Tuesday, July 1 1997
Modest car, rich history

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ralph Nader probably isn't losing any sleep over it, but I have never forgiven him for ruining the Corvair.

He was still a nobody, lawyering away in Detroit, when he wrote Unsafe at Any Speed. His 1965 book was a best seller. The next thing you know, Ralph Nader is America's foremost consumer advocate, and the Corvair is America's foremost death trap.

He had his reasons for trashing the Corvair, although I can't remember exactly what they were. I think he said there was something wrong with the steering. Or maybe the brakes. All I know is that my father picked out that car for me, and he would never have put me in anything that was dangerous.

Of course, Dad really thought the most dangerous vehicles for girl children were the ones that were parked.

Stylish, practical

A new convertible cost only about $3,000, and besides its signature air-cooled engine, some models had turbos, four-wheel independent suspension and telescoping steering wheels. Unlike its chunky competitor, the Volkswagen Beetle, the heater worked.

My Corvair, a 1966 Monza, was fully equipped, which means it had an AM radio and vinyl bucket seats. It was sporty and didn't guzzle gas and got me through a record snow-and-cold Chicago winter. It started every morning and was so handsome that it was stolen twice. I loved that car.

In fact, I almost went to Lake Placid, N.Y., to gush in person. Had I made the trip last week, I would have been in the company of about a thousand other sensible people, members of the Corvair Society of America. They gathered in the Adirondack Mountain resort for restoration contests, a parade and a few laps around the Olympic speed-skating track.

Ray Fallot of Louisville, Ohio, just east of Canton, took first place in the "beauty contest" for his 1965 Monza coupe, purchased in 1986 for $1,600. Since then, he has spent $12,000 and countless hours on it. But then, this is a championship car.

You can get a very nice, restored Corvair for $3,000. But will it run? "Of course," he says, offended. No trailers for members of this vintage car club. They drive their entries to the shows. "That's part of the fun," Mr. Fallot says, "that and the people."

Loudmouth, cheat

Mr. Fallot, retired after 37 years of teaching American history to eighth-graders, says people who choose this modest auto as their hobby are, well, kind of modest themselves. They buy and sell Corvair parts to each other, and often the part and the payment cross in the mail.

He has been to a dozen conventions since 1979 and has never been disappointed by a loudmouth or a cheat. "I'm not kidding. They're just nice people." If something happens to a car right before a contest, "four people will step forward to help."

And they're probably competitors.

Meanwhile, the rest of the country suffers from road rage and a love affair with four-wheel-drive hogs, driven by people who neither live on ranches nor drive through blizzards. They make a statement: This driver has a lot of money and thinks minivans are dorky.

My Corvair did not promise to be safe at any speed, but it would start in the morning and sip gasoline.

Maybe my memories of this car are so fond because it took me to drive-in movies and car-side service at Frisch's. It hauled my laundry home from college. The Supremes and the Beach Boys sang to me in that car.

I understand that my little car was a casualty of Ralph Nader's campaign for auto safety, and I'm better off with air bags and shoulder restraints and seat belts. I don't even mind that it's no longer my choice whether to use them. He has moved on to olestra and tort reform and corporate welfare.

After 30 years in the limelight with some of the most powerful enemies in the country, he has been untouched by scandal and unmoved by pressure. So, I probably have to admire him.

But I just wish he'd left the Corvair alone.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

PULFER ARCHIVE