The Corvair Restoration Project

 

When I was 17 years old, I bought my first car. It was a then 4 year old 1965 Corvair Corsa, the high performance model of Chevrolet's controversial compact. I paid $930.00 for it, and to this day, I think it was the best dollar value purchase I've ever made. Like most teenage boys, my first car became the focus of all my attentions (even more than girls). A lot of teenaged boys endlessly tinker with their cars, but for me, this was an obsession! All my spare time, money, and energy went into pampering my Corvair. Here's how it looked like back in the spring of 1970, a few months after I bought it. And this is after a paint job to metallic Root Beer brown in the summer of 1971.

But after just 6 years of loyal transportation, the ol' Vair had lost her sheen. It was starting to have mechanical problems that I didn't have the means to address, so like a fool, I let a slick talker convince me that I should trade it to him for his 1965 Impala coupe (that in comparison to my Corsa, was only slightly less massive than the HMS Titanic). Eight years later, I was able to coax him to sell it back to me, but it just wasn't the same ... I once again let my beloved old car slip through my fingers to somebody who just didn't appreciate the charms of the Corvair like I once had. And ever since then, I've wanted to own another Corsa someday. Someday.

 

Flash forward to 1997. I'm driving down Tacoma Street in Sellwood Oregon, when I spied a dirty, rather tattered looking Corvair on the side of the road with a "For Sale" sign in the window. I drove around the block for a closer look. What's this, a 1966 Corvair? And it's a Corsa too? Upon closer inspection, I was startled to see one fat chrome plated exhaust pipe coming out the right side of the car instead of the more common duals, which meant one thing to anyone who knows Corvairs; this little baby was turbocharged! Chevrolet only produced 1,951 Corsas that year with the turbo option; 1,200 coupes, and 751 convertibles... less than 1.9% of all Corvair production. The turbocharged motor produced 180 horsepower; a full 40 more than the base Corsa, and 1966 was the last year it was offered. As a matter of fact, that was the last year for the Corsa model as well. And just 3 years later, the Corvair name itself would be forever laid to rest due to two harsh realities: Ralph Nader's book played a small part, but mostly because the Corvair just couldn't compete with the real darling of the times, Ford's new Mustang.

A few days later (after some quibbling with the owner over what a 31 year old rust bucket is really worth), I drove the little blue Corsa home. The steering was vague to say the least, the shocks were virtually non-existent, rust was bubbling up under the windshield header, it leaked like a sieve, the foam rubber in the driver's seat was so shot that I was essentially sitting on the floor, and it was a pain in the ass to get it to even start. But it was such a blast to drive! Just like way back when...

My plans were to fix it up someday. Someday... Yeah, right.

So, it sat patiently in my carport waiting for me to show it a little attention. All the neighborhood cats apparently thought that I had parked it there to provide them with a target to practice their urination skills. I completely ignored the poor beast until one day I met a guy named Bob who drove to work everyday in a beautifully restored red and white Corvair Rampside pickup. After getting to know him a little, I found that Bob knew quite a lot about Corvairs. He had 6 at that time; two Rampsides, two convertibles, a coupe (undergoing conversion to a racer), and a Greenbrier van. He has an unwritten agreement with his extremely tolerant wife; 5 Corvairs is a hobby, 6 is a divorce. Like I said, he currently has 6. Hmmmm....

Bob convinced me that I should put a little effort into restoring my Corvair before the elements win the battle of time (Corvairs rust at an alarming rate; only to be surpassed by the Chevy Vega). And he was right too; in just three years of sitting in my carport, two tires went flat, the battery was dead, there was mold of every color growing on the carpets and the upholstery, the fuel pump leaked gas, and the brakes no longer worked. Oh yeah... and it wouldn't start either. All this from just being parked under a tarp! Bob & his wife were gracious enough to offer me the use their garage, tools, and considerable expertise to restore my Corsa to its former glory. After balking for a while at undertaking such an apparently monumental task, I finally accepted their offer.

So, on July 5, 2001, I had the Corsa towed the 15 miles over to Bob's house. Every Sunday throughout the summer of 2001, I drove over to his place and we would tinker on Corvairs from the early morning, till late afternoon. It got to the point where I was so looking forward to my Sunday sessions at the "Corvair Academy", that I would look forward to it all week. Bob taught me more than a few restoration tricks, some little known Corvair lore, and we'd just generally have fun. Yes, rebuilding a rusty old car can be a lot of fun, but it can also be expensive! Many of the parts I needed I bought from a mail order Corvair parts manufacturer in Massachusetts called Clark's. Still more, Bob donated to the cause out of his almost unbelievable stash of museum quality parts he has warehoused in his shop. But some parts are just flat out next to impossible to find (Bob: "Made from pure Unobtainium"). That's where E-Bay comes into the picture. You can find virtually anything for almost any old car on E-Bay. I bought a set of wire wheels, aluminum trim, badges, brake parts, bumpers, you name it. If you type in "Hudson Hornet radiator cap," on E-Bay, I guarantee that some schmuck in South Turkeypluck will have one listed. It's staggering what people are trying to get rid of out there.

