Thursday, March 1, 2007


January 2007

1964 Corvair Monza Spyder turbo restoration

Cake and eat it

Restoring a 1964 Corvair Monza Spyder to a concours standard and driving it, too

By David Traver Adolphus

Photography by Kim ________

If you’re a Corvair fan, you might recognize this car—it’s the 1964 Monza Spyder turbo club coupe on the cover of your October 2005 club publication, CORSA Communiqué. Posed on the brick pavers outside of Meadow Brook Hall, Rich Thompson’s car was the first Corvair ever to appear at the distinguished concours, where it won a coveted Lion Award.

If you are that Corvair aficionado, you may also recognize Rich Thompson’s name, as he’s the Corvair Society of America (CORSA) Central Division Director, and the club Concours chairman.

But Rich didn’t get his car into Meadowbrook Concours judging because he’s on the CORSA board of directors; this project predated those roles by years. Rich was motivated to prove to the world that he could—and should—produce a 1,000-point Corvair. (OK, 998 points, from the VCCA). “The main issue [was] that when I kept going to big Super Chevy meets, or the Chevy ‘Vette Fest out in Chicago, the amount of detail and time the 409 guys put in their Impalas or the Corvette guys put in their Vettes, made me say, ‘You can do the same thing with a Corvair.’ It’s a car, regardless of the make or model, and you can do that with this car. Especially this historically significant one: It’s a very rare model, that was completely loaded up to be a showroom model.”

Rich’s Corvair started life at his nlocal dealership in DePere, Wisconsin, and it had made it about 35 miles to Manitowoc when he found it. In fact, when he finished it, Rich ran into a former Broadway Chevrolet employee who remembered it from the showroom floor. The body was largely intact (although a $50 donor car provided a correct front decklid), but this former showroom model was missing almost all of its trim.

And there was more than a little trim. A ’64 Monza Spyder is rare enough (6,480 coupes), but there were 11 factory options listed on the original window sticker, and a further 14 from the dealer. Everything, in fact, but air conditioning—and A/C wasn’t available with the turbocharged engine.

Rich had previously restored a 1964 Monza convertible, and chemically stripped it of many thick layers of paint. “It was just a messy, miserable job,” he said, and when he discovered his Monza Spyder had only a single layer of finish “that looked like it had been applied with a fly sprayer,” Rich and his “partner in exterior paint,” Rick Nelson of Right Way Auto Body and Paint in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, decided to attack it with DA sanders. With a deadline to get it to Rick’s shop for bodywork looming, they started with 40-grade discs, “Which made quick work of some panels, especially where I didn’t have multiple layers of paint.” Rick himself used a 36-grade abrasive, and they were both very careful to back off when bare metal showed. Once they’d removed the bulk of the paint, Rich finished the sanding with small discs on an electric drill and 60- or 100-grade, and some hand-sanding. He also performed his own hammer and dolly work on minor dents before sending it to Rick for final bodywork.

The interior sports a number of painted metal panels, which from the factory were sprayed with a metal-etching paint directly on bare steel. Rich didn’t strip those to bare steel, but sanded them to a rough finish, and popped out a few minor dents.

He also had to take off the well-applied factory rubberized undercoating, a job he thinks required 35 hours on his back with a propane torch and an assortment of putty knives. The Corvair lacks real wheel wells, so the spray-on coating extends throughout the undersides of the fenders. Later, when the time came to replace it, Rich saids his secret weapon is 3M’s™ Underseal™ Rubberized Undercoating. It dries to a very hard finish, with the correct pebble finish and flat semi-gloss finish. “I’ve never found anything better than this. People can’t tell the difference.”

While the extensive option list makes the car unique, it proved to be a huge headache, as most of these items were damaged or missing. The Monza Spyder also displays quite a bit of brightwork not found on Corvairs 500s and 700s, with stainless steel drip rails and window moldings, and aluminum below the beltline, including rocker trim. The scarcity of this trim and the fact little if any is reproduced necessitated an extensive search, and restoration of those he had. “To try to find perfect parts was a fair bit of misery,” he said. Those that were available as reproductions, such as the upholstery kit and door panels, came from Clark's Corvair Parts, and most of the NOS parts came from Mike Squires of Davenport, Iowa.

Among the pieces Rich restored is the stainless trim. He purchased Eastwood’s Mini Anvil and Trim Hammer set, which includes a 3½ ounce trim hammer and 1½ pound anvil. “At the same time, I was making up small tools out of hardwood,” essentially sculpting a custom hammer and dolly for each individual dent in the metal. He thinks the metal itself is type 1.4016 or grade 430 stainless, a low-carbon ferritic metal that is able to be re-worked and will not re-harden.

After working over the dents to get them as flat as possible, he filed them down with a mill bastard file, then started removing metal with wet paper in 220-, then 320-grade, and 600-grade either wet or dry, depending on the dent. He then polished with a medium grade compound, followed by White Rouge Buff Compound. He did discover that a piece of trim that looked perfect indoors could show waves or other imperfections in daylight, so he ended up taking them back and forth to get them perfect. Once he was satisfied, he applied Flitz Paste metal polish, “Which gives it real brilliance.” For shows, he goes over it with Blue Magic metal polish, “My favorite for regular maintenance of stainless over time.”

