave you hedging over school supplies for the kids. In fact, they're cheap. And with a fun and head-turning quotient of 8 out of 10, I have no idea why you are still sitting there!
The club support is astounding. (One of the pleasures of my eclectic collection has been to compare the different 'types' who show interest in my cars. Someday I will have to do a profile article of Alfaman, Beemerman, SmallBlock Chevy Man, etcetera.) The Corvair Club has to be the folksiest bunch out there. You will never want for parts and/or technical advice.
And there's something uncanny about driving through town with a 40 yr. old car that looks exactly right for whatever year your calendar watch says it is. But you will not win against the Mustangs or the Camaros in the local car shows. To the judges, you are still a 3rd political party, a Nader dropout. (But what do they know anyway.)
Arnold Toynbee said that at the end of time there will only be two groups left, the French Canadians and the Chinese. I would bet anything that the really cool ones will be driving Corvairs.
Hey, Mitchell... Shemanski... You out there? Yeah, you! ...The one who married Rita... Was my mother really in that car when I ran the light?
*I checked in on those guys with the raked cars and the skirted wheels some years later. Some Early Reward! 90% of those guys were driving Chevettes or Vegas and living upstairs from the Queen Bee's mother! Curlers in midday became curlers ALL day... And who knew then what we know now about potato diets and multiple childbearing! Va-BOOM! - if you catch my drift... 'Tuesday Weld' is now 'Late Sunday Afternoon'! OK, OK... I could maybe countenance the natural aging process... But what about that mustache!? Amo, Amas, Amat - Thank God for Latin!
**Anyone ever hear about the Yenko Stinger? Look it up. A backyard, Corvair project on the verge of ending Corvette's reign as America's premier sports car. As you can guess, GM was not too happy about that! Not at that price!
"Classics: The ones they slow down for to get a better look. If you're in one, you'll know it.
If you're not: Too bad!!"
Next Time: Scaling Olympus
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