1982 Ford Thunderbird vs. 1964 Chevy Corvair: The David Tracy Showdown

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Welcome to a special edition of Shitbox Showdown — one in which the cars have been chosen by none other than our illustrious Editor-In-Chief himself, David Tracy. How did that transpire? We’ll get to that in a second. First let’s see how our Euro-trash cars did yesterday:

No surprise there. The convertible, manual Saab walked away with a comfortable win. The automatic Peugeot, when asked to comment on the loss, merely shrugged, lit up a Gitanes, and muttered something about Americans not knowing a good car if it bit them on the… well, anyway. Congratulations to the Saab!

But back to David’s dilemma. Here’s what happened: On Sunday evening, while I was cooking up a pot of Juila Child’s famous potato-leek soup, I received a cryptic email from David. The subject line said simply “Please Help Me!” and the message was nothing more than listings for two cars for sale. Curiously, neither of them were Jeeps.

Now, I wasn’t there, but I can imagine how this message came about: David, after a long day performing a differential diagnosis on a junkyard ZJ (you’ll be reading more about that later today), dozed off on the couch watching reruns of old Barrett-Jackson auctions. When he awoke, he had an epiphany – and a snack. In a Hot Pocket-fueled frenzy, he started looking up non-Jeeps for sale, realizing that he may have been selling the rest of the automotive universe short. He soon found himself in over his head, and in a panic, reached out to the first knowledgeable non-Jeep enthusiast he knew who wasn’t currently high on powderized taillight lenses: me. How could I refuse?

It’s okay, David. We’re here to help. Put down the timing light – slowly! – and we can talk.

So here, bewilderingly, are the two listings he sent me:

1982 Ford Thunderbird – $1700

May be an image of car

 

Engine/drivetrain: 4.2 liter V8, automatic, RWD

Odometer reading: 125,000 miles

Location: Sterling Heights, MI

Runs/drives: Not currently; has been sitting in a garage for 8 years

 

Wow. What can I say about the ’82 Thunderbird that hasn’t been said before? Probably quite a lot, actually. I don’t think anyone has given these a second thought since Hart to Hart went off the air. [Editor’s note: Once again, I have no idea what this reference means. -DT]. The severely downsized eighth-generation ‘bird was only around for three years, and was not a sales success, to put it mildly. Coming at the tail end of peak-personal luxury coupe, this car was a dinosaur from day one, even though it rode on Ford’s relatively modern Fox platform. Ford lavished every bit of baroque ’70s styling they could think of on the new fun-size Thunderbird, and no one cared.

 

At least this one is a V8, though it’s also downsized, coming in at only 255 cubic inches. This stopgap lump fortunately only stuck around a couple of years, worming its way under the hoods of various Fox-platform cars, and, worryingly, a few F-150s. It spins a relatively stout AOD four-speed automatic in this car, and it probably could manage the bank-beauty salon-grocery store-home circuit well enough.

Overall, this Thunderbird doesn’t look awful. There is some rust, and some of it is in troubling locations, which may warrant further investigation. The interior, however, in true malaise-era coupe fashion, is glorious. If there’s anything better bolted to a car floor than cushy velour seats as soft as a good Barcalounger, I haven’t found it.

 

The 1982 Thunderbird also marks the first appearance of what has become a Ford signature: the five-button keyless entry keypad. And of course, there are those cool vacuum-operated hidden headlights, open on this car because I’m sure the vacuum that held them closed leaked out of the system ages ago.

Is it worth a full restoration? Hell no. Can you at least perform some hot-rod magic on that little Windsor V8 and make it purr? Nope, too many unique parts; you’d have to swap it for a more conventional 302. Would it be fun to revive and cruise around in as-is? Probably. Is it worth David’s time? That’s for you to decide.

 

1964 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Sedan – $3700

 

Engine/drivetrain: 2.7 liter air-cooled flat 6, 4 speed manual, RWD

Odometer reading: 56,000 miles

Location: Eastpointe, MI

Runs/drives: Nope. Carbs are not installed.

 

One of the most famous “failures” in all of automotive history, the Chevy Corvair has been unfairly picked on its entire life. Some of the criticism was valid, of course – the reliability troubles of a completely new and untested platform, the unusual handling of a rear-engine car with a swing-axle suspension, and a voracious oil appetite gave the early models a reputation for trouble. And then there was that 1965 book that I won’t discuss, because the poor Corvair deserves some attention on its own merits for once.

 

The Corvair did pretty well in the showroom prior to Unsafe at any Speed; this 1964 model is one of 215,000 Corvairs sold that year. And the “Monza” version, with more power and a four-speed stick, was the one to have, even in 4 door sedan form like this. Being a ’64, it also benefits from suspension improvements in the form of a front anti-roll bar and a transverse leaf spring at the rear, both intended to quell the Corvair’s tail-happy tendencies, as well as new valve stem seals to help slake its thirst for oil.

 

This particular Corvair looks, well, pretty damn nice. The black interior is in great shape (it should be, with only 56,000 miles) and goes well with that butter-yellow paint. Those headlight rock guards are killing me. I just love them. And it has the best of all possible gear knobs: a plain white ball.

 

There is some engine work to be done before David could enjoy the view over that hood, though. The carburetors (there are two) are not installed, and it isn’t clear why not. A rebuild of both carbs is likely in order, and then there is the arduous process of tuning a twin-carb engine, which in itself is worth some gearhead cred once complete.

 

It should be noted that this car is well outside our normal price cutoff of $2500, but since the listing came from David, I have no qualms about suspending that rule just this once. And really, this car, for $3700, even with some engine assembly required, seems like a hell of a deal. But it is more than twice as much as the Thunderbird.

