The Land Rover Writer

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Bearable Lightness of Being

I drove the Corvair around a bit yesterday and instantly reminded myself of the dictum laid down by the great Colin Chapman of Lotus automobile fame: "Add lightness." Denise McCluggage, the astonishing race car driver/columnist/Land Rover and Corvair enthusiast, captured this in her latest Autoweek column, "Impress Me With Lightness."

The Lotus 7 epitomized the Chapman ethos; the first ones had barely a 1-liter engine propelling an insanely light car at amazing speeds. Since it weighed so little, the brakes could be light because they required little work to slow down the car. To this day, Lotus cars focus on light, lithe handling and styling. They economize on weight, not on engineering.

Around the same time Chevrolet engineers first looked to cut weight on their new rear engine/ rear transmission/read wheel drive car. They knew instantly they had a nimble car in their hands. For its wheelbase [a mere 1" shy of a 109" Land Rover] they had a 5-6 seat car small for its era, and one with a rear weight bias that would enable it to turn with the lightest touch of a steering wheel.

45 years after the manufacture of my 1996 Corvair, that feeling still imbues itself in the car.  The slim windshield pillars, the lack of a "B" pillar, and the large rear window assures that the car's greenhouse lets in a lot of sun and light. You feel more nimble inside and whenever you touch a control, there's none of that push and shove you expect in an American performance car. Everything is light and smooth - just the way it should be in a driver's car.

The Corvair never offered power assist for steering or for braking - neither were necessary because of its engineering. Although the steering ratio is statistically slow, the gentle oversteer inherent in a rear engined car means that a light turn of the wheel, combined with a firm foot on the the throttle, will move the car smartly in the desired direction. You can feel it pivot, just like you can skiing or snowboarding. It's a fabulous feeling, largely unknown in contemporary cars. It makes the simplest drive around the island an absolute delight.

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