My grandfather, nicknamed Popeye because of his huge forearms, was a wheeler dealer decades before Mike ran off Edd (allegedly). As a kid, he and I got up at the crack of dawn, and scoured the Southern California drive-in swap meets. The Paramount, the Roadium, were just two drive-in swap meets on our weekend circuit.
(Editor’s Note: Jalopnik contributor and author Lawrence Ross is restoring his dream 1966 Chevrolet Corsa and inventing its fictional racing history as he goes along. This is part four of the series. Read one, two and three in those links.)
We went in search for the best deals on everything from Hot Wheels to gold jewelry. This was the 1970s, so if you had old junk sitting around the house, there was no Craigslist to foist it on people. You actually had to look a person eye-to-eye, and convince them that your 29-piece china set (with one chipped plate) was indeed a great value. From what you’d heard, and you had no reason to doubt this as the seller, the china came from the 700-year old Ming Dynasty, but since you were feeling generous, you’d sell it to you for the low low price of 20 bucks. Only years later would you, the buyer, learn on the Antique Roadshow that the china was actually made in Peoria by a dude named Herm Marcowski during the fall of ‘69.
Still, I was fascinated as a kid, and I’m still fascinated, by the process of negotiation. I like bargains, I like negotiating, and I like feeling that in your typical exploitative capitalistic transaction, both sides truly felt like they’d gotten a fair shake. But Popeye also taught me something else that sticks with me to this day.
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“If it’s between buying something with a good story and something without a story, buy the one with the story,” he said. “The story will be valuable long after the thing you bought is thrown away.”
The story was key to the game, and as long as you aren’t getting shafted, the thing that makes the hustle not a bad thing. America isn’t nothing but a giant hustle, where we tell stories to make you believe that your laundry detergent is going to make your life fulfilling. So if it’s between a brand new out the box cast iron skillet, or a beat-up one that’s baked grandma’s cornbread for the past 100 years, buy the latter. The story is the value added.
And that brings me to Dan from Minnesota, his Corvair engine, and his story.
“I’ve gotta engine for sale, if you’re interested,” he said in a Corvair forum message. “The guy I bought it from? He wanted to create his own home brewed Yenko style engine. Found it on Craigslist.”
Wait, what? Some other dude had the idea of turning his Corvair into something it wasn’t? A Yenko style engine? Tell me more.
“I would sell the whole drive train motor, fresh transmission, a posi differential with four spider gears, and a new fuel system. It has a built 140 hp engine, with NOS TRW Forged Pistons + .60, 1969 NOS Crower cam, new bearings all around, NOS Grant rings, high compression valve springs. a set of 1968 tuned Yenko headers, stock carbs with rebuild kits. The man I bought from in 2014 or so collected all this stuff for his car and it just sat for 40 years.”
Dan was selling it because he’d smashed the front end, and unless he wanted to put some cash into straightening it out, it was going to take a lotta cold Minnesota winters to make his Corvair right again.
As I’ve noted before here, I know VW air-cooled engines, and have a general understanding of how engines work, but I had no idea whether any of his details meant a damn thing as to whether the engine was any good. Using 50-year old new old stock components is a romantic thought, but did it make for a good engine? And what’s more romantic? That NOS part that was made in No Hills, Midwestern State, or one that was made last week in Taiwan?
I was intrigued by the story and the price. If I bought this engine, it would cost me about half what I was going to pay for a known rebuilt engine, and I’d get the rest of the car, which I could theoretically part out and recoup some of the cost shipping everything to me in California.
The bad part? I’m buying something unknown, and that half off could mean that I was wasting my money. What to do?
I bought the unknown. Plus, Dan was the epitome of a Midwestern nice guy.
One wire transfer and a week later, a brown Corvair, with its Yenko style engine and crunched front end, was in my possession, along with a ton of original documentation. Even got a ’66 Corvair owners manual to boot.
But the most important thing still needed to be answered: how was the engine?
