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Unsightly at Any Speed? : Corvair Collector Has 120 Vehicles Awaiting Restoration, but He May Have to Move Them or Lose Them

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ralph Nader probably envisioned such a sight: an acre of Chevrolet Corvairs with dented hoods, shattered windows and busted engines.

Nader’s book, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” labeled the Corvair as accident-prone, but the Corvairs in this lot near Montclair are not victims of car wrecks. They’ve just fallen apart while waiting to be restored by Jim Phillips, 56, a data systems technician at General Dynamics in Pomona who has spent years amassing his collection.

“It’s been a dream of mine to retire and restore cars,” Phillips said. But San Bernardino County officials are threatening to destroy his dream by declaring his collection of 120 Corvairs a nuisance.

The cars, from convertibles to station wagons, sit behind a chain-link fence on a rented lot on Mission Boulevard east of Pomona. The collection is massive, but not pretty.

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“Some people are impressed,” Phillips said. “Others think it’s junk.”

Those who call it junk include environmental health officers in San Bernardino County, who have notified Phillips that he must move the cars indoors, find a site where he can apply for a conditional-use permit to run a restoration business or get rid of them.

Phillips said he cannot afford to abide by the county regulations. “If this were a profit-making business, maybe I could afford to do it,” he said, “but I can’t as a hobby.” So he is trying to hold on to his collection until he can find an investor who shares his passion.

“I’m going to try to find somebody with bucks who likes Corvairs and wants to go into partnership,” he said. “Then I’ll retire and we’ll start restoring them.”

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Fixed up, some of the Corvairs could bring $6,000 to $9,000, Phillips said. Meanwhile, he’s selling a few at $300 apiece.

“I haven’t restored one yet,” Phillips said. “I work pretty hard at General Dynamics and I just haven’t had time.”

San Bernardino County officials informed Phillips six months ago that his storage of the cars violates a county ordinance adopted in 1989. Cars that are wrecked, inoperable, abandoned or dismantled cannot be stored outdoors, except as part of a properly zoned car business.

The ordinance is enforced only when a complaint is received, county officials said, and someone complained about the Corvairs last year.

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Frank L. Taylor, a county environmental specialist, said that if Phillips doesn’t move his cars, the county, after a lengthy process of notifications and appeals, could tow them and sell them for scrap.

Although the Corvair’s reputation took a beating from Nader’s 1965 book, General Motors sold nearly 1.7 million of the sporty, air-cooled, rear-engine vehicles in the 1960s. Harry Jensen, executive secretary of the Corvair Society of America, said he has no idea how many of the cars are still running, but his group has 6,000 Corvair enthusiasts across the country and as far away as Pakistan.

David M. Harney, a Los Angeles attorney who filed 30 lawsuits against General Motors over the safety of the Corvair, including one detailed in Nader’s book, said the car was unsafe because of its swing-axle design. General Motors corrected the problem on later models, but by then, Harney said, the Corvair’s reputation was so tarnished that the public wouldn’t buy them.

Phillips concedes the car had flaws in its early years.

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“They had a few bugs in the beginning,” he said. “Fan belts flying off. People didn’t drive them right. They drove them like a regular car. They’re more like a Porsche. They require special attention.”

Phillips said he fell in love with the Corvair as soon as the first models came out.

“A friend of mine bought one in 1960. It handled so nice and was so much fun, I had to have one.”

He liked his first Corvair so well, in fact, that he bought two more and parked all of them at a taco stand he owned in Pomona.

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People assumed he was a collector, Phillips said, and began offering to sell him their Corvairs. Phillips couldn’t resist. “They’d buy my burritos and tacos and I’d buy their Corvairs,” he said.

The collection grew until he had 95 Corvairs parked behind his taco stand and at an adjacent body shop he also owned.

“It was kind of a museum piece the way I had it set up. I had a guy working full time doing tires and washing them. . . . The Star Taco collection was known all over the country,” Phillips said.

He said he has every type of Corvair, including a rare eight-door Greenbrier minivan and a dozen pickups with rear engines under the truck bed.

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Phillips closed his businesses and moved his collection to a vacant lot in Montclair nearly 10 years ago. Meanwhile, the cars have fallen into disrepair.

Taylor said he suggested that Phillips pick out his 20 favorite cars and find a place for them. Restoring just 20 cars would be quite a project, he said.

But Phillips said he has too much of his identity tied up in his cars to let most of them go. “I’m known for this collection,” he said. “I enjoy that. It makes for interesting conversation.”

Although many of the cars are in sorry shape now, vandalized and rusted, Phillips said, “Believe it or not, 80% of them are restorable.”

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