The badge says Monza, but I’m thinking more Dakar
It’s got distinctive looks, great traction, and a horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine. No, it’s not a Subaru Forester—it’s a Chevy Corvair. Old-time Vermonters I keep encountering swear by the little air-cooled Chevrolets as cars that would, Beetle-like, go anywhere in the winter and get home again. The rest of the world sees Corvairs as “the poor man’s Porsche” and, you know, I like Porsches too—providing they’re the safari’d kind.
Safari cars are usually moderately lifted versions of regular street cars with knobby tires, extra lights, skid plates, and whatnot to permit them to go offroad or at least down sketchy, class D fire roads of the type that we have a lot of in the remoter reaches of the Green Mountain State. A safari car is kind of like a Group 11 or Baja Bug, just with any other kind of car than a Volkswagen Type 1.
Corvairs have their own off-road history, having made excursions both through the Darien Gap and into the swamps of Florida back when Chevrolet was pushing them as capable compacts more than sports cars. Since then, however, most builds lean in the direction of emulating the Fitch Sprint or Yenko Stinger SCCA contenders.
Still, there are a lot of Powerglide-equipped Corvairs that will never run with the four-speed cars on an autocross track but could be used for other vehicular adventures. This is a rare (unique?) case of me putting my time and money where my mouth is: I already own a near-identical car, and this is essentially the plan I have for it, though here we’ll take a look at how to safari a 1962 Chevrolet Corvair Monza listed for sale on Hemmings.com.
To start with, don’t imagine trying to replicate the New England Forest Rally in this thing. That’s a whole different car, incorporating a roll cage. For moderate driving, I envision just enough lift to deal with substantial ruts and clear oversized wheels and tires. That’s maybe an inch and a half to two inches over stock.
To accomplish that, the right way is new, taller springs and shock absorbers to match. Those aren’t something available off the shelf for Corvairs because most people want to lower their car or keep it stock height rather than go up. Spring spacers are another option, but kind of weak sauce for something intended as permanent.
It goes without saying that fresh bushings and an in-spec, adjusted steering box are mandatory before any modifications begin. You don’t want to compound deferred maintenance with weird changes.
The biggest weak points in a Corvair for long-term ownership are the rear wheel bearings. The wheel bearing for the swing-axle car was a unique design that interchanges with nothing except the ’61-’63 Pontiac Tempest. Further complicating things, the ’60-’62 design will fit a ’63-’64 car, but the slightly redesigned 1963-type bearing won’t fit a 1960-’62 Corvair. They’re not reproduced and weren’t intended as a serviceable part. The best thing to do, it seems, is to carefully drill a hole in the housing, install a plug (or a Zerk fitting—but some reports indicate that may not allow sufficient flow) and re-lubricate the bearing periodically. Having a useable spare set on the shelf also seems to be a wise mov
Brakes, Wheels and Tires
Speed is the enemy of brakes. This isn’t a high-speed build. Ergo, it doesn’t need bigger brakes. That’s good because the early model Corvair doesn’t really lend itself to brake upgrades. In the front, it’s simple enough to swap to five-lug disc brakes, but you’re pretty much stuck with four lugs in the rear unless you can dig up and shorten a pair of axles from a Corvair 95 (that’s the van/truck version, which used front suspension more like that of an Impala than the standard Corvair unit).
One upgrade that I do demand and have already installed is a dual-reservoir master cylinder. Losing one of four brake lines shouldn’t mean losing all four brakes!
I’ve never been a fan of 13-inch wheels—probably because I’ve seen too many of them wearing undersized tires. There are better options today for Corvair radial substitutes than there used to be, but 14- and 15-inch wheels are way better supported. My feeling is that a 25.5-inch diameter looks best on a car this size, so I’m running 195/75R14 Firestone Winterforce snow tires.
It happens that I had easy access to 14-inch Ford Maverick wheels, which have the same four-lug bolt pattern as a Corvair, but a slightly smaller center hole. I had our friendly local machine shop open them up for me and used ’59 Chevy dog-dish hubcaps, but a more straightforward approach would be to grab a set of 14-inch aftermarket four-lug wheels (and matching ‘56 Chevrolet-style hubcaps) from someone like Wheel Vintiques.
One caveat here is that at extremes of suspension deflection while the wheels are turned, they sometimes catch the fender lip—hence the recommendation to raise the suspension slightly. Otherwise, 185/75R14 tires might be the ticket to avoid interference.
Although the ad says otherwise, according to the crossed-flags badge on the decklid, this car has the 102-hp Super Turbo Air engine. Like all ’61-’63 Corvair engines, this is a 145-cu.in. boxer six. For 1964, Chevrolet stroked the 145 out to 164 cu.in., raising the formerly 102-hp engine’s output to 110 horsepower. The 102 is a good engine, but the 110 is an absolute stalwart.
I’ve already sought out a 110. Mine’s a ’65-vintage unit. A ’64 engine would be even better because it would come a lot closer to being a drop-in swap to the ’62 engine bay. Installing the later engine requires some parts shuffling—and a few ’64-only pieces—but is doable.
Alternately, I suppose you could have the 102 rebuilt with the 110 crankshaft inside; making a 110 completely disguised as a 102 save for the telltale harmonic balancer.