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Corvair… If you Dare!!!

Below is a great article originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002. You may know or remember some of the names interviewed. The original online document is linked at the bottom of the post. Enjoy!

Published 4:00 am PST, Friday, January 4, 2002

Some of those on the outside demean it as the Ford Pinto of its day, a Dead Car Driving. Ralph Nader started the car-safety movement by indicting it as "Unsafe at Any Speed." Youngsters probably think it's the latest from Nike.

But for Mel Raven, the Chevy Corvair simply is the sweetest little ride he knows.

Raven, a 56-year-old San Jose resident, not only owns six Corvairs, he runs an auto shop that fixes nothing but Corvairs, a fact that he says leaves people, "dumbfounded."

"Just the fact that it was something nobody else wanted to touch, you know. I figured it was something I needed to learn about," Raven said. And when he learned more, he fell in love, hopelessly.

Raven is not alone. He is one of about 80 people in Valley Corsa, a 26-year- old Corvair collecting club that meets monthly at Wilcox High School in Santa Clara.

It's a diverse group of folks bonded to a car they call smart-looking, fun to drive and pioneering. They believe that the Corvair, with a little better luck, would have been one of the greats.

The number of Corvair drivers in the South Bay -- start looking closely and you might spot one a week on the roads -- shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with Bay Area whimsy.

When you own a Corvair, you invite nostalgic conversation, some bewildered looks and, sometimes, a scoff from a dude in a Jag.

"I like to own cars others thought were crappy, show 'em they're wrong," said Dean Olsen, 72, of Fremont, who has laid claim to about 30 Corvairs. Olsen likes Corvairs so much, he bought an RV storage yard after he retired: He needed a place to keep his Corvairs.

Think that's unusual? Clark Calkins, a 55-year-old computer programmer from Walnut Creek, likes to tell the story of how his girlfriend spun into the median barrier on Interstate 680 in Danville when the rear axle went out on her 1964 Monza hardtop.

"She had it to towed to a junkyard and vowed to never get back in the car," Calkins said. Unbowed, he went to the junkyard and bought the car for $75. Thirty years later, he still drives it.

The phenomenon of the Corvair is not limited to the South Bay. A group that meets in the East Bay also has about 80 members, and there are clubs in Modesto and Sacramento. Each is a chapter of a national group called the Corvair Society of America, or Corsa, that works to dispel myths about the cars and to ensure the availability of parts.

Corsa has 120 chapters, including in Paris and Switzerland, with 5,300 dues- paying members. There's even an annual convention.

"I imagine some people, based on the car's reputation, rule it out -- but others seek it out," said Mike McGowan, executive editor of Corsa's monthly magazine, the Corsa Communique. "I think you'll find that cars and owners reflect each other: Porsche owners have a certain snobbishness. Corvette people like to go fast. Corvair people can't have any ego problems."

Maybe. But Seth Emerson, a 54-year-old San Jose resident and the president of the San Jose group, sure likes taking one of his Corvairs to a racetrack and beating Mustangs and Camaros.

"They can't believe you're beating them in the Ralph Nader special," Emerson said with a laugh.

Corvair owners relish their underdog status and have a passion for the unusual. They smile when people stop them and ask about their wheels; it seems like everybody used to have one.

The average Corvair lover likes to work on the car and has an astounding recall of the car line's history.

The Chevrolet Corvair debuted with rave reviews, and it was chosen Motor Trend Car of the Year in 1960. It was intended to be a mass-produced economy car, but it was different in that it was relatively small and sporty. And it was the first American car with an aluminum air-cooled engine mounted in the rear and a swing-axle independent rear suspension.

The Corvair 500 and 700 series sedans were introduced in October 1959. In May 1960, the sportier Monza -- with bucket seats and a stick shift -- became the signature Corvair and the most popular.

Chevrolet subsequently rolled out the 900 series, the Greenbrier sports wagon, the Lakewood station wagon, the Loadside and Rampside pickups, the Corvan (a van, naturally) and the top-of-the-line, turbocharged Spyder, which later became known as the Corsa.

Some began calling Corvair the "poor man's Porsche." Nobody knew it would later become the poor man's collector car. A fixer-upper fetches just a few hundred dollars today.

Shawn O'Neal, 30, of Concord, has one of the nicest Corvairs in the Bay Area, a metallic-green 1965 Corsa. He has spent less than $1,000 on it.

In its short lifetime, the Corvair sustained two blows: one from Ford, which unveiled the popular Mustang, and the other from Nader, whose 1965 book, "Unsafe at Any Speed," used the Corvair as the prime example of "the designed- in dangers of the American automobile."

Nader, then 31, reported that the Corvair's rear wheels tended to "tuck under" during turns, causing skids and roll-overs. The book became a best- seller and prompted the birth of car-safety laws, while Nader became famous.

