An owner’s perspective: 1965 Mustang vs. Corvair

raustin |

Story and photo by Aaron Toth

Though the movie of the same name would not arrive in theaters for a few more years, an “odd couple” sits in my garage. The 1965 Chevrolet Corvair Monza and the 1965 Ford Mustang were sporty compact competitors from the two biggest automobile manufacturers of 1965. Each was a rolling sculpture as different as Felix Unger and Oscar Madison in the famous play/movie/TV show. One car was a front-engined, long-hooded, water-pumping slice of Americana, the other a rear-engined, air-cooled, slinky-and-swooping corner carver that looked like it belonged on a twisting Alpine pass. How did these two become direct competitors during that brief mid-1960s moment?

Competition

The Corvair was directly responsible for the Mustang. In 1962, bucket seat-equipped Corvair Monzas were selling well and Ford, much to the chagrin of Lee Iacocca, had no direct competitor.  The story of the birth of the Mustang is almost as well-known as tales of Billy the Kid. When the Mustang was introduced, Chevrolet insisted that the Corvair was its answer to the Mustang. It did have an all-new body with a sophisticated new independent rear suspension. However, the Mustang outsold the Corvair by a margin of about three to one. Therefore, the real reason for the Corvair’s demise was probably the Mustang, not Ralph Nader, as people who talk to Corvair owners love to think.

By 1966, the writing was on the wall.  People wanted Mustangs.  Chevrolet did not have a real Mustang challenger until 1967, but let’s rewind to fall of 1964, when the new Corvair was coming out and the Mustang was selling as many copies as Ford could make. Two of these examples are ready for us to test today. How about a drive?

The Cars

It’s not a perfect world, so the match up is not exact. Our Mustang is a hardtop with the 200-hp, 289-cid V-8 with a two-venturi carburetor and C4 automatic transmission. It has a 2.80 axle ratio and only a few options, other than the engine and transmission: heater, AM radio, two-speed wipers and door edge guards. The Corvair is a Monza convertible with an air-cooled flat six of 164 cubic inches and 95 hp produced with two one-barrel Rochester carburetors. The original owner ordered the four-on-the-floor transmission with a standard 3.27 axle ratio. It, too, is lightly equipped, with the same options as the Mustang, sans door edge guards.

Appearance

Obviously, the way an automobile looks is as subjective as music, movies and more traditional forms of art. To true automobile fans, both the 1965 Mustang and Corvair are beautiful in different ways. The Mustang is a stone-cold icon that almost any 7-year-old child could identify as a Mustang. It’s basically a copyrighted mainstay of what makes America unique. Its high and wide mouth, kicked-up rear quarters, and overall stance make it look like it’s ready to pull the front tires a foot off the strip amidst a guttural growl that will frighten grandmas and make kids hide.  Iterations of the C-scoop on the side of the car still grace current Mustangs. So do the triple tail lamps (faux on the ’65).

On the other hand, the Corvair is more subtle. Its sharply creased yet gracefully “coke-bottled” fenders are indicative of the Bill Mitchell school of impeccable 1960s styling. Its nose has no grille (no radiator, after all), and its rear quarters taper back into a recessed tail lamp panel that evokes the stunning Monza GT show car. It’s hard to choose, and Ford vs. Chevy rivalries tend to show a bit of bias, so we’ll call this a draw.

The Drive

Entry prices of each of these cars made them economical to own before  buyers began checking options as each saw fit. Mustangs could have rock-hard handling suspension and front disc brakes, along with a solid-lifter high-performance 289 that could rev to 7,000 rpm. Chevy fans could order a turbocharged Corsa with four-speed and full instrumentation, even though no discs were available on the Corvair. These base models, however, were meant for running around town and country more sedately. The 289-powered Mustang has loads more power in any gear at any time. The poor Corvair just can’t keep up with less than half the rated horsepower, even with a four-speed.

