Swapping my Corvair’s steering wheel changed everything—for the worse

Corvair Steering Wheel

There are innumerable changes one can make to a car, but enhancing driver comfort and experience means there are really only three variables—seat, steering wheel, and pedals. Making even a small change to these can greatly affect how one interacts with the car. I have always loved the lithe yet substantial steering wheel of my 1965 Chevrolet Corvair, but when a deal popped up on a sweet modern steering wheel, I couldn’t plug in my credit card information fast enough. Was it a good idea, though?

I have been slowly evolving my Corvair into something a bit sportier than its economy car roots. After fitting quick-ratio steering arms in the front suspension, the idea crept into my mind to replace the wide-diameter, thin-rim steering wheel with a smaller radius wheel that would help reduce the clock-winding experience when driving the car.

The wire-thin rim of the factory wheel is a certified time machine. Just sliding into the car and guiding it out of the garage is enough to transport me back to high school when I drove a ’64 Corvair. Like many things about cars, though, the stock steering wheel could be pulled, cleaned, and put on a shelf, ready to go back onto the car at any point.

Corvair Steering Wheel
Kyle Smith

So when a black leather-wrapped Nardi wheel popped up in a Corvair Facebook group, I figured it might be fun to give it a try. The seller included a nicely machined aluminum adapter and a horn button that appeared like it wouldn’t look too out of place in my otherwise period-correct interior. The new wheel shaved an inch and change from the outside diameter, and featured a bright yellow 12-o’clock stripe to make me feel like the race car driver I wish I was, but likely never will be.

On Saturday morning, a few friends gathered at my garage, and after some encouragement from the group, I decided to go ahead and try the new steering wheel. The process was simple: Pop off the horn button, impact off the single nut holding on the wheel, and use the special puller to break the factory wheel free from the splines it hadn’t left since the mid-’60s.

I assembled the new wheel on its adapter, and bolted up the turn signal canceling cup and horn contact. I went over to the car for the big moment. The first fit.

Just holding the wheel in place underscored the decision I had made—and it wasn’t a good one.

Corvair Steering Wheel
Corvair Steering Wheel
Corvair Steering Wheel
Corvair Steering Wheel

The new wheel didn’t have nearly the dish of the factory-fit piece, which meant the turn signal stalk was in the way. Rather than bend it right away, I decided to remove it and fit the wheel to see if I was really going to like it. My enthusiasm was fading. After removing the turn signal stalk, I slid the adapter hub over the splines of the steering shaft and tightened the hold-down nut.

To say I was let down would be an understatement. The wheel was smaller, but with less dish it was also farther away from me, which made the ergonomics extremely goofy. The new wheel also got in the way of letting out the clutch and putting my foot square and centered on the brake. I knew I have longer legs, but my assumption had been that a smaller wheel would help, not make matters worse.

Corvair Steering Wheel
Corvair Steering Wheel
Corvair Steering Wheel
Kyle Smith

So I pulled that nice piece of Italian craftsmanship and slipped back on the cracked 50-year-old Chevy piece. It will continue to do its job for the foreseeable future. That Nardi wheel was on a pedestal in my mind—it was going to be great, but in practice it was more than underwhelming. One spin around the block confirmed that this beautiful piece of kit was not what I wanted.

In the end, I’m pretty disappointed. The right steering wheel might be out there, though. I am picturing a Goldilocks scenario in my garage soon. I doubt my bank account will be happy about that, but I am willing to gamble my hands will be pleased once I find the perfect wheel.