By David W. Temple
Clearly, one of the most distinctive automobiles of the 1960s is Chevrolet’s Corvair, a compact model with four-wheel independent suspension and a rear-mounted, horizontally opposed, air-cooled six-cylinder engine for power. The name Corvair was a contraction of Bel Air and Corvette. It was first applied to a Corvette-based fastback show car for the 1954 GM Motorama. That Corvette-based Corvair never went into production, but the name returned a little more than a half-decade later on the car that Chevrolet simply advertised as “for economical transportation” and “a most unusual car for people who enjoy the unusual.”
The name was selected by Ed Cole, who guided the early development of the car. It was appropriate because the Corvair in some forms could be a competent performer; it even appeared in some print advertising with a Corvette. It could be sporty and comfortable and offered seating for five or six, depending on whether you had bucket seats or a bench seat. Furthermore, Chevy’s Corvair had excellent weight distribution, independent suspension, good traction in almost any situation and a relatively quiet ride. The Corvair did tend to behave like any other rear-engine car with swing-axles and would over-steer when pushed too hard in a corner. For the 1964 model year, transverse springs (called camber compensators) were introduced on the Corvair to lessen this problem until a new suspension system replaced it the following model year.
Compacts come to America
The very affordable Corvair (priced around $2,000 in 1960) represented Chevrolet’s response to the growing compact car market that was jump-started by the influx of foreign compacts during the 1950s. Until the advent of the compact car, American automakers (with few exceptions) offered one basic body design to serve as the basis of every model from the top to the bottom of the hierarchy. Obviously, the major automakers needed to get a compact model on the market. Studebaker had an early jump on the U.S. compact car market when it fielded its compact Lark for 1959, which helped the manufacturer experience a revival in sales, but the “Big Three” didn’t offer compacts until 1960. However, work leading to the Corvair project actually began before a market clearly existed for an American compact car. More will be said on that point momentarily.
In its original form, the Corvair was a very basic car and luxury features were few. It was simply a car for those who could not afford an Impala, Bel Air or Biscayne. It then became the basis for an American version of a European GT type of car, the Monza Spyder, which was followed by the Corsa in 1965 and 1966 with its new Corvette-based suspension and standard 140-hp engine.
Transmission choices included the standard three-speed manual (seldom chosen), a four-speed manual (popular) and an automatic (except for high-output engines). Powering the first Corvairs in standard form was an 80-hp engine; a 95-hp version was optional for just $27 extra. Performance, obviously, was not the car’s strong point; 0-60 mph required more than 20 seconds. By 1964, output of the standard engine was 95 hp with a 110-hp version being optional; both improved performance noticeably. A 150-hp turbo-charged six, however, was standard in the Monza Spyder model introduced two years earlier. For 1965 and 1966, a 180-hp version was an option.
The platform of the Corvair even allowed for a van to be built on it. Briefly, a station wagon version, the Lakewood (1961) and the Monza (1962), was produced, too.
Developing the Corvair
Chevrolet’s chief engineer, Ed Cole, was one of the early researchers and supporters of the air-cooled engine project that came to fruition in the Corvair. Certainly he had the support of Harley Earl, the man in charge of GM Design, though he was very near retirement. Earl was always interested in new ideas and not just in terms of styling, but in mechanical systems, too. Involved in the project with Cole were Harry Barr, Kai Hansen, Ned Nichols, Maurice Olley, Ellis Premo and Carl Renner. Each had substantial experience in either styling or engineering. For instance, Barr, along with Cole, headed the development of Cadillac’s overhead-valve V-8 engine that debuted for 1949. He moved up to chief engineer for Chevy and then, in mid 1956, Cole was promoted to division general manager.
As touched upon earlier, the concept of a Chevrolet passenger car with an air-cooled engine began to take form around 1953 — just about a half-decade before foreign compact cars started to make a dent in the sales of American auto makers. Cole began investigating the idea of GM producing an air-cooled engine as early 1946 or 1947, when he was involved in the study of just such an engine for Cadillac. The conclusion reached from the project revealed the concept feasible, but not for a car as large as a Cadillac. This was followed in 1950 by a government contract to develop a facility to produce a light tank, the M-42, which was powered by a horizontally opposed, air-cooled engine with a supercharger. As a result, GM engineers had the chance to become more knowledgeable about this type of engine. Two years later, Cole moved over to Chevrolet as its chief engineer. Barr and Hansen joined him there. A few months later, the group began serious consideration of a compact car powered by an air-cooled engine. As explained by Cole in Karl Ludvigsen’s book “Corvair by Chevrolet,” to them, this engine was essential to a successful lightweight car, and they could see benefits from the improved technology, which would be derived from the project.
Eventually, prototype hardware was completed and tested. Since Volkswagen and Porsche had successful rear-mounted, air-cooled engines, they were thoroughly studied. In fact, a prototype Corvair engine was installed and tested in a Porsche 356. Two Corvair test cars with fake front grilles were tested as well. The script on these cars said Holden Special. (Holden was a foreign unit of GM.) Misdirection such as this helped keep the project a secret until the time was right to reveal it.
Styling for the Corvair seems to have been influenced a bit by that of another GM Motorama show car, the 1955 Chevrolet Biscayne, as the Corvair appears to have inherited some of the Biscayne’s rear end styling. The Corvair project was one of the last in which Harley Earl was involved before he retired from General Motors at the end of 1958. At that point, Bill Mitchell took over Earl’s position and he presided over the program until it was ready to go to Fisher Body.
