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Trial By Smoke: Racing LeMons in a 1963 Corvair

Because Hooniverse knows you’re never sick of LeMons coverage, here’s my report from the Boston Tow Party and Overhead Cam Bake that would have run earlier, if my laptop hadn’t died a crippling, painful death. Aren’t Thinkpads supposed to be the Jeep 4.0 inline-six of the computing world?

The Chevrolet Corvair is a car whose reputation precedes it. Certainly the car was revolutionary, even by today’s standards: it was a left-field shot seemingly out of nowhere, from a company at the top of its prime and with cash to burn. Back then, General Motors had the huevos to build a car with a horizontally-opposed aluminum “pancake” flat-six engine mounted somewhere between the parcel shelf and Helsinki, then pass it off as a family sedan as well as a coupe, a pickup truck, a station wagon, a six-door passenger van as well as a windowless panel variant, for which the engine presumably serves double duty as a taco truck’s food warmer.

Yet its reputation for lift-off oversteer and tragic swing-axle suspension design—the same as on the legendary Mercedes 300SL, and there’s one reason why surviving examples are so rare—has all but become a bedtime story passed on from generation to generation of budding Chevy enthusiasts.  Oh sure, they’ll tell you, it wasn’t that bad, they corrected the suspension design for the 1965 model year! If you keep your tires properly inflated, it drives perfectly well! A 1972 study concluded that it was no more dangerous than its contemporaries! Porsche, Mercedes, and VW used the same design too! That Nader jerk had an agenda! Eventually, all their kvetching sounds like frantic apologizing, like a frazzled dinner host who tries to ignore the catastrophic stove fire and asks you what you thought of the floral displays. It’s easy to write off their ceaseless harping and focus on the negatives, which I did.

Which is why I questioned Jim Brennan’s sanity as well as my own when he, team captain and Corvair tamer extraordinaire, offered me a seat in a 1963 Corvair sedan as part of Team Trailing Throttle Oversteer. This car, as you may recall, won the Index of Effluency at last year’s LeMons New England, for being the only team foolhardy enough to run what was then the oldest car to ever enter a LeMons race. Had it been any other claptrap $500 racer, maybe I wouldn’t have been so nervous. Yet this was not only a rusty, 40-year old, rear-engined, swing-axled, metal-dashboard American sedan cheaply converted for road racing duty, but it also had its scrappy underdog reputation to uphold—after all, any fool can run a BMW, right? And as our team would later find out, it would survive the weekend with its lofty reputation still intact, but not before a trial by fire—if not smoke—facing a host of mishaps and setbacks that would have beaten lesser teams. Some of it may not even have been my fault.


I was the first to show up, at a bright and early 7am.  “Um, I’m on one of the teams,” I said to the woman guarding the paddock gate.

“That’s great!” she responded sarcastically. “I mean, you’re driving, right?”

Hell if I knew, I thought.

The rest of the team slowly filtered in over the next three hours. Jim, who had shown up first, had flogged it at last year’s LeMons, putting in the most seat time and the fewest penalties. Andy owned and raced two Corvairs, including a maroon ’66 coupe with a 400hp Oldsmobile V8 mounted in the back. His son Alex had been karting since age 15 and had taken part in the Red Bull Driver Search. Both of them had driven it last year, putting in two-hour stints without major mishaps.

Meanwhile, the only competitive driving I had ever taken part in was behind the wheel of an automatic Chevy Cobalt for a dismal 38.7 seconds, during Chevrolet’s “Rev It Up” event in a Long Island parking lot, back when the Cobalt was a fresh new car worthy of aggressive promotion.  If anybody was going to strike out, it would be this guy, who didn’t even show up with a track suit and helmet. My only hope was for one of the other drivers to screw up in spectacular fashion, thereby resolving me of any blame by comparison.

“Does it have a horn?” I gingerly tapped the cone-shaped center emblem, sounding a weak tone that resembled a duck call filtered through a jar of marshmallow Fluff. “Yep,” Andy said, “that’s to let people know you’re about to get black-flagged.”

Last year the car took first in its class as well as the much-coveted Index of Effluency, for performing flawlessly the entire weekend, right up until it ate a fan belt. This year, however, Jim brought two spares. The car started up on its first foray, at a bright-and-early 7 in the morning, before any of the other team members had shown up yet. The front bushings had been replaced, rendering the car somewhat less scary to drive than last year. There would be no excuses this year.