In the first turn, however, the driver notices how easily the Corvair steers and how it handles much more like a modern car, even on its tiny 13-inch tires. The Mustang requires a firmer hand and likes to be muscled around.  Its leaf springs locate that solid axle, well, solidly, but the axle can jitter a bit on bumps. The brakes on both cars are poor by today’s standards, but will stop the car quickly — once. The Corvair dives much less on braking, since so little of the weight is up front. Both cars require some dizzying wheel twirling with roughly four turns lock to lock, and both lean like that famous Italian tower during very spirited cornering, but remain manageable and even fun to drive.

On the highway, the Corvair is the easy victor in fuel mileage. My Monza will achieve 25 miles per gallon in full highway driving, but about 20 mpg in mixed driving. The Mustang manages about 17-18 mpg regardless of driving style.

Unfortunately for Chevrolet, people in 1965 wanted the easy power of the Mustang over the lithe, nimble-handling and economy of even the base Corvair.  Only the 180-hp Corsa turbo could attempt to run with the base Mustang V-8, and the Mustang could handle pretty well with the GT package, too. It’s hard to call a winner here. The Mustang has effortless power (even though a Kia Sportage will outrun it today), and the Corvair handles easier and more gracefully. Take your pick.

Interior and Amenities

Both of these cars were basically basic. The Mustang has a simple instrument panel with horizontal speedometer and gauges for fuel and engine temperature. Oil pressure and battery charge made do with simple red lamps. The Corvair has a round speedometer and fuel gauge, and lights for engine temp and oil pressure, battery charge and blower belt. (It is very important that the blower belt stays on the Corvair, since the cooling blower is run by that belt.)  To be fair, both cars had optional complete instrumentation in top-of-the-line GT and Corsa models.

I am six feet tall, and in my opinion, the Mustang has a better driving position. The seats are a bit nicer, and the footwell a bit less intrusive. The Corvair’s wheelwells invade the floor area, unlike the Mustang with its expansive hood that goes on for miles. One thing the Mustang earns complete victory for is the heater. The Corvair’s “air pushed by the exhaust manifold” heating system doesn’t come close to the Mustang’s water-filled heater core. Plus, the Corvair’s fan must push all that hot air forward, against the grain, so to speak. Additionally, it is smart to carry a carbon monoxide detector in a Corvair, because an exhaust leak could really ruin a driver’s day. Plus, if the Corvair leaks oil (and some do), the smell makes it into the car. This system may be the car’s biggest shortcoming. On the plus side, at least the passenger side fresh-air vent isn’t a door on the heater box as in the Mustang.

Today

These days, the Mustang is obviously the more popular collectible. Magazines are devoted to it, almost every part is reproduced for it (with varying quality), and they are plentiful. Prices are all over the map, depending on the model. The Corvair, on the other hand, has always unfairly suffered from the Ralph Nader stigma. Most Corvairs are inexpensive to buy, but smart research is in order when shopping. Corvairs are just cars, but with partially aluminum engines and “strange to 1960s America” transaxles, they are slightly different animals.

Owning them and loving them both, I must cop out and refuse to choose a victor.  The cars are so different in execution, yet so similar in size and purpose, that readers should choose for themselves.

 

Whether you love the Mustang, the Corvair… or both… these resources are worth checking out:

 

 

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9 Responses to An owner’s perspective: 1965 Mustang vs. Corvair

  1. RJD says:

    Gotta be honest. Not much of a choice for me. Mustang hands down.

  2. Brian J. O'Toole says:

    Interesting.
    Back in the early 1970s, I owned a 65 Corsa 140 HP.
    In my immediate family was a 1964 Corvette 4speed, my car, a ’66 Ford Galaxie 500XL, and a ’65 Mustang V8 4V automatic.
    Since I also auto-Xed and prowled the canyon roads in my Corvair, I liked to flog the old mans cars a little bit when he wasn’t looking for a diversion.
    In a nutshell– the two Fords actually handled more or less the same. Both had grinding undeersteer up to a point, then some really amazing oversteer when you applied power while cornering.
    The two Chevys felt almost the same as each other as well., but the Corvair had a bit more understeer than the Corvette, but then the Corvair would break away more suddenly than the Corvette. The Corvette was just smoother.
    However, I think the Corvair would actually get the power down better than the Corvette, and in many ways was better and faster.
    The Corvair was almost a sports car, it could have been made into a VERY good sportscar IMO.
    The Mustang was a poseur car, a hairdressers car.

