The Corvair

Okay, brace yourself.  I’m asking you to really shake the dust out of some of those brain cells.  Many of you may be too young to remember.  Maybe all of you, depending on when you read this.

There was this 1960’s Japanese television show called Ultraman. It was in the same vein as those goofy old Godzilla movies, and Ultraman would always “get big” to fight off whichever rubber-suited monster threatened Tokyo that week. While small, Ultraman (aka Science Patrol Officer Hayata) drove around in a 1960 Corvair (which the Japanese considered futuristic).


I had one of these Science Patrol cars.  I had a 1960 “unsafe at any speed” Corvair.

Actually it was my Mom’s.  It had started out as Dad’s, back in Tucson, but after we moved to California and my Dad bought a Caddy, Mom inherited it.  It was easy to work on and very easy to drive.  Like a VW Bug it had a rear engine that was air-cooled, and when it was running it was so quiet that it sounded like a sewing machine.  To change gears, a tiny shift switch on the dash controlled the automatic transmission.  When I was 12 my dad would let me drive it around on dirt roads.  At home, I was allowed to back out of the driveway, and pull it into the garage.  When I was fourteen, my mom would let me take it to the store (less than a mile away) even though I didn’t yet have a learner’s permit.

It was the summer of that year that my parents started leaving me at home on weekends while they took their boat out.  My friends Brad and Pat were over one of these weekends, and I got a wild hair or something and decided we should take that Corvair for a ride.  Brad’s father had a cabin up in the nearby foothills, so we loaded up on soda pop and Cheetos and took that Corvair out on the open road.

I knew the rules of the road.  I looked at least 17 or so.  We pulled it off, though we never did find the cabin.  We did get completely lost in the woods and took hours to find our way out, and then headed back home to arrive just after dark with barely any gas in the tank.

My father, upon their return, noticed that the gas – which had been full when they left – was way down, and there was strange red dust in the wheel wells.  “This car has been up in the mountains!” he exclaimed.  “You took this car up in the mountains!”

“No I didn’t.”  I proclaimed my innocence over and over, and since he didn’t have any real proof he let it drop.

It was about a year and a half later that I got my learner’s permit.  I took driver’s education in High School and then my parents rounded it out by sending me to Sears Drivers Training School.

My instructor was a belligerent dickhead.  We drove around in a special car with a steering wheel, gas pedal and brake in both the driver’s and passenger’s side.  He seemed to love throwing on the brakes for no reason and yelling at me for imaginary mistakes.  “You just wiped out a whole row of parked cars!” he yelled once.

I looked around and wondered where these cars were.  There wasn’t a car within 100 feet of us, parked or otherwise.  It turns out I was supposed to pretend that there were parked cars in every parking space, but he’d neglected to tell me this up front.  When I pointed this out to him he just got more belligerent.

This guy was everything I hated about adults all rolled into one consolidated butthead.

Regardless, I passed and got my certificate.  I also passed my driver’s test and got my real, actual driver’s license. The first thing I did was take the Corvair to pick up Brad, and then Brad and I drove to our favorite place, Tower Records.  I bought Leftoverture, the new album by Kansas (which gives you an idea when all this took place).

Though the Corvair was still technically my Mom’s car, I was the one who drove it.  She didn’t need it, because whenever she wanted something from the store she’d just send me.  If she actually had to go somewhere, she usually went with my Dad.

If you haven’t heard anything about the 1960 Corvair, there’s one thing you should know.  This is the car that Ralph Nader made his reputation on.  The car was poorly designed and very unsafe.  Through the years I found this to be true over and over again.

The first time was when I was driving to my friend’s house near the local university, and I made a right turn and the car leaned over and stopped.  I got out of the car and found, to my horror, the right rear wheel was about two feet from the car, like the rear axle had telescoped out.  I called my Dad and he knew instantly what was wrong.  It seemed this had happened to him before.  He drove out with his toolbox and had me jack the car up, and he crawled under and reattached the axle to the transmission.

Years later, after this car had been passed back and forth in-between family members several times, it ended up as mine again.  This time it was actually registered to me.  I was newly married, struggling to survive, with a new baby at home that needed food and diapers.  I got a job as a computer repairman for ComputerLand and used the Corvair to make house calls.  There was this one call I was going out on for a professor at the University of the Pacific, and I hadn’t gotten three blocks from ComputerLand when I saw smoke pouring out of the vents on the back hood.  I whipped a quick U-turn and zoomed back to the store, and once in the parking lot I got out and raced around to the back end.  Opening the hood, I discovered the engine was on fire.

Panicked, I raced into the store, startling sales people and customers alike, ran to the break room and grabbed the two-gallon coffee maker.  I raced back out carrying the coffee maker, again startling everyone in the store, and dumped all two gallons of coffee onto the burning engine.  It put the fire out all right, but after that the car smelled like burnt coffee for years.

One good thing came out of it, though: ComputerLand bought me a van to use for company business.

More years passed.  The car passed hands again amidst the family, and ended up as mine one last time.  My baby daughter was now 4 years old, and her and I had been with her mom at some event and decided to leave early.  It was past dark and getting close to my kid’s bedtime.  Her mom, having her own car at the time, stayed behind to finish up.

As my daughter and I were driving home on the freeway, the car began to shudder.  My first thought was that the engine was freezing up.  Our exit was within sight, which was a relief.  I let up on the gas pedal and let the car coast, but the shuddering continued to increase.  It became violent, and my daughter started screaming, and then suddenly it stopped and the Corvair very slowly tilted to one side.  Moments later there was a muffled dragging sound.  I let the car glide over to the side of the freeway and stop.

“Daddy!” my 4-year-old cried, “I’m scared!”

“It’s okay honey.  A wheel just came off the car.  We’re okay now.”  I got her out of the car and we started walking toward the off ramp.  She was still shook up and frightened, and in an effort to console her I said, “It’s okay sweetie.  We’re having an adventure.  This is a real, true adventure!  Isn’t it exciting?”

It took her a moment, as I guess she was thinking it through, but then she said, “Daddy?”

“Yes sweetheart?”

“I don’t like adventures.”

After that, I gave the car back to my Dad and never touched it again.  He called me one day and said, “You know, I’ve got your Corvair all fixed up.  You can pick it up anytime.”

“No, Dad,” I told him, “that’s okay. You can have it back. It’s yours.”

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