I was scared to drive my Corvair again, and Nader had nothing to do with it

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Kyle Smith

I didn’t even need to put my nose close to the gas filler to smell how skanky the fuel in the tank was. The Corvair had been sitting a really long time. Nearly two and a half years. It went into storage “right,” so I wasn’t too worried about the important bits still working when it came time to drive it, but the gasoline smell was something that needed to be acknowledged. The exhaust was bolted up, and it was time for a “first drive.” I’ll admit fear was my main emotion, but not because Ralph Nader told us Corvairs are dangerous. Let me explain.

The suspension is a fairly fresh rebuild. Tires are within their proper lifespan. Brakes in great shape. Engine no longer leaking fuel after tightening a few things. Just a small amount of oil from the valve cover. It’s not the physical pieces of the white coupe that caused me stress; it was the thought of the car. I’ve driven the Corvair a lot. Road trips, errands about town, commuting—this car has seen it all in the five years I’ve owned it. The miles and modifications I have done with this coupe allowed me to paint a mental picture in my mind, not only of what it is, but what I expect it to be. This is the curse laid upon all us car folk.

Corvair steering wheel and dash
Not exactly luxurious, but the view from the drivers seat is exactly what I remember and love. Kyle Smith

Of course, rose colored glasses are not unique to our four-wheel passion projects. What I do think is that we suffer from this phenomenon more than other hobbies though. We remember the peaceful long night drives, rowdy Friday nights cruising downtown, and sitting in the garage taking a short break while turning wrenches. But we push aside the memories of multiple parts store runs in a day, roadside breakdowns, and uncomfortable seats. I’ve seen this first hand more than most. The 1969 Camaro SS that Hagerty faithfully restored a number of years ago is a regular on the Ride and Drive circuit, and the number of folks who tell us things like the car is “all wrong” and “it is so much worse than it was back then” is wild. The car is correct to what many of these folks experienced in the early 1970s, but after years of thinking back to those days, they elevated a ’69 Camaro to something it never was.

1969 Chevrolet Camaro big-block
Looks like a real street stalker, right? It’s not, and never was. Gabe Augustine

That happens to the best of us, and I knew it could happen to me. The Corvair is a car I’ve had great times in. It’s also been a pain in my arse more than a little, though that is typically self imposed. Through all of that there has been a picture painted in my mind of what the car is, was, and will be. Only if we are incredibly honest with ourselves will those line up with reality. This is where I got lucky.

The Corvair has it’s flaws, but that’s part of what make it fun. The paint is rough enough that when my friend and I took it on its first drive in two years to get lunch, I could sit on the front fender and eat. The interior is nice, but it’s not original, so I have no worries about staining carpet or wearing out seats. Recovered once, twice, a dozen times really doesn’t matter. So I use it. Not abuse it, but use it without fear of light damage. Thus my thoughts of what the Corvair is and how it behaves is often in good line, even after two years of sitting. I enjoy the car for exactly what it is, not what I remember it as.

The exhaust only took a couple more welds to hang the Magnaflow muffler off the two-into-one style exhaust I fabricated. Going from the headers with no crossover to the big single exhaust really changed the sound and accentuates the mild cam housed between the case halves. Sadly, the muscular tone is overshadowed by a header leak right now. New gaskets are already in the mail and will be a quick swap. All that fabrication work was worth it because the car is noticeably quieter and also has better ground clearance, which means I can enjoy the drive more and worry less about accidentally damaging my engine after hitting the headers on road debris.

The gas was on the turn to going bad, but the flat-six didn’t seem to care too much and fired right to life anyway. Rather than go through the effort of draining the tank, I figured it would be more fun to drive through as much of it as quickly as I could. After a quick inspection in, around, and under the car, it was off to the coffee shop for a thermos full of high-octane java, followed by my own personal color tour. The fall leaves are just waiting to drop, and the orange and yellow pops are magical, assuming you can forget that the bright fall colors are merely a gateway to the long winter gray.

The cold months won’t be spent working on the Corvair. This flurry of work was enough to get it back on the road and therefore ready for storage until it can enjoyed fully next spring. Just getting to this point was the big shock that I needed. Everything else on the car’s to-do list is cosmetic or fiddly things.

It was nice to find that my glasses are clear and the Corvair is still exactly what I daydream about. Is that luck? Maybe, but for now I don’t care and am already looking forward to driving my beloved coupe more … in six months or so.

Corvair in driveway
Kyle Smith

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