CORVAIR ACROSS AMERICA


by J Walshe |
CORVAIR ACROSS AMERICA

1960 CORVAIR 700

Engine 2288cc/6-cyl/OHV

Power 80bhp@4400rpm

Torque 125lb ft@2400rpm

Gearbox 2-speed automatic

0-60mph 17.5sec

Top speed 86mph

Fuel economy 19mpg

‘Hippies!’ screamed a fat man in a petrol station. ‘I thought we got rid of you people in the Seventies!’ He had a ‘Trump: Make America Great Again’ sticker on his Dodge Ram, he was wearing a cowboy hat without irony and he almost certainly had a gun. He seemed genuinely repulsed at the sight of us. We looked at each other and had to concede that he had a point.

CORVAIR ACROSS AMERICA

We’d been living in a Chevrolet Corvair for two weeks and we’d just driven across the Mojave Desert – and it showed. Our clothes were stained with engine oil, beer and brake cleaner and the ‘Vair was splatted with mud and insects. Everything we possessed was coated in sand.

We were deep into the most clichéd of road trips: east coast to west coast USA. We’d set out in search of seedy motels, tumbleweed, moonshine, urban decay, rednecks, drive-in movies, corn dogs, country music, nodding donkeys, raccoons, xenophobia and furred arteries. We hadn’t been disappointed on any count.

An illogical plan

The plan was spawned six months earlier. A broken ankle and a flurry of internet procrastination led me to purchase of the car that topped my non-fantasy dream garage list: a 1960 Chevrolet Corvair saloon. It was in Greensboro, North Carolina. Shipping it from the east coast was the most logical option, requiring a straightforward 300-mile jaunt to Charleston, South Carolina. Shipping it from the west cost was the least logical option, demanding a gruelling 3000-mile thrash to Los Angeles, California. I talked options with fellow road trip enthusiast Simon Redrup. It was a no-brainer. For good measure, we decided to add a further 2000 miles by visiting Detroit.

CORVAIR ACROSS AMERICA

I’d been introduced to the car’s seller by Steve Avery and Brian Baker, Corvair specialists of high repute in nearby Spartanburg, South Carolina. They took the project under their wing with fanaticism. Corvair parts are cheap, so I figured that anything faintly dubious might as well be replaced before the trip, rather than during it. Steve and Brian worked through the car with pleasing persnicketiness. They rebuilt the brake master cylinder, replaced all the slave cylinders, fitted new shoes and filled the system with DOT 5. They flushed the fuel tank, replaced the fuel lines, fitted a filter, rebuilt the fuel pump and overhauled the carburettors. They replaced the battery, HT leads, points, condenser, distributor cap, rotor arm and spark plugs. They rebuilt the starter motor, checked the dynamo, replaced the cooling fan bearing and fitted a new fanbelt. They spotted and replaced an incorrect oil pump, fitted new oil pressure and temperature switches, and hoovered dead spiders from the engine’s cooling baffles.

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CORVAIR ACROSS AMERICA

The handover

We arrived and spent some time sorting a few final details and next morning, Steve and Brian waved us off, armed with a big box of spares and an emergency survival kit courtesy of Steve Lambert, the car’s charming previous owner. It included cocktail-making impedimenta and a bottle of dangerous-looking local moonshine. Our navigation policy was to stick to B-roads that looked interesting in our small-scale AA Road Atlas. This proved to be a winning system. The lumpen proletariat rarely seemed to stray from the country’s dreary but effective Interstate network, so we often had the roads to ourselves.

CORVAIR ACROSS AMERICA

A gut-churning route across the Smoky Mountains allowed me to get intimately acquainted with the Corvair. I’d always assumed that ‘Vairs handled adequately, choosing to believe the glowing reports of Sixties motoring journalists, who tended to be accomplished drivers, rather than the sensationalism of Ralph Nader, who didn’t hold a driving licence at the time. I was wrong. The Corvair was one the best-handling saloons I’d ever driven. It was stable, pointy and grippy. Like most rear-engined cars, it responded well to smooth but firm driving: settle it carefully on the brakes, point it at the corner and get on the accelerator as soon as possible. ‘You gotta watch those, they’re lethal!’ a man told me in the first petrol station we stopped at, pointing at the Corvair with his thumb. ‘That sucker’ll spin you round, soon as look at you!’ Similar wisdom was offered at almost every subsequent petrol station. Catching and overtaking the perpetrators became a satisfying sport.

