When the Volkswagen Beetle spawned "Beetlemania" in the U.S., Detroit's "Big 3" automakers responded with their own compacts. The most radical was Chevrolet's Corvair, with an air-cooled, horizontally opposed, six-cylinder, rear-mounted engine.
Chevy sold about 1.65 million Corvairs during the model's 10-year run (1960-69), but consumer activist Ralph Nader's 1965 book - "Unsafe at Any Speed," which put early Corvairs' suspensions in its crosshairs (and Nader on the map) - sent the model sliding into history.
In addition to the suspensions, leaky O-ring seals were so severe that many owners dumped their Corvairs at rustbucket prices in the 1970s. The leaky seals resulted in smoke from oil dripping on the heater. Replacing the seals didn't solve the problem, according to Fran Schmit, a longtime member of the local Corvair Minnesota club, because GM's seals used the wrong rubber.
For young people with some mechanical aptitude - Schmit was one - repairing a Corvair meant affordable transportation in the `70s. When people finally figured out that the rubber caused the seals to leak, Corvair owners started installing O-rings with better rubber and Corvair Minnesota played a key role. During meetings, club members used to fit O-rings with Viton rubber seals. The club then sold the rings all over the country and the problem basically disappeared by the 1990s.
Why any interest in Corvairs at all? Schmit says they handle well and have decent acceleration, especially turbo models. Recent club president Chuck Johnson, who drove Corvairs as a youth because his father owned a Chevy dealership, and who now owns a '64 turbo model, says Corvairs are fun to work on and still affordable. The rear-engine design also provides good traction in winter.
Schmit's Corvairs include a 1961 Ramp-Side pickup, a '64 convertible and a '67 four-door that he says he "experiments on." If he wants to upgrade something, he does it on that car and then explains how others can do it in the club's newsletter, the deliberately misspelled "The Leeky Seel."
The 100-strong club was founded in 1972. Corvair Minnesota helped start and is still involved in an annual car show at the State Fairgrounds in June. In addition to monthly meetings, Corvair Minnesota has a special activity each month, including social outings, a fall cruise and summer meetings at drive-in movie theaters. Dues are $20 and about half the club's members pay more to belong to the national Corvair Society of America.
For more information on Corvair Minnesota, call 952-947-9106, 952-935-4596 or visit clubs.hemmings.com/cmi.