Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Rich Thompson can’t pinpoint the exact reason why he is hooked on Chevrolet Corvairs, but he knows it started at a very young age. In fact, he can’t even remember that far back.
“My father says somehow my ear was trained for rear engines at a very young age,” laughs Thompson, a resident of De Pere, Wis. “He bought a Volkswagen Beatle and I would ride in the back seat. He said sometimes that would be the only way to make me go to sleep. When I was six months old we drove it to Kentucky and I was in the back seat the whole time … it must have been soothing for me, or something.
“Then when I was about 6 years, old, I remember there was a terrible Massachusetts snowstorm. I can remember riding in my parents' car and seeing the car ahead of us, with the engine dripping in back. I said, ‘Dad, what is that?’ He said, ‘It’s a Chevy Corvair,’ and I was just fascinated that it did that. I can just remember that water dripping off the engine… Then later my uncle bought a ’64 Corvair, much like this one, in Tuxedo Black, and it was one of my favorite cars.”
The “this one” Thompson refers to is his stunning black 1964 Monza that he resurrected and brought back to show-winning condition. You’d never know it by looking at it today, but the decorated Monza was a barn find nearly 20 years ago — actually it was a step below “barn find.” It didn’t even warrant a spot in the barn — it was parked outside one.
“This car here was found behind a barn in Manitowoc [Wis.], in 1994. It was sitting out in the elements. It wasn’t even covered," Thompson said. "From what they told me it was about four years out in the elements. I started working on it in late 1998 and it was in paint in early 1999 and it was finished in late spring 2000. So it’s been together for over 18 years. It changed over the years and wound up in the hands of a Ford engineer in Manitowoc, and his wife told him to sell the toys, sell the cars, sell the boats. I just happened upon him at the perfect time. I had perfect timing. It was the color combination that I had been looking for years… He drove it back and forth and did some engine work on it. It was mobile, and mechanically it was fairly decent, but it was really tired. It really hadn’t been molested too much. It was just a worn-out car. I has 66,00 miles on it now. At that time it had about 62,000.”
Thompson is a pretty meticulous guy and he immediately decided he would eventually restore the Corvair to the highest level he could achieve while still doing almost all the work himself. He didn’t have a ton of restoration experience, but he had restored a Corvair before. He also had had an abundance of patience and determination on his side, and he didn’t have the pressure of any time deadlines. It also didn’t hurt that not only was Thompson starting with a fairly solid car, it was loaded to the gills with almost anything available that could be bolted onto a Corvair in 1964.
“This car was actually a showroom car at Broadway Chevrolet in De Pere," he noted. "It had a number of different holes in different spots. And by ‘showroom car,’ what I mean is that the dealer would load up a car with all the factory and dealer options to sell to Grandma when she was looking at a base model 500. ‘Would you like to buy a dash clock? Would you like to buy an engine light?’ That was their way of doing it. They took the top model and they loaded it up. This has all the factory and dealer options except one — the wood [steering] wheel, that’s it.
“It was a little over $3,000 at that time fully loaded. It was up toward a Chevelle and you could buy a Mustang with a V-8 for $500 less. So you got more power in a V-8 with a Ford than this, but this was more of a European touring car. It was more of a grand touring driver.”
There were only 6,480 Monza coupes built for the 1964 model year, so Thompson says he wasn’t going to be overly choosey if he was able to locate one. He couldn’t believe his luck when a he found one so close to home that was exactly what he was looking for. “They are pretty rare. I think Corvair Society of America figures estimate that a little over 10 percent are surviving,” he notes. “I was always looking for a ’64 Monza. It came up in the Manitowoc paper, and I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ It was black, it had the red interior, it was the Monza, this is kind of THE color combination for this year. It’s very, very tough to find in this color combination.”
1964: RAISING THE BAR
The Monza Spyder looked a great deal like the Series 900 Monza on the outside. There was a Spyder signature below the Monza badges on the lower front fender and a round “turbocharged” emblem on the rear deck. Also, the full wheel covers had special Spyder center inserts. The interior featured full instrumentation and a brushed metal dash insert. While displacement was up 19 cubic inches over the 1963 engine, the 150-hp rating was the same (though the 1964 version developed it at 4000 rpm compared to the 1963 engine's 4400 rpm). Like all 1964 Corvair power plants, this one had redesigned hardware and gaskets to better seal against oil leakage around the rocker arm covers, which had been a common problem in the past. There were also new finned rear brakes and the addition of a transverse leaf spring to the rear suspension.
