My family took our 1962 Corvair Spyder on many trips, including this one down the California coast in the early 1980s. This is my brother at age 3. (Family photos)
Nothing purrs quite like a Chevy Corvair.
That pleasant roar was the soundtrack of my childhood. So many memories are bound by this car.
I grew up in Salem, Ore., about as far from Detroit as you can get. But I lived the car culture that’s integral to this place — and that’s on mighty display right now during the North American International Auto Show.
And it wasn’t just any Corvair. It was a 1962 Monza Spyder convertible. The car was already more than 20 years old by the time I can remember it, but it was beautiful: sleek black paint job and red interior. When the top was down, it was one of those cars that made other drivers do an envious double take.
My dad picked up the Corvair for $500 back in the early ’70s from an Oregon farmer who hadn’t used it much. He bought it the same day he took my mom out on one of their first dates.
Dad had set his sights on a Corvair long before. “I liked the way it sounded and moved through the gears,” he says. As a mechanical engineer, Dad had hoped to make a business building lightweight, performance sports cars. And he wanted to model the engine on a Corvair. The ’62 engine was turbocharged — the first year for these engines in the U.S. — with a horizontally opposed, air-cooled flat six cylinder.
That’s why he bought this particular Corvair. And he did build his own car. Six thousand hours later, Dad had his first sports car completed; but then the government crushed his dream when Transportation Department officials told him they’d need three of his vehicles for crash tests.
So, my dad turned to the car he knew best. He decided to start a business rebuilding Corvair engine parts. And that’s how he supported my family for decades. Our vacations were plotted around where the annual Corvair Society of America convention would be held.
For many years, we used our Corvair as the family car. When I was 5 and my brother was 3, we took a camping trip down the Oregon and California coast. Dad fashioned a car carrier on the back, and off we went.
But part of the challenge of having a classic car is keeping it on the road. Ralph Nader made a name for himself by devoting a chapter of his 1965 book, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” to the Corvair. He may have had a point.
Two instances stand out. On a sunny day, with the top down, the four of us were heading to a family wedding. As we drove over a coastal mountain pass, a poof of smoke suddenly emerged from the back of the car. My dad pulled over. “There were flames,” my mom recalls.
Luckily, a concerned driver had seen what was happening and pulled in behind us. Since the engine is in the back of the Corvair, this could have been a serious problem. We all got out of the car right away, and the kind stranger came running over with a fire extinguisher and put out the flames coming from both rear tires. The brake pads had overheated in a major way. “The brakes fell out in a pile,” Dad remembers.
And then there was the day we took a family jaunt over to the beach. The ocean was nearly in sight when we heard a thunk. The power went out so we coasted to the side of the road. We got out to see what was wrong, and there was the engine sitting on the ground. The rear motor mount had loosened and that’s all it took.
No matter how bad the breakdown, though, my dad always fixed it. I have many memories of his legs sticking out from under the car — working on the latest problem.
He kept the car going so my brother and I could drive it during high school. Trust me, we both have our share of stories.
Yet no matter how many times something went wrong with the Corvair, we never lost our affection for this car. Sadly, my parents decided to sell it a few years ago — my dad realizing he didn’t wish to invest more time under the hood. I think we all shed a few tears that day.
Even though the Corvair no longer sits in the driveway, it will always be part of the family.
Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.