Why the hell do people buy old-ass cars from the 1960s? They cost too much, for one thing. They’re unreliable to operate as a daily, with their pesky two and four barrels. They stop like shit. And most of the time, they smell like a Shell station. Designed by guys who fought Hitler and Tojo with a half smoked Lucky Strike in the corners of their mouth, these automobiles do their damndest to proactively kill us with their oh-we-didn’t-know-that-crush-zones-were-a-thing-but-look-at-how-pretty-our-sharp-metal-dash-is engineering.
But in spite of all that, there’s something wonderful about driving a car that doesn’t have a computerized nanny making sure that you don’t drive yourself off that twisty road.
Sure, they can make you very dead right after they make you feel very alive. But fuck it! What’s life if you can’t live it with an eternal Kanye Shrug to danger?
In my soon-to-be 52 years on God’s Green Earth, I’ve had many an old car. I started at 17 with a 1960 VW Bug, lowered and de-chromed in the Cali style, and that’s where I learned how to disassemble an engine. There was the broken-down ’63 Karmann Ghia that I had in college for about two weeks, but was eventually towed and impounded because I accumulated a month’s worth of tickets from the City of Berkeley. My first truck was a ’61 International Scout 80, a death trap with a fold-down windshield and no top. I used to race my frat brother’s K5 Chevy Blazer over the various hills and hoods of Oakland in that Scout.
When the Scout broke an axle, I got rid of it and bought a ’65 Corvair Monza convertible that leaked oil like BP was in charge of its seals. I’d eventually crash the Corvair after falling asleep at the wheel, damn near killing me.
When I got married, it was back to Scouts for me—this time it was a ’76 Scout II that my wife named Jethro for some reason. She thought it was cute that you had to give the alternator a good bang with a heavy wrench for it to start each morning. Then again, that’s why I married her.
Finally, my old car journey ended with a beautiful green ’60 VW Bug that I had to sell when my wife had the gall to suggest that our newborn baby might not want to be asphyxiated by its gas fumes.
So of course, I sold it to a happy dad with two older kids in tow, with his full understanding he “might wanna handle that” at some point.
Today I daily drive a 2016 Ford Mustang GT. It’s cool, and so were the other cars I owned over the years, but none of them fit my personality like the old cars did. Modern cars fit my needs, but not my desires. Like you, I often find myself doing the Craigslist window-shopping just to see possibilities.
And why not? My kid hadn’t been poisoned, and he was now safely sequestered in college as a freshman. And importantly, my wife had given permission to pull the trigger on an old car project.
Bet. I was ready to get started. But which car would I get?
I’m an ordinary dude who ain’t rich, but has enough money to be dangerous. In my brain, I have simple criteria for the type of car I want. It has correlate to my personality, my fantasies, my dreams, and aspirations. And yeah, I know my ownership of a Mustang may belie this notion, but my heart, I’m a guy that likes underdog cars because I consider myself to be that scrappy underdog. I like cars that aren’t the first on your brain when thinking about restoring, but have cool backstories, either real or imagined.
So I went through the pros and cons list. First on the list was a Datsun 240Z. The sound of an inline six was intoxicating, and I had dreams of stuffing a Rebello in there. But the prices have gone through the roof, and on a lot of them, the rust has gone through the floors.
Next up were hours trying to convince myself that I could take a Datsun 510 and somehow give it a 1969 Skyline front facia, and dammit, that would have been awesome. But… that felt like a money pit. And did I really want an expensive Datsun 510 that wasn’t a Skyline at the end of the day?
Next was a Volvo P1800, and then oddly enough, an old school 1960s Mercedes 220 (with the winged rear end), both of which I thought about stuffing in an LS. I still think that’s a great idea, but it didn’t put me over the line.
Yet there was an itch in my old car body that I needed scratching, and it meant going back to the past. To a car that’s more reviled than loved, mainly from people who’ve never experienced the joy of driving one.
In other words, I wanted another Corvair.
