Mike's 1964 Chevrolet Corvair Monza

I spotted this Corvair at the coffee shop on a rainy spring day recently. I was actually having a conversation and stopped mid-sentence when I saw it cruise by, amazed. So my buddy Patrick and I headed to the back parking lot to investigate.

As I approached the owner Mike, he opened the rear and added some oil to the engine, prompting his companion to ask whether everything was fine. "No problems," he said cooly, as if it was ordinary procedure. They had just driven up from New York and the car originally came from California, as the rare black plates suggest.

It's a '64 Monza Coupe, the last year of the beloved first generation. The Corvair remains the only mass-produced rear-engine American car. General Motors created it to stave off the threat of Volkswagen's domination in the entry-level car market.

There are fierce devotees on each side of the two generations, and while I've been digging the second generation lately, seeing a first generation car in person makes me really like it, too. The styling is amazing. The front and rear hoods look long and flat but the overall proportions still remind you it's a small car. It also has that classic high-waisted bathtub shape that influenced dozens of cars in America and Europe, like the NSU 110 and BMW 2002.

The Corvair debuted as a four-door sedan, then a two-door "Monza" was added in 1960. All Corvairs had flat 6-cylinder engines, but the displacement and power varied from around 80 to 180 horsepower in some second generation turbocharged cars.

Mike said he wishes he could tell people he got it from the original owner, but that would be a stretch. He also said it's got parts from a "million other different cars". The wheels are aftermarket and the exterior paint isn't original either, as the red engine bay suggested (which itself might not have been the original color), but it looks good in the current silver. Inside, the dash wears a cover to protect from cracking, and the tan seats are intact.

Originality matters less and functionality more when you're using a classic car like this for daily driver as Mike is. The whole car itself is an original, unique monument to a totally different era. General Motors is a very different company and cars are literally the complete opposite (with the engines in front) today.

Ralph Nader famously called out the Corvair in his book Unsafe at Any Speed, but most of the complaints about it could also have been made about dozens of European cars at the time. However, the damage was done, and sales dropped. GM's commitment to the Corvair eroded and they stopped production in 1969. But it didn't go without making a fond impression on lots of people. Today, as rear-engine Volkswagens and Porsches sell for a lot of money, the Corvair is a great alternative and a bargain, too.

When Mike was done checking up on the engine, he closed the lid, threw the towel and bottle in the back seat and went inside for coffee, just like that. Well done, sir. It was truly great to not only see a Corvair, but see it used as any other car might be.

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