Bernie Chicoine’s ‘61 Corvair Rampside Pickup

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One car I never thought I’d write about in Garage Hot Rods was the Corvair “95” Rampside pickup. That’s because I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a Corvair “95” Rampside pickup until I saw Bernie Chicoine’s on the Hot Rod Power Tour.

In true Garage Hot Rods fashion, Bernie’s is not a stock Rampside. He’s hot rodded it with a 2004 Subaru WRX motor, 1995 Porsche 911 Tiptronic transmission, BMW 3 Series rear suspension, and a laptop computer in the passenger compartment so he can shift into reverse. (We’ll get to that later.)

As you can tell from the pictures, Bernie’s Chevy certainly stood out from the more traditional hot rods at the Pensacola stop on the Power Tour. When I went over to check it out, and heard him talking about the WRX motor, I was intrigued. And that’s just one part of this really unique, incredibly engineered hot rod.

“I bought it from my next door neighbor,” Bernie told me. “He had it for 12 years. I saw it when he first got it and I loved the truck because it’s different.”

The neighbor came over one day to show Bernie a Corvair Monza he had just bought. Bernie asked about the Rampside. His neighbor said he didn’t have plans for it and asked if Bernie wanted it. They struck a deal.

Bernie and his friend Dick Collins immediately got to work rebuilding the carbs and the brakes to get the 95 (so called because it has a 95” wheelbase) in working order. The original 80 horsepower Corvair engine and two-speed Powerglide powered the Rampside nicely around town, but not so much on the open road.

“I really enjoyed driving it,” Bernie said. “But I didn’t enjoy driving it on the highway because every time I went back home I had to change out lifters. It wasn’t designed to go 70 miles per hour. I wanted to drive it, which meant I had to do something about the engine and transmission”

Since the Rampside started with a flat six motor, Bernie wanted to keep the “flat” configuration to minimize the changes to the bed. He decided that the engine from a Subaru WRX would fit the bill nicely.

The WRX mill is a turbocharged 2.0 liter flat-four. With all of the necessary modifications in the engine/trans compartment the stock Subaru exhaust and turbo configuration could not be used. Bernie got an outstanding custom piping job from Keven Hedrick at Auto Muffler King in Newport News, Virginia. His work also includes a custom cross brace assembly that not only provides structure to the suspension but a custom built bracket for the water-to-air intercooler. In addition to plumbing in the intercooler, he also fabricated stainless radiator tubing, turbo, and exhaust systems.

Bernie was very appreciative of how often Keven went above and beyond to help him. He mentioned that after a brief discussion with Keven about how best to raise the existing Corvair bed (the engine took more of the bed space (horizontally) than the original engine) Keven mentioned that he had a friend, Greg who owns Precision Sheet Metal Fabrication in Hampton VA who may be able to recreate the bed floor pattern and working together they could make a cover that would, once completed, look stock. “Great lets’ do it” Bernie said.

The time and effort that Keven and Greg went through to make the engine/trans cover look stock was well worth it! The process of taking a piece of sheet metal placing it into a break and bending it is relatively simple but to recreate the existing bed floor pattern, aligning it to the rest of the floor took many hours of precision work by both Greg and Keven and it shows their skill, dedication, as well as commitment to getting the job done right.

Bernie noted that “Keven did much more than a typical fabricator. He ensured that the decisions I made were guided by 40+ years of his fabrication experience (I was not always right)”. Keven even gave Bernie a set of 1961 vintage license plates that are on the pickup today. “That dude rocks,” Bernie said.

As it was configured at the Power Tour, Bernie estimates the WRX engine is probably putting out about 250 horsepower. He’s got a dyno session lined up soon and expects to improve that. “The tuner needs to get the truck on the dyno to check performance throughout the RPM range” he said. “My target is 300 hp.”

Next he had to figure out how to get those horses to the ground.

