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Unappreciated at Any Speed 

Seventy Bay Area enthusiasts -- and thousands more across the nation -- don't care what Ralph Nader says. They want their Corvairs.

Wednesday, Aug 20 1997
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Eventually, even the attorney who had led the legal crusade against the Corvair gave up the fight. David Harney, whose law partner had lost his son in a Corvair accident, began the crusade against the car in 1960. Eight cases went to trial; GM was not judged responsible in any of them. (In one, the company agreed to a $70,000 settlement to curtail the negative publicity that the case was generating.)

In 1967, Harney acknowledged that his firm could not prove that the Corvair was defectively designed. He dropped the other outstanding cases with GM, and settled for what he described only as a nominal sum of money.

Five years later, the federal government officially vindicated the Corvair. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration came to this conclusion: "The handling and stability performance of the 1960-63 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover, and it is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles, both foreign and domestic."

Nader has never retracted his allegations against the Corvair. He called the study a whitewash, and the moniker "unsafe at any speed" stuck to the Corvair like bare skin to a hot front seat.

Zaki Nadiri has been working on Chevrolet Corvairs since 1965, and owns Corvair Unlimited, a one-man garage in Hunters Point that specializes in repairing the automobile for which it is named.

"Most mechanics just don't dig the Corvair," Nadiri explains. "It's the kind of car where a mechanic needs to know how to work on it, and be prepared to do it again, because it may not take."

He likes to tell a story in which he replaces the fuel pump in a 1965 Corvair five times. Each new pump fails -- twice, Nadiri picks up the car and its owner. The last pump works beautifully.

Nadiri spends 10 hours a day at his garage, six days a week (he takes off Sundays and exceptionally fine days when the bass are biting). He works mostly on his beloved Corvairs, which, he estimates, make up 80 percent of his enterprise.

Though he suspects the total number of Corvairs on the road is declining, his business is steady. Many of Nadiri's customers have been coming to his shop since they bought their Corvairs, back in the '60s. He says he wants to keep those cars running for another 30 years, at least.

Nadiri started working on cars when he was 9 years old, helping his Uncle Red Cap at his garage in Paradis, La. As a young man, Nadiri worked as a mechanic in New Orleans and then joined the Air Force. When his active duty tour was up in 1964, he found himself looking for a job in San Francisco.

He started servicing the stock of a used-car lot. When that dealer's business declined, he began taking the overflow repair business from the big GM dealers. He opened his own garage a few years later, and decided then that he would specialize in the Corvair.

"It was a car that nobody wanted to work on," Nadiri recalls. "It was too technical to repair, and it took too much time."

He set to work learning everything he could about the car, poring over manuals and trade magazines. But even now, more than 30 years later, he admits the car is still a challenge. He says he has heard that the Corvair engine can leak in as many as 200 places.

Nadiri says a basic understanding of the Corvair is essential for mechanics and owners alike. The design of the Corvair didn't, of itself, make the car dangerous. But a poorly maintained car with bad shocks, tires, and springs would naturally be more inclined to oversteer.

People who took care of their Corvairs rarely had problems, says Nadiri, even over long distances. Successfully owning a Corvair is a matter of faith -- and good maintenance, of course.

"How far can you go in a Corvair?" Nadiri asks, quite rhetorically. "It'll take you as far as you want. Detroit. New York. Wherever."

To drive the Corvair is to defend the Corvair.
Bea Tom is a true defender. A diminutive woman who describes her age as "in her early 70s," Tom lives in a flat on lower Nob Hill with her sister and two cats. Since 1969, she has kept the books at the Buena Vista restaurant and bar at the end of Hyde Street.

Every weekday morning for the past 28 years, she has driven her red 1960 Corvair coupe to the Buena Vista. Her sister and a friend bought the car new from the Ellis Brooks Chevrolet dealership on Van Ness. The afternoon they bought it, they drove downtown to pick up Tom from work.

She recalls the first time she saw the car.
"I looked at it, and I thought, 'My God what a beautiful car!' It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen," says Tom. "The lines were so beautiful. It was streamlined."

When her sister decided she no longer wanted to drive, Tom took over the car payments and got her driver's license. That was in 1962.

Tom says nobody in her family -- none of her nieces or nephews -- wants the car. They keep urging her to sell it.

"They say, 'It's so ugly.' I tell them, 'It's my car, I love it, so just bug off,' " says Tom. "I don't care what Ralph Nader or anyone else says.

About The Author

Tara Shioya

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