It’s been just 6 months since I made the most ridiculous vehicle decision in my life.
Is it really, tho?
I capped a decade of mad-cap vehicle choices with one of the most controversial things to roll on four wheels. Granted, I chose the 2nd generation Corvair, the lesser of the problematic versions of the oddball Chevrolet. I was told, warned, and threatened even, to stay away from the first generation cars and their handling abnormalities. You’d think Ralph Nader was a ghost already the way his diatribes from Unsafe At Any Speed haunted my vehicle search.
“Frankie” has been preceded by 4 Mercedes Benzes of varying competencies and reliabilities and a Cadillac Sedan DeVille in the last 10 years alone. Nevermind the Volkswagen Jetta, Volvo 240 DL, Oldsmobile Eighty Eight, Chrysler LHS and the 1975 Cutlass Salon that came before it. With this track record, a 55 year old Chevrolet that went into the fight with the Ford Mustang with athletic handling but the power output of a Singer sewing machine against the bulldozer of an optional V8 seems not all that weird.
I haven’t written much, other than instagram captions as I’ve integrated “Frankie” into my life. It might seem like my friend Miles is far more enthusiastic about it than I am. I’ve also not written much about cars in general. The automobile itself is in a weird place in society at this moment. Up until COVID-19 stopped the world in its tracks, we were rapidly anticipating a rapid increase in zero emissions, self driving vehicles to roll us into the future. We ignored the fact that the development of this “First (New) World” of mobility is oft on the backs of the global south, forced labor and our own unexamined participation to grind as much time resource out of us as possible.
While I’ve watched my life increasingly paved over by the progress of this libertarian conformist wet dream, the less enthused I’ve been about cars, past and present. One could say that buying a Corvair at this point is seeing the writing on the wall surrounding private vehicle use in general. It was my attempt to have one last affair with the one device I love above all others before I have to look away lest I watch a painful death. You can only look at Elon Musk idiotically smashing the windows of his “indestructible” Cybertruck and prepare for the worst.
Cars, as most enthusiasts have known them and cherished them seem to mean less. Teslas and the proliferation of crossover vehicles just fade into the general graywashing of interior design, fashion, architecture and our general life experiences. No one buys sedans anymore, coupes barely exist since they inherently don’t have the capacity to carry all that we can buy. That’s really all cars really are for these days; if it isn’t something you can have delivered via Amazon or Instacart, why bother with a car that can’t carry your latest haul from Target or IKEA.
I woefully contemplate this dealing with the limited cargo capacity that I have in my Corvair. I don’t even have the spare tire in the car. Each run I’ve made to the grocery store since Mid-March is complicated by the desire to purchase as much as possible with coming into as little contact with humanity as possible. The 13 or 20 bags I need to stay indoors for up to a month don’t fit in the “frunk.”
There’s overflow into the back seat, or into the laps of anyone that needs to come along. I then turn the hexagon key, and the 6 little cylinders in a pancake arrangement politely clear their throats. 90 seconds to 3 minutes later, they warm their aluminum casings up and settle into a burble that still delights the same way it did on a VERY wet winter solstice day when I was sold on the idea of this one mode of transportation.
There’s a frisky urgent feeling, the gentle push of low end torque, the anticipation of the tenor wailing. Happily pursuing a horizon at 75 miles an hour sold about a quarter of a million buyers annually for 6 model years on the idea choosing a Corvair was fun. We’re still blessed half a century later with thousands of them that are still drivable.
More fun than the average American car. More fun than thinking about convenience features. I almost typed comfort, but the Corvair is still an American car. The heater is strong, it’s easy to drive in the woeful slog of stop & go errand running and parking lot jockeying. Beyond the austere and basic 1960 500 & 700 models, the interiors are laid out with all of the posh 1960’s quality touches you’d expect from an Impala or a Cutlass. There’s just no power windows, locks, brakes, seats or steering to bog down the experience.
