Help start Eric's Corvair van

This week on Car Talk, we heard from Eric in Oakland, Maine, proud owner of a 1961 Corvair Greenbrier van. Five year ago, he and wife bought it as a wedding gift for themselves, and, he says it’s run like a champ. But, when the temperature rises, it won’t start. Our best guess was that he’s got a faulty starter motor, but we confess that it’s been oh, about, 45 years since we’ve been under the hood of one of these.

So, we’re turning to the Greenbrier Community (we know you’re out there) for help. If you’ve got any suggestions for Eric, post them here. And, thanks!

Two thoughts on this problem:

With higher temperatures come two things - higher resistance and metal warpage.

  1. The electrical connections - Have you checked the condition of the battery cable & electrical connections? You can check the resistance of the power and ground cables going to the starter solenoid with a decent volt meter, and compare it between hot and cold days. The solenoid may also be bad, since it’s what causes the starter shaft/gear to engage the flywheel. It’s usually about a $10 part, if you just want to try swapping it out.

  2. Metal warpage - I have an old Camaro that would seize starters every couple of months. In 1990 a relative of mine suggested that I have the starter shimmed so that the starter’s gear shaft would engage the flywheel properly; he suggested that it might be binding. I paid to have this done at a local Chevy dealer, and I have had the same starter on the car ever since (~18 years) with no further issues. It’s possible that the starter gear is binding and not able to engage properly when the temperatures are warmer.

A couple of thoughts, anyway. Hope something in here helps!


Thanks Mike, I have a gut feeling that this an electrical problem. What I didn’t tell Tom and Ray is that my father in-law is a professional restorer and I have access to just about every tool, meter or manual I’ll ever need (and some stuff I don’t even know what is used for). I’m headed to his place to replace the master brake cylinder soon and we’ll go through the elec. system. It could be as simple as a bad ground to the starter.
Thanks again,

Anyone who owns a Corvair should know about these people:
Parts. You will learn as much from their catalog as from the factory shop manual.
Message board. Lots of very knowledgeable people.

Magazine subscription. A nation orgainization for Covair owners.

Get a starter circuit wiring diagram and a voltmeter. Or, just replace parts till it starts working.

From personal experience with a 1960 Corvair, I would look at the ignition system, especially the coil and wires. Don’t miss the 12 Volt wires to the coil and distributor.

Do your dash lights (Gen/Fan and Temp/Press) come on when you turn the key? Do they dim when you attempt to engage the starter?

Start by checking the simple, likely, and fairly low-hanging fruit: clean your battery terminals and cable connections (both ends). Watch for the following:

  • Original-style battery cable ends. These are a non-bolted lug at the battery end of the cable that are supposed to be held tight with spring action. Perhaps they work(ed) when new, but I have commonly had to open the cover and give these a downward twist to wedge them further down the terminal post taper. If you want reliability (this is a fun vehicle, not concourse competitor, right?) consider a bolted-type cable.

  • Ensure the positive cable connection to the starter is tight. (As you probably remember from your clutch job, the starter is easily accessed from above through the cover under the rear seat–if equipped. It beats trying to reach up from underneath.) If you find it loose, obtain a second copper jamb nut to make sure it doesn’t happen again. If you decide to pull the starter and have no other need to drop the power train, this is the way to do that as well.

  • Not related to this problem but good to note; check the primary wires to the coil. I have found worn insulation on these wires on more than one 'vair. It hangs down and rubs on the air shroud above the thermostat door, eventually shorting out on the sheet metal. This creates a different scenario where you can crank all day (or until your battery gives up) without firing. Alternatively, you could be driving along, reveling in the feel of forward control suspension, and the engine will cut out or die altogether. Probably not a big problem in remote areas of Maine, but a potential hazard if in heavy traffic.

By the way, while you’re changing the master cylinder, inspect the front end of the clutch cable for any signs of wear. If youo see any signs of fraying, replace it (Clark’s [] finaly reproduced these a few years back–P/N C793R). Much better than installing a used one with 3 more weeks in it (been there), and easier than trying to tighten cable saddles on off-the-shelf hardware-store cable (done that).

Keep it running. They’re great fun.

Also check out a really great forun:

Try replacing the coil wire. It rusts out frequently. Most times you can’t see it because the damage due to the humidity is within the rubber coating, but you can test it for continuity with a meter.

If it doesn’t start because it doesn’t crank, that really does sound like a hot starter solenoid. Just guessing here, GM mounts their solenoids directly in the starter itself, and when they get hot, if the current is a little low, they may stop working. I had this problem in a '91 Sonoma and solved it by installing a Ford solenoid on the firewall. The wiring is a little tricky but if you think this is the problem I can send a diagram.