Peering into Eric Nielsen’s Corvair coupe, your eyes lock on Unsafe At Any Speed, stowed just to the right of the accelerator.
The book was the making of Ralph Nader as a safety crusader and – it’s widely believed – the unmaking of Chevrolet’s first small car, which was rear-engined like the Volkswagen Beetle, Renault Dauphine, NSU Prinz and BMW 700 imports.
Nielsen turns the book upside down on occasion to see how many onlookers get the subtle reference to the 1960-63 models’ predilection for turning turtle. He’s funny that way.
Another little trick: He’ll leave both front and rear hoods slightly ajar at a cruise gathering, knowing some car fanciers who need to examine every engine will shake their heads at the cavity they find between the front wheels.
Not today, though; not at Club Corsa Ontario’s 15th annual spring swap meet at former Oshawa mayor John Gray’s house. More than Corvairs – four-doors as well as coupes, ramp-side pickups, Fitch Sprint and Yenko Stinger rarities – pack John and Bonnie Gray’s lawn and two driveways and all these owners know what’s where and how to keep the rubber side down.
They know that correct tire pressures stabilize 1960-63 models (improved suspensions transformed 1964-69 Corvairs). Even the early cars handled well enough to win two Canadian Winter Rallies. Corvair introduced turbocharging a decade before the Porsche Turbo that gets all the acclaim. And how can a car be remembered as a failure with 1,786,243 sales?
Best of all, they’re affordable: $7,000 might buy a nice example, while $109,000 is the highest seen on eBay, for a rare Yenko Stinger performance conversion. Comedian Jay Leno has a Yenko Stinger; so does Gray.
Nielsen bought his ’66 for $125 off a lot on the Danforth in Toronto in 1974. Before he turned 20, he had $10,000 in the car, now appraised at $15,000.
Corvairs run in the family. Nielsen’s mother drove one, his sister Sylvia as well. Sharon Kukemueller, of Ajax, whose 1963 coupe glows with the paint job completed over the winter, learned to drive in unlicensed Corvair bush cars her family kept at the cottage near Bobcaygeon, Ont., graduating to her parents’ road Corvair. She bought her ’63 in 2010 to celebrate her mother’s 80th birthday.
Kyle Pernokas, 32, of Bowmanville, Ont., is an exception, having grown up with ordinary automobiles. “Mostly I got my Corvair because I saw one in a movie – Fear, with Mark Wahlberg – and loved the way it looked,” he says of his rare four-door, believed to be the last Corvair Sprint upgraded (engine, suspension, wood steering wheel) by American racing legend John Fitch.
Surprisingly none of the stalwarts hold Ralph Nader in contempt. “Ralph Nader didn’t kill the Corvair,” says Kim Stankiewicz, whose Performance Initiatives in Kitchener, Ont., is a go-to shop. “He extended its run by three or four years.
“What killed the Corvair was the Ford Mustang coming out in 1964 and outselling it so badly: GM needed a V-8-powered car to compete and that became the Camaro.
“GM executives were worried about the optics of dropping the Corvair after Nader’s book came out [November, 1965], they continued selling it through 1969, but without any further development beyond meeting safety and emissions regulations.”
The Corvair actually was mortally wounded from day one as Detroit’s Big Three introduced their first small cars in 1959. Ford sold 433,726 Falcons in 1960, against 253,268 Corvairs. Price played a part: The two-door Corvair listed in Canada at $2,590, a Falcon $2,481, and $109 bought several bags of groceries in the day.
Chevy responded by rushing the Chevy II sedan into production in 1962 as a cheaper Falcon fighter. Corvair sold best as a sporty coupe, especially after the restyled second-generation debuted in 1965. (Four-door sedans sold poorly through 1967, by which time wagon, pickup and van variants were long gone.)
Nielsen’s coupe came off the Oshawa assembly line on Nov. 1, 1965 as a 500, bottom of the line. He refashioned it in 1975 as a Monza, fitting a full instrument panel and a 140-horsepower engine, the most powerful available with the two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. Turbos got up to 180 hp.
Driving east on Highway 2, Nielsen explains how the restoration was never intended to create a show-stopper, just to his taste. “This is me – this car, the way it is,” he says. “People ask about the paint cracking along the back fenders, I say, ‘What do you expect, that lacquer is almost 40 years old.’ I’m fine with it.”
The smoothness of the flat six-cylinder engine is as calming as an evening breeze, the exhaust note mellow. “I keep a Uni-syn in the glove box,” says the TTC mechanic, the tuning of the four carburetors being critical.
The ride quality feels luxurious: The seats of this era had springs as well as foam. The handling? Unthreatening. A lot of cranking the steering wheel is necessary for any significant change of direction, but otherwise 50 mph feels fine, and Nielsen says it’s good for 70 on Highway 401 – but he and wife, Moira Rose, prefer two-laners on their way to cruise nights.
Somewhere between Oshawa and Port Hope, Ont., I remember Nader turned 80 in November. Surely it’s time he reconsider.
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