A tolerance for gorillas

corvair key mechanical sympathy
My garage shelves hold spare starters and flywheels but no spare ignition key. Kyle Smith

Hey there. I’m Kyle. My presence on these digital pages is not new, but this column is. Beginning this week, Mechanical Sympathy will explore the ways we interact with machines, both in upkeep and use, and how those stir the soul. Read my introduction to the column here.

A soft touch can be incredibly powerful. Now that you are thinking about that, let me reel you back. This is a family-friendly automotive website and you thought that was where I was going? Shame on you.

No, this is about the key to my 1965 Chevrolet Corvair, and how it became the test for how much respect and space you are going to get when you drive it. My beloved coupe is nothing special. The data plate shows no rare options, the rear quarter-panels have some rust, and the interior is nice but not so much that you’d hesitate to hop in with wet shoes after a nice fall drive. This car is the picture of a “driver” that is meant to be enjoyed.

Keeping ropes around a car is an excellent way to make sure no one cares about it. That’s why I hold myself to a rule that came from someone I’ve never met. While at an event, sometime around 2011, I overheard one person yell, “If you can start it, you can drive it!” to someone peeking in the window of a cherry red Pontiac. This same offer had been a joke with a few of my college friends when I built up a Honda XR650R motard, which required a very particular song and dance to fire up. Not a lot of people got to ride that bike, but there was no shortage of tired legs from kicking it over.

This Corvair starts a whole lot easier than that motorcycle did. Wherever it goes, which is a lot of places, I will toss the keys to anyone who shows interest in driving it. After they slide behind the seat and get a quick rundown of the controls comes the test: Do they know how to turn a key?

Corvair key in ignition
Kyle Smith

It’s so simple. And yet my Corvair key is mangled and bent three different ways.

To be fair, most cars have not used turn keys in years. Even if one does, the system doesn’t require the operator to hold the switch to keep the engine cranking. A flick of the key, and the engine will crank until it starts, at which point the computer takes over, because it knows better. This digital intervention used to annoy me greatly, but after hearing my Corvair starter grind after the engine caught, and after clamping the key in a vise to straighten it for the third time, I am reminded that modern cars are built to preserve themselves from the lowest common denominator. This approach insulates the curious from learning how the machine works because it just works. If you do something wrong, which you really can’t on a modern car, there is no auditory or haptic feedback. You can ham-fist the starting procedure for years and never know it.

Corvair key twist angle
Kyle Smith

Maybe part of the problem is that my car’s key is quite ornate. The head bears a nice Corvair script inset with decorative colors that have aged to a delightful patina. That detailing means the head is wide and give users an unexpected amount of leverage compared to the rounded plastic fob of any key from the last 25 years. Between robust, anti-theft lock cylinders and the smooth keys, it is almost difficult to put too much torque into a modern ignition. Most likely, people don’t realize the force they are putting on an old system—most people haven’t even unlocked a car door with a key for years.

These bad habits set in because drivers literally did not know better and no one said anything to them. Then they get the chance to drive my Corvair and the first bit of feedback is pursed lips and a through-the-nose exhale as the start grinds and the key bends. As much as the mechanical abuse hurts my soul—and the car—it is a necessary evil. Watching how these drivers start the Corvair tells me how the drive will go, and how much coaching I will be doing from the right seat. If you He-Man twist that delicate little key, you will hear the script that is burned into my brain about how a clutch works, followed by a reminder that old brakes are old brakes and you need to treat them as such. A bent key may be an easy repair, but I’m not going to let ignorance cost me a clutch.

Yet I continue to offer this key to strangers. I have to. We have to. Each of us had to start (see what I did there?) somewhere on the journey of learning how mechanical things work. It takes a tender touch to keep the key from twisting off in the dashboard’s cylinder these days, reminding me that the Corvair, like any other machine, is a living thing. It will only last as long as someone takes care of it and wants it around.