The Corvair didn't truly die until 1969 when, after making 1.8 million Corvairs in the United States, Chevy stopped production. Just 6,000 Corvairs came off the line that year.

But Corvair lovers say they don't feel they've made lemonade out of a lemon.

The suspension was improved in 1964, and Corvair enthusiasts maintain that the car was always safe, handling differently from other cars of its era but not handling any worse.

Their silver bullet is a report in 1972 by the newly formed National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which found the Corvair was as safe as other cars of its time.

Nader, whose work led to the formation of the NHTSA, calls that study "rigged."

"I've read 'Unsafe at Any Speed,' " said Emerson, who has owned 50 or so Corvairs. "I have a copy of it that I bought used -- I didn't want any of the money to go to Ralph.

"Hey, the Corvair is not for everybody. But I think it's a very versatile car. I've stood by while people have said that Corvairs roll over and they leak oil and there's drawbacks to them. Well, there's drawbacks to any car. I've never had an accident in a Corvair, other than on the racetrack when I was pushing it. I think it's a very safe car."

And a misunderstood one, say Corvair lovers, who blanch when critics call the car dangerous or ugly. They can at least take heart that the Corvair is not listed as one of the millennium's 10 worst cars in a nationwide survey done in 2000 by the National Public Radio show "Car Talk."

The survey shows that people have harder feelings for the Yugo, the Chevy Vega, the Pinto, the AMC Gremlin, the Chevy Chevette, the Renault LeCar, the Plymouth Volare, the Cadillac Cimarron, the Renault Dauphine and the VW Bus.

Nader said he doesn't receive letters any more from Corvair drivers, and the relationship between the opposing sides -- even though neither is conceding -- is good-natured. Corsa actually invited Nader to speak at its 1993 convention. He told audience members that they had to be the best drivers in the world -- they were still alive.

The Corvair's following "is pretty impressive," Nader said in a telephone interview. "I know a lot of global issues of human survival that don't have this support.

"Because it was a challenge to drive, it bonded them because they felt they knew its idiosyncrasies. There's a bit of risque solidarity that occurs, and I think they've built friendships now . . . but I wouldn't advise anybody to do anything but polish it up and use it as a collector's item in a garage.

"It was a pretty car," Nader conceded. "Deadly, but pretty."

Thompson doesn't think much of Nader's opinion. In fact, he doesn't think about it at all. "If Corvairs flip, I would have found out in 1965 in my mom's Corvair," Thompson said jokingly.

Thompson, president of the San Francisco chapter of the Corvair Society of America, is like many Corvair enthusiasts in that he discovered his love as a younger man. Growing up in Detroit, he and his twin brother used to admire Corvair vans at a dealership lot near their home. Then their mother bought a 1965 Monza sedan.

"Every one of us five kids learned to drive on that car," Thompson said. "I always remembered it. A few years ago, with work, stress and pressure getting to me, I just thought, 'I wonder if I can find one of those old vans.' "

So in 1997, Thompson bought a 1964 Corvair Rampside truck for $700, then put $9,000 and a lot of sweat into the heap over the following year.

"Everybody loves it," Thompson said. "I always get the thumbs up on the road. One lady followed me up Mission Boulevard. I pulled over, and she said she told her husband about the truck. She wanted him to get one."

After the truck was restored, Thompson bought a wreck of a 1966 Monza convertible for $1,100. He finished it in August after an overhaul and a $15, 000 outlay. Now the car is pristine, with willow green paint -- an original factory color -- and black upholstery.

He says the car probably looks better now than it did coming off the factory floor. It's so pristine that his wife -- the inspiration for the restoration -- is afraid to drive it. So it sits in the garage like a metallic Cinderella, lusting for a parade or a homecoming game.

Mel Raven's Corvair story is even more romantic. Raven, who has owned a Corvair and a Pinto, bought a 1963 Monza convertible in 1969 for his girlfriend. When it broke down, nobody would work on it, so Raven bought another car for his girlfriend and a motorcycle for himself.

In 1975, the motorcycle died, "So I went back and got my Corvair again and tore it apart and found out what was wrong with it."

Five years later, Raven was a Corvair mechanic. Five years more, and Raven owned M&J Vairmart, one of the nation's most respected Corvair shops, say Corsa members.

"I'm doing a labor of love around here," he said.

Judy, Raven's girlfriend, became his wife; she passed away in 1990, but the 1964 burgundy-and-white Monza convertible she used to drive still sits in Raven's backyard.

"Every now and again, I go in the back and fired up," he said. "It always amazes me, because no matter how long I let the car set, boom, it fires right up, like it's saying, 'Let me out of here!' "

The Corvair won't be silenced.

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