Story by Brian Earnest
Rick Sanford is one of those fanatical “Corvair guys” who can’t get enough of Chevrolet’s famed — and star-crossed — rear-engine sports cars. He’s rescued them, rebuilt them, raced them, swapped them, restored them and showed them.
A few years back he realized his dream of assembling an award-winning Corvair, one that was restored to the highest standards and was a close to a brand-new Corvair as he could come. That car was a stunning, red 1965 Corsa turbo coupe that has earned the AACA HPOF recognition and top honors from the Corvair Society of America.
Having a “top of the heap” car wasn’t enough, however. Sanford can’t pinpoint the reason why, but he also had a longing to own a “low-budget” Corvair with no bells and whistles. He owned the thoroughbred, and wanted the plow horse to go with it.
“Some guys call them ‘bookends’ … I started to really want to have both ends of the spectrum,” laughed Sanford, a resident of Frederick, Md. “My red car is fully equipped. It has every option on it. It’s completely restored and in perfect condition. It’s a beauty queen, but I always wanted a ‘Plain Jane’ to go with it.”
When he probably least expected it, the perfect candidate fell into Sanford’s lap: a 1965 no-frills Corvair 500. It was a green coupe that belonged to another Corvair enthusiast, Ward Bourgondien. The car had been sitting for years, was all-original, and was in need of a new home.
“I had just finished a total restoration on my red car and a friend of mine called me. We had a mutual friend [Bourgondien] who had been suffering from cancer. He was big into Corvairs and Corvettes,” Sanford recalled. “The guy who helped me restore my red car called and asked me if I’d be nice enough to help get Ward’s last car out of the garage… We were going to get it running and clean it up so his wife could sell it. So we went and got it, and it was all covered in dirt and nobody had done anything with the car in years, but we started rubbing on it and my wife said, ‘This car is in pretty good shape, let’s take it home.’ So we bought it, and instead of fixing it up for them to sell it, we cleaned it up and kept it ourselves.”
Sanford may have pursued the car earlier if he had known how original and full of potential it was. The car had only been titled by the original owner, had only 12,450 miles on the odometer, and needed almost nothing. The car didn’t really work out as planned for either of the first two owners, and Sanford figured he was just the right guy to show off the Corvair as the kind of original, unrestored hobby car that you don’t see every day.
“The car was originally bought by an elderly couple outside of Washington, D.C.,” he said. “The guy apparently died shortly after he bought the car, and it never got moved after that… Ward bought it from the woman, but he never titled the car. It wasn’t running good when he brought it home, and he stopped right away and had five new tires put on it, but then he parked it and never did anything with it. He had a lot of other cars and it never moved from his garage.
“When I showed up, it was covered in dirt … It probably took a month to get it cleaned up and get it running right and change all the systems … You’re not going to just drive a 48-year-old car that’s been sitting…
“It wouldn’t start, so I took it down to a friend’s house and got it running and it was a mess. It was clicking and clacking, that sound of bent push rods. It was making all kinds of noise. It was a mess.”
Sanford eventually found out the engine had three stuck valves and the Corvair wound up getting a valve job, along with a new gas tank and sending unit, new hydraulic and brake lines, new wheel cylinders and new master cylinders. “But right now it looks factory. I didn’t change anything,” he said. “I kept everything that I took off of it, even the original wheel cylinders. The headliner is a light green, and it’s impeccable, and interior is perfect!”
The Corvair even had its original license plates on it.
“The only thing that is visibly different on it is the battery and tires,” Sanford said. “Everything else is pretty much 100 percent original.”
Sanford’s enthusiasm for Corvairs clearly hasn’t waned over the years, and he’s obviously having almost as much fun with his two “bookend” cars as he had with his first Corvair back in the 1960s. At that time, the Covairs seemed like a good alternative to the high-dollar dream cars that Sanford had been admiring, but couldn’t afford.
“I was young kid working at an MG-Austin-Healy-Jaguar dealer, and I didn’t have any money, but I wanted to be involved in motorsports,” he recalled. “I couldn’t afford anything else, so I bought a $200 ’61 Corvair. It was a station wagon. I autocrossed it, rallied it, did everything with that ’61. You know, even the most ratted-out MG I couldn’t afford, but that Corvair, I could afford!
“I was an SSCA road racer, autocrosser and all that from way back … and when I met my wife I had a Corsa convertible. I had that for 25 years, but when we moved from Myrtel Beach [S.C.] to beach to Maryland becauye of a job and I sold the car.”
Sanford came back to his Corvair roots in 1997 when he found his red Corsa, which then led to his green Corvair 500, the humblest of the Corvairs.
Not that there wasn’t some excitement with the 1965 Corvair 500 when it was unveiled. That was the same year that the Corvairs got a major facelife, with smooth-flowing, rounded lines and many other changes. The cars were wider, longer, more modern looking and featured curved windshield and rear window glass. All the closed cars had a hardtop, pillar-less design.
The 500 series included a four-door sport sedan and hardtop sport coupe. A total of 36,747 of the hardtops were built for the model year, more than double the 17,560 sedans produced. The coupes carried a base price of $2,022, about 70 bucks cheaper than the sedans.
A 95-hp horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine was standard, but a 140-hp power plant and four-speed synchromesh were available for buyers who wanted a friskier ride. Powerglide was also optional. Other standard features included a heater and defroster; all-vinyl interior; twin sun visors; front seat belts; front armrests; locking glovebox; cigarette lighter; coat hooks and interior light.
The station wagon and pickup body styles that had been a part of the first generation of Corvairs were gone for 1965, and the Greenbrier window van would follow suit after one more season.
The bottom tier 500 lineup remained on the Corvair menu until the nameplate ran out of steam permanently after the 1969 model year. Production figures fell every year after 1965. With the arrival of the Ford Mustang and its long list of worthy challengers, the Corvair 500 and all its siblings faced a losing battle. After building more than 54,000 Corvair 500s in 1965, Chevy managed just 2,762 assemblies for 1969.
For guys like Sanford, though, the Corvair has never gone out of style, and the car’s appeal has never faded. He’s long since grown tired of Ralph Nader’s famous crusade that the Corvair wasn’t safe, although he’s not blaming Nader for the car’s extinction, either.
“The Mustang killed the Corvair, not Nader,” he said. “The Corvair appealed to two groups of people, really. Aviation guys liked them because the engine was like an airplane engine. I’ve been messing with Corvairs for years, and I’m an airplane guy, too. I’m a pilot, so they appeal to me. No. 2 is the sports car people. If you went to an autocross or a road rally in ’60s, half the cars were Corvairs. It was your first sport sedan.
“It was just an unusual car. They were an affordable, sporty car and cheap to maintain. They were very sporty to drive, and they handled very well, like a Porsche, especially the later models.”
Sanford drove his Corvair 500 to the AACA East Regional Meet at Hershey, Pa., last fall and received an HPOF (Historical Preservation of Original Features) award for the car, which still has less than 14,000 miles on the odometer. As much as he likes buzzing around in his green time capsule, he doesn’t want to rack up many miles on a car that has beat the odds and remained so original for so long. A fender bender that would require a new paint job, or some other unforeseen mishap, could spoil much of the car’s authenticity.
“It doesn’t even have 14,000 miles on it … Shoot, I have a 2012 Suburban with 45,000 miles on it, and it’s not even a year old yet!,” Sanford chuckles. “We like driving our Corsa quite a bit, but try not to put many miles on the green car … We do exercise it a bit, get it out once a week, or every few weeks, and run it around the neighborhood or run errands. It runs great. It’s fun. It makes you feel good to drive it.”