I know it's wrong to want to punch a 79 year-old man, but after spending an afternoon with this Corvair, I kind of want to take a swing at Ralph Nader. I know he's not the only reason why Corvairs never really caught on, but that doesn't make it any less of a shame. Because this little red bathtub is a gem.
This well-maintained 1962 Corvair is owned by Michael Jasionowski, who goes by "Yoshi." Yoshi is only the third owner of the car, and thanks to careful stewards before him, knows the car's history very well. It was bought by a soldier for his wife before he was to be shipped off to Korea — which never actually happened. The wife got both the car and her husband, and in the case of the car at least, treated it like her prized possession.
No one else was allowed to drive the Corvair, and the car was immaculately kept and maintained, which explains its remarkably original condition today. Even though it's never had a comprehensive restoration, it's solid enough that Yoshi uses it as his only daily driver.
It's in great shape and looks about perfect from 10 feet away, but on closer inspection, there's plenty of little flaws. And that's just how it should be. Yoshi considered spending a lot on a new paint job and more, but realized that the worry factor goes up exponentially, and then he'd be less inclined to drive the car all over the place. I think it's at that sweet spot now, where it looks good but if you get some rock chips or roll your chilidog under the seat you won't have an aneurism.
Yoshi also has a nice white '68 Corvair convertible, with the updated suspension and body style, which is for sale if anyone's interested. Just ask in the comments, and I'm sure a test drive can be arranged.
Using a 50-year old car as a daily is a bold move for anyone, and as many of us know, old cars can be pretty demanding. But that's exactly where the Corvair really surprised me. I'm used to driving 40+ year-old cars around as daily drivers. I'm used to putting up with a bit less comfort and a good bit more hassle just to get around, because, dammit, it's worth it.
But the Corvair proved to be one of the most effortless, relaxing cars I've driven in a long time, new or old. I think it's because of the Corvair's rather unique blend of European technology and design and American standards of comfort and ease. That transatlantic pairing has existed before, but usually in high-end cars targeted at performance and luxury.
This Corvair is basically the Porsche/VW formula (air-cooled flat rear engine, light construction) along with period American traits (roomy interior, couch-like seats, two-speed Powerglide automatic) and the result of that mash-up is a car that's incredibly easy, pleasant and refreshing to drive. I'm not kidding, after driving it around I felt like I just had a nice nap.
If this is how Unsafe at Any Speed feels, then I think I just became a big fan of unsafety.
There's probably no car more influential in 60s-era car design than the first-gen Corvair. Coming out of the Baroque excesses of the 50s, the Corvair is a remarkably clean, crisp, and handsome design. It's not breathtaking in the way an E-Type is, but it's deeply satisfying, with its rational proportions, smart creases, and subtle, elegant detailing.
If you think about all the cars that cribbed the Corvair's basic design, it becomes clear how influential it really was. Let's go down the list: NSU Prinz, BMW Neue Klasse (1600, 2002, etc), Hillman Imp, Fiat 1300/1500, VW Type III Ghia, Simca 1000, Renault R8, even the Soviet Zaporozhets 968. And there's more. This simple, straightforward design language was a big deal.
In convertible form, like Yoshi's, the simple, tub-like shape works very well. The windshield has an interesting little kink in the lower third, and the thin windshield pillars and any lack of roll bars or even headrests means that the effect from inside with the top down is remarkably like driving a motorized bathtub. And it's great.
The little bit of chrome detailing around the car adds some nice jewelry to pop from the vivid red, and, interestingly, if you look at all the badges you'll notice that every single one of them seems to employ an entirely different typographic treatment.
That would never stand today, all those scripts and serifs and sans-serifs and all caps and lower case letters battling it out, but here it's just charming. I also really like the subtle afterburner look of the four round taillamps, and the restrained trim treatment on the front, which must have been difficult for designers used to big, massive grilles.
Like the outside, the interior is unfussy and handsome. The dash is a great example of clean 60s minimalism, with a grid-like pattern of polished and matte stripes on the metal parts, a few metal pull-knobs, and a wide ribbon speedo. The steering wheel is a spindly, willowy thing with a lovely little semi-circular horn ring. It feels fragile, but the airy, light quality matches the overall tone of the car remarkably well.
And I love this little Corvair insignia thing in the center of the wheel. What is that on top of the 'o' there — a leaf? A Zulu warrior's shield? An arrowhead? I have no idea, but I love it.
The front seats are almost buckets, but not quite. They're more of a divided bench, which is, of course, very American. They're low-backed, which in a convertible is great for making everything feel incredibly open. There's a good amount of leg room in the front, and a reasonable amount in back as well.
The boxy shape of the Corvair means that the interior space is pretty damn good considering how small the car is, and the same goes for the front-mounted trunk. It's wide and surprisingly deep. The spare tire can be held either up front (which helps with some weight distribution issues) or in the rear, over the engine on a special holder if you need more room for luggage up front.
Yoshi's car had the interior metal parts painted black, but originally those would be body colored, something which he's considering putting it back to when he gets the chance.
The 2.4L twin-carb flat-6 in these first-generation (non-turbo) Corvairs made a modest but respectable 80 HP. With the manual transmission, I suspect these cars would be reasonably quick in the right circumstances, and for the era. But the lazy, two-gear Powerglide does do a lot to urinate into the cornflakes of speed.
