Your Next Project Car: Perfectly Safe When It's Stopped Edition

Corvair: Because of the way it hugs the curves. Then completely loses control and ends up leading with the wrong end. A man's car if there ever was one!
Corvair: Because of the way it hugs the curves. Then completely loses control and ends up leading with the wrong end. A man's car if there ever was one!

Listen, the concept here is pretty simple. I have no garage, limited tools, zero storage space, and a Volkswagen. This means I am wholly unable to start on a new project car, and in fact restricted in my ability to work on the project cars I already have.
To that end, I am forced to live vicariously through you, our commenters and friends. Today, I am instructing you to help me live out a bit of nostalgia, and also exercise my total absence of self-preservation.

Of course, in this case, the “self” we’re referring to isn’t really me, it’s you. But that doesn’t concern me one bit, no-sir. I don’t mind sacrificing your sanity or skin at all!. And in this case, I don’t mind… uh… even… more. Oh, you know what I mean.
Anyhow. Way back in 1967, my mother turned 20 and decided to set out and seek her fortune. Or, at least, go off to university, which is almost the same thing. She had been saving up her money from various odd jobs since she was 16, and with a bit of help from her parents, had enough to buy herself a decent used car. As she would be doing quite a bit of highway driving, she wanted something that would be economical. Her neighbour, who worked with her dad, recommended a car like his six-cylinder Rambler — the car I would be given almost exactly 30 years later — and she liked its flashy red paint and white hardtop. So she set out to find something similar.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to find an appropriate Rambler. The American Motors dealership was on a very small lot, so most used cars were shipped out to the larger cities a few hours away. The Chevrolet dealership, however, had a very large lot, and plenty of selection. And they had a little hard-top in a nice light blue.
It seemed a little strange to her, however, as the engine was in the back… and air-cooled, the salesman told her! Would that cool it enough? Certainly it was nothing like her dad’s Falcon.
The next car she looked at was a Volkswagen Beetle. They were fairly new to her area, but this one had been driven there from Ontario, all the way across the country. So it was a very nice price… but it seemed so small! And it also had the engine in the back, and air-cooled. Maybe that other car wasn’t so weird after all.
She went home to talk it over with her father. When she presented the options, my grandfather, a very long-winded man (and you think I’m bad!) gave her a lengthy lecture about why they had beaten the Germans. “We make things simple. They just gotta make ’em complicated. Trust me, any American car will always be better than any German car.”
She then told her friends her choices, and that sealed the deal. Her best friend told her how much she loved Corvettes, and her mind was made up. She bought it the next day, loaded it up, and drove to university. There was no concern about the car’s reputation, its performance, its handling, or its quality. It was a pretty blue, and her friend loved Corvettes, and that was good enough for her.
I would grow up hearing about my mom’s ’61 Corvette, and how much she loved it, and how proud she was of it. When I was about 6, however, I finally saw a photo of it, and was forced to point out to her a sad fact. It was never a Corvette, mom. It was a Corvair. A wholly unloved and poorly-regarded car that was, I later learned, once labeled “Unsafe at any speed”.
See? It's not that bad!
See? It's not that bad!

Which brings us to your next project car. Your mission, should you choose to accept it… never mind, I’ve accepted it on your behalf… is this: defend my mother’s honour. She was intensely proud of her little blue beast, and fervently believed that it was a very special little performance car. She loved it, even when nobody else did. Now it’s time to prove her right.
And it comes with a parts car too! Wait... or is the other one the parts car?
And it comes with a parts car too! Wait… or is the other one the parts car?

Our wonderful reader, citroen67, sent in a Craigslist ad for not one, but two ’63 Corvairs, for the combined price of $500. Sure, they’d make a terrible decent LeMons racer, but yours is a higher calling. You need to prove that a Corvair can be every bit as desirable a car as my mother remembers it to be through her distorted fog of nostalgia. You need to restore the love my mother once had for her little blue beast, and prove she wasn’t so wrong after all, despite all evidence to the contrary!
They even have interiors. Or... one interior, anyhow. Kind of.
They even have interiors. Or… one interior, anyhow. Kind of.

The seller assures us that they have original glass, “many” original chrome pieces, and they’re in fair condition. Whether that means they actually run is highly doubtful, but anything is possible! He does include a photo of an engine — only one engine, but at least it proves there is one — so the potential is there. At least, I think it’s an engine. Yes, surely, that must be what it is.
Yes, that's an engine. We're looking at the... uh... hey! Name That Part, everyone!
Yes, that's an engine. We're looking at the… uh… hey! Name That Part, everyone!

