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The V-8 Corvair Every Chevy Guy Dreams of Building

Mid-Engine Mayhem: The V-8 Corvair every Chevy guy dreams of building

Joe Greeves Nov 18, 2015
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It’s hard to say what triggers a love for a particular automobile but it’s generally true that it happens about the time you’re old enough to drive. More than just transportation, the freedom that your first car provides not only becomes a milestone in life, but also sets a tone that can last a lifetime. Tom Goodman from Cornelius, North Carolina, understands the phenomenon quite well. Currently a service manager for John Deere tractors, Tom has been having great fun with automobiles since he was a kid.

Dad was a Chevrolet dealer for 46 years and Tom grew up in a family where cars were much more than just transportation. At the ripe old age of 16, he inherited his brother’s Corvair after a new Camaro arrived in the family garage. It was the start of what became a lifelong passion for Chevrolet’s rear-engine’d ride. In many respects, the car was way ahead of its time, but since every enthusiast always wants more, the question was how do you transform Chevy’s mild-mannered compact into a hairy-chested muscle car?

1965 Chevrolet Corvair V8 Small Block Chevy Chevrolet 2/13

The process began when Tom met a guy in town who ran a local body shop and they began talking about upgrades for the Corvair. Their first effort resulted in the creation of a Corvair-based dune buggy using a $50 parts car. It was so successful that they did a little more brainstorming and decided their next adventure would be to put a V-8 into Tom’s Corvair. He was getting very good at autocross and with fully independent front and rear suspension his car handled beautifully, but the 140hp engine left lots to be desired. Between them, they transformed his Corvair into a mid-engine monster. The car was quite successful, winning numerous trophies on the show circuit and was an active participant in the World of Wheels. Tragically, it was lost in a fire.

The beginnings of his second mid-engine adventure started with this ’65 Corvair Corsa convertible that his father had sold to the local preacher years before. Tom says the preacher drove it until the wheels fell off and then parked it for about 15 years.

1965 Chevrolet Corvair V8 Front View 3/13
1965 Chevy Corvair Grille 4/13

Tom soon became the new owner and began building a second mid-engined Corvair. This time however, it would be a driver rather than a show car. The Corsa needed considerable bodywork but once Tom brought it back to like-new condition, he used 11-gauge steel to create the spoiler up front, the spoiler in the rear, and the subtle flares on all four wheels. After the sheetmetal work and seam welding was complete, he turned his attention to the subframe, reusing the one he created for his original Corvair. Sandblasted and painted, it was welded to the freshly rejuvenated unibody. The center section of the frame was designed to be strong enough to hold the V-8 and connect with the front and rear suspension. Tom’s friend Kenny Thompson added the rollbar to further stiffen the chassis and equip it for competition.

Once the subframe was in place, a 355ci Chevy V-8 provided the new mid-engine motivation. Balanced and blueprinted, the ’75 small-block was bored 0.030 over and fitted with a forged crank, pink rods, TRW pistons, aluminum flywheel, and hydraulic roller cam. Ported and polished, the 375 double-hump, cast-iron heads expedite the fuel/air mix that’s delivered by the showy collection of four Weber 48 IDA, two-barrel, downdraft carbs. MSD electronic ignition lights the fire and custom headers dump spent gases into a Jet-Hot-coated, 1.75-inch system that’s muffled by a pair of Flowmasters.

1965 Corvair Small Block Rear View 8/13

Tom chose to install the huge 30-inch-wide aluminum radiator in the trunk so as to avoid altering the Corvair’s clean front end. A pair of 2,000-cfm SPAL electric fans guarantees that temperatures always stay in the green, while louvers on top and no floorpan in the trunk ensure a circular airflow. Initially, the engine produced about 525 hp at 6,900 rpm with 450 lb-ft of torque, but it’s been recently detuned for street use, dropping the compression ratio from 12:1 to 10:1 so Tom can use pump gas.

Once the mighty engine was in place, getting the power to the ground was the next challenge. While the four-speed Saginaw transmission was up to the task, needing only a stronger 11-inch Haynes clutch and custom driveshaft, the Corvair transaxle needed much more. Tom strengthened the original two-spider-gear setup with two additional spiders, heat-treated the 4.11 ring-and-pinion gears, and added positraction. For extra protection, he replaced the lightweight tin cover on the differential with a piece of quarter-inch sheet steel to ensure rigidity. Once everything was together, the mid-mounted V-8 achieved a near perfect 50/50 weight balance with less than a 60-pound differential between front and rear.

1965 Chevy Corvair Steering Wheel 9/13
1965 Chevy Corvair Rear View 10/13

The added weight did cause a few changes however, with the front suspension needing a complete rebuild using heavier ball joints, Crown coil springs, Koni racing shocks, and disc brakes along with a 1-inch sway bar added to both front and rear. Since the normally light Corvair steering became heavier with the V-8, Tom fabricated his own electric power steering using a Mustang II steering rack, an electric pump, and remote hydraulic reservoir. It’s controlled with a switch that can be disengaged when you’re driving down the highway. When it’s time to park the car or negotiate the twists and turns of an autocross, Tom flips the switch and the steering becomes power-assisted.

Getting the ride rolling are BFGoodrich g-Force Rival tires, (225/45R17 front, 255/40R17 rear) with Foose rims, 17x7 front and 17x8 rear. They are quite comfortable around town and provide a Velcro-like grip at the track.

1965 Chevy Corvair Rear View Owner 11/13

The final touches included paint done in Chevrolet Torch Red. Tom did the first paintjob himself and later had it repainted professionally by Jim Smith in Mooresville, North Carolina. Larry Strickland, in Cornelius, North Carolina, beginning with Pontiac Fiero seats, stitched the interior. The slim buckets, trimmed in natural tan leather, were the right choice for the narrow confines of the interior since the engine intrudes just a bit. Door panels were crafted to match. All the gauges are Stewart-Warner and reside in the original Corvair instrument cluster. A Grant wheel keeps the driver in close touch. Kenny Thompson built the custom aluminum shroud that surrounds the engine and Tom has a convertible top for when weather changes dictate.

How is the car to live with? We would guess that Tom must be quite pleased with the car since he has been enjoying it nonstop for the last three and a half decades! (Its first outing was in 1981.) How does it perform? Well, it’s definitely not a trailer queen. The car achieved an SCCA Southeast championship in 1992 with Tom behind the wheel, and on the strip he blasts through the quarter in 12.21 seconds at 123 mph. Recently, he was very happy to hear that Goodguys has added autocross to their events and is looking forward to competing with his mid-engine Corvair once again. Special thanks to Benny Reeder, Kenny Thompson, Blue Weber, Larry Strickland, and Jim Smith for their help in creating his lifelong, dream machine.

1965 Chevy Corvair Rear View 12/13
1965 Chevy Corvair Trunk 13/13

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