And there you have it. I don’t pretend to be an expert when it comes to either of these cars, but I hope I have been able to shed some light on them for a guy whose automotive landscape consists of “Jeep” and “Other.” Now talk amongst yourselves, and determine which one looks like a better choice.

 

All Images: Sellers

QuizMaker

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68 Responses

  1. My dad drove a T-bird of that vintage for a short time! It isn’t just the headlight doors. Nearly everything mechanical on that car is vacuum operated. I still remember all the tiny hisses, wooshes, and such it made while driving after the blend door actuator vacuum system sprung a leak. 8 year old me thought it sounded like a spy car.

  2. The Covair is great, though it outside of the daily driver and would be a good show piece.

    Since we know he will not stop buying cars, I voted T-Bird. You could have some fun with that swapping parts, we know rust is not something you are scared of, and it could be somewhat dependable driver. I am sure you have an engine block or two laying around.

  3. Absolutely the Corvair, it isn’t even a shitbox! I drove a ’65 Corvair 500 pretty much daily the summer after Senior year of HS. Unfortunately it had the Powerglide but she ran great – dual carbs and all. Of course she was only 22 years old at the time. Alas my father sold it despite my protestations. (It was his car after all.) I wouldn’t mind having another Corvair but don’t have room in my garage – or my backyard!

  4. Mark, my apologies to your efforts in writing up this showdown for I saw Corvair, skimmed its photos, confirmed it had the MT one-upmanship, and went straight to voting for it. Maybe I’ll actually read this post later today, once I’ve come back down from my Corvair tizzy.

  5. That Thunderbird brings up some serious early 90’s high school memories. My friend Dave had one similar to this, in dark metallic blue with the same bordello red interior. His dad—who had sourced the T-Bird to replace Dave’s fun but terminally-rusty Datsun 280Z—told him what is perhaps the dumbest thing you can say to a teenager who doesn’t want to be seen in a velour-lined grampa mobile:

    “As long as this car is running, you can’t get a new one.”

    As you can imagine, Dave took this as a personal challenge: Trips to the woods to pound the Bird over off-road trails. Full-throttle starts every time he could get away with it. No oil changes, ever. And, in one memorable instance, slamming the car into reverse while going about 20-25mph. And you know what? NOTHING COULD KILL THE THING. After the forward-to-reverse stunt, the car stopped in it’s tracks, made some loud ticking noises, and then went back to working like normal. It was like the car was laughing at him.

    Eventually Dave’s dad relented, and allowed him to replace the Bird with something a little more interesting. It was replaced with a gorgeous emerald-green ’85 Mustang GT 5-speed that Dave loved (and was, ironically, built on the same Fox platform as the hated T-Bird!)

  6. I have a disdain for those ‘box’ birds. A friends parents had one when I was in HS, and we regularly abused it. It was terrible in every regard. I had a ’76 Granada, which was a shitbox as well, but it was FAR better than the ‘bird. I wouldn’t take one for free.
    The Corvair looks like a great project.

  7. Yessss!!! Love the Corvair, meh on the T-bird.
    No David, you can’t have either till you clean your yard.
    Besides you don’t have the parts inventory needed for any of them. We’ve seen your garage…..
    Thanks Mark, David just needed a kind word .

  8. As much as I love pimp-mobiles (I think I watched too many 70s exploitation movies as a kid), that Corvair is too damn good.

    Recently a local hotrodder couple here in my country Australian town bought a Corvair Greenbrier and a Rampside, and they are even cooler in person than I could have imagined.

    Being that the couple are now four-time grandparents with all of the kids being under 5, the Rampside makes a great mobile playpen at car shows and grandma can carry the whole set in the three-row Greenbrier.

  9. I lived through both of the eras represented here, but was not going to comment. However, with a society like ours, in which seniors are revered for their experience and hard won knowledge, I guess I have to: It’s Corvair all the way.

    Any amount spent an a car that you drive ironically is too much. Those Thunderbirds were simply stupid when new., and no amount of funkiness can save them. Sooner than later, David will be too embarrassed to drive it. It would be one thing to be able to honestly say you inherited one from your grandfather and quite another to say that you chose it when you didn’t have to. It’s step towards lifelong bachelorhood, because no woman born in the last 90 years would be caught dead in it. It’s a Real Shitbox, because it always was.

    On the other hand, the Corvair is a nice car, gives a unique driving experience, and he’d love having it.

  10. As an unashamed lover of 80’s Fords with velour, I gotta say buy the Corvair.

    The 255 is a boat anchor, topped with the terrible Variable Venturi carb, which didn’t work even when new, and the AOD doesn’t tolerate neglect. After sitting 8 years, it will need everything, and resale in perfect running order will be less than the asking price today.

    So, Corvair.

  11. Corvair. Ditch the pancake 6, remove the backseat and put in an aluminum Rover/BOP V8. Sort out the transaxle somehow or another. There’s probably a kit out there online. Then you’ll have by far the most interesting American car at a classic show and if you try all the parts could be period too.

  12. I’m 100% going with the Thunderbird.

    I know it’s ugly. I know the 255 is a turd. I don’t care.

    It’s on the fox platform and I have a 4.6 4v from a Mark VIII, a TR-3650 from a Mach 1, and an SN-95 crossmember in my garage as well as a turbo and all the trimmings I’ve been scrounging up slowly to build a fun 500hp sleeper with and this car would be absolutely perfect.

  13. I had zero interest in the T-Bird till I saw that interior. Didn’t know these were Fox like the later ones so hey at least you can probably throw a bunch of Mustang parts at it.

    Still can’t resist that Corvair though.

    1. That interior really got my attention. I wonder if that Thunderbird was ever garaged while being driven. It had to be for the insides to look that good. Maybe the storage location didn’t shield the paint well?

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