“You know what?” Andy reasoned. “If you just go out there and don’t keep spinning and spinning and spinning, we can get into the top 20, at least the top 25.”

The excuses that followed, then, wouldn’t be chalked up to my incompetence (at least not yet). Turns out, the kill switch had never worked properly since it was installed last year. When the engine was stopped, it cut power competently, but when the engine was warm, the switch did nothing: the kill switch, in essence, didn’t kill. Last year the team was able to let this slide by the tech inspectors. But this year the safety rules featured far less tolerance for bullshitters: rack up five black flags and your team would be kicked out. Nobody without fire suits allowed in the fueling area (something I would later be yelled at about). And although the kill switch hadn’t been needed last year, thankfully, this year they demanded that we fix it—preferably in two hours, when the race started.

Johnny from Team Angry came over. A former veteran of Trailing Throttle Oversteer, he sported a rockabilly haircut and a wicked flat-black 1979 Regal that he was piloting this year. He had installed the kill switch last year, along with the rest of the wiring. If there was any betrayal from this former team member, Jim ignored it.

The left rear tire had to be removed to gain access to the kill switch. Johnny hunkered over the engine bay, plucking wires, disconnecting other wires, asking for wire strippers. Eventually, his head poked out and he asked to start the engine:

“Try it.” Alex flicked the kill switch. Nothing.

“Try it now.” Nothing again.

“Crap.”

Now this was a mystery: the switch stopped working entirely at this point.

“Jesus Christ, the goddamn switch is acting like crazy!” Jim’s brother Thomas yelled. He jammed a screw driver in the engine bay’s nether regions and was met with a shower of sparks. “I think the switch itself is broken!”

Another furious wrenching session ensued, this time with some more members of Team Angry. All the king’s horses, and all the king’s men, couldn’t put the damned kill switch back together again; it was now 11:10, less than an hour left to get the car on the track. “Ok,” Johnny said, “I got it this time.” He then ran back to his own team, who were also suffering electrical maladies. The kill switch had been reassembled with wires streaming from the wheelwell to the battery to the distributor. It was now 11:30. For a moment, everything seemed like it would fall into place.

Andy fired up the ignition.
“It’s cooking, it’s cooking!”

Thin, wispy streams of smoke poured out the engine bay. Sparks bounced off the fan. The acrid smell of plastic filled the tent. We shut the car off in a panic and pulled the plug wires. The smoke had cleared, revealing burnt wiring going to the distributor cap. In a haste to get it fixed the wiring had been accidentally reversed, frying the damn thing to the core. The race started in 25 minutes. We were dead in the water before we would be dead on the track. There was the possibility that I would never don a race suit and drive the Corvair. Somewhere, deep in the back of my mind, I was prepared to accept that.

“That’s it,” somebody remarked. “You’re done.”

To stay in the race, even to start late, we needed a new cap and a set of points for a six-cylinder mid-60s Chevrolet. We immediately began ringing up auto parts stores. If we called up enough stores, either one person would have one somewhere in, say, Tuscaloosa, or the police would arrest us for telephone harassment and we could take a plea bargain to get our entry fee back. “There’s one store in Philly that has one,” Alex reported from his Blackberry. We could probably make that in, like, two hours, right?”

Either way, the race had started without us. From the grandstand, the buzz of eighty horrible, ratty shitboxes sneezed and farted around the half-mile track. Some of the main culprits:

  • A ratty yellow Triumph TR7 with a James Bond 007 theme, complete with bullet hole stickers, machine guns in the taillights, and the license plate “TR7007”
  • A yacht-themed Porsche 928, complete with port-starboard lights, aluminum boat rails, collapsible boat awning, and pop-up headlight covers that still worked (sans headlights)
  • A bright-red 1963 Thunderbird with a turbodiesel engine from an 80s BMW 524td
  • A 1980s Nissan 300ZX with a Saab 2.8 turbo-4 engine jammed in there somewhere. Last year, the team of smart-alecks had fabricated a turbocharger out of a leaf blower, electronically activated by a switch on the dashboard. This year, they had entered the same car sporting the unusual engine swap, as well as a wing seemingly ripped from a World of Outlaws sprint car, mounted on the roof, hydraulically controlled (again, from the dashboard) to provide a semblance of “active downforce.” It got bent at a frightening angle halfway through Day 1, though witnesses allegedly did see it move.
  • A Porsche 924 with “DOUSCHE” scrawled over any and all Porsche lettering, that would go on to foul more times than Michigan in the 1993 NCAA championship
  • An Alitalia-liveried Fiero that I rumored to be a Lancia Group B prototype, lost during a terrible Costa di Amalfi Special Rally Stage grappa-tasting tragedy
  • A Saab 96 with a two-stroke motor that sounded like Gilbert Gottfried passing a kidney stone
  • A Jaguar XJ6 Sovereign
  • A MILSPEC-green Fiat 131 with “Abarf” logos
  • Alex Roy’s (of Gumball Rally fame) Team Polizei BMW M5