I’ve joked that Corvairs are the queerest cars of all time, and now owning one solidifies that belief. Looking at the definition of queerness in terms of identity politics, it falls into inhabiting the world out of designated mainstream or dominant constructs. Sometimes that means pivoting into absorbing, adjusting to or mocking the dominant culture with grace, humor or flexibility.
The Corvair did come out of pent up unanswered desires. American cars, even in the post war, had grown exponentially beyond what many consumers deemed what was needed.
In a short 10 years, your average “standard” Chevy went from a docile little cherub with 105 horsepower and a newly optional automatic transmission to a nearly 18 foot long quasi Cadillac in which you could option up to 335 horsepower, fuel injection, 2 different automatic transmissions, air conditioning and power accessories galore. Yet you were supposed to be incentivized enough by consumerist competition to move up to more glamorous Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Buicks and Cadillacs depending on your personal tastes.
The reality was, none of them did the basic duty of taking people to work or the grocery store all that better than the smaller iterations that came before. Those cars became essential as public transit was obliterated and white people had been scared into moving to suburb environments away from the urban centers that held their jobs.
When that suburban escape was highlighted as an ideal life, it threw a wrench into the “one size fits all” reasoning that allowed American Cars to continue to grow as they allowed for more consumption of the landscape. There’s a huge problem with cars in general creating a havoc marinated relationship with our environments, but that’s a story for other times.
When the tides came asking for simpler options, the answers were literally foreign or diets. The Volkswagen Beetle became the best known commodity, but there’s a bunch of “weird” “european” and “effete” names that became popular in the 1950s. Homegrown ideas tried dabbling in luxury (like the 1950 Nash Rambler convertible or the higher trimmed Willys Aeros of the early 50’s), but more resolutely went the route of the Studebaker Champion. Most often it meant equating simplicity with austerity and lack of creativity. For the longest time, seemingly through Chevrolet’s own Chevette, it was pretty much a penalty of a drab driving experience if you chose the cheapest option in American showrooms.
The Corvair, not intentionally, tapped into desires by being different. It took actually really old european practices like swing axles and rear mounted engines, and wrapped it in the sort of Chic fashions that only America could generate. For just under $2,000 you could drive a mid century minimalist masterpiece.
It’s absolutely bizarre that this freak came out of the biggest corporate behemoth in the world at the time. General Motors was the Amazon, the Google, the Facebook of the world combined into one. “What’s good for General Motors is Good for the Country” is a mantra that has allowed corporations to dominate all life since World War II.
It’s worth noting that Corvair sales didn’t eat into full sized Chevrolet sales in the same way the Falcon or Valiant ate into normal Ford or Plymouth sales. It allowed a number of buyers to come out as pleasure seekers, that saw the possibility of driving offering momentary liberation if they had to be participants in the capitalist paradigm. It offered a glimpse of how to subvert the dominant narratives from within, but wasn’t quite listened to. All of the easiest to sell attributes like bucket seats, sprightly performance, and well appointed environments were soon appropriated up and down the marketing scale.
This is where I find myself more than 60 years after the first one sold in the fall of 1959.
The car is OLD.
But it sure knows how to dance. In its simplicity it never forgets the possibility of playing with gravity for an adrenaline rush. It still coddles as comfortably as any other American car too. It has *just enough* room for me to take three friends along for the ride. Which is great, I can’t stand large groups anyways. It’s weird to say a car fits my personality as an outsider that wants to flip the table, because there can be a better table. It makes a lot of sense that I choose the “better table” 1965 version of the car that flipped the table in the first place.
There’s a lot we can thank the Corvair for, especially consumer safety. The most fatal flaw the car had in its original incarnation was a bean counter move to maximize profits. We don’t think about it as an item that reminds us if we participate in the system, we should be rewarded with pleasure and possibility in return. That’s what I’m still learning, embracing and holding as priceless each time I turn the key, as long as we use gasoline.
Even then, I hope we continue to develop a more ethical way to enjoy the pleasure of driving. I don’t know if I wish to give it up any time soon.