Transforming a Grimy 1965 Corvair Into a Decent Looking Car

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My father-in-law once told me “You have no idea what you bought until you put some wax on it.” That was the case with the 1965 Chevrolet Corvair I bought over the weekend.

One could argue that it is the acme of foolishness to waste time polishing a car that’s barely running and sitting on four bad tires, but hear me out:

When I decided to purchase this car, I spent a few minutes looking it over, and the biggest thing that impressed me was that it had minimal rust. Here in New England —¬† or anyplace where the authorities blast the roads with sodium chloride or calcium chloride — rust can make or break a project car.

Corvairs are especially sensitive to rust, not because their sheetmetal is any different, but because they’re of unibody construction. There’s no frame that the body sits on top of. The sheetmetal forms the entire chassis, and when it’s compromised in critical areas, things go south quickly.

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That’s what I was most interested in, followed by the fact that the car hadn’t been messed around with. It was solid and complete, with only a handful of missing parts.

Sure, the tires were from the Carter Administration. Yes, the engine hadn’t been started in seven years. That’s all cheap to fix. Replacing missing interior parts and grafting in solid sheet metal takes time, talent and money, none of which I possess in vast quantities.

The other thing I really didn’t care much about was the quality of paint. If you’ve been following our exploits here at BestRide, you know we completely painted a 1978 Chevrolet Blazer using Rustoleum from Lowe’s that we applied with a foam roller. Paint isn’t a big deal, and it’s something that we can take care of many years down the road, instead of any mechanical or issues that we need to solve right away.

Yet, after I rolled it in my garage an got it started, I wanted to clean it up to see just what I’d bought. It’s a lot harder to ignore a project car sitting in the garage when it’s looking good. So before I jumped into any of the really hard work, I got the detailing supplies out and went at it.

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Before you break out the sponge, though, you need to assess what kind of paint you’re dealing with. This car was originally painted in 1965, and then again at some point in the 1990s. It was obvious that it was a single-stage paint, meaning that the color and the shine are both included¬† in a “color coat” that comes out of the gun all at once.

Image Source: Meguiar’s

Cars today are painted with basecoat-clearcoat paint systems. The basecoat has no shine at all when it dries. All of the shine comes from the clearcoat that’s applied after the basecoat flashes.

You can determine what kind of paint your car has by applying some inexpensive wax with a microfiber applicator. Rub the wax onto the paint’s surface and take a look at the applicator. If it’s the same color as the car, it’s painted with a single stage paint. If it shows no evidence of color, you’re probably working with a clearcoat.

The first order of business was to just hose it off. I used whatever car wash I had laying around in the garage, but typically on a car that’s going to be detailed the way this one was, it’s the only time you’re perfectly fine using dish soap.

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Spring car tips

On a car with a nice finish, dish soap will work to strip the wax off, so you want to leave it in the kitchen where it belongs. Since we were looking to get this car down to it’s barest finish, though, dish soap would’ve been fine.

The next step is to clean as much dirt off the paint as possible. Even after a thorough car wash, paint in a condition this poor hangs onto dirt. Dislodging it requires more than a bucket of soapy water. A clay bar helps a lot. It’s got a mild abrasive that not only agitates the dirt off the surface, but holds onto it in the clay. Every one-foot section, I kneaded the contaminants into the clay and started fresh. I used Meguiar’s Quick Detailer to lubricate the surface, making sure the clay didn’t stick to the paint.

Image Source: The Detailed Image

After the clay bar, the paint is in about as raw a condition as it’s going to be. It had absolutely no shine, and once the water dried off, it looked as flat as an eggshell.

From here, I had a few options. If the paint hadn’t been so poorly applied in the first place, I probably would’ve wetsanded it.

What was evident right away was that the car had been repainted at some point in its history, and not really well. The color essentially matched the “Tahitian Turquoise” finish that originally came on the car, but it had been applied over poorly executed prepwork. Sanding scratches showed through the paint and sizeable sections of the finish were lifting off thanks to improper prep.

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Eventually, this car is going to have to get repainted, but there’s nothing saying you can’t work with what you’ve got an improve the finish dramatically. If the car had been painted well, I probably would’ve wetsanded it with 800-grit 3M Trizact paper, attached to a random-orbital, variable speed buffer, and progressively worked my way up to about 1500-grit. I may still do that at some point, but the paint was thin enough in spots that I was afraid of sanding through it.

Instead, I worked with the foam pads and compounds I used to buff out the finish on the 1978 Blazer. It’s best to try these compounds and pads on an inconspicuous area to see how they’re working. I started off with the light cutting compound, but on black polishing pad, rather than the more aggressive orange buffing pad to see how that would improve the finish. It was ok, but it definitely needed the abrasive action of the buffing pad on the whole car.

Modern, variable speed random-orbital buffers are absolutely essential if you’re serious about detailing. They make detailing a whole car quick work, and they turn at speeds that make it almost impossible to burn through the paint. At Lowe’s the Porter-Cable 7424XP 6-inch variable speed buffer is about $120. You want to toss that buffing pad that’s on it, though. I bought a hook-and-loop backing plate to make changing buffing pads a snap.

It’s a good idea to “season” your buffing pad with some of the compound you’ll be using before you attempt to take up any compound from the surface. Just put some in your hand an smear it across the face of the pad.

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There are a million different types of compound. I’ve tried several, and the one that seemed easiest to work with and delivered excellent results was Presta Ultra Cutting Creme.

The only trouble with this is that you’ll only find it at an auto body supply shop. If you’re doing this on a Sunday, you’ll have to find a good liquid cutting compound from your auto parts store. Most usually have Meguiar’s on hand, which is fine, too.

Apply a ribbon of compound to the paint’s finish about six inches long. Angle the buffer an turn it on, with the variable speed set somewhere in the middle of the range,¬† pushing the face of the pad along the ribbon of compound. This takes up the compound without flinging it all over the garage. Once you’ve pushed the pad past the end of the ribbon, put the whole face on the paint.

Image Source: WikiHow

You can apply some pressure at this stage, but you don’t have to knock yourself out. Just compress the pad so that the entire face makes contact with the paint. Move it back and forth slowly. There’s no need to speed it back and forth. When you’ve gone over a two foot section in one direction, go back an do it a second time in the perpendicular direction.

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After you’ve gone over it twice, start again from the beginning, but start lifting pressure off of the pad. By your last pass, you shouldn’t have much more than the weight of the buffer on the pad, moving it slowly an smoothly across the surface.

Abrasives in modern compounds are designed to break down as they’re applied. What starts as a fairly abrasive compound ends up smooth by your final pass. As you lift pressure off the pad, you’ll see that the pad actually starts to remove the compound from the surface.

When you’re finished, wipe the area with a microfiber towel and see how you’ve done.

I ended up going over the car once, and the results were pretty dramatic. Again, the paint is still lousy, but and I could’ve improved it a lot more with wetsanding.

But the goal here was to have a car that looked just good enough to make me feel guilty for ignoring it. As the car gets closer to roadworthy, I’ll either take a more aggressive pass with wetsanding, or decide to go all the way an repaint it.

Stay tuned for more updates.

Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at