The Menagerie


In order of acquisition:

1978 Fiat X 1/9 (currently primer/tan 1290cc, ~80 hp, 4-sp

1959 Fiat (Autobianchi) Bianchina sunroof coupe (rusty tri-tone/red 499 cc, 16 hp, 4-sp(got this pic here)

1965 Corvair Greeenbrier Sportswagon Deluxe (Crocus yellow/bronze 164 ci, 110 HP/4-sp)
1973 Fiat 850 Sport Spyder (light blue/black, 903 cc, 55 hp, 4-sp)
1965 Corvair Corsa Coupe (Crocus yellow/black, 164 ci, 140 HP/4-sp)
1993 Toyota Celica GT Convertible (Black/Gray/Black, 2164 cc, 144 HP/5-sp)

1992 Toyota Celica GT Convertible (Black/Gray/Black, 2164 cc, 144 HP/5-sp)

I got the X 1/9 as my first car when I was in high school. It was my only transportation for about eight years. Then my parents gave me the Greenbrier for my college graduation present, which started out as the "toy car" but quickly proved to be more reliable and profoundly more useful than the rapidly aging X 1/9. The X is currently awaiting clutch and head work before it goes back to the body guy to put the firenze red color coat on. I see it as the good weather/autocross car. Virtues: The handling, ergonomics, removable roof storage, crashworthiness, styling, surprising trunk space, and great heater (comfortable top-off cruising in 40-50 F weather). Vices: Could really use the 1500 cc engine and 5-speed. Eats wheel bearings. Has the usual Fiat rust problems. Cheesy Fiat fit and finish. Is unfortunately hot in hot weather.

I bought the Bianchina while I was a summer intern working in Burlington, NC. A guy had four of them in his back yard. It does run, but I haven't driven it anywhere--it needs a lot of work. All the running gear comes from the Fiat Nuova Cinquacento of the late 1950s, and the body was a custom Autobianci design. The engine is a vertical aircooled inline 2-cylinder pushrod 4-stroke that started out displacing 479 cc and ended up at something like 590 cc when Fiat quit building 500s in the mid seventies. Mine has the "speciale" 499 cc engine, complete with a 1-bbl 22mm downdraft Weber carb. The gearbox is nonsynchromesh, but is supposed to shift easily because all the sliding stuff is on the countershaft. The clutch disk is about the size of a dessert plate. Carlo Abarth hot-rodded the 500 sedan into the Fiat-Abarth 595 SS and 695 SS Radiale cars. They had bigger bore and stroke, and a special cylinder head that took a 36 DCOE Weber. Max power was around 7800 rpm and gave about 120 mph with long-track gearing. I must admit that I have no desire whatever to see that kind of speed in my Bianchina.

The Greenbrier is the original American minivan. It's kind of sad that Chrysler gets credit for inventing something that Chevy was making 20 years before the first Voyager/Caravan was shoved off the line. The Greenbrier has more interior volume, better ventillation, and drastically better handling than any currently produced minivan. It is pretty rectangular, sits shorter than an Aerostar but slightly taller than a Voyager/Caravan, has a 3/4 ton rating and a load floor 18" above the pavement. The Sportswagon name has turned out to be more than a marketing ploy: Corvair Society of America has two autocross classes (Stock 5 and Improved Stock 4) for Forward Control corvairs (Greenbriers, Rampside and Loadside pickups, and Corvan panel vans), and we enter our 'brier every chance we get. People are scared to see how hard we flog it, but it's a blast to drive and has a low center of gravity (for a van). I will, incidentally, be happy to autocross my Greenbrier against anybody's early '60's Econoline or Dodge window van. But then I've never heard of anybody autocrossing an old Ford or Chrysler van.

Downsides? Well, they never came with factory air conditioning, which would normally be unbearable. But the drivetrain is in the rear of all Corvairs--so no heat source in front of the passenger compartment, and there's a pretty decent ventillation system built into it--six roll-down windows, ventipanes and a big ram-air foot-vent system in the nose. I wouldn't ever own one in black, but yellow isn't bad at all, even in a muggy piedmont Carolina summer. I don't find power a problem, but then I never tow anything heavier than another corvair. If you want to tow a big holiday rambler you'll be disappointed. Stay away from the powerglide variants--two gears isn't enough, and they're rough on the brakes if you tow. If your curiosity is piqued see my work-in-progress on the FC corvairs which is available on the Virtual Vairs web pages.

I got the 850 for no sufficiently good reason. If you want to buy it for close to what it's worth, I'll sell it to you. It is a nice car, make no mistake, but I need another Fiat to work on like I need a leg amputated. This particular one is the last year they were built--another fun car to drive, with all the usual Fiat problems.

