Triple Treat

Omahan’s Corvair Passion Puts Three ‘64s in the Driveway

By Jeff Barnes

Gerald Graeve will tell you he and his wife Kathryn didn’t plan to own three 1964 Chevrolet Corvair convertibles – but now that he does, he wouldn’t part with them for anything.

If there was a favorite of the three for the Omahan, it would probably be the rare one: the blue Monza Spyder, featuring a 150-HP Turbocharged engine. Only around 1 percent of the Corvairs built for that year were Spyder convertibles; it’s special all around, right down to each of its original Kelsey Hayes wire wheels.

“This was a limited production and one of the first cars in America to have the turbocharged engine,” Graeve said. “GM wanted to give it a little more ‘ummph’.” He gave it a little more flash himself, when he had it repainted 23 years ago with six coats of hand-rubbed lacquer.

The blue Spyder was owned by a Valentine, Neb., man who stored it in his parents’ barn while he was in the service in Vietnam. “He was killed there, and when he died his (heartbroken) parents died.” The car was in the barn from 1965 to ’72; Graeve said he bought the car at their estate sale for a now unbelievable price of $200 (that particular style would likely bring twenty to twenty-five thousand dollars today). “It was in perfect condition,” he added. “But that was 1972, three years after the Corvair was discontinued – no one wanted them then.”

Sad to say, the other cars were also obtained after the death of the previous owner. Graeve bought the red Corvair in 1984 from a widow who was not interested in keeping it after her husband passed away. Similarly, the butternut-yellow Corvair joined the family when the Graeves met a woman in Iowa City in 2000 willing to part with HER deceased husband’s old car.

He said he drives the red convertible fairly often, and used to drive it in the Benson High homecoming parades when their sons attended the school.

Graeve first fell in love with the Corvair after his graduation from Earling (Iowa) High in 1958. The car came out the year following, and he went on to own three others before his present three.

A former public relations official of 34 years with the Union Pacific, Graeve, 70, also owned a carpet cleaning business that became his fulltime job after taking early retirement with the railroad in 1996 (“Mr. Steam” is now owned by their son, Pat.)

Corvairs are well known for the engines being located in the rear of the car. It’s difficult to talk about the car without thinking of consumer advocate Ralph Nader. In his 1965 book “Unsafe at Any Speed,” Nader singled out early models of the car for their potential to roll over in turns. GM addressed the problem in the 1964 models (and Graeve said 1964 Corvairs and later are the most desired), but the damage was already done to sales of the popular car; the advance of sportier, more powerful compact cars like the Ford Mustang also took away potential sales.

The upside is that it made the car collectible, at least as far as Graeve is concerned. Someone once offered to trade him a 1957 Chevy for his blue Corvair; even though the ’57 was probably worth three times the value of his at the time, he said wouldn’t and couldn’t trade.

Graeve said there’s a Corvair for each of their three sons (Pat, Shawn and Shane), but for now he’s enjoying them, especially for Sunday afternoon drives with his high-school sweetheart. “We ride to recapture our youth,” he grinned.

(Originally published in the Omaha World-Herald, Oct. 24, 2009)

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