40 years on, a love affair with the Corvair
Recorder/Paul Franz Calvin and Joan Clark are celebrating 40 years providing replacement parts for the Corvair automobile in Shelburne. Purchase photo reprints »
SHELBURNE — The last of the Chevrolet Corvairs rolled off the assembly line in 1969 — about two years before Joan and Cal Clark Jr. found a $50 car that would change their lives: It was a 1964 Corvair Spyder Coupe — black with a red interior — buried under a snow mound behind the Greenfield Sunoco service station.
“The body was in excellent condition,” says Joan Clark, “but the engine was in pieces. Somebody had started to work on it, but the owner never came back.”
“We’ve still got it,” adds her husband.
By August 1972, that Spyder Coupe was fully restored, the Clarks — hooked on the fun of restoring it — had found a Corvair convertible in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for just $200 — including delivery.
The Clarks had amassed extra Corvair parts for the first vehicle, and were surprised when the man who delivered their second fixer-upper wanted to buy some of their extra parts.
“We also knew from our experience that it would take three weeks to get (Corvair) parts delivered,” said Joan Clark. “The dealers did not keep Corvair parts in stock. We thought, if we could sell some parts, we could use the money for more parts to restore our convertible,” she said.
“It was pure luck,” said Cal Clark. “That’s all it was.”
Forty years later, the Clarks still have both cars, eight Quonset hut buildings that house several thousand Corvair car parts, and 22 full-time employees to take and ship orders, rebuild engines and carburetors, stitch car seat upholstery (including with 50-year-old vinyl fabric), and coach car owners through their own Corvair repair jobs.
“A lot of our clientele is getting older, but if their children aren’t interested in the Corvair, their grandchildren are,” said Joan Clark. “It’s still a car you can work on without hooking it up to a computer or bringing it to a garage. It’s just basic, simple mechanics.”
It’s been a long road though.
“Nobody ever thought this would still be a business after 40 years,” she said. “The banks didn’t take us seriously. Nothing was easy.”
“Now it’s getting the respect it deserves,” Cal Clark said.
Gave up day jobs
In December 1972, Cal Clark, a teacher at the Mohawk Trail Regional School, made up a list of 150 Corvair parts that he had for sale, and the Clarks started selling them out of a small ranch-style home in Buckland. They found themselves staying up until 1 a.m., filling orders.
By 1975, Joan Clark had quit her “day job,” and Cal Clark gave up his teaching position to take care of the car parts business.
“There were car batteries in the bathroom closet and car parts everywhere we had room,” she said. “We had 12 employees by the time we moved out of that ranch house. It took nine of the largest-size U-Haul trucks to move everything.
Now the company keeps roughly 16,000 to 17,000 Corvair parts in stock. This doesn’t include the used parts they also carry, when available, the original 50-year-old components they have, and the parts that are made or fabricated right at Clark’s Corvair. All their business is done through catalog sales, by phone or through online sales. The Clarks say they ship out from 90 to 175 packages a day to Corvair car owners all over the world.
“We never understood how so many Corvairs got so many places,” said Joan Clark. “We were told that military people would take their cars with them, and then leave them behind when they bought another car.” Cal Clark said there weren’t as many car companies worldwide at the time the Corvair was made.
Chevrolet first introduced the Corvair in October 1959. There were only two models, and both were four-door sedans. “The American car buyer ... was beginning to think small,” says an illustrated history, “The Corvair Decade,” by Tony Fiore. “The decade of the ’60s was going to be the decade of the compact cars. But it didn’t turn out that way.” Fiore says only 250,000 Corvairs were manufactured in 1960, and less than 4 percent of that year’s car buyers chose the Corvair (compared to the Ford Falcon, which sold 435,000 cars in its first year).
The six-cylinder car had an air-cooled, rear-mounted engine, like the VW Beetle, and had a swing-axle rear suspension. They were said to be fun to drive, about 20 percent smaller than the standard-size car of the time and got more miles per gallon of gasoline than standard size cars.
Corvair came under a cloud when it was faulted for its early swing-axle suspension and the lack of an anti-roll bar in Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” in 1965.
In 1972, a Texas A&M University safety commission report on the Corvair for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that the 1960–1963 Corvairs possessed no greater potential for loss of control than other cars from the 1960s.
“It took 10 years to reach that conclusion,” said Cal Clark, “but economy cars by then had died, and everybody wanted ‘muscle cars’ — the Mustangs, the Camaros and the GTOs.” Cal Clark said it was too bad that the Corvairs didn’t survive long enough for when the first oil crisis of 1973 struck. When gas prices started going up, during an international oil embargo, that’s when the prices for Corvair car parts started rising, he said.
About 1.7 million Corvairs were made from 1960 to 1969, and Cal Clark estimates that between 50,000 to 100,000 Corvairs still exist.
“We do have 23 to 24 employees fulltime, and we keep them busy year-round.” Cathy Newton, a 36-year employee and manager of Clark’s Corvair, led a recent tour of the eight-building premises. When asked what they think about the future of their business, Cal Clark said: “We approach every year expecting it to get smaller, and it never does.”