“I’ve got a Subaru motor,” Bernie said. “What am I going to attach to it? Initially I thought I was going to run a 5-speed out of a Subaru. There is a company that sells a kit that converts the Subaru 5-Speed split-case transmission to a reverse rotation which would be needed for this application. But I liked driving the Truck with the two-speed Powerglide. I didn’t want to shift. I wanted an automatic.”

The automatic transmissions options for a rear-engined, rear-wheel drive car are pretty limited. There are just two logical options: Volkswagen and Porsche.

So Bernie talked to a guy in California who builds high-performance VW transmissions. The VW guy asked how much horsepower Bernie expected to make. About 300, Bernie replied. He asked if Bernie was going to have a turbo. Bernie said yes.

“I’m not selling you anything,” Bernie recalled the VW guy saying. “What’s going to happen is that you’re going to launch it off dirt and as soon as you hit the asphalt, you’re going to rip the gears out of it. Too much torque. I recommend you buy a Porsche transmission.”

Bernie started looking at what would be involved in mounting a Porsche transmission to a Subaru engine. He saw that the bolt pattern (bell housing) for the Porsche trans was the same as the bell housing for a VW trans. A buddy of his had a VW and they did some measuring. They figured out how to make it work.

He got an adapter plate from Outfront Motorsports in Buena Park, California that was designed to mount a VW transmission to a Subaru engine. This is a common swap for VW Vanagons. The adapter plate came with a crankshaft spacer that would mount the transmission torque converter plate to the Subaru crankshaft. Since the Porsche torque converter plate doesn’t share the same bolt pattern as the Subaru crankshaft, Bernie had to call upon another friend, Ben Kopp, who is a machinist, to cut out the center section of the Porsche torque converter plate, weld in a new center section and drilled out the new bolt pattern to match the Subaru bolt pattern. After Ben was finished the plate was balanced and fitted to the engine/torque converter.

Ben was also called upon when it came time to fit the existing Chevy style wheels onto the BMW hubs. Bernie recalled, “I brought him the BMW hub and the wheels and I said ‘I need those wheels to fit on that hub.’ Ben replied “No problem”, and Bernie picked them up the next morning.

Now that the engine and trans were connected, Bernie had to mount them to the chassis. He and Dick removed the original swing arm suspension. Looking at what they had to do, they figured it might be best to pull an entire suspension out of another vehicle – that way they’d have it all together as a complete assembly.

“We did a lot of measuring ,” Bernie said, “and actually went to the junkyard and laid under a lot of cars. We found that two vehicles were good candidates: a BMW 328i and a late model Charger.”

They decided on the BMW, which needed extensive modifications but still provided a solid foundation to build on, while providing the opportunity to source stock BMW parts when necessary. The suspension is mounted on the original Corvair frame rails, which Bernie strengthened with some additional boxing and ⅛” plates on both sides of the frame rails. Although their plan to use the entire rear suspension assembly was a good one, it still wasn’t easy.

“The BMW suspension was, how should I say it, problematic,” Bernie said. “Well, it was a pain in the butt. Getting clearance for the coil overs took forever. But it’s in there.”

The Rampside has four wheel manual disc brakes. The rear brakes are BMW, the fronts are from Speedway Motors that were designed for a Bel Air disk conversion. The conversion kit did require Bernie to do a little work to get some additional clearance but was well worth the effort. A dual master cylinder from a Corvette provides the hydraulics. Bernie reports the 95 stops just fine.

And with most of the Power Tour driving under his belt, Bernie was very happy with how the suspension was working. “We put 1400 miles on it before leaving Virginia Beach for the Power Tour,” he said, and all totaled he estimated that participating in the Tour was going to add another 2700 more miles. “It drives great,” he said. “It’s rock solid. It steers straight, even when you nail it, it still goes straight.”

The Rampside’s paint job looks original, and Bernie hasn’t decided what his plans are for it yet. “I’m normally not a guy that lives with patina,” he said. “I’m torn between spending the next year making it pretty or driving it the way it is.”

