The first new car that my mother and father purchased after their 1950 wedding was a 1953 Chevrolet 210 4-door sedan, 6 cylinder, 3-on-the-tree. Of course, I say “mother and father” to be polite. This was the early ’50’s. My mom neither worked outside the house nor drove. The ’53 was the car that brought me home from the hospital. (Although I would be lying if I claimed to remember it, I have no doubt that my mother sat in the front passenger seat and cradled me in her arms during that initial ride. Good thing that the hospital was less than a mile away.)
My dad, ever practical with the 4-door Chevy, nevertheless enjoyed the idea of small, quirky cars. He told me when I was a boy that he liked the Nash Metropolitan, and I know he liked VW Beetles (had one later, but that’s another story). So when GM announced the Corvair in the fall of 1959, Dad was smitten. He waited a year, and by doing so, was able to consider the new-for-1961 Corvair station wagon.
By this time, I was 6, and had been obsessed with automobiles for four years already. The excuse given for my mother’s lack of a driver’s license was that she could not handle a clutch. So as my parents considered the replacement car, it had to be an automatic.
The closest Chevrolet dealership to our home on Staten Island was King Chevrolet, at 181 Bay St. (Years later, King would move about a mile down the street. Another car dealership took over King’s original spot, but today, there are no car dealerships along that stretch of road.) We went as a family to the dealer, and at that time, it seemed to me that my parents were there for hours, talking to salespeople. Perhaps they were. My mind can still picture the 1961 Impala convertible on the showroom floor, red, top down, with two life-size mannequins perched on deck above the rear seat, as if in a parade.
Finally, it was delivery day. Dad probably traded in the ’53. A new car to call our own! My first! This car was white with a red interior. Dad stepped up and got the “700” model over the available “500”, which meant more trim both outside and inside. We all rode home together from the dealership, with me in the way-back, above the engine. Dad had his quirky new car, mom had her license, and we had new-found freedom. Since dad worked in Manhattan and took public transit every day, the Corvair was de facto mom’s car during the week.
That Lakewood wagon was essentially the only family car for about seven years, from when I was 6 until about 13, so I have strong memories of it. And what do I remember? How dad loved to fool his friends by offering to show them “the engine”, then opening the front trunk to near-universal amazement. How my mom was invincible in the New York snow every winter. How that red light would appear on the dash, and dad would swear under his breath as he removed all those Philips screws to access the engine and reinstall the fan belt which came off with regularity. How we would complain about the odor of gasoline whenever the heater was on. How one year, my parents used the front trunk as the hiding place for that year’s Christmas presents. How the transmission shift lever was this rod the diameter of a ball-point pen, jutting from the right side of the instrument cluster. And how reliable the car seemed to be, year after year. I have no recollection of the Corvair ever being out of service.
The family Corvair from the front.
Then Dad started to talk about a replacement car. He said something about the engine getting “tired”. I was soon to find out that the car was running on 4 or 5 of its 6 cylinders, and it likely had 80,000-90,000 miles on it. Although frugal, my father was not going to spend big bucks on an engine overhaul. He asked me if I wanted to ride with him to Reedman, the mega-dealer in Langhorne PA, as he saw a listing for a 1966 Buick station wagon. He was staying with GM, and moving up from Chevrolet by buying used. Shrewd man, my father. We traded in the Corvair.
The Chevrolet Corvair was made and sold by General Motors from model years 1960 through 1969. The station wagon was manufactured for only two years, 1961 and 1962, and so is quite rare. I have come across a wagon at car shows now and again, but quite infrequently. Seeing one always brings back a flood of memories.
All photographs copyright © 2015 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.