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Read next Up next: How the Duesenberg brothers redefined the great American automobile


    I like the part where Kyle suggests that we need to let people get to know our cars. Not sure I gonna let just ANYONE bend my key, but the idea that a lot of folks don’t even know how to start a classic, and that we can and should show them, is certainly spot on.
    Last weekend I took my 13-year-old great-nephew to a small local car show. I informed him that I’d buy his lunch, but that he had stuff to learn and do. I told him his first job was to wipe down the car (coincidentally, a cherry red Pontiac!) before the crowd showed up. I showed him the process, then stepped back. He did a fairly good job, but I quickly realized that a 13-year-old might not have the reach to get to the middle of a 1966 A-body hardtop. So I coached him on how to stand on the doorsills to reach further. Next, I showed him how to properly remove the hood pins in case someone wanted to see the engine bay. I gave him a rundown on the essential facts about the car. When people started showing up, I let him do most of the talking. He got most everything right, and got into some fairly serious discussions with several knowledgeable folks who stopped by the car. Once, I spotted him in the car, and assumed he was on his phone – but when I peeked in, I saw that he was napping – the experience had plumb tuckered him out!
    When the show was over and our chairs were stowed in the trunk, I gave him the keys and said, “You’ve been watching and learning – YOU start it up”. His grin was a mile wide, and he did it all absolutely correctly. We then switched seats and I drove him home, while he talked excitedly about all the car people he’d met and things they talked about.
    Now he can help spread some goodwill and appreciation about the classic car community to his buddies in Junior High School.

    Tinkerah – and I wish I could attach photos of him standing by the car and napping in the front seat 😁.
    But thanks for the “like” and rest assured that he will get to experience as much of the good stuff that the car community has to offer as I can get in front of him!

    I’d get some not vintage key blanks cut to hand to the newbies.

    That Corvair key (maybe typical for Corvair) is odd considering most GM keys of that era were octagon (hexagon?) if I remember correctly, Depending on the ignition having ears or not, the later rectangle keys will often work too.

    Anyways, that would save fatigue on the special key.

    I have only met one gentleman that was able to start my 1946 GMC ton and a half flatbed. He was among the few “old enough to remember” crowd that recognized the starter foot switch.

    It’s thoughtful and generous of you to invite gorillas to drive your classic Kyle, but I doubt many takers appreciate that key. You’re only going to get to straighten it so many times before you’ll be brazing pieces back together.

    I don’t spend much time at car shows, I’d rather drive than sit around and look at a bunch of cars I’ve probably already seen a dozen times already. But at the ones that I do go to, I encourage people, particularly younger kids, to sit in the car, to experience the differences between my 65 Buick Skylark GranSport and the <> they arrived in. Keys, knobs to pull out to turn on the lights, the way the turn signal feels, the high beam switch on the floor, the horizontal speedometer. And, like you, I have no problem letting somebody (maybe not just anybody off of the street, but definitely my neighbors and friends) going for a drive in the car. My father-in-law has a bunch of old cars, starting with a 34 Ford four-door sedan (“Miss Daisy”), and he’s the same way. Not many things give him more pleasure than teaching a youngster how to double-clutch so that they can shift into 2nd gear.

    I would protect the aftermarket key and get a stock Borg Warner GM key made.

    Growing up we all had cool cars and we often drove each others cars. Most of us were close friends and we had that trust to know the other was not going to do something stupid.

    But to put just anyone out there and in some of these cars can be a risk. I remember the first time my wife drove my car she used two lanes for a turn due to the lack of power steering.

    One thing I have started to do is invite kids to sit in the car at event I attend. Get their photo sitting in the car etc. The smiles are worth it.

    I used to do the same thing as a kid as when ever a race car was in the area I had to go sit in it. Garlits Front Engine Dragster, Gurneys indy car, Greenwoods Corvette and even the Spirit of America Sonic 1. I can still recall the feel and smell of these old cars. Actually the Greenwood Smothers car was still racing. Back then there were no show cars.

    As for sharing just use care on who you trust.