A reasonable person may say, horrified: why the hell did you go back to the car that damn near killed you? A car that has an unfair reputation for well, killing people, in highly efficient ways? Well, look at it this way. My Corvair damn near killed me, but the key is that it didn’t actually kill me.
So if squint through one half closed eye, and you look at that glass as being half full, I could make a somewhat plausible argument that my old Corvair saved my life because even though it wasn’t designed to drive safely while the driver was fast asleep, it really did.
It’s that type of logic that makes people buy old cars.
On a related note, fuck Ralph Nader, by the way. You saw that one coming miles away, now didn’t you? A Corvair and the world’s easiest—dare I say laziest—car lover’s cliché? I actually like the cantankerous bastard, but that’s partially because I’m a Berkeley educated, pinko socialist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobe, cantankerous bastard myself. I’m all the way here for things like, oh I don’t know, gas tanks that don’t explode when you turn on your Bluetooth, steering wheel columns that don’t turn your chest into an air conditioning unit, and crush zones that don’t involve my feet. So for that, I begrudgingly say, thanks, Ralph.
But still, fuck Ralph Nader. He forever besmirched the Corvair, one of the most beautiful and quirky cars the General ever green-lighted, and I think it set Chevy back to this day. The Corvair was one of the most ambitious, innovative and weird experiments GM ever did. Even as good as its modern stuff is, it’s far more risk-averse than it was in the Corvair days, and there’s a reason for that.
Yeah, we all know the Unsafe At Any Speed story, and the whole “oh my god, we’re rolling over and over…and over…” thing, so there’s no need in going over it here. My beef is the Scarlett Letter he put on the car. Just one chapter in Nader’s book, a bunch of bad drivers who didn’t understand the concept of oversteer or know that you might wanna lower the air pressure in the front tires—that was all it took to make the Corvair automobile non gratis on the American road.
And yeah, I know, Nader didn’t kill the Corvair—the Ford Mustang, the Chevy Camaro, and the new pony car segment did that. But history went a certain way for this air-cooled marvel.
With its rear engine flat-six, styling that inspired the Europeans, and its sporty Corsa variants, this little underdog still sold nearly two million units over its nine year run. And Don Yenko—who if I need to explain who he is, you really shouldn’t be on this page—saw something in them too. He took about 100 of them and transformed them into Yenko Stingers, then won quite a few SCCA races with them.
And that got me thinking.
I couldn’t go back in time and buy a new Yenko Corvair, and to buy one today would be both expensive and not what I was looking for in terms of the joy of restoring a car. At the same time, I didn’t want to create a clone of a Yenko either. Clones have their place, and not in my garage.
But as I said, every old car has a story, either real or imagined, and one started popping up in my head. I remembered watching a YouTube video of Dr. Dick Thompson, aka “The Flying Dentist,” and John Fitch (who’d go on to create a special Fitch Sprint Corvair, but that’s a story for another time), racing Corvettes in the 1960 24 Hours of LeMans for the original “Most Interesting Man in the World,” Briggs Cunningham.
These Corvettes were regular versions that anyone could have purchase. The only thing Cunningham did to prep them? Paint them white with blue stripes, America’s racing colors.
So I thought, what if I was an African-American in 1966—just like I am in 2018—and one who sees that when barriers in society fall down opportunities pop up, and I wanted to build a gentleman’s race car? Not a straight-up race car, but a production car that I raced, like James Garner and Steve McQueen. Build something I could take to SCCA races, and then potentially, if everything worked out just right, to the 1966 24 Hours of LeMans. A Corvair, running against the Porsche 911s of the time, and yet still be driven to and from the racetrack? What a dream that would be.
How would I build the car? What would be the hurdles, both financially and otherwise? It’s that imaginary story that made the idea of getting that Corvair feel like the right choice, and thus Project Mongoose was born.
Why Project Mongoose? Well, in my fantasy brain, my imaginary Corvair gained its fame by somehow beating a Shelby Cobra in a race, even though I know that’s pretty much impossible. And what’s the enemy of the cobra in nature? You got it.