Competition from outside, and within
Between the 1960 and 1969 model years, Chevrolet built more than 1.6 million Corvairs but sales began to dwindle drastically after the 1965 model year. The 1965 book titled “Unsafe at Any Speed,” written by consumer-advocate lawyer Ralph Nader, was highly critical of this model (and others) and did not help sales.
Some people within GM wanted to drop the Corvair because the economical Chevy II was doing well, Nader’s book put GM on the defensive and there was more demand for increased performance from the Corvair by enthusiasts. Accomplishing the latter required so many modifications to the power train that it would not be cost effective to do so. The Corvair represented, to some degree, internal competition to the Chevy II and later the Camaro, which debuted for the 1967 model year. On top of it, the Chevy II and Camaro were less costly to produce than the Corvair. The problem resolved itself. Sales of the Corvair dropped by half from more than 235,000 for the 1965 model year to less than 104,000 the next. Ford’s inexpensive Mustang emerged months prior to the release of the redesigned 1965 Corvairs and was galloping away with sales to the point demand was exceeding production capacity for yet another nail in Corvair’s coffin. Over the last three model years of production, Corvair sales dropped to just slightly more than 27,250 units, then to just 15,400 units for 1968. Finally, during the 1969 model year, those at GM who favored discontinuing production of the Corvair finally got their way after a mere 6,000 copies were built.
Corvair’s fall from grace
The Corvair began as a sensation, even earning Motor Trend magazine’s coveted “Car of the Year” award for 1960. In less than a decade, it was no longer viable to sell for the company that designed and built it. Seemingly, nothing could save the Corvair, though ideas for a third-generation design were on the drawing board prior to the termination of the model. More than one automotive publication tried to correct the record about the Corvair, but the damage done by bad publicity had taken root in the public’s collective mind.
The September 1966 issue of Motorcade explained the damage thusly: “There are countless thousands of motorists who would enjoy owning and driving the Corvair Corsa — if they hadn’t been enticed away by the Mustang, or frightened away by the misunderstood pronouncements of so-called ‘safety experts’… It performs well, handles better than many highly-touted sports cars… From 1960 through 1963, the Corvair was built with swing axles at the rear, shafts that were U-jointed to the final drive assembly but were attached directly to the wheels they operated. Such a layout permitted the wheels to vary considerably in their angles, or camber, on the road surface. This, in turn, affected the slip angles of the tires, the prime factor in a car’s directional stability, and allowed the vehicle to oversteer… These characteristics were hardly unique to the Corvair. Several European cars — the Volkswagen and Renault Dauphine, for examples, and the earlier Porsche — have had swing axles and consequent oversteering tendencies. In fact, drivers who came to the Corvair from such imports felt right at home… Anyone with reasonable driving ability found the car’s behavior within predictable and controllable limits. Unfortunately, others with less experience and competence began getting into trouble… when they became involved in accidents, they wouldn’t take the blame… Last year, these malcontents found an articulate and persuasive champion, a young lawyer named Ralph Nader who published a book called “Unsafe at Any Speed.” In it, Nader denounces the original Corvair’s oversteering tendencies and suggests that drivers don’t have any obligation to understand the behavior of their cars… In 1965, the car was completely redesigned. The rear suspension became fully independent and articulated… The angles of the rear wheels could remain constant and, as a result, the slip angles of the rear tires provided more stable control. Oversteering tendencies were, for all practical purposes, eliminated… Nader concedes that the 1965 Corvair had excellent handling qualities. Unfortunately, the distinction seems to have been lost on the public.”
A Corvair survivor
The Corvair has maintained a loyal following literally from the moment its production ceased. In 1969, the Corvair Society of America (CORSA) was formed and remains in existence to this day. One of the club’s members, Costa Kouzounis, of Houston, owned the pictured example shown here until selling it less than one year ago. He bought the car from the estate of Travis Jackson in Hempstead, Texas, in 2004. Travis was a 20-plus year member of the Corvair Houston chapter of CORSA and also served as its president for a while. He is believed to have purchased the feature car in the early 1970s from the original owner in Houston. When Costa bought the Corvair, it was a complete, unrestored car except for the replacement of a cylinder head and exhaust manifold. The previous owner bought the car to drive in area auto-cross races and chose a convertible body style because of the stiffness convertibles have due to extra bracing at the rocker panels. It also had quick-ratio steering with quick-ratio control arms.
The featured Corvair was built at the Willow Run assembly plant and is one of 3,142 Corsa convertibles built for the 1966 model year. The Corsa came only with manually shifted transmissions coupled either to the standard issue 140-hp version or the turbo-charged 180-hp variant. Additional options on this car, other than the quick-ratio steering box and arms, include the simulated wood steering wheel, power convertible top, two-speed windshield wipers, four-speed transmission and 3:55:1 gear ratio. When Costa bought this Corvair Corsa, it was fully operable with minor surface rust, and had an exceptionally good body.
Today, this 1966 Corvair Corsa convertible is an award winner that captures attention wherever it appears and serves as reminder of the potential power of the written word — whether right or wrong.
The author and staff of Old Cars Weekly extend their thanks to the staff of the Houston Zoo for allowing the featured Corvair to be photographed at the zoo’s scenic west gate entrance.
Corvair Society of America (CORSA)
P.O. Box 68
Maple Plain, MN 55359
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