The original owner of this particular car had ordered some rather unusual packages when he checked off the order sheet back in the winter of 1965. Besides shelling out the extra bucks for the turbo option (Regular Production Option L87), he also ordered the "Convenience Group" (Z19). This was a package that included a remote control outside rearview mirror (rare back then), and the lighting group. This included luggage compartment, glove compartment and engine compartment illumination. A tiny light mounted on the underside of the deck lid turns on and off automatically by means of a mercury switch when you open the engine compartment. Since mercury is no longer environmentally correct, this is a hard to find item item these days. Rarest of all, is the heavy duty suspension (item F41 on Chevrolet's option checklist) with quick ratio steering (N44). Together, these two items were packaged as option number Z17. Of all the Corvairs that left the factory during the 1966 model year, less than 1.2% were equiped with this performance option! The quick ratio steering box is considered the Holy Grail of the Corvair restoration community, and it makes a tremendous difference over the standard steering. Lock to lock steering is reduced from 5-1/2 turns to 3-2/3. The HD suspension make the car sit lower than normal, which means I have to be sure I don't bottom out on bumpy surfaces, lest I puncture the oil pan. This car also has a telescopic steering column (N36) with the original wood grained steering wheel (N34), but they're not installed at this time. In it's place, I've installed an aftermarket racing style steering wheel that I like the look and feel of (Oooohh ... black & blue leather!) I was fortunate enough to find a complete set of four pair of NOS mettalic brake shoes on E-Bay. They were still in their original boxes after 40 years! These are almost impossible to find now, and are the next best thing to hitting a brick wall for stopping a Corvair ... and considerably easier on the car. I got lucky, and snagged them for a song. I also replaced the standard 13" Corvair wheels with some serious rubber. I bought the fattest tires that I could squeeze into the wheel wells; a set of Yokohama 225/50ZR15's mounted on 15" Tru-Spoke wire wheels. The tires are a bit of an overkill however. That "Z" in the code means that these tires are rated at speeds up to 150 mph ... a bit optimistic for a Corvair. But the improvement in handling is phenominal! Their footprint is about 3" wider than the standard Corvair tire, and they allow this little car to corner like it's on rails.

I also installed a set of Westach gauges where the radio used to be. I decided to sacrifice a sound system since the only music I want to hear in this car is the whine of the turbocharger. If you look closely, those three dials are actually six separate instruments. From left to right, the first dial shows oil pressure and oil temperature, the center has left & right cylinder head temperatures, and the one on the right indicates amps and volts. Slick, huh? Here's a closer look I also installed little "angle tubes" that tilt the faces of the instruments slightly towards the driver. This is a view of the engine compartment . The aluminum panels on the sides aren't factory items, I put them in just to dress things up a little. I also have a chromed engine cover, but I haven't gotten around to installing it yet. Just not a pressing item on my agenda these days.

Anyway, enough of the recent history lesson. Here are a few selected pictures of the process of turning my Corvair from the ugly duckling below to the beauty you'll see at the end of this page. It was quite a project, and I've enjoyed every minute of it. Well, almost every minute ... installing flat carpeting on a curved car floor is a pain!

These were taken shortly after I bought the car. Pretty rough looking. Almost all the factory trim was missing, and what trim it did have was so badly banged up and pitted that it had to be replaced. Just look at the rust on that front bumper. And this was taken on July 5, 2001; the day I had it towed to Bob's to begin restoration.

And I just couldn't resist ordering this personalized license plate... get it? Anyway, below are some shots of how it all turned out. There's always something left to do, but I'm satisfied enough with how it looks now to upload these shots.

The headlights are"Yello Kote" halogens from KustomKarParts.com They emulate the concept of the original Fitch Sprint; a high performance Corvair that was sold back in the '60s.

I've always wondered what would have happened if Chevrolet had expanded the Corvair line in the late sixties instead of letting it die. This is sort of a whimsical idea of what a Corsa wagon might have looked like (I made it with Photoshop using a shot of my car) . Just imagine... a car with the cornering abilities of the Corvair Corsa, but with the cargo capacity of the Nova or Chevelle wagons. A true sports-wagon! It would have cannibalized sales of Chevy's other products, so that's probably why it never happened. But it's so fun to fantasize...

Corvair Page 2... My Rampside.