Ok, so Alex Roy didn’t enter his M5. But he entered a pair of BMW E30s: one sported a suspiciously clean Talladega Nights theme (“Laughing Clown Malt Liquor”), while the other would finish Day 1’s racing with a measly 7 laps. What did they do, bring a ringer? Hit on judge Jonny Lieberman’s wife? Bribe the judges with tuberculosis? Turns out their car had blown a head gasket early on in the race, and rather risk Mr. Roy’s celebrity status (he has his own Wikipedia entry and everything) and a decent night’s sleep on such a (relatively) simple repair, his team decided to call it quits and head home, presumably at 170mph down the Garden State Turnpike.

By noon, success: an Advance Auto Parts in town could get a set of points from their warehouse by 2:30. “Looking up points on the Internet!” a crew member from team Elmo’s Revenge quipped after wandering over here to gawk at the Corvair. “The definition of irony!”

“Hey, didn’t you guys blow a hole in your cylinder block last year?” Last year, their Saturn SL2 had shot out a connecting rod with 3 hours to go, blowing a hole in the crankcase the size of a Red Delicious apple. This year, his team had not only found a new engine but had also added more Tickle Me Elmos zip-tied to the B-pillars, presumably in the interests of babe-scoping. He held up both hands for a high five. “Not many people high five each other for causing catastrophic engine damage!” he said.

“We usually bring a spare engine or two, because we always blow an engine,” he continued. “This year, we didn’t, so our plan: drive slower. If we blow an engine, we go home. So we need to blow it the first day and we can save on a hotel.”

Around 2pm, one of the teammates from team Bondo, James Bondo (the yellow Triumph) walks over and hands us something: a spare set of points from their car. “This was just in my pocket,” he says. “It should probably work for you guys.” We gawked: what kind of man carries a set of points for a TR7 in his pocket without a restraining order and a well-armed probation officer nearby? But he assured us that they might fit, and it wasn’t like we were gunning for hot laps at the moment. We quickly hooked up the points to the distributor cap, ran the wires to the alternator, and reconnected the spark plug covers. “What’s the firing order for a ’63 Corvair?” Alex asked, whipping out his Blackberry. It was stamped right on the engine block. He sprayed the Rochester carburetors with a healthy amount of starting fluid, climbed in, squeezed the handbrake, and cranked the engine.

The air-cooled, six-cylinder, twin-carbed, Powerglide-equipped, 88-horsepower pancake engine sputtered and wheezed, then roared into life with a whirring mechanical clutter. Despite being two hours late, Team Trailing Throttle Oversteer was back in the hunt. Some people applauded.

“You got a story about that?” Jim sneered.

Alex drove the car to a final tech inspection, triumphantly returning with a “Passed Inspection—Good Enough” sticker on the windshield, and a handful of free patch vouchers. I snagged three. Jim gingerly changed into his race suit and put on his helmet. It took three of us to strap him into the devilishly finicky 5-point harness, a safety system that would later almost cost us the race. He shifted the two-speed automatic into drive with a distinctively mechanical clunk, gave a thumbs up, and sputtered out of the paddock.

There but for the grace of God he goes, I thought.

Read Part 2 here, where I actually get to drive the damn thing.

Currently there are "23 comments" on this Article:

  1. Hopman says:

    Geeze! You forgot it was MY idea to ask the TR7 team!!!

    Oh well. Such is life.

    Good write-up Blake!

  2. You ought to sign up Clark's Corvair Parts as a sponsor, especially for the New England races. They were about an hour and a half away, and they may be closed on weekends but I suspect for a little promotional consideration, as they say . . .