CORVAIR ACROSS AMERICA

A ride in a Dyamaxion proves to be a popular distraction.

We stopped at Nashville, Tennessee, for a poke around the wondrous Lane Motor Museum. It’s a source of rampant overstimulation for anyone with a penchant for the weird, wonderful and dismal. ‘Shall we jump in the Dymaxion and grab a kebab?’ suggested Jeff Lane, the museum’s erudite curator. We assumed he was joking. He wasn’t. It was the most surreal kebab run I’ve ever been party to.

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Long haul

We spent three days wafting across Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska on Lincoln Highway – a historic transcontinental route sucked dry in the Fifties by the opening of the parallel Interstate 80. Once-grand trading towns have long-since shrivelled, leaving 1500 miles of straight and spectacularly dull two-lane highway through cornfields. The Corvair seemed happy at speeds up to 80mph, but its resonant sweet-spot was 64mph. My right foot would invariably settle at this speed if left without mental supervision. We meditated, dozed and reflected on existence. We learned fireflies still glow for several seconds after impacting on a windscreen.

CORVAIR ACROSS AMERICA

The motels we stayed at were run-down and geared more towards residents than passing trade, though their cockroaches were unusually large and healthy. Bars were and diners were downbeat but entertaining. We were careful not to say anything offensively liberal. One evening, we noticed that the Corvair had sailed past its 3000-mile service interval. We couldn’t find anything worth doing aside from cleaning and gapping the points, adjusting the front brakes and nipping up the wheel bearings a little.

CORVAIR ACROSS AMERICA

Corvair blasts through Monument Valley.

The route from Pagosa Springs to Kayenta was like something from a John Ford western, the landscape shifting as we fell in altitude from mountains, to canyons, to full-blown desert. We were forced to deploy our emergency cocktail kit that evening, following the horrifying discovery that the Navajo Indian Reservation still observes prohibition.

Route 66 is largely buried beneath Interstate 40, but a few decent sections are still intact. Seligman to Kingman was pleasant, if a bit of a tourist gauntlet. Kingman to Topock, meanwhile, was marvellous – its sinuousness clearly filtering out the unadventurous 80 per cent of holidaymakers.

Brain-melting 45-degree heat and the inadequacy of our road atlas caused us to get lost in the Mojave Desert. We’ll never know exactly what route we took – but we drove 300 miles to cover 100 as the crow flies. Happily, our beer cooler was well-stocked and the Corvair’s engine demonstrated admirable temperature control. Finding ourselves nearby and intrigued by its name we visited Zzyzx, a fascinatingly odd settlement founded as a health spa in the Forties by an eccentric evangelist and now used a desert studies centre. For similar reasons, we spent the night in Boron – dusty hellhole so-called because of its proximity to the world’s largest Borax mine. Nightlife was limited.

CORVAIR ACROSS AMERICA

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Closing stages

CORVAIR ACROSS AMERICA

The final push to Los Angeles began with a rousing thrash across the San Gabriel mountains. These often appear in film scenes involving glamorous types in sports cars, which usually end in nasty accidents. The Los Angeles area is a 1500 square mile concrete grid of traffic jams. It took four hours to fight our way to Long Beach, but we were quaffing mojitos on board the Queen Mary by early evening.

Our 5410-mile journey had been almost too easy – lacking the breakdowns, arrests and peril that I usually expect in a holiday. It had, however, been fabulous. The Corvair had surpassed all expectations and the USA had proven to be every bit as excessive, corny, sinister, welcoming, phoney, sheltered and spectacular as we’d anticipated. It might have been the world’s cheesiest road trip – but that doesn’t mean everyone shouldn’t do it.

CORVAIR ACROSS AMERICA
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