If you asked me when I started Garage Hot Rods which cars I’d be writing about, the Chevrolet Corvair would not have been on my list. That’s probably for two reasons: 1) there’s not a lot of Corvairs around these days, and 2) I knew almost nothing about them. But when I saw Taylor McKimens’ super clean 1963 Coupe, I knew it’d be a great hot rod to feature.
And if you’d asked me who the people I’d be writing about would be, visual artists would not have been near the top of my list either. And yet, Taylor is now the second artist to be on GHR, following Wendy White and her Duster. I thought that was unusual, but Taylor made me think otherwise. “These cars are all living sculptures,” he said about hot rodding, “so it’s not a huge surprise!”
The fact that I knew almost nothing about Corvairs was resolved pretty quickly while talking to Taylor. Like a lot of hot rodders, but maybe more than most, Corvair enthusiasts are pretty evangelical about their cars.
The biggest reason for their enthusiasm is probably the bad reputation Corvairs got from the Ralph Nadar book “Unsafe at Any Speed.” The book was first published in 1965, five years after Chevy introduced the car.
What’s frequently forgotten these days is that Nadar’s book wasn’t only about the Corvair. It was a criticism of Detroit’s overall approach to safety. Many of Nadar’s points were valid, and led to positive changes. But his criticism of the Corvair, that the first generation models’ swing-axle rear suspension had a tendency to tuck a rear tire under the car in certain circumstances, was not valid.
A 1972 safety commission report conducted by Texas A&M University concluded that “the 1960-1963 Corvair compares favorably with contemporary vehicles used in the tests […] the handling and stability performance of the 1960–63 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover, and it is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles both foreign and domestic.” [from Wikipedia]
And an article Taylor sent me from the RustMag.com website said that GM never lost a product liability case concerning the Corvair (they settled the first case brought in ’63). In a later case, the judge summarized, “it is the court’s conclusion that the Corvair automobile of the 1960 through 1963 variety is not defectively designed nor a defective product; that no negligence was involved in the manufacturer’s adoption of the Corvair design.”
But the damage had been done in the court of public opinion.
“The car has been so clouded with a history of bad PR,” Taylor told me. “People aren’t even sure why they think it’s a bad car. When I’m driving it, people love to run up to it and tell me what’s wrong with the car.”
That’s a shame, because, in fact, the Corvair was a trend setting cars in many ways. Yet, Taylor said, “People get so caught up on the Ralph Nader thing,” Taylor said, “they don’t realize how advanced and how revolutionary the Corvair was.”
Many people think the Corvair stole its styling cues from European cars. Nope. “When the Corvair first landed in Paris, there was nothing else like it,” Taylor said. “BMW took their entire design identity from the Corvair.”
Read this article from the Curbside Classic website. It says, “The Corvair was the smash sensation of the 1959 Paris Auto Show, and unleashed a wave of copy-cats on an unprecedented scale.” You can see from this picture (courtesy of Curbside Classic) of a 1960 Corvair (lower right corner) in Paris traffic how unique it was at that time.
People think Corvairs handle badly, but really very few American cars from that time period match it. The Corvair had a flat six cylinder engine in production years before Porsche did. In 1962, the Corvair Spyder and Oldsmobile F-85 Turbo Jetfire, became the first factory-produced turbocharged cars.
Maybe the car’s real legacy was summed up by Robert Benzinger, a design engineer and senior project engineer for the Corvair. RustMag.com quoted him as saying in 1975, “The best overall vindication of the Corvair, I think, is in the undocumented, but indisputable, fact that among GM people – employees, executives, engineers – the Corvair was probably the most popular personal and family car that GM ever built.”
Taylor has come to appreciate the technical innovation the Corvair introduced on both sides of the Atlantic. But with his artist’s eye, it was the car’s styling that first attracted Taylor to it.
“I’ve always been an artist, ever since I was a kid,” Taylor said. “My whole family was into cars. My dad grew up in the San Fernando valley in the 60s and 70s. There were projects we wanted to do, but we were poor. My dad would talk about a car he’d like to build and I would draw it for him.
“I love the way a lot of European sports cars look, but at the same time I grew up in the US, in the Southwest, in a family that was pretty deep into hot rodding and I love American cars. When I first saw a Corvair I was like ‘What is that?’”
Taylor attended the ArtCenter College of Design, which has one of the top automotive design programs in the world. He was hanging out with people who were designing cars, and he began to understand what makes good automotive design.
“When I saw the Corvair,” he said, “I thought, wow, that is a cohesive design. It’s such a modern design. I was captivated by it. It was designed with restraint. That’s more common now, but at that time it was all fins and chrome.”
With his hot rodding family background, Taylor knew he wanted to have a classic car to work on. He found his first Corvair, a 1963 Coupe, in Ohio five years ago for just $4,000. (If there’s a positive side to the Corvair’s undeserved bad reputation, it’s that it has diminished the demand and value of them when compared to other 1960s cars.) At that time, he was working in New York City so he flew out to Ohio and drove the Chevy back to the city. Soon after he bought the car, Taylor replaced the engine with a 1964 model.
