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Commentary & Opinion

David Nightingale: Some Old Cars

64 Chevrolet Corvair Monza
Greg Gjerdingen from Willmar, USA
Wikimedia Commons
64 Chevrolet Corvair Monza

My first US car, bought in 1965, was a 2nd hand Chevy Corvair.  Ralph Nader, in his book “Unsafe at any speed”, famously slanged the Corvair – and production was discontinued around 1969. Recently, out in the countryside, I saw half a dozen of them rusting away behind someone’s house.

I didn’t regard my nice little dark green Corvair as unsafe at all. (BTW the Corvair is not to be confused with the Corvette.) Mine was a compact four passenger car with a bench front seat, no bells and whistles except a radio, and it gave me very many trouble-free miles. Corvairs had their air-cooled engine in the back, similar to VW bugs, and it handled well. I never was someone who raced around tight corners, so I had no experience with Nader’s accusation that it was prone to flipping over. I really liked everything about it, and it was a very reliable car.

Nader had no training in engineering, but his book drew attention to vehicle safety issues in general – such as seat belts, and pointy metallic styling that could be unsafe for pedestrians, and so on. So  although I think he was wrong about the Corvair he did us an important service.

Before owning that compact Corvair I was living in the Middle East. My first ever new car was a beautiful blue and white 1963 Karmann-Ghia, with Blaupunkt radio, and delivered to the Istanbul docks – no import duty, no taxes, the whole thing on a loan. I was 27. I was able to commute to work every day, and during vacations drove it down to the Mediterranean to camp with friends, as well as up to the Black Sea, and at the end of my contract I drove it right across Europe and then by short car ferry to the UK.

Reaching further back in time, as a graduate student in London of course I didn’t have any car at all. But when I was a 20 year old undergraduate I had managed, from summer earnings, to buy a very very very old MG. I think I paid what might be equivalent in today’s money to about $50 – and it needed work, work that I as a beginning physics student  – obviously interested in how things functioned – was able to  accomplish. It was a 2 seat 1935 MG “M” with a split windshield and a boat-shaped back, precursor to the MG Midget. Many people haven’t heard of that “M” model, being more familiar with the old MG TDs and TFs from the ‘40s and ‘50s.

I only have time to mention one more – my very first. As a teenager I had witnessed my father’s reluctance to have older brother learn to drive on the one-and-only family car, so I scoured the newspapers for something really cheap that I might teach myself on.  After working on farms during school vacations, I bought what might now be termed a prehistoric clunker, a 1928 Austin 7, for the equivalent of about $40. This boxy little thing had 4 tiny seats, and by the time I’d repaired its cable brakes, some electrical things, and got it running, I was certainly cognizant of its functions. And that’s how I passed my driving test, thus saving dad any further nervous stress.

Today, I’m on my fifth used Subaru, but I have to confess I can’t think about any repairs. When I open the hood, I see only an undiluted thicket of pipes and cables interweaving their way into and out of boxes and compartments – all of which do ... heaven knows what.

David Nightingale is Professor of Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz. His latest book is A Kitchen Course in Electricity and Magnetism, published by Springer, New York.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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