Trucks vs. planes


Below are a few paragraphs, that are on the surface, a story about a pickup truck and an engine. A consumer perspective guy who comes to this page looking for an inexpensive engine to buy may read a few words here and wonder why this might be on an aircraft blog. However, people attracted to the Corvair movement because they are looking for an engine to power their homebuilt, an engine that will allow them to develop their own skills and experience, and become their own expert, all in the company of like-minded builders, this story will offer some thoughts on the value of simplicity, being willing to learn and get your hands dirty, and prioritizing things in life so that your dreams don’t get sidelined by the things society feeds you on a conveyor belt of mass marketed consumer products…… 

Above, a 1986 C-20 pick up that we bought in Atlanta on the way back from the Zenith open house. I found it on Craig’s list. It is low miles and rust free and has a $3,000 paint job on it. The owner sold it to us for $2,000 because it ran very poorly and was almost impossible to get the 4 speed to shift. Many people had looked at it when it was advertised for twice as much, but were all scared off. In 5 minutes of looking at it, Vern and I spotted that it had Ford plugs in it and the clutch slave cylinder was not bled. After paying for it, I limped it to a nearby auto parts store, changed the plugs and wires for $30 and it ran perfectly. I read the manual that came with the truck which said the slave cylinder had to be bled off the truck. Instead, I had Vern step on the clutch while I jammed a 1×2 between the fork and the bell housing. When he released the pedal, this forced the cylinder to suck in pure fluid from the reservoir. Not textbook, but I understood how the system works, and guessed this would do the job. I pulled the board out, and the clutch worked perfectly. We drove the 400 miles back to Florida at 65 mph, the new truck ran flawlessly and got 14.9 mpg. I end up with a good truck because neither the previous owner, nor any of the people who looked at it, were willing to read some basic directions and get their hands dirty. The repair task didn’t require much experience nor insight. The fundamental difference was that all other parties were operating with a consumer mindset, and Vern and I arrived with the perspective of builders.

I drive trucks like this for several reasons. First, I detest unnecessary complexity in life. 1986 is the last year that GM trucks didn’t have computers and electronic controls on everything. These are some of the last vehicles that can always be fixed with basic tools and will not turn off like a light switch when the EFI or computer quits. Second, they are very cheap. This is my third 1986 Chevy. In the last 14 years the two previous ’86’s I owned covered more than 200,000 miles for a total price of $3,950. I was never stranded once, and only did modest maintenance. The things that would have been trouble, I caught on ‘preflight’ and corrected. I didn’t pay a single dollar for anyone to work on them.

Consider that a person with a typical new truck payment would have spent more than $100,000 in the same 168 months. We all have to make our own choices, but if you can resist buying a new vehicle, you can afford to build a very nice homebuilt aircraft, pay for first class flight instruction, and rent a hangar for the same money over time. While the money is important, the single most vital part of older trucks to me is the independence I have. I am not beholden to the warranty people, the service managers, or other mechanics. When I get in one of these vehicles, I am its mechanical master. Even if the concept doesn’t have full appeal to you in land based transportation, I can make a great case that it pays large dividends to bring this same approach to your homebuilt aircraft, and choosing Corvair power is one of the very few paths that will free you from dependency on the importer, sales people, proprietary parts, and LLC’s with short life spans. Many people never think of homebuilding in these terms, but the freedom and self-reliance that are at the core of homebuilding to me are not available as a consumer product. They are a destination you arrive at by exercising your mind and your hands to learn and create something for yourself. 

I found the above photo on our website from the January 2008 update. The original caption is below in blue. It’s funny to think that I have now had red, white and blue versions of the same truck.

“Aircraft Financing 101
Above, Dan Weseman, Gary Coppen and myself ready my old Blue Truck for its trip to the metal salvage yard. People often ask how we afford to build airplanes. This is a good visual example of an easy answer: Grace and I do not spend money on new cars. The flashpoint for the modern popularity of the Corvair/KR combination was the 1999 KR Gathering at Lake Barkley, Ky. This was the first Corvair event Grace attended. Before the trip, I paid $1,500 for my 1986 GMC Blue Truck. It had 160,000 miles on it. Going to the recycler, it has just shy of 300,000. I towed it there by its replacement, The White Chevy Pickup, another 1986 .”

