Curbside Classic: 1964 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder – Activate The Turbocharged Scat

There are a lot of Corvair fans here at CC. And why not? They’re the most unique American car of their time, are fun to drive and readily available at reasonable cost, and they have a dedicated club – the Corvair Society of America (CORSA). While the 1965-69 Corvairs are undeniably beautiful, I must admit my preference for the original 1960-1964 models. But what is the best Corvair? In my opinion, one good choice is the turbocharged 1962-1964 Monza Spyder. Let’s learn a bit more about these special Monzas…

Nineteen sixty-two was a big year for the Corvair, with the debut of the long-anticipated Monza convertible. Sharing a 108″ wheelbase and 180″ overall length with its sedan and coupe siblings, the convertible offered plenty of drop-top, bucket-seat, rear-engine goodness. It’s unclear why a convertible version wasn’t offered from the beginning, but perhaps Chevrolet felt it wouldn’t fit the Corvair’s originally intended role as a plain-Jane, American VW alternative–or at least they did until Spring 1960, when the Monza coupe brought some pizazz to the lineup.

But wait, there’s more! Optional on 1962 Monza coupes and convertibles (and introduced at about the same time as the convertible) was a turbocharged variant of the 145 cu in flat six. Now Corvair buyers could skip the standard 80-hp (and optional 102-hp) engines for a turbocharged version that produced 150 hp @ 4400 rpm. It was the world’s only second turbocharged car, arriving just a few months after the Olds Cutlass Jetfire, the first.

The extra cost for the Spyder was $317.45–a not inconsiderable sum, but not a bad buy considering it virtually doubled your Monza’s horsepower. So as not to hinder the Spyder’s performance potential, air conditioning, the three-speed stick and the Powerglide automatic were not available; the four-speed stick was mandatory. Other Spyder special features included full instrumentation with tach, a 120 mph speedometer, and, of course, Spyder identification.

Technically speaking, Spyder was an option package for the Monza, but most of the press and buying public regarded it as a separate model. At the time, GM was being run by engineers, not bean counters, as evidenced by the Corvair’s turbo mill, not to mention the Corvette’s independent rear suspension, the small block, soon-to-be-Rover Buick V8, and the “rope drive” Tempest. No wonder a young Mr. Niedermeyer spent so much time at Iowa City’s GM showrooms.

Moving 6,894 coupe and 2,574 convertible versions of such a driver-oriented package wasn’t a bad sales performance, so the Spyder continued for 1963.  Along with the rest of the Corvair lineup, the Spyder received new trim and upholstery, but otherwise stayed pretty much the same for 1963. It would prove to be its best sales year, with 11,267 Spyder coupes and 7,472 convertibles finding happy new owners.

image: lov2xlr8.no

I can understand the attraction. Over at Porsche, the four-cylinder 356 sported 90 horsepower in its penultimate Super 90 form. Yet it cost almost 50% more than a Spyder coupe. Yes, the 356 Carrera 2 sported 155 hp (and the all-new flat six 911 was just around the corner), but it was very expensive and its four-cam engine was temperamental–not a good choice for a daily driver.

Although 1964 was the last year for the original Corvair, a number of worthwhile improvements were added nonetheless. In the engine department, displacement in the individually-finned, cast-iron cylinder barrels was increased to 164 cu in. The Spyder held at 150 hp, but its peak power now came a bit sooner, at 4,000 rpm. That enhanced its low-speed torque and reduced turbo lag, somewhat.

A worthwhile improvement shared with the other 1964 Corvairs was redesigned engine hardware and gaskets designed to improve oil sealing on the rocker arm covers. Also new–at long last–was the transverse rear leaf camber-compensating spring that GM’s bean counters had denied the original 1960 model.

A total of 199,387 Corvairs were built for the 1964 model year, a bit on the low side compared with the 254,571 sold the previous year. Its basic body had been around since the fall of 1959, which may have hindered sales in a market of annual model changes and biennial major sheetmetal changes. Complicating matters was the April 1964 smash introduction of the Ford Mustang, which no doubt siphoned off some Corvair shoppers.

Nineteen sixty-four also marked the last year for the Spyder nameplate. Sales for its final year totaled 6,480 coupes and 4,761 convertibles. One of those ’64 soft-tops is our featured CC, which I spotted at a recent Maple City Cruise Night, in Monmouth, Illinois. I was immediately attracted by its red and white color combination–and once I realized it was a Spyder, I was bitten.

Is that engine not a thing of beauty? One hundred-fifty horses of turbocharged goodness, and still room for a spare tire.

My love of white interiors is well known here at CC, and white upholstery is what initially drew me to this car. Combine it with a red dash and carpets, and you have a great look. This interior is surely a comfortable (and fun!) place to be for the lucky owner. Even better, this car has the optional four-speed manual–yours for an extra $92. Because the ’64’s larger engine had more torque, the previously mandatory four-speed became optional in 1963. I suspect there were very few three-speed Spyder made, though.

I was not the only admirer. Another spectator was clearly intrigued with this car, judging by his close attention and much fancier camera than my own. Corvairs do that to people.

Here we can see the special instruments, much cooler looking than the strip speedometer found on lesser ‘Vairs. The “Spyder” emblem on the glove box door was also unique to the model. If the full instrumentation didn’t tip you off, that emblem made it clear that you were riding in a very special Corvair.

While 1964 was the last year for the Spyder, it was not quite the end of the turbo engine. Among the all-new Corvairs for 1965 was the new and sporty Corsa (check this Evening Orchid drop-top I posted to the Cohort a while back). A normally aspirated, high-compression four-carb flat six with 140 hp was standard, but just $161 more bought a revised version of the old turbo engine, now good for 180 hp. After 1966, both it and the Corsa disappeared for good–but for one shining moment in the early- to mid-60s, your local Chevy dealer offered something really special. I think the owner of today’s CC knows that.