Another of his options was Soft Ray tinted glass all around, found on a mere 7% of Corvairs, and most of those in the South. “If the car just had clear glass, it would still look good, “ he said. “But with it, it has this kind of stately quality. It’s fast, but it’s sophisticated.” So when he discovered his car had an incorrect clear backlight, he went out and found a correct tinted one. Unfortunately, the shallow angle of the window meant it was thoroughly roughed up, so he decided to attempt to restore the glass. After “a tremendous amount of homework,” he used Eastwood’s Glass Polishing Kit, which came with Rhodite polish and a thick buffing wheel. Rich put his glass on two sawhorses with a thick blanket and worked outdoors on cool days. “The danger is to go too far and create distortions,” he said. “The trick is to realize you’re not going to get rid of every scratch, but improve clarity.”

Working in small, eight-by-eight inch sections, he affixed the wheel mantle to an electric drill and, keeping the surface wet, was careful to move to a new section before he generated too much heat. He says this was by far the most time-consuming single job in the restoration, requiring around 100 hours for the backlight alone—more than 10 percent of the total time he invested in the restoration.

Restoring the transaxle of the rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive coupe was a much simpler job, and one Rich says was his favorite. While the four-speed didn’t require too much mechanical work, “It was incredibly filthy.” After cleaning, he washed it with POR-15 Metal-Ready™ surface preparation, then scrubbed it with a 3M pad. He sprayed it with a cast-iron paint from an aerosol can without primer, as he didn’t want to trap any more heat than absolutely necessary in a confined region of the car, in immediate proximity to the exhaust.

The car actually ran fairly well when he acquired it, but did have a 30-year coating of grime. “I spent tens of hours stripping the and refinishing the engine compartment to it’s original semi-gloss finish. If this was off the slightest in gloss, it would mean losing the CORSA Factory Stock Restored classification.”

With help from Corvair expert Jim Jimenez, Rich rebuilt the engine and suspension, and when the painted body shell returned from Rick Nelson, began to reassemble the car. The undercarriage received a coat of POR-15, then a semi-gloss black on the underside of the floor and Chassis Black on the suspension where appropriate, and then he got to work on the interior.

An original DuPont color chart in hand, he went to his local paint shop and had the correct Medium Red single stage lacquer interior paint mixed up in aerosol cans, one matte for the front and one in a glossier finish for the back. Over any dents, he used a skim coat of U-Pol’s Topstop Gold body filler, a very-fine grained two-stage polyester filler he says doesn’t leave any pinholes and sands well. The floors were finished in a correct red oxide, which is supposed to be visible around the carpets in several places.

In Mid-July of 2000, exactly one week shy of two years after he started, the Monza Spyder was complete. Thankfully, Rich puts on substantial mileage every year, while still keeping it in true #1 condition. “I get most of my ribbing at the Corvair conventions, because when people see the car they say, ‘You don’t drive this. No way.’ You could have the nicest little showpiece, you could roll it off a trailer and roll it back on, but I think that if the car’s not running right, it’s not worth it.”

To keep it in blue-ribbon contention, he changes the oil at least three times a year, and examines the undercarriage at least as often. “If I find something that’s a little out of line, I make sure that I either correct it, replace it or repair it. It’s intensive, especially when you’ve got other cars to look at, but if you’re going to maintain this car at that level, you have to keep on it. You can’t stay away from it.”

When not preparing for a concours, he’s willing to let it accumulate the trophies of driving. “I can go out and enjoy the car and not feel bad if I look under the hood and see some dust on the shrouds. I know that can be cleaned, but I don’t want to let it sit there.” When a major show is in the offing, he begins preparing it three or four months in advance. Rich credits CORSA with helping to make it all possible. “I think without CORSA, I would have been sunk, and it would have been overwhelming. I would have got out of the car. I didn’t know where to start.”

The 1964 Monza Spyder, although a powerful and nimble handler on the road, also had to had to contend with the introduction of Ford’s Mustang. Mustang, another small car with bucket seats and available four on the floor, came with more available horsepower than Monza Spyder at less cost, especially when well optioned. It was a tougher sell to an American public that understood a more conventional car, a lower price and a more traditional driving experience. The Monza Spyder came and went after one year and its new sibling, the Corsa, took its place. The Corsa series did not offer a turbocharged engine standard like the ’64 Monza Spyder.

Very few of these rare cars survive today. The ones that are left represent a milestone for the compact sport car. This is through radical engineering, style and performance. It marks a time in automotive history where the lines became blurred for a moment.”


My father had shown me a white ’64 coupe, when I think that I was about five years old. In our town of Stoughton, Massachusetts, there was one that was driving around. I think an older lady had bought it, and it leaked oil like you would not believe. And the reason I remember that car is that when it pulled up to a stop sign—and you were always behind it—it would leak profusely from the rear grille. And it just leaked…drip, drip, drip, drip, drip.

I was fascinated with this car that leaked. And I said, “Oh, what is that?” and my dad said, “Well, that’s a Corvair. Its engine’s in the back.” And I thought, “Wow! That is really something.” Now, I would see Beetles driving around Stoughton a lot, but they didn’t strike me as much as I saw this unique design, that was very compact, and I just thought that the lines were just fascinating.

I spent an enormous amount of time looking for the options and accessories that were correct for the car and that was exhausting. But the completed product is unlike most any Corvair I know of or have seen. Even though I get lots of compliments on the bodywork and the paint, especially where it is black, I look forward to doing a few non-black cars. They show every flaw. But you would be hard pressed to find one on this car.

It is the perfect color combination for this model and year. It has just about every available factory option and accessory possible and I have put an incredible amount of sweat equity into it. So the car and I are truly bonded. There is not a square inch of this car that I not touched or know what went into it. It is the muscle car of the early Corvairs but it has a very regal, almost stately look about it. It sounds tough when it starts up and when I am going down the road, it holds the road like no other car I have driven. It is an enthusiast-driving car. It has the most character of any car I have driven. And it has it in spades.

--Rich Thompson

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