  3. I wish I were a better person, but I love the paragraph about Alex Roy.

  4. That is crazy, I didn't know they had to also replace the points. I was watching the race at the time so I though they just got the wiring fixed. I guess I was watching the wrong show!

    At least you guys were overshadowed a little by the T-Bird being assembled and rigged half of the first day.

  5. A Saab 96 with a two-stroke motor that sounded like Gilbert Gottfried passing a kidney stone

    This man is not kidding.

    [youtube e3Jt_wPQmD4 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3Jt_wPQmD4 youtube]

    (Sorry, Hopman. I'm not sure what you were saying at the end of that, but I kinda cut you off after the Saab was gone.)

  6. Eggwich says:

    38.7 seconds in a Chevy Cobalt: A good appeal to my love of lolz. Well played, BZR.

    More fouls than 93 Michigan basketball: Yeah, go UofM. Oh, wait…time out! Oh wait…errrr, McNabb sucked!

    Ripping on Alex Roy: Like Smells Homeless already said, I'm not proud of the fact that I really, really enjoyed this (shook fist in air, yelled "comeuppance!"), but I'm not a proud man anyways.

    Well done, psyched to read part two.

  7. LTDScott says:

    Nice. I never fail to enjoy reading LeMons weekend write ups.

  8. engineerd says:

    Nice write-up bzr. And yes, the Thinkpad is like the Jeep 4.0 of the laptop world. And like the Jeep 4.0, it's only as good as it's electricals.

    • Mad_Science says:

      Hooniverse is run from a 5-year-old T42P. Bought it when I went into grad school, and it did 2 years of brutal backpack duty.

      In true Hooniverse fashion, it's on its 2nd hard drive and LCD, but still chuggin away.

      • engineerd says:

        That's just beautiful. I have a T42 I got from work when they were done with it for $80. It needs a new battery, so I just use it near an outlet. I loaded Ubuntu on it. It does everything I need it to do.

        • Mad_Science says:

          I love 1200 X 1600 screen on my -p. Only my work widescreen monitor and and a few of the humongous desktop replacement units have better screens. Whenever I look at new laptops, this 900 or 1040 height nonsense is completely unacceptable.

          But yeah, Thinkpad FTMFW. The best part is the cheap replacement parts all over ebay. I forgot, I'm on fan #3.

          • Yeah, 1440×900 is the lowest resolution I can deal with on a regular basis (the base screen on my Inspiron 9400 – if it ever goes, it's getting 1680x1050ed). My 21" CRTs combine, when needed, to display 3200×1200, albeit with a giant bar in the middle.

      • AteUpWithMotor says:

        For some reason, I read that first sentence as "Hooniverse is on the run from a 5-year-old T42P…" which makes for a much more interesting story…

  9. AteUpWithMotor says:

    Obligatory plug for the history of the Corvair, if you didn't see it on AUWM or the link on Jalopnik:

    http://ateupwithmotor.com/compact-and-economy-car

    I am curious whether the Corvair in question had the factory H-D suspension kit, or its equivalent. It made a big difference in its, shall we say, terminal characteristics. (For that matter, I'd be interested to know whether the NHTSA's 1972 test car did, too.)

    As for the people who use the "but Mercedes had it, too…" defense, I will point out for the record that Stirling Moss asked if it was possible to adapt the later low-pivot suspension to the swing-axle 300SL gullwing coupe, because he thought the latter was a little hairy. If Sir Stirling thinks it's a little much, what does that say for the rest of us?

    • bzr says:

      Us mere mortals will simply have to suffer.

      You could ask UDMan about the Corvair's dirty bits. He knows that car inside and out.

  10. Autoxer62 says:

    For anyone taking Corvair handling comments in the article seriously, let's point out that all the cars here are worn out, used up examples one turn of the tire away from a junkyard. Comparing the BMW to the Corvair in this context is pretty silly, no matter which side you take. However, the early Corvair handling – on an example in good repair – is merely different than most nose heavy examples from Detroit in the 60's. The reality is that the rear end breaks away quite smoothly, which of course *terrifies* the typical driver who equates this with what happens on the NASCAR highlights on their local TV sports cast (you know, the one that never shows racing unless it's a crash). I've autocrossed all three varieties, people who can't manage a car that wants to corner a little sideways suck as drivers. Kudos to Blake for not sucking.

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