Kenneth Burns: Chevy Corvair risky, but it’s still a treasure

May. 08, 2013 @ 11:43 AM

We all remember our first love.

Mine was a Chevy Corvair.

Like many first cars, it was a hand-me-down. My brother drove it first. I forget how he ended up with it.

Then I turned 16. The year was 1987. The Corvair came to me.

It was a 1964 coupe. Bright red. I was proud of my beautiful Corvair.

Chevrolet introduced the Corvair in 1960. In those days, it was considered a small car, like the Ford Mustang.

The Corvair’s innovative design featured a rear-mounted, air-cooled engine. Motor Trend named it 1960’s Car of the Year.

That was a long time ago.

Fairly or not, people now associate the Corvair with the quality issues that came to plague American car manufacturing a few decades ago.

In a 1965 book, consumer advocate Ralph Nader declared the Corvair unsafe at any speed. Sales plummeted. Production ended after the 1969 model year.

The Corvair hit a low point in the 1970s, here in the Volunteer State. There was a funny anti-littering television ad called “Tennessee Trash.” In it, an aggressively unpleasant man threw garbage out of his car. His car: a very ragged Corvair.

I knew all that when I got my Corvair. I didn’t care. I was a contrarian then, as I am now, and I loved my car.

Most of the time.

I didn’t love when it broke down. That was more often than I preferred.

It wasn’t very fast. The heater only worked sporadically.

It leaked oil. I never did get that fixed properly. I carried around a lot of oil.

An engine belt broke all the time. I also carried around engine belts.

There was a hole in the floor. Water came in when it rained.

The parking brake broke. The two-speed automatic transmission had no park setting, only neutral, so the parking brake was essential. For a brief time I blocked the wheels when I parked, to keep the car from rolling away.

Still, my little red Corvair was a stylish ride. Heads turned when I drove by. People in other cars gave me the thumbs-up.

I liked driving a piece of history. The 1960s were a glorious period in American car design. Cars from that time especially stood out in the 1980s, when I had my Corvair. The 1980s were a less glorious period in American car design.

Men my father’s age regularly told me that they used to drive Corvairs. I heard that from my friends’ dads. I heard it from guys who yelled it from the sidewalk.

The Corvair’s rear-mounted engine sat over the drivetrain. That made it an excellent snow car, which was fortunate, because my family lived on a hill. We didn’t get much snow when I was a kid in Nashville, but when we did, the Corvair always made it up the hill.

After too many breakdowns, however, Dad worried about my safety. When I was 17, he replaced the Corvair with a very practical Honda Civic. It was a good car. It never gave me any trouble.

Before we got rid of the Corvair, I took a lot of pictures of it. I’m glad I did. I miss it.

I still have Corvair experiences. I’m always excited to spot Corvairs in television shows and movies. There’s a handsome one in the “My Three Sons” credits.

In Madison, Wis., where I used to live, my mechanic was a Corvair nut. His shop was decked out with Corvair memorabilia. I felt good about that.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Nader, the Green Party candidate, campaigned in Madison. I considered protesting his appearance on behalf of Corvair fans. I decided to skip it.

Would I own another Corvair? I’m not sure. I’ve had my classic car phase. I know firsthand that old cars are neat, but they can be expensive to maintain, and unreliable.

But they sure are nice to look at. Okay, I’m not ruling out another Corvair.

Kenneth Burns is Community News Editor of The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 212, or send e-mail to kburns@themountainpress.com. Twitter: @KennethBurns.