A Shrunken Corvair Named Kumquat

Kumquat_Corvair_leadFrom the West coast division of the Corvair shortening department comes this 1963 convertible dune buggy variant of the American air-cooled rear engine sports car. The car originally rolled off the assembly line as a factory turbocharged Spyder in 1963. An accident that buckled and creased both doors landed what was left the Spyder languishing engineless behind a gas station until 1971. What was left of the turbo convertible was purchased for 50 bucks to acquire a still complete dashboard. The catch was that the entire car had to go with the dashboard. Where it went began the journey of car shortening, engine transplants, and an orange paint job that lent the shrunken Corvair its name.

Kumquat_Corvair_frontBob Ballew tells us that his brother Jim Ballew was the man with 50 bucks worth of Corvair in 1971. The dented shell got hauled to Bob Ballew the elder’s backyard in Twentynine Palms, California. Dad Ballew, also named Bob, looked at the dashboardless and front seatless once-turbo coupe and thought the remaining back seat looked a lot like a deluxe sofa with built in ashtrays. The smashed doors were removed. The unibody floor pan was shortened up accordingly. A little welding, and presto! Rear seats were now front seats. Since the body was already rough from whatever accident crumpled the doors, a can of Bondo and a few coats of Fruehauf Orange finished out the exterior.

The now orange body needed an engine. A naturally aspirated 164 cubic-inch air-cooled flat six cylinder was put together as a class project at Copper Mountain College by Bob’s wife Grace Ballew. With a few of Bob’s tested upgrades built-in, the engine kicked out more than its factory rated 150 horsepower. This same engine still runs great today. Early test drives around town had residents yelling “Hey, Kumquat!” as Bob and Grace motored by. The name stuck. A roll cage and larger rear tires were joined by a 4:11 ratio ring and pinion in the four-speed manual transaxle with the intent of taking the Kumquat out to the sand drag races. The car wasn’t competitive against the lighter fiberglass-bodied Volkswagens, so all the street-legal stuff went back in.

Bob and Grace motored about in the Kumquat on and off the road for years. While tanking up one day the car was spotted by an entertainment scout. The Kumquat passed the screen test. The 1978 movie Just Me and You stars not only Louise Lasser and Charles Grodin, but also features the Kumquat in a cameo role. The shortened Corvair rolls up to the flat tire stranded couple, and carries disgruntled girlfriend Louise Lasser away from the scene. A hapless Grodin is left alone in the high desert. In the real world the Kumquat was capable of travel over paved roads or no roads at all, and could lift the front wheels off the ground at any stoplight with proper use of the gas pedal and clutch.

Shorty_FrontAround the same time the Kumquat was created, son Bob Ballew was 800 miles away in South San Francisco putting the finishing touches on a shortened 1956-57 Chevrolet two-door Handyman wagon. Bob and his wife Diane motored down to Twentynine Palms in the just finished Shorty to surprise his Dad. When the couple pulled up in the shrunken Chevrolet wagon Bob’s Dad fell over laughing. Once Dad regained his composure, he walked over and pulled the cover off the recently painted Kumquat. The father and son had unbeknown to each other simultaneously built shortened Chevrolets! While Bob and Grace Ballew have since passed on, the shortened Corvair is still with us. When son Bob went to the high desert to gather memories and the Corvair, he found a completely rebuilt show-quality Corvair engine in the garage with a note on it that read save for Bobby (Kumquat four-speed). The Kumquat is ready for more, and still wears a factory turbo emblem to keep ’em guessing.

A very special thanks to Bob Ballew for the photos and story of the Kumquat Corvair.


  1. John Trimmer says

    Dad and son build shorties. Do they share a special gene? Given all the bad stuff going on in the world, gives me a nice lift to read something special like this. One of the reasons, I enjoy your site. Thanks for sharing.

  2. says

    That whole story was pretty cool.

    Took me back in time to the 70s, when you used to see shorties and other wild creations on the road regularly. Me misses that craziness.

    Thanks Mike!