Throwing caution to the wind and driving 1500 miles in a Chevy Corvair

Perfect weather for a drive in a classic.

Just outside of town, the Corvair was due for its first fill-up. The old flat-six was loving the cool morning air, no strange new noises announced themselves, and I was ready to settle into the driver’s seat for a solid day of cruising. It was time to let go of the wrenches and let my hands settle in with the steering wheel for many hours.

In store for me were the backroads and secondary highways that led from northern Michigan to central Kansas. And the pot of gold at the end of this very long rainbow? My alma mater, McPherson College, and its annual C.A.R.S show—the largest student-run car show in the US.

The 1965 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa

A highlight on the route was this empty but in good shape Sinclair service station
Kyle Smith
A highlight on the route was this empty but in good shape Sinclair service station

My ’65 Corvair Corsa served as my chariot, one (mostly) up to the task after many months of me procrastinating preparations. In the end I made a few improvements since the last time I took this Corvair on a long trip, including a fresh clutch between the four-speed and 140-horsepower six-cylinder. Next was a wheel and tire change, with the rear tires gaining a decent amount of overall height. The goal was to bring the engine revs down at highway speeds. A brake adjustment, shifter rebuild, and new ignition buoyed my confidence in an uneventful, zen-like journey.

Weather in the way

Right on cue, a severe storm front was moving east as I reached the southern end of Michigan to turn the wheels west. Heavy rain. Lightning. Hail. And the Corsa was pointed straight at it. My goal became putting as many miles behind me as possible, so that once the storm settled in, I could seek shelter at a hotel and call it a night.

The roads were clear and the Corvair sucked down two tanks of gas without incident. Then, rain speckles dotted the windshield. I assumed the worst and hoped for the best in my planning for this trip, so I had packed a roll of tape to patch a known windshield leak but hoped it would prove unnecessary. All that time ensuring the ignition was wired correctly distracted me from the simple precaution of checking the weather forecast.

With a storm rolling in the skies were dark, but the cool air kept the air cooled engine happy
Kyle Smith
With a storm rolling in the skies were dark, but the cool air kept the air cooled engine happy

The rain stayed light and intermittent for a few hours before breaking to blue skies. It was a short-lived victory. Dark clouds menaced ahead, threatening to overpower my two-speed wipers. I just kept the pedal down and raced to the hotel as the sunset glow was swallowed by the tall thunderclouds. Thankfully I made it to a hotel just as a swift downpour swept through, letting me relax for the night and hope that the severe weather passed over.

A new (drier) day

The morning started with a quick walk-around inspection of the car, followed by apologies under my breath as I pumped the throttle twice and spun the engine to life with the minimal exhaust angled towards the window of a first-floor room. The engine was still on high idle as I eased out of the parking lot and started down the highway. With hundreds of miles to cover, there was plenty of time for the engine to reach temperature.

The storm that was so unnerving 12 hours earlier was now a distant memory as the sun shone bright across wide pale blue skies. Nothing beats sunrise in the plains. Just an hour into the drive, I made the turn onto US-36, kicking off the most boring, corn-lined part of the route. I settled in knowing that the steering wheel would not need to turn more than five degrees for the foreseeable future. Missouri and Kansas dragged on until I hopped over to US-77 South in Marysville, Kansas.

The car was purring, roaring really, down the road. The engine was quite happy cruising at 65 mph and turning 2800 rpm, but once I ran into some local traffic, the car started making a nasty racket. A baffle I’d installed in the exhaust worked its way loose and instigated a horrific rattle at idle. It was almost as if I’d just thrown it all together just in time for this trip…

Back to school

The author with his car of choice.
Kyle Smith
The author with his car of choice.

After rolling through several small, familiar towns, I killed the engine in front of the welcome arch to McPherson College. It felt good to be back.

The weekend kicked off early with a dinner and cruise on Friday night. Craig Jackson, of Barrett-Jackson auction fame, spoke at the dinner and shared his insight and what brought him to the classic car industry with students. Cruising Main Street followed, with a mix of show- and driver-quality cars parked door to door. The evening was warm and so enjoyable that student volunteers were forced to go around and make a number of cars re-park if they wanted to stay, because the formal event was over.

Daybreak on Saturday brought cars, trucks, and even a few tractors to the registration tent, and the field filled with more than 400 vehicles parked on the campus lawn. The range was truly astonishing, with a 1930 Cadillac V-16 Roadster on the same grass a showroom-fresh 2018 Ford GT. A student band belted out jazz tunes all afternoon to the delight of the laid-back crowd. A group of students assembled a Ford Model T in under seven minutes and drove it away.

Parked at the McPherson College C.A.R.S Show.
Kyle Smith
Parked at the McPherson College C.A.R.S Show.

The C.A.R.S Show is a fantastic event, even if I have to admit my bias as an alumnus of the program that has grown to feature concours-level cars parked next to the student section, where projects display varying levels of completion and drivability. It’s a unique nexus where you can witness the entire breadth of the classic car community.

After seeing old friends, making new ones, and eating fantastic barbeque (Thanks Professor Chennell) it was time to guide myself back north. I made a few quick adjustments to the shifter, re-torqued the lug nuts and topped off the oil. Pulling the map back out, it dawned on me that the hard part was done. All that remained was to make the trip in reverse.

Road trips in a classic

Quick adjustments before the return trip home.
Kyle Smith
Quick adjustments before the return trip home.

It’s always a relief when a classic car trip went this smoothly, especially when it shouldn’t have. Other people might want to hear you regale then with tall tales of late-night driving, hack fixes, or the crazy guy you met at an abandoned gas station. On this trip everything just worked, and I wouldn’t have traded it for the alternative. It was fun, relaxing, and the rushed preparation I did proved just enough.

Now I’m shifting my focus back to working on the car, getting the new interior out of my basement and into the car so it will be ready for the next big adventure. I can only hope the Corvair performs as well on my next trip, although the true challenge will be getting my butt in gear a lot sooner to avoid pushing my luck.