And this leaves the Corsa. I had wanted a Corsa for a long time--in fact I was disappointed when my parents gave me the Greenbrier instead of a Corsa. But they couldn't find a driver (that is, neither fixer nor show-quality) Corsa at a decent price when they were shopping, and the Greenbrier seemed (and was in fact) so much more practical. I finally found the '65 Corsa I wanted (almost, anyway-- it could have been a convertible) at the price I could afford in July of 1993. It turned out to have the same willing character the van has, only with GT coupe manners instead of rugged utility. It also turned out to have the same Crocus Yellow color, which made us pretty distinctive at Corvair meets. I love this car. It is more fun to drive than most other cars I can name. The syling is still brisk and purposeful after 30 years, and it's not loaded down with accessory fru-fru like most current cars are. When you tromp on the accelerator it makes a noise I've heard described as "Porsche 911 meets NASCAR". I might consider trading it with a Ferrari Dino if I had the money to maintain the Ferrari, and I didn't need the back seat. I can't think of another car that has the virtues of this one.

Disadvantages? Well, it's a Chevrolet, not a Rolls-Royce. The car's design life is ten years, and we're about twenty over that now. Nylon bushings break where bronze would not, there is cardboard in the parcel-shelf area where an upholstered surface would look and wear better. The design sensibilities of the car are 1960's American in some basic respects: The "bucket" seats are closer to a split bench with a 1 foot gap between; comfortable but not very supportive in cornering. The instrument cluster includes a tach, cyl. head temp, and manifold pressure gauges, but omits oil pressure or voltage in favor of a clock. It came with skinny tires on 13" rims (I have more wheel and tire on 'brier and Corsa both), one swaybar, and cushy bushings. It lacks a cruising gear.

I got the 93 Celica when I finally wrecked the respected-but-unloved 1994 Prism/Corolla after 218,000 miles of hard use. I had already decided that I wanted a small convertible as a commute car. Since I live in the rust belt, I didn't want to abuse a Corvair that way. I also had need for a back seat, so my obvious choice of a Miata was unavailable. My short list was for an older 3-series BMW convertible, a Saab convertible, or a Toyota convertible. I also needed something cheap. The Celica appeared at the right time for the right amount of money. It has dents and dings from being driven by a high school kid for a couple of years, but appears to have been well-maintained. The body, however, sat in tall grass in Ohio all summer without having the undercarriage washed off after winter. I eventually downgraded the car to parts car status and went looking for another 90-93 Celica convertible.

The 92 Celica was bought specifically so that I could have a nice car that had the virtues of the rusty '93, but without any of the vices. My only complaint with the '92 is that it, like the '93 is black. I really wanted either red or frost blue but black was the low-mileage creampuff that appeared first on craigslist. It has proved to be an excellent commute car, and is quite popular for family outings in the mountains as well. The engine actually consumes less oil than the Prizm ever did, even though it's a larger displacement and I got the Prizm when it had 20,000 miles on it. I find that I really enjoy this car--it gets acceptable fuel economy, is fun, and isn't much of a compromise as convertibles go. If I move south of the salt line this will probably eventually be replaced by a Corvair convertible. I would still like a Corvair convertible instead - they're actually more useful and more comfortable, but that would necessitate a bad-weather commute car as well. Maybe someday.

So what would I like to own that I don't own already? Oh, lessee. A '60 Corvair Monza coupe would be neat. I don't have an early coupe, and the '60s have always appealed to me--they're orphans even among corvairs. Slightly less practical would be a Jaguar XK 120 or 140--any bodystyle. I've always liked the looks and engineering of these. Unfortunately, a lot of other people do to, so it's likely to be a while if ever. A type 55 Bugatti would be neat, if we're fantasizing here. Another car with both looks and performance. Prices run in the high six figures. Maybe a boattail Duesenberg or Auburn. New cars? The only newish car I'm really somewhat interested in is the Mk 1 Lotus Elise. This is a car that's engineered like I like to see them done. Everything has a purpose, it's all well thought out, and it has a 0-60 time in the 5 second range with a stock 1800 cc Rover engine. I look at this as the logical descendent of the Barchetta project that the X 1/9 descended from.

Other hobbies? Sure, I have them, but don't have time for much. Tube radios, pocket watches, old cameras. If it can be tinkered with I probably have some interest in it. I'd like to have more interest in airplanes, but that's another rich man's hobby.

All contents copyright 1999 Radford Davis. All rights reserved.

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