In addition to the 6,480 coupes, Chevrolet assembly lines produced 4,761 Monza Spyder convertibles. The coupe carried a base price of $2,599, which was $212 less than the ragtop. Both rode on chassis with 108-inch wheelbases. Manual transmissions were slightly more popular than the base manual models. About 40 percent of buyers opted for the four-speed gearbox. Powerglide was a $157 upgrade, while the manual four-on-the-floor was $92 extra.
With all these changes, the 1964 Corvairs were significantly improved automobiles and the Spyder was the best of the lot. Sales, however, dropped by nearly 50 percent. The lone remaining pickup, the Rampside, was discontinued when the ’65 models arrived. The absence of a pillarless hardtop model probably didn’t help Corvair sales, nor did the arrival of the Ford Mustang, which quickly became the hottest new model in America and a sales leader for years to come.
Thompson says his car was in surprisingly good condition considering it had been living in the outdoors for many months. The fact that is was so loaded up with options turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. “There were a couple of little spots I had to replace that were rusted, but it was not a rusty car,” he says. “There were a couple spots on the front fenders, which were fixed. Then there was a lower splash panel below the front bumper that I ended up replacing with an NOS part. The toughest part of this restoration was trying to find all the missing accessories. The rear antennas — one is a live antenna, one is a dummy. And to have a rear antenna was pretty rare back then. The dummy antenna, we’re talking less than 1 percent of the ’64s had them.
“Some of these options and things like the dash clock — that’s super rare. That was $19.95 list from Chevrolet back then. If you had to find a clock like that now, you’re talking somewhere between $350 and $400. I think part by part, former owners probably took parts off it and sold them to other owners who needed them [laughs]... Or they were stolen off the car over time.”
Thompson doggedly plugged away at his restoration project as the months passed, doing most of the work himself but farming out a few chores such as the tricky parts of the bodywork and the final paint. He had to remove all the original factory undercoating — a thankless job by any measure. He spent many hours hammering, straightening and buffing stainless exterior pieces. In between sessions in his shop, Thompson tried to track down all the bits on the car that had gone missing or needed replacing.
“A gentleman named Jim Jimenez helped me a lot with some of the mechanicals,” he noted. “He is sort of a local Corvair guru.” Thompson got a hand from a couple other friends, too, “but a lot of the work was done by me. All the exterior bodywork, underneath work, the trunk, engine compartment — that was all me. The upholstery was all done by me — I was learning as I went! There were times it was really stressful, yes. There were times you'd make a mistake and have to go back and do it all again. I remember one time when I was doing interior work. It made me so nervous I knocked off for the night to get some rest. I needed to get away and concentrate and try it again. There were some hairy times, but it was worth it.”
Thompson still laughs about the bubble gum fix he discovered one day while he was still going through the car and evaluating what needed to be done. “I’d be working on the car and I kept smelling bubble gum!” he says. “And I just couldn’t figure out where the smell was coming from. Well, there is some kind of complicated accelerator linkage in these cars, and somebody had actually used bubble gum to hold that linkage together. Somebody must have done a road-side fix at some point. When I found that, I remember thinking that night, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’”
Thompson admits he felt like the ultimate underdog when he rolled onto the Meadowbrook Concourse show field for the first time in the very first Corvair that had ever been invited to the event. He knew his car was good — as good as he could make it anyway, and certainly one of the finest Corvairs in the country — but the scene was still plenty intimidating. “I pulled in next to guys who had mechanics with them and painters, and they’d ask, ‘Who did your work?’ and said, ‘Well, mostly me.’ Believe it or not they put me in the American Convertibles and Luxury Vehicles class because they didn’t know where to put me. … When I won, I couldn’t believe it. I beat out all these guys with expensive collections and all that. I’ve never seen a group of more angry people. No. 1, it wasn’t them. No. 2, it wasn’t from their collection. No. 3 it was some guy doing the work in his own garage. And No. 4, was a Corvair!
“My son was only 6 years old at the time and when we drove up … it was a heck of a moment.”
Thompson has gone on to rack up plenty of other awards with his treasured black Spyder. He’s won the Bill Mitchell Best of Show Award from the Corvair Society of America (CORSA) in 2001, 2003 and 2016; earned the rare Factory Stock Designation from the national club and won the Corvair Preservation Award four times. He’s owned 10 Corvairs over the years, he says, and these days has three others. It will be hard to duplicate the run, and all the fun, he has had with his black ’64, however.
“I’ve won gold four times and been to Meadowbrook … This one turned out well,” he says. “I wanted a factory stock car, absolutely. I actually wanted to make this car as nice as possible, and we did.”
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