“What do you think?” I asked my eternally skeptical Corvair expert mechanic Mark.
In life, no stories end well when they begin with well. Just know that.
“Well,” he started, “the bad news that this isn’t a Yenko engine. A Yenko engine has a whole bunch of things that this one doesn’t have.”
“Yeah, he never claimed that the car was a Yenko, just that the guy who had it before wanted to recreate a Yenko. The key word there is “style.” So what’s the good news?”
“The good news?” Mark continued, “Is that the engine sounds good. But…well...”
Wait, I thought we were done with the bad news part of our show…
“…you can have a bunch of parts, but if it’s not built well, it really doesn’t mean anything. And I don’t know who built it, so I won’t know until I drive it.”
Great. Driving it was gonna be a while. First, we had to pull the four-speed transmission from my car and get it rebuilt. We were gonna take the posi from the donor car, but it was gonna cost me more to rebuild, and since I don’t live in a climate that really requires posi, nor do I see myself doing burnouts in this Corvair, it wasn’t a big deal to me to not rebuild it. So I gave the posi to Mark in exchange for some of the labor cost.
We tossed the headers that came with the donor car, as they weren’t really Yenko headers, and I purchased some loud ass Clark’s Ultimate Exhaust headers because I like loud ass cars.
To Mark’s chagrin, he’d have to figure out how to make the exhaust tips come out of the cutouts we’d created, because I thought they’d look cool, while at the same time, sealing properly so I didn’t die of asphyxiation on the 405 freeway. But that’s why I was paying Mark the big bucks, to figure out shit I don’t know how to do.
Oh, and I took the headers over to Engineered Applications over in the city of Vernon to get them ceramic coated. Only charged me a couple hundred and came out great.
Next up was a trip to eBay, where I bought four Corvair 140 HP High Performance Carbs, so beautiful that I literally spent weeks staring at them. Don’t judge me.
I needed a shitload of suspension parts from Clark’s Corvair, and as usual, they came through with box after box. Look, every rebuild is expensive, and I spent a lot of money with Clark’s Corvair, but they were hella patient with me, so it was worth it. Still, I’m pretty sure I paid someone’s salary for the month. Anyway, this is a long way to say that Mark rebuilt the front end.
He then tackled my hubs, which were crap, so they had to be sent out to Denver, where they were rebuilt by a specialist. With a Corvair, every part seemingly has an expert who only works on that particular part. So sending the hubs to Denver didn’t feel like something unusual. It’s a fifty-year old car. Yet, we got those hubs back in like…an hour, or so it seemed. The turnaround time was amazing.
“Every bolt on this car is seized, and I’ve had to cut them off,” Mark said as he toiled under my car. “But at least you’ll have new everything on this car.”
So in the time since I last posted, the car has the engine installed, a newly rebuilt transmission connected to the “Yenko style”” engine, a suspension that sits with the correct stance I want, drum brakes that are rebuilt and safe, with a cool ass exhaust.
It would be another month before we’d know the verdict on the engine, and I’m not gonna lie, that made me nervous as hell. I’ll let you know how the engine held up in a couple of weeks.
But for now, let’s continue our fake racing history of our little Corvair.
The Man had begun his story by telling me about his battles with Steve McQueen at Riverside, but he soon turned to some of the racing legends, including a guy who would eventually get the Corvair to the starting grid at Le Mans in ’66.
“John Fitch,” The Man said, his eyes squinting, as though he could see Fitch off in the distance. “Simply a beast.”
“Heard that he was a World War II fighter pilot,” I said, having done my homework. And when I mean homework, I really meant a quick Google search. The Man didn’t need Google. He had a database between his two ears that trumped their algorithm.
“Missions all over Nazi Germany. Got shot down, if I recall, in a P-51 Mustang.
“Went into a prison camp, was released when the war was over, and then got with Cunningham’s race team in the early ’50s. But Fitch had grown up with cars. His Dad had worked for Stutz. You don’t know nothing bout no Stutz Bearcats, now do you?”