Taylor loved driving the car around New York. It proved to be a fun, reliable car – “notoriously reliable” he said. He was a member of Corvair clubs in Long Island and New Jersey. And Taylor and Wendy White not only know each other from their art, but they hot rodded together as well, going to shows in the area.
During the pandemic, Taylor was taking advantage of the empty roads when he had an accident in the Corvair. “That was unfortunate,” he said. There was one small upside however. He had already planned to move back to California and it was going to be difficult and expensive to move the Corvair along with all his possessions. After the accident, he had the engine re-worked by a Corvair specialist in Long Island, and then he packed the engine in his U-Haul and headed west.
Taylor started looking for a straight Corvair body in California. He found a ‘63 Coupe in Stockton, nearly identical to the one he owned in New York. GM had built a small number of Corvairs in the Oakland area, and this was one of them. “I don’t imagine it’s ever strayed far from the Bay area,” Taylor told me. “It doesn’t have a spec of rust on it.”
His rebuilt ‘64 engine from New York went in with the differential and transmission from the California car and Taylor dialed everything in. He had to fix some electrical problems, did extensive work on the interior, and made some general upgrades to increase the Chevy’s reliability.
Taylor’s Corvair has the base 164 cubic inch, air-cooled flat six, originally producing 95 horsepower. That sounds modest today, but it was pretty good for 1963, especially in the smaller, lighter Corvair. The six breathes through two Rochester single barrel carburetors.
Corvairs came with three-speed and four-speed manual transmissions, but Taylor’s has a two-speed Powerglide. The automatic in his Coupe has been a godsend in the California traffic. “It’s for cruising around,” he said. “I’ve been in SF for a few months, and I’ve really enjoyed having that Powerglide with all the hills.”
Taylor’s suspension is largely stock, including the manual drum brakes. He does think the previous owner may have cut the springs a bit. It’s lower, but not much lower than stock. Taylor’s kept the 13” four lug wheels that were standard on the first generation Corvairs. But he spruces his up a bit with two options: baby moon hub caps, or a set of spider center caps (rare for four lug wheels) and Corvair-specific Cal Custom trim rings.
One thing Taylor really loves about Corvairs is the blue collar, underdog spirit they have. And to that end, he’s really into JC Whitney and Cal Custom parts. He described the look he’s after as “period correct mail order custom.”
So he’s outfitted his car with some of the specific styling choices that were available at that time from those companies. His Chevy has a Cal Custom rear grill and chrome trim pieces for the louvers on the rear deck lid. The Corvair also has a set of Cal Custom chrome exhaust tips. They’re not Corvair-specific, but Taylor likes them because “they’re In line with the Jetson jet age spirit of the times. They might be triggering to people who like the Euro, less is more look, but I like more is more. And it’s a touch trashy.”
Taylor spends a lot of time in his studio working on his art, but he’s out in the Corvair whenever he can. “It’s extremely responsive,” he said. “On a highway I cook along at 70 mph easily. You can drive them. You don’t have to baby or pamper them.”
To maximize his time behind the wheel, he also uses the Chevy as his work vehicle. The rear seat folds down, allowing him to fit a lot of art work and supplies back there.
And once a month, he and a bunch of other hot rodders take over a parking lot at Ocean Beach. “It’s not an organized event,” he said, “but everyone shows up once a month on a Sunday and turns the parking lot into a great classic car get-together. A lot of Corvair people come out to that.”
Prior to my conversation with Taylor, I didn’t know much about Corvairs, and I knew even less about art. I asked him to tell me about his art work. “My interest in art is not too different than my interest in Corvairs,” he replied. “My impulse is to lean into a blue collar angle and underdog approach.”
He described his art as having a West Coast style, rooted in lots of color and the use of lines similar to what an illustrator would use. Like an accent you’d pick up while learning how to speak, Taylor said artists develop a visual accent. And while he learned a lot about color during his time in New York, he said his accent hasn’t changed.
“I’ve stayed true to it,” he told me. “It’s what makes people like my art – and also makes people not like my art. I make art that speaks to people who are deeply versed in art. But I’m also never excluding people who don’t know it.”
In many ways that’s what he sees in the car world with his Corvair. To Taylor, the Corvair fits in at a classic hot rod show as much as at a lowrider show. It’s a sports car that can carve up canyon roads, and it’s a cute car with lots of personality like a Volkswagen Bug. And people who love classic American cars love it as well.
“They’re a design triumph,” he said.
And maybe when all is said and done, Corvairs will take their place in history as an automotive work of art.
Photos courtesy of Taylor McKimens, Wendy White, and Curbside Classics
Click here to see more photos of Taylor’s Corvair
You can follow Taylor’s Corvair exploits on Instagram via @BardBeach
Taylor’s art is showcased on @taylormckimens