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An American in (the) Paris (End of Melbourne) – 1964 Chevrolet Corvair

Words & images by Chris Gallagher.

A curse of long standing warns you to be careful what you wish for (because you may get it).

I discovered this in November 2010 when I was living in Canberra.  A good friend made a hobby of buying and importing classic American cars. I idly mentioned one day that I had always liked Chevrolet Corvairs and that I would not mind acquiring one some day. Turns out that “some day” was a week later when Rob rang me and announced: “I’ve found you one”.

I was introduced to the vehicle that would become my Chuck the Chevrolet in the modern manner – through photos online.  He was far away at Collector Motors LLC  in Houston, TX.  The photos showed a very appealing car but I was concerned that they might be as truthful and representative as the average Grindr photo.  How much terminal rust and other wallet-draining horrors might lurk under those shiny flanks?  Have a look at a sample photo below.

While I dilly-dallied and ummed and erred, Rob rang Alexis, Chuck’s then caretaker. in Houston, and negotiated a price for me.  If I agreed to buy on the spot, Chuck could be mine for US$7,500.  So being very shallow and judging from appearances, I swallowed the hook.  My reasoning was that it was not that dear, so if it was a complete disaster I wouldn’t have lost that much money. Luckily, the Aus dollar was booming just then and bought US$1.10.

A trip to the bank (DIY online international transfers weren’t prevalent then) and I was committed.  Now for the paperwork before Chuck could immigrate to Australia.  While tedious, it was easier than I expected as everything was done online. The only hold up was waiting for Alexis (the vendor) to provide proof of purchase, confirmation of the price paid and title.  Soon I got the permission to import and I could turn my attention to organising shipping.  Fortunately, Rob had useful contacts and I retained Foytt Shipping to do the job.  Surprisingly, it’s a company run by New Zealanders but based in LA.  They organised to have the car collected in an enclosed truck and driven to the port in Los Angeles.

I discovered that Houston was a bit more than the few hundred kilometres from LA that I had thought.  More like 2,500.  Despite that, the land freight was only US$1200.  Chuck had a bit of a rest in LA before boarding his cruise to Sydney.  After an interminable three months, I got notice that he had arrived.  Then followed all the tedious import requirements – including steam cleaning and disinfection – which were all done by a customs agent.  The landing process is so complicated it is well worth paying an agent.  You’d have a breakdown trying to navigate the system yourself.  Nest, on to a truck and down to Canberra.  I met Chuck in the metal for the first time on 21 March 2011.

To my great relief, the photos had not lied, and there was no shipping damage. Most importantly, no significant rust.  In total, it had cost me A$12,700 landed to import Chuck.  My punt was a winner so far.  Then things went downhill.

I was immoderately eager to get in and start up.  Bad move.  The car started – eventually – but was really rough and barely moved off the trailer and into its new home.  The first problem that I hadn’t taken into account was that the petrol in it was (a) low quality US fuel and (b) about a year old.  As I found out later, it clagged up the entire fuel system from the tank back to the fuel lines into the carburettors.  Note for future reference: always drain the fuel tank and refill with fresh petrol before starting a car that has been standing unused. Also a flat tyre didn’t help mobility either.

The long and winding road to registration then began in earnest.  Like all new Corvair owners, I became close friends with Clark’s Corvairs of Shelburne Falls, MA.  Indeed, so close that I’m sure I have funded a few overseas trips for them or, at the very least, a bathroom renovation.  I won’t go into chapter and verse but here are a few of the mileposts on that road.

  1. Fuel system, including a new petrol tank, petrol pump, inlet lines and carburettor rebuilding (and yes all parts still available).
  2. External lighting to comply with Australian standards and driving on the other side of the road.
  3. Suspension and steering joints, all rubber components and shock absorbers.
  4. Brake lines, hoses, wheel cylinders and new shoes.
  5. Heater ducts (exhaust fumes can be a problem) and new fan.
  6. New bearing for the engine cooling fan and related seals for the tin ware that ensures the cooling air is correctly ducted.
  7. A few trim bits (the armrest inserts were a bit daggy).
  8. A back-up supply of routine tune-up and service parts, such as points, dizzy cap, oil and air filters.
  9. A lot of research and advice from the various Corvair forums in the USA.
  10. Joining CORSA, the Corvair Society of America.  

I was lucky to find a local mechanic who not only knew what a distributor and carburettor were but was willing to learn about a new car that was an unknown quantity to him.  Finding a full set of factory workshop manuals in the boot was also a massive help.  This took a few months, factoring in the time waiting for parts to arrive from the USA.

Finally, in May 2011 Chuck was fully registered and on the road after settling the inevitable arguments with the registration jobsworths. (They had found a hole in the sill which was “repaired” in the American way.  It took a lot of arguing to convince them that the area affected was not structural.  Thank you comprehensive workshop manuals.)

Getting used to driving on the “wrong” side of the car took a mere hour or so.  The Corvair is a very easy car to drive.  Not surprising really since it was intended to be a cheap grocery hauler for suburban mums.  The steering is very light as are the brakes, despite neither having power assist.  My first shock was how responsive it was and how well it cornered, especially by the standards of its day.  And it has a very comfortable ride, but no surprise there, being American.  But you do have to remember that there is a big pendulum out the back and curb any excessively enthusiastic cornering.

Chuck was revealed to the public in December 2011 with frenz from the former Canberra chapter of Motafrenz.  Chuck never fails to attract attention since very few recognise the car and everyone is amazed to learn that it is indeed a Chevrolet, even if it doesn’t sport a V8.  And that’s a good thing since its engine and exhaust note is unique and instantly recognisable.

Fast forward to 2022 and Chuck and I now live in Melbourne.  I doubt if I will ever sell this car as I love its uniqueness.  It is a very rare example of a notoriously conservative and mega profit-driven company taking a punt on something different.  They didn’t sell quite as well as their uninspiring conventional competitors, the Ford Falcon and the Plymouth Valiant, but I would not say that a total production of 1,800.000 over ten years was exactly a failure.  Instead of suburban mums, the Corvair appealed to a market which preferred something a bit sporty and different from the run of the mill.

Chevrolet rushed out the entirely conventional Chevy II Nova in 1962 to compete with the Falcons and Valiants.  In the meantime, the market which Chevrolet had discovered by accident did not pass by Ford unnoticed.  The Mustang (essentially a Falcon in drag) appeared in 1964 and this “pony car” craze, not Ralph Nader, eventually led to the demise of the Corvair. In any case, the bean counters at General Motors always hated them because they shared little in common with other GM products  and so were expensive to build.  In particular, the flat six alloy engine was unique and used in no other GM car.

Because of these two factors, production was going to end in 1966 to give production capacity for the new Camaro which debuted in 1967.  However, Ralph Nader and his book inadvertently triggered GM’s legendary bloody-mindedness and ensured the Corvair remained in production for another three years.

My car was originally bought from Folk Chevrolet of Akron OH by the Rev Ralph W Steese from Barberton OH, so Chuck has been, aahh – blessed.  I wonder what the Rev Steese would think to know that his Corvair is still going strong after 58 years in a country so far from its birthplace in Michigan.

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