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Clark’s Corvair Parts steers through 40th year

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Calvin and Joan Clark are celebrating 40 years providing replacement parts for the Corvair automobile in Shelburne.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Calvin and Joan Clark are celebrating 40 years providing replacement parts for the Corvair automobile in Shelburne.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Joan and Calvin Clark with replacemenet panels and seat covers produced in their upholstery shop in Shelburne.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Joan and Calvin Clark with replacemenet panels and seat covers produced in their upholstery shop in Shelburne.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Calvin and Joan Clark are celebrating 40 years providing replacement parts for the Corvair automobile in Shelburne.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Joan and Calvin Clark with replacemenet panels and seat covers produced in their upholstery shop in Shelburne.

SHELBURNE — The last of the Chevrolet Corvairs rolled off the assembly line in 1969 — about two years before Joan and Cal Clark Jr. found a $50 car that would change their lives: It was a 1964 Corvair Spyder Coupe — black with a red interior — buried under a snow mound behind the Greenfield Sunoco service station.

“The body was in excellent condition,” says Mrs. Clark, “but the engine was in pieces. Somebody had started to work on it, but the owner never came back.”

“We’ve still got it,” adds her husband.

By August 1972, that Spyder Coupe was fully restored, the Clarks — hooked on the fun of restoring it — had found a Corvair convertible in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for just $200 — including delivery.

The Clarks had amassed extra Corvair parts for the first vehicle, and were surprised when the man who delivered their second fixer-upper wanted to buy some of their extra parts.

“We also knew from our experience that it would take three weeks to get (Corvair) parts delivered,” said Mrs. Clark. “The dealers did not keep Corvair parts in stock. We thought, if we could sell some parts, we could use the money for more parts to restore our convertible,” she said.

“It was pure luck,” said Mr. Clark. “That’s all it was.”

Forty years later, the Clarks still have both cars, eight Quonset hut buildings that house several thousand Corvair car parts, and 22 full-time employees to take and ship orders, rebuild engines and carburetors, stitch car seat upholstery (including with 50-year-old vinyl fabric), and coach car owners through their own Corvair repair jobs.

“Nobody ever thought this would still be a business after 40 years,” Mrs. Clark said. “The banks didn’t take us seriously. Nothing was easy.”

“We were pretty scared ourselves — for the first 20 years,” added Mr. Clark.

“Now it’s getting the respect it deserves,” Mr. Clark said.

In December 1972, Cal Clark, a teacher at the Mohawk Trail Regional School, made up a list of 150 Corvair parts that he had for sale, and the Clarks started selling them out of a small ranch-style home in Buckland. They found themselves staying up until 1 a.m., filling orders.

By 1975, Mrs. Clark had quit her “day job,” and Mr. Clark gave up his teaching position to take care of the car parts business.

“There were car batteries in the bathroom closet and car parts everywhere we had room,” she said. “We had 12 employees by the time we moved out of that ranch house. It took nine of the largest-size U-Haul trucks to move everything.

Now the company keeps roughly 16,000 to 17,000 Corvair parts in stock. This doesn’t include the used parts they also carry, when available, the original 50-year-old components they have, and the parts that are made or fabricated right at Clark’s Corvair. All their business is done through catalog sales, by phone or through online sales.

The Clarks say they ship out from 90 to 175 packages a day to Corvair car owners all over the world.

“We never understood how so many Corvairs got so many places,” said Mrs. Clark. “We were told that military people would take their cars with them, and then leave them behind when they bought another car.”

Mr. Clark said there weren’t as many car companies world-wide at the time the Covair was made.

Chevrolet first introduced the Corvair in October 1959. There were only two models, and both were four-door sedans. “The American car buyer ... was beginning to think small,” says an illustrated history, “The Corvair Decade,” by Tony Fiore. “The decade of the ’60s was going to be the decade of the compact cars. But it didn’t turn out that way.”

Fiore says only 250,000 Corvairs were manufactured in 1960, and less than 4 percent of that year’s car buyers chose the Corvair (compared to the Ford Falcon, which sold 435,000 cars in its first year).

The six-cylinder car had an air-cooled, rear-mounted engine, like the VW Beetle, and had a swing-axle rear suspension. They were said to be fun to drive, about 20 percent smaller than the standard-size car of the time and got more miles per gallon of gasoline than standard size cars.

Corvair came under a cloud when it was faulted for its early swing-axle suspension and the lack of an anti-roll bar in Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” in 1965.

Mr. Clark said that Nader “didn’t help” Corvair sales, but “there’s some information that (Chevrolet) was already interested in stopping production of the Corvair sooner, because of the production of the Camaro in 1967.” But they kept the Corvair longer,” he said, because people would have believed that Nader’s book caused production to cease.

In 1972, a Texas A&M University safety commission report on the Corvair for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that the 1960–1963 Corvairs possessed no greater potential for loss of control than other cars from the 1960s.

“It took 10 years to reach that conclusion,” said Mr. Clark, “but economy cars by then had died, and everybody wanted ‘muscle cars’ — the Mustangs, the Camaros and the GTOs.”

Mr. Clark said it was too bad that the Corvairs didn’t survive long enough for when the first oil crisis of 1973 struck. When gas prices started going up, during an international oil embargo, that’s when the prices for Corvair car parts started rising, he said.

About 1.7 million Corvairs were made from 1960 to 1969, and Mr. Clark estimates that between 50,000 to 100,000 Corvairs still exist. “We do have 23 to 24 employees full-time, and we keep them busy year-round.”

Cathy Newton, a 36-year employee and manager of Clark’s Corvair, led a recent tour of the eight-building premises. The main building consists of three levels, and the Clarks thought the one building would provide “more than enough” space at the time. But more buildings were added as the business grew. There is an upholstery department with three to four sewers stitching vinyl car upholstery, which is later heat-stamped using tooling made by Calvin Clark Sr., a former Millers Falls Tool Co. engineer who worked for his son and daughter-in-law’s company for about five years, after retirement.

In the fabrication area, there are original spools of vinyl upholstery, reproduction fabrics and other options for the car owners. Clark’s Corvair Parts makes block kits for engines, with rubber and metal seals and cork and paper gaskets. There are specialists who can rebuild customers’ turbo chargers and then test them on an old Corvair on the premises, before sending them to the customers.

And there are three full-time technicians who answer Corvair owners’ automotive questions free of charge.

“We’ve had customers ask, ‘My car is making this noise. What’s wrong with it?’ and literally hold their phones up to the cars. Unfortunately,” she continued, “there aren’t as many mechanics around that know the car. It keeps us quite busy.”

The Clarks say many of the restored cars were eventually used as “everyday” cars, but those left are now mainly show cars.

When asked what they think about the future of their business, Mr. Clark said, “I think it’s something that’s going to continue, probably forever, but I don’t expect it to grow any further.”

“We approach every year expecting it to get smaller, and it never does.”

Mrs. Clark added: “A lot of our clientele is getting older, but if their children aren’t interested in the Corvair, their grandchildren are.”

“It’s still a car you can work on without hooking it up to a computer or bringing it to a garage,” she continued. “It’s just basic, simple mechanics.”

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at:
dbronc@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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