My Fitch Corvair

John Fitch. Photo from the back of his 1965 catalog.

John Fitch was an ace. Piloting a P-51 Mustang, he was the first American to shoot down a German jet fighter in 1944. And later, in the 1950s, he piloted a Mercedes 300SL to come in first in his class at the Mille Miglia road race in Italy. He was beaten to the line by Sterling Moss and Juan Fangio who were driving 300 SLRs-- not bad company to keep.

Driving a 300SL he won the Pan American Road Race in 1952. He was a regular driver for both Team Cunningham and Team Mercedes.

He did some consulting work with General Motors, trying to get the Corvette into full racing mode, and worked with them in the early stages of the design for the Corvair.

Not quite mine, but close! Mine was a dark maroon color with a tan interior. Photos from

In some ways, the Corvair was one of the most unique American cars to come out in the last half century. It was not only rear engined, but was powered by a horizontally opposed six cylinder air-cooled engine. Introduced in 1960, it had a major revamp in 1965, in both styling and in engineering. The 1965 was a beauty .

Through my interests in cars I had heard that John Fitch was doing Corvair modifications, so when I bought a Corvair Corsa in March 1965, I did so with the knowledge that it would be modified by the man himself.

Within two weeks of my purchase I drove the car up to the Fitch shop in Falls Village, CT, and had them do the work.

The car had come with four carbs, but two of them were "secondaries" which opened only when you floored it. If your RPM was too low, the engine would flood. Because of this poorly controlled flow, the gas mileage was poor.

The Uni-Syn device. Placed over the throat of the carburetor, the down-draft was calibrated by a red ball that floated in the vertical tube. All four carbs needed to float the ball at the same spot.

The major change made by Fitch was the removal of the secondary carbs and the replacement of them with primary carbs -- capable of working at idle, and delivering power across the whole RPM spectrum. Of course, they had to be synchronized with each other, and I was given a lesson in using a "Uni-Syn." For as long as I owned the car I checked their adjustment every week. Because the engine was working more efficiently, the gas mileage improved-- even though the power was increased by over 10%-- from 140 HP to 155 HP.

The Corvair engine. The horizontal fan and the vertical crankshaft were on the fan-belt that went through a 90 degree turn. The belt broke often. A seasoned Corvair owner always had a spare fan-belt and tools to put it on.

Fitch also advanced the timing three degrees, and installed less restrictive air filters on the carbs.

He also installed shorter steering arms, a damper for the front steering, a shorter shifter linkage, two extra gauges (oil pressure and ammeter), a carpet for the rear luggage area, and a Lucas "flame-thrower"-- essentially an aircraft landing light installed in the left high beam socket which put out a very bright beam down the middle of the road at night-- not really legal in all states at the time!

Within a short time I also had Pirelli Cinturato tires installed along with Koni shocks. The camber was reset for both front and rear suspensions.

The Fitch shop also turned me on to using a Valvoline engine oil that was formulated especially for air-cooled aircraft engines.

Fitch also offered a "roof modification" which I never got. I preferred to keep the car "incognito," as it were.

The cover of Fitch's 1965 catalogue, showing his "Sprint" Corvair with the modified roof.

At about 30,000 miles I had a bit of a prang that did some damage to the suspension. I took the opportunity to have heavier springs with a lowered race suspension installed along with metallic brake linings.

Shortly after I got Abarth exhausts which were eventually mated to exhaust headers. When I broke a piston ring at 87,000 miles, the mechanics at my local Chevvy dealer were amazed at the internal cleanliness of the engine. It didn't need any de-carboning or even any re-grinding of the valves. They said, "you must real drive it hot. We don't see any like this." Yup. I was not an old-lady building up carbon while toddling around in my little Corvair!

The bugger went like stink, and handled magnificently. My friend Eric Camiel knew Luigi Chinetti, Jr., and once had him take the car for a test drive. He was impressed. He said that below 80 miles per hour it handled as well as his Ferrari, but above that speed it was no match. Fine with me! Along the way I got three tickets for excessive noise.... It had an amazing sound-- those six cylinders exhausting left, right, left, right, through the straight pipes and glass-pack mufflers.

At about 100,000 miles I noticed some rust, and the car started to get some internal water leakage. Then in January 1970 with 110,000 on it, it was hit head on during a snow storm. It was a nice slow hit, but bent it enough that, with the rust, it was not worth fixing.

I drove it up to Fitch, who had worked on the car for the first four years of its life, and he said it was all gone, except the engine which was still quite strong. He gave me $150 for it.

I wish I had bought two of them and just squirreled one away....

In 1966 Ralph Nader came out with his book "Unsafe At Any Speed" which hypothesized that General Motors knew about the suspension faults on the earlier Corvairs and did nothing to correct them-- resulting in several accidents when the cars (because of the swing axles) tucked a real wheel and rolled during high speed cornering. It certainly did have lots of oversteer.* Although a National Safety Board exonerated GM, Nader's book had done the damage. Instead of GM proclaiming, loudly, that they had redesigned the entire rear suspension on the 1965 models, they came out with an insipid bumper sticker that said "I love my Corvair."

By 1968 stricter Federal pollution controls were being put into place, and it was difficult to add the needed pumps and piping to the Corvair engine. Most Chevvy mechanics hated working on them because the engine , like a VW engine, was surrounded by a shroud that ducted the air from the fan around the engine. To get anywhere near the engine itself, the shrouding had to be removed-- a real pain in the ass.

GM withdrew the Corsa and supercharged Spyder models from production-- the only two which were potentially commercially viable-- and kept the other models in production. Who would want to buy an underpowered small car with little passenger space and little trunk space? The sales dropped and the production was discontinued.

More information:

* oversteer: the tendency of the car to turn faster than anticipated, usually because the front tires hang a bit tighter and the rear of the car starts to break loose and come around.

A great definition was offered by my friend Nat Williams:

understeer: you come into the corner, you turn the wheel, and you plow straight ahead through the fence.

oversteer: you come into the corner, turn the wheel, and go through the same hole in the fence-- but ass end first.