The 95’s interior features Speedhut gauges in an instrument panel that Bernie created out of ½” aluminum plate. His panel is one inch taller and one inch wider than the stock panel to fit all the gauges, including, boost air/fuel ratio, speedometer, tach and a quad gauge that includes volt, tach, fuel and temperature gauges. Speedhut customized the gauges specifically for Bernie with the Corvair emblem and “Rampside” lettering. Bernie also has a Cobb Access tuner to keep an eye on the WRX motor.

The Rampside’s bench seat has been swapped out for a set of Bronco buckets. Bernie likes the Bronco seats because they don’t have headrests that would be visible through the back window, so they look period correct. Installing the buckets required Bernie to cut a huge chunk out of the fender well, which was OK with him because, he said, “You don’t need the clearance for the tires anyway.”

When we were talking, the passenger’s seat had a laptop computer sitting on it. I asked what that was for and Bernie told me that it was for the transmission. Specifically, he needed the laptop to shift into reverse.

You see the transmission has these solenoids that are activated on the plus side with different relays that you can see on a schematic but are not always obvious because…

Oh hell. I think it would be better if I just let Bernie explain it:

“The Porsche Tiptronic transmission is controlled by a MicroSquirt computer, not a Porsche trans controller. The software I am using was developed for a Land Rover transmission that happens to be built by the same manufacturer as the Porsche transmission. As luck would have it the Land Rover uses a different solenoid configuration for reverse than the Porsche transmission. All other gears share the same solenoid configuration between the two transmissions. After talking to the MicroSquirt developers they looked across multiple platforms using this style of transmission and found that there were not two different combinations for reverse but actually three! The developers built the original code specifically for the Land Rover community but are now looking to make the necessary changes to enable software options for all three solenoid combinations. They didn’t realize that people like myself were going to use Porsche transmissions in a Corvair. So until the changes are made in the software, I have to go into test mode in the MicroSquirt program to activate reverse manually. It’s not a big issue for me and to be honest I have assigned the duty to anyone sitting in the passenger seat, it gives them something to do.”

That sounded like a lot of work to me for just shifting into reverse, but Bernie said it was really just a couple of keystrokes. And his set up allows him to change his shift points too. “Porsche guys can’t do that,” he added with a smile.

That’s all the big stuff, but rest assured there were lots of little issues that Bernie had to resolve along the way. The turn signal switch that he replaced with micro switches mounted in the turn signal housing and connecting them to a stock Toyota combination (turn/flasher) relay. Fabricating a custom shift gate for the Winters shifter (no one makes a shift gate for a Porsche Tiptronic transmission). “I could talk for days about the pain – I mean the challenge – of doing some of this stuff,” Bernie told me.

As good of a hot rodder as Bernie is – he’s built several other cars, including a 1972 Dodge Scamp with a 392 Hemi, 1967 Barracuda with a 5.7 Hemi and a 1965 Ford Falcon with a 5.0 (see the trend?) – he was quick to give credit to folks like Dick, Keven, Ben and Greg and others for their help. “You’ve got to have those guys!” he told me. “You’ve got to have good friends.”

Even if I had heard of a Corvair “95” Rampside pickup, I would not expect to see on that had been hot rodding with Subaru, Porsche, and BMW components. It can’t be easy, but you can tell from talking to him that Bernie loves it.

“It’s a puzzle,” he said. “I like puzzles.”

Photos by GHR
Click here to see the photos of Bernie’s Rampside

One Reply to “Bernie Chicoine’s ‘61 Corvair Rampside Pickup”

  1. Wow!!!! What a wicked project !!!! There is some serious “backyard engineering” right there. I have seen a few Subaru-powered VWs, but they don’t require that much ingenuity.
    For folks like me who have problems putting together a Tamiya plastic kit, this kind of project looks surreal.

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