Ray Massey, Corvair Guy

Twenty years ago I was driving west along U.S. Route 6 in Nebraska and came across a Chevrolet Corvair junkyard. The Furnas County town of Holbrook had fewer than 300 people and looked vulnerable to the next high wind. How had anyone in this little place come to specialize in Corvairs? It was almost like discovering that one of the shops in Holbrook’s decaying downtown buildings specialized in goat cheese from the Pyrenees.

Ray Massey, Oct. 22, 1989
Ray Massey, Oct. 22, 1989

I found myself talking to Raymond Massey, owner of Northside Garage. He was 64 years old, a veteran of the Pacific Theater in World War Two. His business card said, “General Repair.” Just about as nice and genuine as they come, Massey flavored his speech with folksy turns like “Looky here” and “I got a li’l bit a-comin’.”

He couldn’t explain how he became a Corvair collector. “When you’re a mechanic, you just fall into one thing and another,” he said. After discharge from the U.S. Army, he trained with his father in the Massey Garage, in Republican City, Nebraska. Later, he worked for the A.E. Morhman Chevrolet dealership, in Holbrook, for about ten years from 1952 onward. Then he set up his own shop.

The Corvair, Detroit’s radical departure
The Corvair was General Motors’ answer to the Volkswagen, which had set off the 1950s small car craze. The VW’s rear-mounted engine with horizontally opposed cylinders was cooled by air instead of water. The Corvair adopted this layout—but it was a larger car. And its engine block, of lightweight aluminum instead of cast iron, was highly advanced for the time. With six cylinders instead of the VW’s four, it produced more power while still keeping the weight down. In other words, this brainchild of GM engineer Ed Cole was perfect for the U.S. market.

22oct19891However, at the last minute, GM executives deleted a $15 component in the Corvair’s rear suspension that compensated for the car’s tendency to rotate when turning. It was a case of the tail wagging the dog, resulting in some inexplicable accidents, injuries, and even deaths. Ralph Nader made his name as a consumer advocate with his book “Unsafe at Any Speed,” which enumerated the Corvair’s deficiencies and then went on to rip the auto industry on many other accounts. Sales dropped dramatically and the Corvair line eventually was discontinued.

“Ol’ Nader’s the one who really killed ’em,” Massey said. “The Corvair was a nice li’l car, but people just oversteered ’em, overdrove ’em, I guess.”

Not that very much of the odd dynamic behavior would ever have been apparent on the straight roads of south-central Nebraska.

Tangled web of Corvairs

Massey’s accumulation of Corvairs grew over the years. “I don’t know how many I got.” He figured it was fewer than the 200 that were reputed to be at a place called Mother’s, in Papillion, Nebraska. He did have a 1966 Corvair Monza—the sporty model—that was being restored. It had come from a bankrupt Chevy dealer in Phillipsburg, Kansas.

Six-cylinder, aluminum engine blocks
Six-cylinder, aluminum engine blocks from Corvairs

He regularly drove a 1964 Corvair Greenbrier “window van.” Sustaining a Corvair in running condition wasn’t too big a deal. “If you can keep the [engine] seals in ’em, you can run ’em seventy to eighty thousand miles.” The O-rings and crankshaft seals were the key components. But engine rebuilds weren’t that imposing. “I’ve rebuilt ’em for $300. You can drop that engine in thirty minutes. Of course, it takes me longer. I don’t work that fast any more.”

However, the result of keeping any old Corvair on the road—whether a sedan, coupe, convertible, van, or pickup—was, well, an old Corvair. “Like my wife says, ‘These are stinking things.’ She won’t hardly ride with me.” Maybe he was referring to the old upholstery. But I rode in a Corvair when I was about eight years old. It belonged to Gene Suponchek, my dad’s coworker. I had been led to believe that this was just about the most advanced car on the road. Engine fumes nearly made me puke in the backseat, and I didn’t think so well of the Corvair afterward.

For Massey, the result of having innumerable old Corvairs on his lot was sometimes a bother. “I’ve threatened to shoot some guys.” Besides the thieves who are attracted to any scrap heap, there were aluminum dealers’ agents who pursued Massey about selling the engine blocks. A few others wanted Corvair engines for use on airboats that ran up and down parts of Medicine Creek and the Republican River.

May 17, 1925 to August 5, 2004

I had forgotten about Massey until the other day, when I opened a file folder and saw five notebook pages, his business card, and some color slides. “You’re gonna have a book thicker ’n the Monkey-Ward catalog,” Massey said as I scribbled away on October 22, 1989.

vansSearching online turned up the McCook (Neb.) Daily Gazette’s death notice. Raymond D. Massey died August 5, 2004, at his shop. He was 79 years old. The fact that the casket would be closed during the funeral seemed ominous.

Last night I called up Ryan Bauer, who arranged the services. He told me Massey had a system set up using a timber to support the vehicle he worked on. He didn’t come home for supper that night, and his wife, Marguerite, walked the three blocks over to the garage to look in on him. The timber had split and her husband was crushed beneath the car.

“He was a well-respected man,” Bauer said. “It was a big funeral. He worked on a lot of people’s cars.”

About a year later the Corvairs were auctioned off.

 

McCook obit: http://www.mccookgazette.com/story/1073926.html

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14 thoughts on “Ray Massey, Corvair Guy

  1. Great story on a fine man and a piece of automotive history that shouldn’t be history. I was the proud owner of three Corvairs and loved them My last one was a 1966 yellow Monza Spider convertible with the 140 hp engine. Great car. Too bad GM bungled the whole Corvair/Nader thing so badly. It speaks to the mindset that helped get the U.S. auto industry into the sad state it is today.

    pearson

  2. The corvair was a bad Beetle copy. It had six, versus VW’s four cylinders. While the VW crankcase and transaxler were magnesium for obvious reasons, GM used less expensive aluminum. The cylinders in both cars were cast iron.
    There were a host of bad ideas in the Corvair besides engine design. If the exhaust system leaked, the weak heater drew carbon monoxide into the interior. The steering gear was mounted right behind the front bumper and attached to a spear (steering shaft) aimed at the driver’s heart.
    The problem with swing axles in Beetles, Benzes, and Corvairs is well documented. The Corvair depended on a huge front-rear bias in inflation pressure for acceptable cornering. There were no door jam stickers then and that info was printed in the owner’s manual. Then and now, no one reads such documents. So in the likely event the rear tires were under inflated or the fronts were over inflated, the back end was the first to go.
    I spent many irresponsible miles riding in and racing against a friend’s Monza turbo with the ill-advised rear suspension. Yet, somehow, I survived to sin again. – From the shores of Ford Lake

  3. I too was the proud owner of a Corvair. I bought it off my aunt’s estate and it was about two years old and had about 1500 miles on it. This was in 1962 and with my wife and three little daughters we headed out from Omaha to Houston Tx. After a two year stint in Houston, we hopped in our little ‘vair’ and with the back seat folded down to make a bed, we packed the car full, had the girls lay down on the ‘bed’, and headed for California. After another four years, we finally traded our vair in for a Chevy but we never had any trouble and had a lot of fun cruisin down the road in our red Monza!!!

  4. There are guys like that sprinkled across the country, though it doesn’t seem like we’re growing many new ones. Doesn’t seem likely there will be Chevy Citation junkyards. Maybe Volts will inspire that kind of devotion… -F., in Detroit

  5. When we finally got a second car when I turned 16, it was a dark turquoise Monza. Did someone say over-steering? I was driving five kids home from a basketball game one night. There was one tiny patch of ice at a thankfully quiet intersection. The turquoise acrobat did a complete 360 degree turn and ended up in the exact same space in front of the stop sign where I had applied the brakes. I was terrified.

    There was a huge stillness in the back seat. Finally one of the guys said “Wow, how did you do that?”

    It had a tendency to not start at all, or to start, then stall as I was backed halfway into the street from the driveway. Something happened to it while Mom was driving it after I left for U of M. Never did hear the story, but I came home and it was gone.

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