After rounding the corner, Kevin McKenzie Jr. pumped the brakes.
His 1965 Chevrolet Corvair rattled as it slowed, the faint smell of exhaust encircling the car.
“You see that garage that’s open?” he asked, pointing. “That’s where it was sitting.”
McKenzie was 14 when he found it – the car. It wasn’t running, needed engine and body work and new tires. He didn’t even know what a Corvair was.
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But as a lover of classic cars, he bought it.
Flash forward seven years and McKenzie, now 21, is an award-winning Corvair enthusiast. The car, once covered with a tarp and dust, has a fresh coat of Tahitian Turquoise paint. It hums like it used to.
McKenzie said all it took was some motivation, time and money.
It started on the day he found the car, during a neighborhood yard sale in Clayton’s Neuse Colony subdivision. In search of bottle caps and board games, he happened upon the car in Dave Stewart’s garage.
Stewart, seeing McKenzie was interested, said he’d sell the Corvair to the teen for $900. Payments would be $100 a month.
That was good enough for McKenzie, who hurried home to tell his parents.
“They asked if I had found anything good at the yard sale,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, I bought a car.’”
His mom, Leigh, thought he meant a toy car – a Matchbox car.
“I was just in shock,” Leigh said. “I said, ‘What have you done?’”
But mom and dad OK’d the deal after talking with Stewart. And McKenzie saved his money to make the monthly payments.
McKenzie and his father worked on the car in their garage for about two years. They learned how the Corvair’s 180-horsepower, turbo-charged flat-six engine was rare for its time, as were the wooden steering wheel and telescopic steering column.
They took the car to Garner Auto Performance Center for most of the engine work. Mechanics tweaked and tuned the car’s transmission and replaced the turbo blower and muffler.
As for body work, the McKenzies sought out Barry Owen, a Corvair expert in Lexington. Owen, who’s helped build race cars for Richard Petty and other NASCAR drivers, replaced and reshaped parts of the car until it mirrored its original finish.
McKenzie, who attends UNC-Charlotte, said he wanted the car to look as it did when it came off the lot in the 1960s. And when Owen finished the body and electrical work in March, he was more than satisfied.
“I couldn’t take my eyes off of it,” McKenzie said.
Not one month after getting the car back, McKenzie took his Corvair to the Carolina Collectors Auto Fest in Raleigh. He won the Horizon Award, which honors the youngest car enthusiast. The car also grabbed a top-10 ranking in the classics division.
The awards were nice, McKenzie said, but he enjoyed talking to people about the car. He especially liked it when people realized the Corvair engine was in the trunk.
“People would look in the front and say, ‘It’s got no engine,’” McKenzie said. “I’d say, ‘It’s a pedal car.’”
McKenzie’s father guesses the family has poured about $30,000 into the car. He said it’s undoubtedly one of the finest Corvairs in the nation.
McKenzie’s mom said the restoration was a great learning experience.
“Some things are worth waiting for,” Leigh said.
McKenzie said he had faith that he’d restore the car when he bought it. However, he said he wasn’t sure it would happen.
After passing the garage where he originally found it, he said he was thankful for the support from his parents. He circled a cul-de-sac and passed the garage again, this time with a little more juice.
Dunn: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104