I shook my head.
“In the early ‘50s, Fitch operated an MG dealership and was racing them. The guy had a knack for both being good at racing, and for modifying cars so that they worked better.
“He won the 12 Hours of Sebring back in ‘53,” The Man continued. “First American to win the race in an American car. Won the Mille Miglia too. And he ran at Le Mans, where his partner had gotten killed in ‘55. By the time I met him, he was running Lime Rock since ‘64, and had pretty much retired from racing.”
Lime Rock, one of the iconic raceways in the country, is located in Connecticut, and everyone from Andretti to Donohue, it’s literally cut out of the countryside to create one of the most beautiful and challenging tracks in the country. Skip Barber owns it now, but back in the day, Fitch was running things as the circuit director.
“How were you doing locally with the races?”
“Okay, not outstanding. To be honest, I was stalled. Coming in the top 10, but not getting a podium, and I hated that. But the guys I was racing all said that I had talent, and yeah, Le Mans may have been a long shot, but I figured that if I could win an endurance race, I could get my car in the back of the race. I didn’t care. Didn’t think I could win anyway, but I did want to get to France.
“The thing that attracted me to Fitch was that he drove anything and everything. From those MGs to 356s, the guy was a true car hoe, he didn’t care where he placed his ass at the end of the day, just as long as it climaxed with another win. Raced both Cadillacs and a sweet Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR. Didn’t matter what, he’d drive it, and win. Something about that called me to him.
I needed to get over the hump, and if I was going to drive a Corvair, then he’d need to show me how to get the most out of it. What strategies was I missing? He’d taken second at Sebring in a Porsche 718, which had about the same horsepower as my Corvair, so I knew it could be done.”
The Man took out a map of Lime Rock, and handed it to me. Apparently he’d kept one for every track he ran, an archive, but this one looked like math problem gone wrong. Each corner, each straight, had some notation. Calculations to make you turn a mistake into a win, and if could collect enough wins, into a championship.
“Funny enough,” The Man continued, “I didn’t race at Lime Rock for the week I was there. Just me and Fitch going along the track, him barking out instructions like it was a rally race, and me trying to absorb as much as I could, hoping that his knowledge would enter my brain and become muscle memory.
“How did he like the Corvair?”
“Fell in love with it,” The Man said, “and I’d like to think that I had a little something to do with that. Soon after I left, he came up with a Fitch Sprint version of the Corvair.
Most people who love the Corvair know that, but what most don’t know is that Fitch loved the Corvair platform so much, that he created what I think is one of the prettiest cars, the Fitch Phoenix, something Chevrolet should have built, if they weren’t so damn protective of their Corvette. Could have been that killer sports car that went against the coming Japanese, but no, the General couldn’t be bothered keeping the Corvair alive.”
Didn’t want to break it to The Man, but Fitch had been working with the Corvair almost since its inception. But I’d learned in my few years on this planet that it’s best to know something and be silent, especially when you weren’t on this planet when the thing happened. It was an argument I couldn’t win.
“Getting back to Fitch,” I asked, “did that training work?”
The Man suddenly, and uncharacteristically, got quiet and introspective. He was like a Marine who’d been on the front lines for too long. His thousand yard stare spoke a novel’s worth of words, all before he’d said a word.
“Yeah, it worked. My next race was that the 24 Hours of Sebrig, and if you don’t mind, I don’t want to talk about that right now.”
And with that, The Man walked out of the room, with me holding his map. As I looked closely at it, in the corner was written something I’d missed before…a line from the poem, If.
“MEET WITH TRIUMPH AND DISASTER AND TREAT THOSE TWO IMPOSTORS JUST THE SAME…” –Fitch
I’d soon find out that the 1966 24 Hours of Sebring lived up to Rudyard Kipling’s iconic line, and The Man had been right in the middle of it.