An owner’s perspective: 1965 Mustang vs. Corvair

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Lake Michigan 2010 012c

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.

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