12 November 2013

After 50 years of Corvair ownership, love is still alive and well

It was nearly 50 years ago that David Abell first laid eyes on her, back when he “had a full head of hair and didn’t need a nap in the middle of the day.” For Abell, it was love at first sight. And despite a bumpy start to their romance, the two are still making beautiful memories on the road to forever. Heck, even David’s wife, Sharon, likes her.

Sometimes the right car just steals your heart.

“She’s had some work done, but she still looks as good today as she did back then,” Abell said of his 1964 Chevrolet Corvair Monza. “Same goes for Sharon – and neither restoration was cheap.”

For the record, Sharon approved that quote. Considering how much trouble David had with the Corvair during his first month of ownership, he quickly discovered that a good sense of humor was a plus.

In 1963, Abell was a teenager living in Louisville, Ky., when he discovered the irresistible car that Ralph Nader would eventually label “unsafe at any speed.” Abell was looking to replace his ’57 Chevy Bel Air with something newer and sportier. Of course, a brand new car sounded great, but considering his budget was limited – he earned $1.25 an hour at a printing company – the field narrowed quickly. Then Abell spotted a Corvair, and he just had to have one.

He stopped at V.V. Cooke Chevrolet and spoke with a salesman named Frank Hardy, and before he knew it, he’d agreed to buy a 1964 Monza Coupe. It had a base price of $2,325, and Abell added options like a 4-speed transmission ($91.50), 110-hp engine ($26.90), push-button radio ($58.60), white-wall tires ($28.60), wire hub caps ($69.95) and tinted windshield ($12.90). Sticker price, including taxes, came to $2,687.57. Hardy offered $713.57 for the Bel Air, with the assurance that the Chevy “wasn’t worth much and never would be.”

“Stop laughing,” Abell says now of the slight miscalculation.

It took six long weeks for the Monza to arrive. “I was beautiful – just as I’d imagined,” he said. But trouble began almost immediately. Abell was continuously pulled over by police because his taillights kept going out.

“For the first month or so I kept taking it back to the dealer,” he said. “It felt like they had the car more than I did. They’d put in a new fuse, I’d drive it off, and within a day or two the lights would go out again.”

Abell suggested there might be a bigger problem, but he got the distinct impression the mechanics weren’t giving much credence to a “dumb young kid” – until the engine caught fire right there at the dealership. That did it. The dealer finally fixed the problem, and “I haven’t had a problem since,” Abell said.

Abell’s father urged him to take proper care of the car, not abuse it as teenage boys are wont to do. Since Abell’s $64 monthly payment equaled an entire week’s pay, he got the message … sort of. His father owned a Texaco service station, and Abell’s brother, Ernie, worked alongside him. They built a race car to run at the local drag strip, and Abell’s father dreamed of Ernie successfully filling the trophy case. He didn’t. What Mr. Abell didn’t discover until long after was that he did, indeed, have a hot shot driver under his roof. David secretly raced the Corvair, and he quickly filled a trunk with trophies – while his father and brother remained empty handed.

“I’m proud to say that I never lost in the two years that I raced on the 1/8-mile track. I also never tore up my car,” Abell said. “My father eventually found out many years later, and he just shook his head and smiled.”

Abell drove the Corvair throughout his courtship with Sharon, and the two drove the car to Tennessee and eloped on Sept. 11, 1964. They have two children, Missy and Scott; both came home from the hospital in the Corvair.

There have also been some not-so-fond memories. Abell’s daughter was so embarrassed to ride in the car that she insisted her dad drop her off at the corner instead of in front of her school. It served as his son’s first vehicle, but he didn’t drive it very long – something about its lack of sex appeal. The Corvair once ended up in a river after David’s brother used it to tow a boat. After draining the water and changing the spark plugs, the engine turned over – “shooting water out of the cylinders like a sprinkler” – but was otherwise fine. Later, the car was stolen and used in a bank robbery; it was eventually recovered when a friend recognized it in an alley.

“It has seen its fair share,” Abell said. “Smashed French fries, leaking baby bottles, sick kids when I didn’t pull over fast enough … Through it all, it’s been like the old Timex commercial – takes a licking but keeps on ticking.”

David and Sharon’s three grandchildren – Sean, Meredith and Autumn – all had their first “ride” in the Corvair soon after they were born. Since the car doesn’t have seatbelts, they actually laid on the seat long enough for photos, technically continuing a family tradition.

Abell has repainted the Corvair twice, most recently in 2000. The rest of the car remains virtually the same as when he bought it new, except for the dual exhaust he added. It won the Corvair Society of America (CORSA) Edward N. Cole Memorial Award in 2010 and has been displayed twice at the National Corvette Museum – as part of a salute to the 50th Anniversary of the Corvair in 2010 and the 100th anniversary of Chevrolet in 2011. And, since 2014 will mark Abell’s 50th year of ownership, he’d like to drive the car to Tacoma, Wash., for CORSA’s annual meeting – if he can talk his brother into coming along.

“Monetarily, my Corvair may not be worth much, but to me it’s priceless,” Abell said. “When I look at it, I see a young man sitting at the drag strip waiting for the light to turn green, a young couple running off to Tennessee to get married, and that young couple bringing their babies home from the hospital with little money but big dreams and a lot of love. And I see my kids sitting in the back seat and asking, ‘Are we there yet, Daddy?’ This isn’t just a car. Not to me.”

For information about the Corvair Society of America, visit www.corvair.org.

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