A glimpse inside the Smith Collection Museum of American Speed.
Jay Leno on his love of collecting cars...
Rare and unusual doesn’t always necessarily mean Ferrari or Maserati or Duesenberg. In the late 1950s, to combat the growing import market, GM took probably its boldest step ever and came out with the Corvair.
It was a six-cylinder, rear-engined car, with all-independent suspension and uni-body, and the engine was air-cooled – unheard of at the time for an American vehicle. Some people call it the American Porsche because in its final form, its best form, the 1966 Corsa, it was a flat-six with a turbocharger and 180 horsepower.Don’t forget, Porsches were only four-cylinders up until the 911, and here was an American version that had two more cylinders and a lot more horsepower.
The Corvair came in all sorts of varieties: there was a van, there was a convertible, a four-door, a sedan, and there was a model called the Rampside that was an open pick-up kind of thing. That’s what I have. You can go to my website and look at it www.jaylenosgarage.com.
It has really unique styling.
I bought it because I’ve always been in love with the famous Mercedes race car transporter of the 1950s. This is the closest I will ever get to that. Like the Merc, in the Corvair you hang right out in front. In fact, people used to say that the great thing about the Corvair Rampside was that if there was an accident, you were the first on the scene… Your face is literally pressed right up against the windshield, and your feet are where the bumper is and the dashboard is solid metal – no padded dash on this thing.
I found the Rampside just round the corner. My garage is in a pretty industrial area. I was driving down one of the service roads and I saw a yard that belonged to a guy who would buy cars to fix up but never quite got around to fixing them. There I saw this green-and-white Corvair Rampside – huge amount of rust, four flat tyres, exhaust system missing, quite a few pieces missing.
It was fairly solid but when you opened the driver’s door you could see right through to the ground ’cause the floor was gone.
Anyway, the guy wanted $600 for it. I’m the Mia Farrow of cars: when I see one abandoned I have to adopt it and bring it in and see how I’m gonna raise it and feed it!
This one took a lot of work as someone had used it as a truck: they’d backed into poles with it, hit it with hammers and tied things down to it. Every panel had a dent in it somewhere. For weeks we literally cut the old metal out that was rotted, put new panels in, welded it up, sanded it, painted it and we have a car that, if not better than new, is at least as good as new.
People come up and they seem happy to see this car. Guys of my age group say, ‘Jeez, I haven’t seen one of those in years,’ or ‘I never seen one,’ because they were always pretty rare. Because the engine was under the rear, the tailgate was fairly high, so you had a ramp with a big piece of rubber along the top that literally folded down onto the street at the side, so you could wheel things up there. The telephone company bought probably a few hundred of these vans because they could wheel those huge spools of wire up into them and that’s about all they were good for.
A Dodge or Chevy or Ford Econoline van was probably more practical, but they had the engine literally in the driver’s compartment, usually with a big metal cover over it. You could hear the engine and smell the exhaust and the oil. With the Corvair, the engine is way back and there’s no engine heat, and in pre-air conditioning days in California that was pretty important.
The Corvair got maligned by Ralph Nader in his 1960s book Unsafe at Any Speed, where he singled out a number of cars for handling issues. Although he was right about a lot, he was wrong about the Corvair. Some people did lose control but by the time Ralph Nader’s book came out any problem had been fixed. Ending the Corvair shell-shocked car-makers into not producing anything as innovative as that again for a long time.
When I bring mine to Cruise Night at Bob’s Big Boy, which is sort of our version of the Ace Café, people go crazy to see it.
I’d say it garners as much attention as a Bugatti or Duesenberg because people feel a real connection with these kinda things.