  3. Bill Niemi says:

    I never put the Corvair and Mustang in the same class. The Mustang was just another Ford made a little smaller but with a larger engine. I owned a Mercury and two Fords before I owned a turbo-charged Corvair Spyder. I had more horesepower in the former cars but the Corvair was more fun to drive. It was more economical and I frequently drove it over 100mph. My Fords would vibrate dangerously at that speed. I never got stuck in the winter with my Corvair, but did so with my Mercury and Fords. I’ve had to help friends with their stuck Mustangs in winter. I would have bought a Mustang in 1960s had it come with a mid-ship engine. Iococca turned the Mustang into a family car. A financial success, but making it an almost muscle car. The Chevelle 396 was the real competitor for the Mustang, and today it’s the Camaro. Corvair should not be compared to the either of these, the Porsche of the time would be more appropriate.

  4. D. Reilly says:

    As summer has officially kicked off and June is in full swing,cruise nights and Sunday {and some Saturday} shows will be in full force pretty much everywhere.Not to suggest that familiarity breeds contempt,but the next time you’re at one of these gatherings,count up the number of ’65-’66 Mustangs{same taillights & grille} and then count up the number of Corvairs{any year,’60-’69}.The Mustangs will ultimately outnumber the Corvairs{if any Corvairs even make an appearance}.The Corvair wins{not because it’s a Chevrolet product of unusual design},but because everybody and his/her dog has a first/second year Mustang.It’s kind of like when I attend the british car festival and all these morons show up with their BMW powered mini coopers.It would be the same as me attending the german car festival with my Cadillac Catera.The only part of it that’s german is what’s under the hood.

  5. Harold JENNINGS says:

    in 1965 I purchased a 1965 mustang two door white 289 automatic radio heater FORD ADD ON AIR
    THE CAR WAS BUILT IN MAY 1964 one of the first ones built. I owned this car for 13 years.I SOLD IT
    for more than i paid for it new.STILL IT WAS A BAD MOVE ON MY PART .I SURE WISH I had that old
    pony car back.

  6. Richard J. Huebner says:

    I drove Corvair a when new and I liked it but not enough to buy one. When the Mustang came out I liked it too, but not enough to buy one. When the Corvair was going down hill I thought I might like one but didn’t get one. I finally bought a Mustang that was a basket case, had it redone and I still have it. My vote is for the Mustang.

  7. Mike Fagan says:

    In the late 70s’ I restored a 1965 Monza Sport Sedan (4 dr hardtop) mostly mechanically. it had the optional gas heater, which I didn’t use, as it fed out of the fuel tank and reduced fuel economy. The handeling and ride comfort (for its’ day) was in my opinion far superior to the Mustang. After I sold it, I did a 65 El Camino and later on a 72 Mustang with the sprint package (red/white/blue striping and sheilds on the rear quaters) among others, but I sure do miss my Corvair.

  8. Jan Robson says:

    When I attended college in 69, I purchased a 65 Corsa 140 HP with the 4-one barrel carbs. After I bought the car, I changed the push rod tube seals, replaced both air thermostats, tuned the engine, and rebuilt all 4 carbs. Was it a performance car – no. But, it was a fun car to drive and was very economical to operate. That little heat door below the back seat, was not something to be ignored. You never knew what was coming out that door. After a piece of ice plugged the PCV system, oil flowed onto the exhaust manifolds, and instantly filled the interior with smoke. It took several hours of letting the car run to burn off the oil. The car was dependable as long as you paid attention to some of the quirks in the air cooled engine. I drove it two years and sold it, then buying a 66 GTO, 389 with 3 deuces. Performance on that car – yes, Economical – Definitely not. I have two 70 Chevelles now, and I still miss that old Corvair. I always wanted to install a Crown kit with a V-8 engine, but never had the money to do so. They were unusual cars for the times and they are respected today more than when they were new. I am sure Ralph Nader had something to do with that.

  9. bumnsun says:

    The corvair beat the Mustang in handling and braking. The mustang outsold the corvair. At the end, we shoudl enjoy the beauty of both cars – America at its best

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