It's not lightning off the line, but this Corvair isn't woefully sluggish, either. Acceleration is gradual but steady, and you can get onto the highway and merge and make 70 MPH without much drama at all. Once at speed, the engine holds it just fine, and never seemed to be straining.
This isn't the Corvair I'd pick to go racing in, but for general around-town and even highway driving, it does just fine.
As an aside, I really love watching this engine run. It looks, feels, smells, and sounds very familiar to me after a lifetime of air-cooled VWs, but is just different enough to be interesting. Plus, I love that crazy 90° bend in the fan belt, and all those pulleys.
Really, the braking isn't any worse than most of the cars of the era, with single-circuit drums all around, but thanks to the Corvair's light weight it doesn't feel scary.
Well, Yoshi's was a touch scary because for some reason it was pulling hard to the left under braking, but I'm sure that's fixable. The biggest reason I'm marking brakes as below average is because of the single-circuitness of them. In 1968, I think, dual circuit brakes became mandatory for all cars, meaning if there's a leak or a hose break or whatever in the braking system, at least two of your wheels will still try and stop you. Prior to that, you're getting stopped by whatever poor bastards are unlucky enough to be in your way.
This is where this particular Corvair really shines. Maybe it's because it was a convertible on a lovely LA afternoon, but for whatever reason I found the process of driving and riding in this Corvair to be almost goddamn magical.
The overall sensation I got from the car was this feeling of almost etherial lightness — something sorely missing from the heavy, overprotective cars of today. The thin windshield pillars, the light outline of a steering wheel, the open air, the sharp clickity clack of the engine from behind me, the featherweight pressure needed to guide the front wheels — all of this added up to a wonderful driving experience.
I'm not sure how to exactly convey it other than to say its sort of like how it would feel if you could drive a quick pencil sketch done by someone with a huge natural talent for drawing. The littlest flicks of the pencil implying so much more than what's physically on the paper.
Maybe it sounds crazy, but that's how it felt. Like driving a lovely little sketch.
I know this is supposed to be the Achilles's heel of these early, ass-heavy, swing-axle Corvairs. And I'm sure it absolutely will get you into trouble if you let it. But here's the trick: don't let it.
In this particular car, with its soothingly lazy Powerglide and open top, you never feel like getting into trouble. In twisties, the slight tail-happiness gives a little bit of welcome drama, but that can happen at low enough speeds so it's just a bit of fun and not an invitation to meet all your old childhood pets.
The unassisted steering is light and precise, and the car is sprung more for comfort than the Porsches that inspired it would suggest. The overall handling result is ease more than performance, and that suits this car's character just fine.
I'm amazed I didn't mind the (by modern standards) neolithic two-speed Powerglide transmission more than I did. But the truth is I kind of liked this Corvair with an automatic, as deplorable as that idea may be.
It just fit so well with the overall easy character this car has. Stuck in traffic is no big deal, there's no finicky, hard-sprung clutch to worry about, it creeps up trafficky hills with ease, and sure, while it robs power, maybe that's what's saving you from a decapitating roll as you oversteer like a madman around a corner.
I don't know for sure, but this is the first time I've ever come away with a positive feeling about a two-speed auto. Some of that has to do with the wonderful, tiny little thumb-lever used to shift gears. It's dash-mounted and just perfect for the car. Yoshi told me there's some folks who convert that to a floor shifter, but you'd have to be crazy to do that.
If you have an automatic Corvair, a tiny, dash-mounted shift nub is the way to go.
Accepting the usual caveats about reliability and safety inherent in any 50 year old car, I see no reason why this couldn't be an entirely usable daily driver. It is, for Yoshi, and it could be for most people.
It's easy to drive, the visibility is excellent, the dimensions make maneuvering and parking a snap, there's a good amount of both luggage and people space — for those daring enough, this could absolutely be a Corolla-replacement.
Gas mileage is even decent, in the low to mid 20s.
You'll want a drip tray to catch all the charm leaking from this car. Not only is it handsome in a very Mad Men-era 60s sort of way, it also has that little bit of bad-boy cachet since you're driving something unsafe, at any speed. Even the leisurely neighborhood jaunt at 32 MPH becomes a daredevil's run, at least in the eyes of people who just know the car from Wikipedia reports about recent third-party presidential candidates.
For those in the know, however, they'll realize what a prize this old red lady is, and treat her with the respect she deserves.
Corvairs aren't incredibly rare, but well-maintained original ones like these certainly aren't all over the place, and the historical significance of the car will always guarantee some interest in these as collectibles.
Yoshi picked up this one for around $6000, and there's still decent ones to be found in the general $5000-$10,000 ballpark. These really are the American Porsche 911, and you can find ones to suit almost any desire — charming runabouts like this one, or turbocharged performance animals. Plus, there's the wagons and the vans, making for a really interesting lineup of cars that shows a fascinating road not taken for American cars.
- Engine: 2.4-liter gasoline flat-six
- Power: 80 HP @ 4400 RPM 125 lb-ft @ 2400
- Transmission: Two-speed Powerglide auto
- 0-60 Time: 13 seconds, maybe (estimated)
- Top Speed: ~ 90 mph
- Drivetrain: Rear-engine, rear wheel drive
- Curb Weight: 2,625 lbs (dry weight, unloaded)
- Seating: four to five, if friendly
- MPG: 22-26 MPG
- original MSRP: $1,992 in 1962 ($15,441 today)