Can you handle it? Are you up to the task? Are your skills sufficient for the job at hand?
Frankly, I don’t care, you’re gonna do it anyhow. Now get to work.

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31 responses to “Your Next Project Car: Perfectly Safe When It's Stopped Edition”

  1. p161911 Avatar

    Considering that you could find a nice drivable Corvair for much less than $5k, just pass these by unless you need the parts or want to go LeMons racing. I think this guy is using the gun grading scale when he is calling these “Fair Condition” That scale goes:
    New – just what is says
    Excellent – looks new or close to it, might have actually been used
    Very Good – would equate to nice driver
    Good – would equate to driver/beater
    Fair – “well most of the parts are there”

    1. Deartháir Avatar

      I think he actually might be a bit optimistic in calling them “fair condition”. But I suppose it’s not going to work being totally honest: “Two cars that were once Corvairs!”

  2. joshuman Avatar

    If it is quirky enough to have a cult following, and Corvairs do, then I like it. I will never own one but I certainly appreciate it. It had a gasoline fueled heater. They made van, station wagon, and small truck versions during the 10-year production run. If it looks good from 48 years away, I’m sure it was better when new.

  3. Robert Emslie Avatar
    Robert Emslie

    My first car was a ’61 Corvair. Of course, I bought mine from a guy in a bar, not in a field.

    1. Deartháir Avatar

      I think we need to change that story. You WON yours from a guy in a bar. In an arm-wrestling contest. The main reason he lost was that he drove a Corvair, which, of course, puts all the weight in the back, so it’s really easy to steer!
      Yeah, I’ve been reading too many Corvair ads.

  4. goingincirclez Avatar

    I’ve heard tell that on Planet Tetanus, the squat citadels guarding the parted secrets of resurrected mobility bear a striking resemblance to the silent statesmanship of a derelict Corvair engine. Look, you can even see the monorail track running to the city center and back out again. Not that this will help you any. I hear you have to go on a bender and call yourself “Gulliver” before the locals will tell you their secrets.

  5. Manic King Avatar
    Manic King

    My mothers first car also had air-cooled engine in the back, but that car wasn’t ‘unsafe at any speed’ because of speed or handling (as it only had 27 hp), but because of stupid soviet made, gas based heater which was prone to self-ignition, at any speed.
    All the owners kept fire extinguishers at hand to use them as soon as first smoke and/or flames where visible in the mirror. Car model? ZAZ 965

  6. Maymar Avatar

    Being cheap in the late 60’s and early 70’s, my grandparents had a series of cheap (~$50 in some cases) Corvairs. I remember my aunt telling me how the defroster was so woefully inadequate that she’d have to order a cup of coffee to leave on the dash, just to see out.
    That being said, I’d love one of the 2nd generation cars with IRS, I could see one being a blast to drive. This pair is well outside of my mechanical skill though.

  7. lilwillie Avatar

    Those two are a little far gone from the looks. The weeds didn’t help them out and the weed the owner may have puffed won’t either.
    Parts cars possibly, unless there was a serious sentimental value to the cars.

    1. Deartháir Avatar

      Oh come come, there’s nothing wrong with them. They just need a little cosmetic work. And How Hard Can It Be?

  8. Z71 Avatar

    I believe that road sign in the first pic is a direction for the passenger and not the driver in that instance. I’m sure he’d agree with me.
    You also gotta love the invisible headlight option on the used model. Much more effective than those crappy xenon lights that we have today. And, look how light that steering wheel looks without the hundreds of pounds of airbags strapped on there. Man how times have changed for the worse. : )
    (Seriously though, I would love to have a decent version of the Corvair.)

    1. Deartháir Avatar

      They’re not headlights, they’re air intakes! Feeding more air to the engine… in… uh… in the back.
      Okay, maybe not.

      1. iheartstiggie Avatar

        Sure! Just vent em down into the heater channels and presto! Wait – wrong aircooled. Ack…

  9. engineerd Avatar

    This could be a very Pygmaleon project. Convince high automotive society that these derelict Corvairs are really unscathed show pieces! Win the love and respect of your peers, while also getting Dearthair to foot the bill for the repairs.