Although all of the trucks have been equipped with 350 small block V-8s, I am prepping a different engine to install. In a few months I will be 50 years old. Assuming I am going to be driving for another 25 years, I plan on doing it with this engine in a 1986 pickup. Why? because in the next 25 years I have a lot of planes I want to build and fly, places to go people to meet and moments to have. All of which will primarily made possible by not spending vast sums of money on new vehicles than I do not wish to own. The engine I am adapting is part of a legendary family of power plants that have been made (with a few refinements) for 75 years.

Above, The last truck engine I will have, A Detroit Diesel 3-53T Removed from a road grader. Detroits have been in production since 1938. They are a two-stroke diesel with exhaust valves.  In Detroit parlance, the first digit is the number of cylinders, the second is the amount of cubic inches per cylinder, thus this engine is 159 cid. Sounds small, but it makes more than 300 foot pounds of torque at 1,600 rpm. Notice that this engine has a turbocharger, feeding a supercharger, feeding the engine. The engine is a 1977 model, it has 5,600 hours on it. That isn’t much because 53 series Detroits can go 20,000 hours between overhauls. I am mating this engine to a New Venture 4500 5 speed then installing it in the pickup. In spite of the fact that Detroits are loud and smoky, this is a far more ‘green’ vehicle than a prius, because it is made of 100% recycled parts, (which were all made in America.) Detroits come in 53, 71, 92, and 149 cubic in cylinder sizes, and configurations from 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 cylinder in lines and Vee engines up to 24 cylinders. They are also made in bigger versions with individual cylinder displacements to 710 cubic inches and versions with 20 of these cylinders. They are known around the globe as engines of simple construction and maintenance, and incredible durability. They powered WWII landing craft, trucks, tanks, armored vehicles, Greyhound busses, construction equipment, etc. PBR’s in Vietnam used 6V-53s and the legendary 44′ USCG motor lifeboat had 6-71s The 12V-71 “buzzin’dozen” is considered among the best truck engines ever built.  You Tube has countless videos to acquaint new ears to the melodious sounds that earned the nick name “Screaming Jimmy.”

Here is the connection to your Corvair: Detroit Diesel was a complete division of General Motors. The design team that developed them was led by the most brilliant automotive engineer of all time, Charles Franklin Kettering. Only a few years lapsed between Kettering’s leadership of engine R&D and the design of the Corvair. Al Kolbe, the lead engineer on the Corvair was certainly a disciple of Kettering’s. The 53 series and the Corvair were designed at the same time, by the same company, using the same R&D resources, likely with people working in the same labs. This is why it is an absolutely ludicrous suggestion that GM, the worlds largest corporation at the time, didn’t have the ability to design the Corvair in-house and had to turn to a nazi like Ferdinand Porsche for help. People who spread these myths are often fans of all things imported, and have bought into an emotional belief of ‘superior’ engineering from other lands. Every country on this planet has things to be very proud of and Americans don’t hold a monopoly on good mechanical designs. But, It is very important to see that people who are convinced that people “over there” have some mystical ability to always make better things are also very prone to seeing themselves as less capable, or a product of a lesser set of people. This is a perspective of a spectator, and it doesn’t get you far in homebuilding. 

In the last two decades I have been working with Corvairs and sharing this work with other homebuilders I have always promoted the original EAA motto of “Learn build and Fly.” In the Corvair movement, these themes are the reason why Corvair builders find homebuilding more rewarding than people who approach it as another consumer experience. The majority of the people who put a plane together in their hangar, end up with little more than a plane in their hangar. There is a lot more to be gained by the experience of homebuilding than simply acquiring an aircraft. At its very best, the experience rewards you with a tremendous amount of learning, a deeply changed perspective on what you personally are capable of, a real understanding that you can be self-reliant on the most serious of subjects, and knowledge that there is a real satisfaction in life when you really get free from all the things other people told you were required. Learn these things, and you really have something well worth all the hours and treasure. The plane sitting in the hangar will merely be the physical representation of the changes you brought to your own life. It’s a big list, but you don’t have to do it alone. People who think this way are not the majority of people in homebuilding, and who knows, maybe we never were. But it isn’t majority rule, it’s all about finding out what is right for you.  If you have yet to find your ‘home’ in homebuilding, consider signing up for Corvair College #24 and come meet many people who have found their place. -ww

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: