Searching for redemption at the Concours d’LeMons

True confession time. I still own my first car. We’ve been together since I was 17. I’ve put over 30,000 mostly trouble-free miles on it, although it hasn’t been my primary car since I was in college, and it has brought me a great deal of joy. I, in return, have inflicted a fair amount of damage on this poor, undeserving, loyal friend, damage that I’ve never quite been able to afford to fix, and as time has gone by I have tended more and more to hide my beloved first car away.

It is my 1965 Chevrolet Corvair Monza sport sedan, and I have been embarrassed and ashamed of it.

When I bought my Corvair, it had just 11,575 miles on the odometer. Although the original Willow Green paint was thin and tired, the Fawn vinyl interior was spotless and still carried a faint trace of new-car smell. With just 110 claimed horsepower – those are ’60s gross ponies, mind you – backed up by a two-speed automatic, it was a perfect little old lady special.

The secret is that, even in granny spec, the ’65-69 Corvairs are handlers. Pitch it into a sweeping curve, and the Corvair comes to life, the tail hanging out just slightly but never breaking away, letting you power through better than many far more powerful cars. It’s lightweight, with direct, unassisted steering and a sewing machine smoothness in its power delivery. It is almost certainly one of the best-handling cars engineered and built by an American car company in the 20th century.

The unassisted steering has also been my downfall. Twice I have been felled by lousy parking conditions and high-effort low-speed steering. The first time was when I lived in Washington, DC and rented a garage several blocks from my apartment, at considerable monthly expense, thinking that this was the right thing to do for my old friend. Unfortunately, said garage was a one-car stall in the basement level of a row house, so the garage door was at the bottom of a steep, narrow downhill driveway flanked on both sides by concrete walls and inevitably lined by the residents of the house with immense garbage bins. I usually moved the bins when exiting or entering the garage to give myself a wider berth, but one day I decided to chance it and, backing out of the garage and carefully avoiding the bins on my passenger side, didn’t notice how close the driver’s side was getting to the side of the garage door until I had put a six-inch dimple right into the beltline crease on the driver’s door. The second time involved another apartment parking situation, this time one where I had an assigned spot that required a four-point maneuver to exit followed immediately by a sharp turn down a narrow driveway, which often entailed another three-point turn. Misjudging my placement one day, I started my turn down the driveway too close to the corner of the building and caved in the passenger-side rear door. This is the mangled state in which my Corvair sits today, its original paint even thinner and more tired and marred with scratches and scars from my parking ineptitude.

Needless to say, it had been years since I’d taken my Corvair to so much as a cars and coffee, much less a judged car show. All that changed on Saturday, and I feel as if we’ve made a fresh start.

If you’ve never been to Monterey Car Week and you get the chance to go, do it. Check out the Concorso Italiano, the vintage races at Laguna Seca, the spectacle at Pebble Beach – and when all the wealth porn leaves you dry heaving and dizzy, stop by the Concours d’LeMons. This year was my first visit to this blight on autodom’s bloated week of wretched excess, and it was my favorite Monterey experience by far.

I was nervous for my little Corvair to come out of hiding, but I had only to see the company I’d be keeping on the show field for the day to start feeling better. My immediate neighbors included a Pontiac Aztek with the factory camper tent option, highly desirable for the amount of sheetmetal it obscures when in use, and a turbocharged PT Cruiser. Award winners at the end of the day included a Yugo, a stretched MG Midget limousine with no drivetrain (or brakes), and a Peugeot 505 LeMons racer that was inexplicably towing a Peugeot 304 wagon on a trailer. Some truly lovely and rare – if not quite Pebble Beach-grade – cars showed up, including a pair of Volvo Duetts and a P1900, a Facel III, and a Mercedes 200D stretch taxi, but the awards went instead to the crusty, the immobile, and the dumbfounding.

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I got more reassurance that my Corvair was worthy of this show when I opened the engine compartment so that a dad could show his son that the engine was in the rear. “Just like a Porsche,” the kid marveled with a smile. You got it, kiddo, just like a Porsche. I left the lid up the rest of the day. While there was the occasional passerby who eyed the dent on the rear door and muttered “Ouch” under their breath or pointed it out to their friends, most people were more interested in sticking half their bodies into the engine compartment to try to follow the fan belt’s winding path, or wondering where the radiator was, or remembering the Corvairs their parents or friends had driven, or commenting on the relative rarity of the four-door bodystyle, or asking if the paint was original.

One chatty neighbor was impressed to discover that it was my first car. “You’re supposed to wreck your first car!” he admonished, and when I pointed out, still ashamed, the damage I had inflicted on it, he waved it off. “This car is what they’re calling a survivor now,” he said.

It is a survivor. It has survived being my first car, and when the day comes that I finally have the money, yeah, I’ll fix it up, because I love it and it deserves that much. But in the meantime, I’m glad that our day together at the Concours d’LeMons helped me get over my embarrassment and rediscover the joy of sharing this still-amazing car with others.