Unappreciated at Any Speed

Seventy Bay Area enthusiasts -- and thousands more across the nation -- don't care what Ralph Nader says. They want their Corvairs.

The first thing a visitor sees upon entering Dave Newell's apartment in El Sobrante is the red-and-white vinyl front bench seat from a 1964 truck. But this is no ordinary seat, Newell explains earnestly. It's a talking seat from one of the Chevy auto shows. When what Chevy designers dubbed the "a-point" of someone in need of rest hits the seat, a recorded message is activated. The message extols the comfort and styling of Chevy seats.

The seat goes perfectly with the decor of Newell's apartment -- decor that might be described as "all-Corvair." Corvair mementos cover the apartment walls; there are neon dealer signs, performance trophies, and an award that Corvair television ads won in 1962.

A display case opposite the seat contains promotional items that Chevy dealers would give to prospective Corvair buyers -- tiny crown-shaped bottles of Prince Matchabelli perfume in pouches imprinted with the Chevrolet logo, potholders bearing the Corvair insignia, even a Chevrolet fly swatter.

Another cabinet holds more -- a tie bar shaped like the tail end of a Corvair Monza and a musical lighter that plays Chevy's jingle "See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet" when you flip the top open.

A self-described Corvair historian, Newell began collecting Corvair items in 1967, when he was 15. He makes his living selling Chevrolet memorabilia -- the shelves of boxes and binders that stand floor to ceiling on the other side of the apartment -- but his true passion is the Corvair.

Among other things, Newell owns what looks like an overgrown green-and-white bumblebee (it is actually a fishing lure made in the approximate likeness of a Corvair Greenbrier van) and the watch that Chevy engineer Al Kolbe was wearing when he designed the first Corvair engine. Lining the walls of the library are filing cabinets and shelves full of carefully ordered Corvair documents -- everything from photos and blueprints of Corvair prototypes to the training kits Chevy would send to every dealership. And there is more than memorabilia.

In the 1970s, Newell would sometimes come across Corvairs that had died on the roadside. With the help of a friend in the Highway Patrol he would contact the owners. In most cases, they would give him the cars, or sell them for a meager price. Occasionally, he smiles, one would be good enough to drive.

He owns only one Corvair now, a 1961 Lakewood station wagon that he drives occasionally and stores at his parents' house in Hayward. But over the years, he has owned at least 25 of these, the most reviled autos in history, the initial vehicular victims of Ralph Nader -- Chevrolet Corvairs. "They come and go like lost children," he says affectionately

In the last days of September 1959, Chevrolet dealers prepared for the automotive event of the decade -- the unveiling of the brand-new, rear-engine Corvair, the first of a new generation of American compact cars.

Dealership windows were quickly opaqued with multiple coats of Glasswax. Up went signs: "Coming, FRIDAY, OCT 2." All the major newspapers ran bold-face ads: "You've got a thrill coming! Corvair, new compact car by Chevrolet."

It was a time when annual model changes were exciting news. New cars arrived at dealerships cloaked in canvas, shrouded in mystique. Dealers heralded the introduction of the latest models with searchlights and streamers. Families would pack showrooms during "announcement week," eager to see what Detroit had come up with now.

Information about the Corvair -- they took the name from a 1954 experimental Corvette -- had been carefully leaked to the public for over a year. The new car had been hyped in the automobile trade publications; Motor Trend even went so far as to speculate what the Corvair would look like.

So on Oct. 2, 1959, a Friday, crowds flooded dealerships everywhere, eager to lay eyes on Chevy's new compact. They made their way past the familiar models, past the conservative Bel Air and the flashy Impala. Even the Corvette, usually a guaranteed attention-getter, seemed like old hat.

And then -- there it was. Low, smooth, and relatively small, the Corvair was ... surprisingly plain. It hardly looked like the news of the year.

But the Corvair certainly was different. It was an engineering marvel -- the first mass-produced American car with an air-cooled rear engine. Almost everything about it was new, from the lightweight aluminum engine and unit-body construction (the Corvair body was welded in one piece, not mounted on a separate chassis, as was the case with other American cars) to the independently suspended rear axles.

The Corvair was lighter and smaller than its predecessors, yet it was much roomier than the popular VW and other European compacts. Because of its rear engine, the Corvair had more passenger space: There was no transmission hump taking up room in the front seating area. The air-cooled, six-cylinder engine promised good fuel economy in all weather, without the hassles of antifreeze.

At first the car did not sell as well as expected. The ultrabasic Ford Falcon, introduced that same fall, outsold the Corvair by a wide margin.

Then in May 1960, Chevy introduced the Monza, an upgraded version of the basic Corvair. It came with sporty bucket seats and luxury touches, including chrome trim on the armrests and a folding rear seat. Sales took off.

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