I’m asked often how I come up with ideas for a car column. Admittedly, my barrel of article ideas is seemingly getting close to empty after writing more than 1,000 of them. But today’s column theme came about a week or so back in the early morning when I was lounging in bed for a spell after waking up and thinking about ... what else ... cars. On my car-active mind that morning was whether Cadillac has been on the right track in naming their cars using alpha-numeric nomenclature (e.g. Cadillac CT4) following the lead of other successful luxury automakers, like the German and Asian brands. What brought up this dialog of thought was a story I had read the night before of the all-new Lincoln arriving at dealers this fall with the name Corsair. Happily, Lincoln is now returning to using names, not letters and numbers (MKC, MKS, etc.) on all its new models.
It was at this point that my brain went into overdrive and I thought back to the first time I had heard of the name Corsair. I hadn’t read any novels as a kid about pirates and/or ships on the Barbary coast called Corsairs, but rather I discovered the word Corsair at my local Edsel dealer in Lapeer when I looked at the all-new Edsels sitting on the dealership floor and out back in the storage lot. One of Edsel’s four series was named the Corsair. It was the Edsel based on the Mercury platform and the baby brother to the top-of-the-line Citation nameplate. I don’t recall wondering what a Corsair was, I just liked the car. The Edsel Corsair had a shelf life of only two years. The Edsel died on the vine in the fall of 1959.
Then the similar name Corvair popped into my head. The little Chevy rear-engined compact came along just when the Edsel Corsair was being dropped. Unlike the Corsair name that I had no idea what it meant, I knew the Chevy crowd had cleverly picked the name Corvair to pay tribute to both its sports car – the CORvette – and the fact that the new little car was AIR-cooled. I also recall that back then all new Chevy models started with the letter “C”. With the Corvair on my mind, then my brain went all gooey and I laid in bed a while longer reminiscing about my first new car – a 1966 second generation Corvair Monza four-door hardtop with a four-speed on the floor. I’m thinking that if we humans always seem to remember our first true love (by the way mine was named Helena from high school days), we also probably keep fond memories of our first new car. And, boy, do I have lots of memories of my wonderful Corvair.
I ordered my Corvair about the same time that auto gadfly Ralph Nader, author of the book “Unsafe at Any Speed” fame, exposed some of the shortcomings of the cars of that era. A whole chapter was devoted to Corvair’s propensity to roll over. Writing about Nader and his book needs another article. Anyway, his book created a problem for me. I ordered my Corvair in the middle of the winter of 1966 in Grand Rapids. The Chevy salesman said that it would take up to 12 weeks for the car to be built and transported. That seemed perfect. That would put arrival time in later April after snow and salt was just a memory. Back then, many readers may recall, new cars would begin showing rust after just a few years. The negative pushback from Nader’s book caused Corvair sales to plummet during this time, so the wait time was shortened dramatically and my beautiful new Madeira Maroon Corvair showed up in within weeks! What to do? My solution was to ask the dealership to store my Corvair indoors until I decided that the days of salt on the highway were over. It only took a week or two of my driving over to Alberda Shook Chevrolet on Plainfield Avenue to peak into a dirty, grimy window of the storage garage to admire my new baby before I caved in March and took delivery – salt or no salt on the road.
I kept my Corvair for 10 years. I ended up selling it for safety reasons. The rust bug consumed the floor pan and back-seat passengers had to be careful where they placed their feet or risk dragging their them on the pavement. I recall that the only other vehicles that I considered other than the Corvair was the compact 1966 front-engined Chevy G10 Sport Van (still love the looks of those vans) and Plymouth Belvedere 4-door sedan. My $2,600 Corvair had only a few options (110 hp engine, whitewalls, radio and wood steering wheel) but they made the little Monza into a just-right ride for me.
My Corvair was a delight – to look at and to drive. No power steering was offered, but it wasn’t needed as the weight bias in the rear made it unnecessary. Speaking of rear bias, it was this distinctive feature of the Corvair that allowed me to get around in snowy weather almost as well as today’s all-wheel drive crossovers. During the famous blizzard of 1967 that overwhelmed the Midwest, I was able to drive the several miles to East Grand Rapid’s Lakeside Elementary School, where I taught elementary art, in the deep snow and arrived on time. The parking lot was empty. Arriving on time was the good news. The bad news was schools had been cancelled. I was pleased as heck that my little Corvair was able to do what most other cars could not.
My sweet Corvair had some drawbacks besides the rust problem. I learned early on that the rear engine weight bias on my Corvair made freeway driving in the winter adventuresome. Any vehicle with a rear engine is more likely to sway some when the lighter front end hits an icy patch under an overpass on the freeway going a high speed. Drivers of rear-engined cars learn early on to slow down when approaching all overpasses in the winter. Another annoying frequent occurrence that raised its ugly head was having to replace the manual clutch cable. Fortunately, I don’t recall it costing a lot to fix. I recall you just hoped the cable broke when the car was in a forward gear and not reverse.
Even with the negatives mentioned, my Corvair will always be one of my favorite cars that I’ve ever owned. It would seem back in those days rust and clutch cable breakage issues, to name two, just were par for the course with automobiles being built at the time. We loved them anyway.
Dar Davis founded the Lake Bluff Concours and chaired the event for many years. He has been writing this column since 1999. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stevensville car show
On Friday, June 14, the Lakeshore Lions are running their 10th annual car show in downtown Stevensville, from 4-8 p.m. Registration for all types of vehicles is from 4-6 p.m. There is a $5 charge for registration and awards and door prizes for the entries. The event is free and open to the public. Also, there will be free vision screening at the event. No rain date will be held. For information contact John Folta at JJFolta@comcast.net, or call 269-465-8954.