    1. Deartháir Avatar

      Hey, wait, what?

      1. engineerd Avatar

        Sorry, you were the closest to a Colonel Pickering in my analogy.

  10. skitter Avatar

    Dearthair, you truly are an optimist, selecting us to defend your mother’s honor when our collective intelligence is what would lead someone to buy a Corvair in the first place. But perhaps you have nothing to worry about, and there is no honor lost. Anything driven hard is driven honorably, and any source of pride that is sincere can be respected.
    And the engine is totally in the right place.

  11. Alf Avatar

    I can attest that these cars are truly “unsafe at any speed” – I was concieved in one.

    1. Deartháir Avatar

      By that logic, I believe my sister proves that a Holiday Inn is also “unsafe at any speed”.

      1. CaffeineFuelled Avatar

        That’s not nice.
        Brilliant caption on the top picture btw. Truer words were never spoken…

  12. superbadd75, enriched with vitamins and minerals. Avatar
    superbadd75, enriched with vitamins and minerals.

    We could make real Cor-Vettes out of these things! Find a couple of Chevettes, cut ’em in half, a little welding here and there, and there you go. And if you assemble just right (back half Cor, front half Vette) you’ll have 2 engines! I need to go find some Chevettes with headlamps still in place and get crackin’.

    1. goingincirclez Avatar

      I like your thought process. But if you put correlate engine location to name syllable, I think you want to build a Chevair.
      Corvette… Corvair… Chevelle… Chevette… they really had their naming hat well stocked back then didn’t they? I wonder what became of the Corvelle.

      1. superbadd75, enriched with vitamins and minerals. Avatar
        superbadd75, enriched with vitamins and minerals.

        I guess you’re right. A Cor-Vette would have no engine and 2 trunks. We need to think this thing through all the way before execution or we could wind up with a real mess on our hands. What if you used the passenger compartment from the Corvair and engine/cargo area from the Chevette? Chorvette? Man, this could get scary.

  13. Deartháir Avatar

    Sweet! Then I was an experienced driver at 16, in a Ford Ranger!

  14. Mike the Dog Avatar

    One of my Cruise-Night buddies has about 5 Corvairs. She loves ’em.

  15. BigRed Avatar

    I actually find BMWs (at least older ones) to be easier to work on than most indigenous cars.

  16. Van Sarockin Avatar
    Van Sarockin

    Wonderful story. Corvette/Corvair, pretty much the same!
    As for the project, what’s the problem? A new battery, some ether down the carb file the plugs if you’re a pussy, and away you go.
    Got somegood patina started there.

  17. CptSevere Avatar

    My grandmother on my Dad’s side had a Corvair and hated the damn thing. Moving from Atlanta to California she had to race a tornado in I think she said Texas, and almost lost because the gutless little Corvair just didn’t have the top end, and scared the hell out of her with its lousy handling and light weight. Said the wind blew it around like a leaf. She got rid of it and got a ’69 Cutlass, which she loved. Ever since I heard that story I haven’t really cared about Corvairs, although I like the concept.

  18. MisterX Avatar

    In 72-83 I had a shop specializing in repairing/performance modifying Corvairs, and have owned many.
    Great cars that are still competitive in autocross and SCCA racing, they handle very well as long as you understand trailing throttle over steer, if not, you get to make lame jokes due to your practical ignorance of driving rear engine automobiles.
    I had a modified 65 Corsa Turbo that would go 120 mph for hours at a time, and I did plenty of times between LA and the San Francisco Bay Area in the 70’s, rock solid reliability, and 22 mpg at speed.
    And up on the twisty roads of the Santa Cruz Mountains I was uncatchable, but that was a long time ago.
    Back in the day, two of my hard core Datsun 510 buddies sold theirs and bought Corvairs after driving mine.
    When they were cheap in the mid 70’s, they made GREAT Hoonmobiles!

  19. MisterX Avatar

    That Corvair in the ad above is a 1964 Monza Spyder, 4 speed, with a 150 HP turbocharged engine.
    It’s the best handling year for the early body style, as it got a transverse leaf spring on the rear suspension, similar to a Corvette.

  20. knewaguy Avatar

    A friend of mine had a 61 Corvair. To clear the windshield in the winter he connected several empty paper towel spools in a configuration from the heating vent on the drivers side floor up to the windshield area.