    When I was pre-driving age, our family had a 1963 Ford Econoline van (with a transplanted 327 from a wrecked 1963 corvette), a 1968 El Camino (which I still have) and a 1966 Corvair Corsa (turbocharged version). The ignition on the Econoline was so worn that the key from the El Camino could be slipped in and used to start it at any time. Back in those days, we never thought that it was a problem.

    I do the same on my car on occasion. It is a 1950 Studebaker Champion and it becomes even more interesting since it is a three on the tree. It does not start with the key, yes you have to turn it 1 notch clockwise first. But the starter is activated by a button (like an old dimmer switch button) under the clutch pedal. A true safety device as you have to push the clutch in to start it. At least 9 out of 10 fail to start it without help. Then comes the clutch – gas dance, even more fun.

    American consumers don’t like to maintain cars. They don’t know how to do it themselves in large part, and few ever bother to read the Owner’s Manual about how to do it and how often. American consumers want their cars to be like refrigerators — appliances that just run, might require some fuel about which they will complain mightily. Changing lubricants is annoying, and they’d as lief not. But they will if the little light comes on. Or they will do it when they happen to notice the sticker on the inside of their windshields. But as for anything else, including minor periodic maintenance, they start to believe that they are being “nickled and dimed to death” and start thinking about replacing the car. They would rather be $400-a-monthed to death with payments. False economy, but far too common.

    The comments that start with “Americans __________” are always the most insightful. You can tell a great deal about the author’s worldliness by reading them.

    Well my ’97 Supra didn’t get the keyless alarm so I have to open the door with a key and of course start the car with a key. it’s my one analog / old-school car in that sense.

    Years ago when I was selling old cars (not necessarily old to me) I realized that the youngsters do not know how to start a carbureted engine or much less stop without power brakes. Damn, I sound old!

    The ignition/lock keys (original, remember Ford used to use 2 keys one for ignition, one for locks) of my original owner 1984 Mustang with 200,000 miles looks like the teeth are gone and the Ford script is long gone, and they are now a brownish color than the silver color they once were. I do have the second set that looks brand new. If they are shiny and don’t show wear, they aren’t being used enough. Motion is Lotion, Rest is Rust. DRIVE them, Love them.

    Apparently you have never owned a Volvo P1800. A trip to the locksmith was almost a weekly deal. This car used a cable from the Ign. key to the starter electric to turn the engine over. Almost daily your key would crack upon starting, and it was only a short period of time you had before it would break off and you had better have the tools in house to get you started again.

    A fellow dropped by last week. He was fascinated by my old Econoline and wanted to buy it. Didn’t even haggle over the price. Then I showed him the three-on-the-tree. “THAT’s the shifter???” Then I talked him through double-clutching the unsynchronized transmission. I assured him that I had replaced all of the brake shoes and cylinders, but told him it still only stops as well as it did in 1961. He promised to come by the next day with the money.
    I’m not holding my breath.
    Maybe I shouldn’t have told him that it tops out at about 55 mph?

    My first car was a 1962 two-door Impala and my buddy had a 1964 two-door Impala as well. We were sitting around the Eagle Burger (yep!) one night and I asked him if he thought my key might fit his car. Well we tried it and the thing worked! Admittedly, the keys were pretty worn on both cars by that time, but still. Later that year another friend got a 63 Impala and, yep!—all three keys were interchangeable (with a little fiddling.)
    Simpler, more innocent times, but we were closer somehow to our machines back then.

    I used to lend my 964 to people all the time. In fact I’ve become really close to a young kid who treated my Porsche with so much respect when he drove it. I say when he “ drove it” because I can’t let him any more. The reason for that is Hagerty Insurance says no one but my wife and I can drive the car and still have the insurance be valid. So I call BS on this article

    Drivers IN your household who are NOT listed on the policy won’t be covered, any other licensed driver who has permission will be. That’s a standard condition for all insurers.

    My girlfriend drove my 68 Chevelle to work one time. Didn’t think to tell her how the lights worked and she broke the knob from twisting it to turn the lights on. I just glued it back together but still hasn’t driven it 10 years later.

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