Evans takes a look at the unorthodox Chevrolet Corvair, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary.
Across the Pond Huw Evans
Sixty years ago, America was a very different place to what it is today. Cars were big, brash and laden with chrome. You could buy leaded hi-test fuel at almost every service station and the new Interstate highway system made cruising from coast to coast and summer road trips the thing to do for many Americans.
It was into this environment that General Motors unveiled the Chevrolet Corvair. Part of a triumvirate of new, economy-minded domestic cars designed to combat the likes of the Volkswagen Type 1 (Beetle), the Corvair followed its erstwhile German competitor by employing very unorthodox engineering for a Detroit car.
It featured unitary construction, four-wheel independent suspension with A-arms up front and swing axles in the rear. Power came from an air-cooled horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine located behind the rear wheels, with power transmitted to the road via a three-speed manual or two-speed automatic transaxle. The brainchild of Chevrolet chief engineer Edward N Cole, the Corvair was unlike anything seen from a Detroit manufacturer and stood in stark contrast to the ultra simple Ford Falcon and Chrysler Corporation (later Plymouth) Valiant, which, despite its unusual styling, was equally as conventional as the Falcon under the skin.
The Corvair’s roots can be traced back to 1956 and the name came from amalgamating Corvette with Bel Air (Chevy’s top line passenger car trim at the time). Production began in July 1959 as a 1960 model, with the Corvair initially coming as a four-door sedan in either 500 or 700 trim levels. Its 140 cubic-inch flat-six cranked out 80bhp and 125ft-lb of torque, which enabled the original Corvair to accelerate from 0-60mph in about 17.5 seconds and top out at around 85mph.
Although a sportier-looking Monza two-door coupe variant arrived in April 1960, these early Corvairs were regarded as little more than basic transportation (albeit technically interesting) though that would change, as the Sixties got under way. A four-speed manual gearbox arrived for 1961, along with a bigger 145 cubic-inch flat-six engine. At the same time, the Corvair range expanded to include a Lakewood station wagon as well as a Rampside side-loading pick-up and Corvan (commercial) and Greenbriar (passenger) van derivatives.
Enthusiasts started taking interest in 1962, with the arrival of the Sporty Spyder option on the Monza coupe that featured a 150bhp turbocharged version of the 145 cubicinch flat-six. A convertible also debuted to broaden the Corvair’s appeal. As neat as it was, the turbocharged Monza faced increasing competition in the sporty car sector, including its more conventional Chevy II stablemate and from 1964, Ford’s hot-selling Mustang.
By then the Corvair was already living on borrowed time. The van, wagon and pick-up versions were all gone by 1965 and despite a crisp redesign that also included much improved rear suspension and a 180hp turbocharged six for ’65, the Corvair’s days were numbered. The turbo engine and sporty Corsa versions were gone after 1966, and from that point GM made as few changes as possible, with the final models bowing out in 1969. Historians cite a range of reasons why the Corvair didn’t last longer, from negative publicity generated from attorney and consumer advocate Ralph Nader, to lack of interest from General Motors itself, once Ed Cole was no longer involved with the programme (he joined GM’s executive ranks in 1961).
Despite strong initial sales (more than 250,000 units) the Corvair was relatively expensive to build and never achieved anywhere near the sales numbers of its Ford Falcon counterpart. With the conventional Chevy II compact selling well from 1962 and its new intermediate A-Body Chevelle coming on stream in 1964, plus the Chevy II based Camaro pony car, which launched for 1967, the Corvair essentially had nowhere to go within the Chevrolet division line-up.
Today, Corvairs are prized by a niche group of enthusiasts for their unorthodox engineering and driving characteristics. Compared to conventional Detroit cars of the era, a Corvair feels very foreign by comparison. The engine is happiest at higher revs (above 3000rpm) and the four-wheel independent suspension (especially on second-generation cars) provides a level of handling prowess that was far beyond most American cars of the time. Sporty Monzas, with their bucket seats (and optional four-on-the- floor from 1961) add further to the car’s European pretensions.
The turbocharged versions have decent acceleration (although not in the muscle car league) and although there are plenty of survivors, maintaining a Corvair requires a good deal of dedication due to its unconventional engineering and a distinct lack of replacement body and trim pieces. Relatively high production numbers and lack of aftermarket support (even stateside) mean that values are still relatively low (even the best 1965-1966 Corsa turbo likely won’t set you back more than $25,000). That being said, the Corvair remains a great entry point into the world of classic American motoring and a great conversation piece. It symbolises a time when General Motors reigned supreme and wasn’t afraid to try something different. Happy 60th anniversary, Corvair!