All this got me exciting, so it was back to Craigslist, where I found a 1966 Corvair Corsa that seemed to fit the bill, except it was about 150 miles away. After some photo shuttle diplomacy, I sent over a few hundred dollars, called the hauler, and by the end of the day, the Corvair was in my driveway.
What did I get for about $600 plus shipping? A solid looking 52-year-old car that I know will need new floors and a trunk. I know there’s rust hiding elsewhere. I won’t find out until things get stripped and the secrets come pouring out.
The engine didn’t run, but that was fine because I was gonna get another one anyway. Regardless, I feel like it was a good buy for the money.
Now comes the fun part. Deciphering the VIN, my particular Corvair was originally ermine white with a blue interior with the 140 horsepower Corsa engine, but over that, someone smeared some greenish paint that for some reason, people tend to like when they see. The original engine is still in the car, but with different heads.
But there was one other thing that made me realize that Project Mongoose was meant to be. According to the VIN, my Craigslist Corvair was built during the third week of February in 1966 at the Willow Run, Michigan plant, which means that out of nearly two million cars, and only 7,330 Corsas built that year, this one was built the exact same week I was born: February 20th, 1966.
So I’m going to chronicle the building of Project Mongoose from a car that was just sitting in some guy’s yard to a real life interpretation of my personal racing fantasy. It ain’t gonna be a trailer queen, where everything is perfect, mainly because I don’t have long-game money like that.
I’m gonna talk to some of the people who are fanatical about the Corvair, and others who build their niche businesses around restoring cars. Is everything going to be built according to some magical list of specs that someone has for building such a car? Nope. I’m doing it my way. Adding things, changing my mind, and skipping others all together.
Cool. But my first problem was simple: Where do I start? All I have in my restoration “expertise” database were about 9,843,432 hours of PowerNation programming as a reference. For all of my other old cars, I’d pretty much bought them as they were, and then drove them as is. What do I do first? In my case, head to Corvair forums and ask.
I’d need to identify guys who were experts in bodywork and mechanicals, but did my car as a side gig. That’s when I found Mark Wright on the Corvair Center forum. Mark autocrossed his Corvair, and was an expert on everything mechanical, including working with some great guys on Corvair engine work like Corvair legend, Ray Sedman.
Mark hooked me up with a bodyguy named Ricardo Adrian, who agreed to work on Project Mongoose with a couple of his friends as a weekend project, which helped on the cost. Finally, I did a bit of research and figured out that I needed to use Eastwood, a DIY paint and body work company for non-pro builders like me. I figured that if I used one company versus trying to take bits and pieces from this place and another, I would get confused and mess stuff up. I couldn’t tell you the different between PPG and OPP, so one stop shop it is. Plus, Eastwood had something I needed: a soda blaster.
Lastly, coming from the the world of VWs, I’m used to a whole catalogue full of VW repop companies. That’s not the same in Corvair world, and it became very clear that a little company in Massachusetts, Clark’s Corvair, was gonna get most of my money during this project. They pretty much have everything, so my first order was a new trunk and floor for Project Mongoose, and it was pretty affordable.
Next on the agenda: Ricardo is going to strip the Corvair so that we can see her sexy old body, along with all of her rot and plastic surgery. I’ll talk about the color scheme I want for the car, and my overall vision. You’ll hear about how just thinking about which tires to get, and what attitude you want to project, can paralyze you for a good two weeks. At some point I’ll need a Project Mongoose decal that reminds me of the Yenko Stinger decal. And last but not least, I wanna see if I can find some 1966 911s to race in a 24 Laps of Buttonwillow.
Yeah, it ain’t LeMans. But then again, old cars are all about fantasy, right?
Lawrence Ross has written seven books about the African American experience, campus racism, and police brutality, including The Divine Nine, a Los Angeles Times best-seller on black fraternities and sororities. He also dabbles in cars, sometimes even successfully.