The Land Rover Writer

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sublime Experience

A classic car, specifically my '66 Corvair Monza, need not be a trailer queen in appearance or a full mechanical rebuild in condition to provide a sublime driving experience. You don't even need to go very far. For me the first step required a 1 hr 20 minute ferry ride to the mainland terminal in Rockland, ME, to get my Corvair. 

For the past several months it has sat outdoors in the ferry parking lot as a "mainland car." This role had been served by my '80 Triumph TR-7, but after a water pump failure and a head gasket leak repair, it needs more attention before it can regain that responsibility.

If the TR-7 demonstrated that a skilled engineer like Spen King could take conventional components, like front engine/rear wheel drive, solid rear axle and coil springs, and produce a good handling sports car, the Corvair demonstrated that a team of suspension engineers could produce an unconventional, rear engine/rear wheel drive, fully independent rear suspension, sporting car. The fact that the TR-7, particularly in its 5-speed iteration, proved to be a comfortable car for highway travel was a bonus. The Corvair had to provide highway comfort and sports car handling to satisfy its wider buyer market - which is why I appreciate the Corvair so much.

Stepping off the ferry I admit to some concern as to whether the Corvair would actually start, given that the last time I visited this car one month ago I found the battery quite dead. In fact, after jump starting the car with a battery pack, I had to park it on a slight incline with plenty of "push" room in case it would require a push start later [it didn't]. So I purchased and installed a new battery and then let it sit for another month. 

Happily, the car fired right up in the warmish 40 degree temperature and then proceeded to entertain me for the afternoon. It took me to get a haircut, purchase coffee beans [unavailable at the island market] and then stop for coffee and a late afternoon lunch at an empty if nifty Rockland restaurant. There the Corvair parked outside delighted the young waitresses. 

The actual time behind the wheel was less than one hour, but the experience filled the day. The thin windshield pillars and frameless windows brightened the interior. Rolling down the window let the relative warmth flood the car. The thin steering wheel felt delicate but the bite around corners felt anything but delicate. With its Clark's-rebuilt twin carbs, set up and balanced by ear by Jim Westervelt, the Monza idled smoothly and accelerated smartly. 

I thought back to Robert Cumberford's "RIP Corvair" essay in Car & Driver [August, 1969], lambasting GM for killing off the car:

"Have you driven one of these cars?...Do you appreciate how seductive the '65-'69 machine really was? Have you ever driver an American car with pleasant manual steering? With powerful non-servo brakes? With soft suspension and side bite?" 

Yup - just yesterday, and he's right!