Curbside Classic: 1965 Chevrolet Corvair 500 – Double or Nothing!

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The original generation of the Chevy Corvair certainly never lit the sales charts on fire, at least not by Chevrolet standards.  Neither did the Y body compacts that debuted the next year from the Pontiac, Olds and Buick divisions, which incorporated a lot of the Corvair’s basic structure.  But where the unique engineering and configurations of the Y cars disappeared after their three year run, GM doubled down on the Corvair with a brand new design for 1965.  Unfortunately, it would be a losing bet.

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The 1960 Chevrolet Corvair had been a bold move for its maker.  Although Chevys had long been known for their style, they had always been quite conservative from a mechanical standpoint.  But the Corvair would throw the Chevrolet traditions out the window.  Unit construction, an air cooled pancake six, and a rear engine configuration were unlike anything else ever made in the U.S., unless you want to count the stillborn Tucker Torpedo of the late 1940s.   It was, however, eerily similar to the popular Volkswagen, only upsized and modernized  for American tastes and conditions.  The rear wheel drive and the shape of the keys were about the only things that the Corvair had in common with anything else in a Chevrolet showroom.

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But almost immediately, the boys at Chevrolet got a rude awakening.  It seemed that the daring, advanced Corvair was not selling in numbers anywhere near those of the dishwater-dull 1960 Ford Falcon.  Yes, Ford – that perennial Number 2 of the U.S. auto industry – was taking Chevrolet to school.

Chevy’s initial response was twofold.  First, if Mr. and Mrs. America wanted a stupid Falcon  smaller version of their Bel-Air or Impala, then Chevy would give it to them, hence the 1962 Chevy II.  A boring, vanilla Chevy sedan reduced by 35% in size, even its name signified the car’s lack of originality.

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Second, Chevy emphasized the sporting character of the Corvair with the Monza series, which went on to dominate Corvair sales for the rest of the first generation.  Although there was a base 500 model every year, the 500 sedan was dropped after 1960, and from 1961-64, the Monza coupe would be the Corvair’s sales leader, and not by a little.

First generation Corvair sales were not great by GM standards of the time, but objectively were not awful either.  The model was good for between 250-300,000 units annually from 1960-63, before dropping off to a bit under 192,000 1964s.

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By 1961, Chevy’s management had some decisions to make.  Any other maker and seller of cars in those years would have killed the Corvair and pushed the Chevy II as the company’s entrant in the compact class.  But Chevrolet was not most other companies.  Chevy had been Number One since the Great Depression, but Ford managed to eke out a slight production victory in 1961.  Did Chevrolet make the conscious decision to field two separate compacts because nobody else could afford to?  Or was it the more simple rationale that Ed Cole, who had been mostly responsible for the Corvair seeing the light of day, was still at the peak of his influence at General Motors and still the Corvair’s champion and protector?   However it went, the Chevy II was in the pipeline to cater to the midwestern skinflints (and keep them out of Ford and Plymouth showrooms), while the follow-up bid for domination of the compact class would be a new Corvair.

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This new Corvair would be all about style, and would cater to those who liked sports cars but needed some practicality.  The four door model would break new ground as the only four door hardtop ever fielded in the compact field in the U.S.  This car would not target the farmer or librarian too cheap to spring for a Biscayne, but to the guy who wanted sports car size and handling with the style of an Impala.  I find it curious, though, that Chevy revived the four door version of the base 500 series.  Was there no niche too small to mine in the effort to subdue those nasty people in Dearborn?

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A funny thing happened though, between drawing board and showroom – and it was called Mustang.  The interval between late 1961 and 1964 is notable for two things.  First, these years probably represent Chevrolet’s high water mark in terms of influence over the American market.  But second, these years saw some rapid development in the template for a successful sporty U.S. car.  For its longtime second class status, Ford caught this wave much earlier than did Chevy.  The Falcon Sprint may not have been the driver’s car that the Corvair was (in both the positive and the negative sense) but it offered the one thing that would come to trump all in this segment: the power of a modern V8 engine.  And where the Falcon Sprint made a small splash, the follow up Mustang would end up sucking most of the oxygen out of the compact market in the States.  The Pontiac GTO would do the same thing, only one weight class up.

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In today’s market, the two door car occupies a very specialized niche.  In 1965, two doors were a huge share of new car sales.  And when a car was selling on the basis of style over practicality, well, we were not dealing with four door people.  A lot of people had few qualms about trading off those two back doors for the new sporty car sensation that was the Mustang.

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The ’65 Corvair would jump a bit in sales, from 1964’s 192,000 cars to about 235,000 cars.  Not bad, until we consider that the Chevy II managed to drop by nearly 80,000 units that same year.  Our subject 500 sedan would be the lowest production of any closed Corvair passenger car model, as one of roughly 17,500 cars.  After 1965, though, things would get ugly in Corvair-land.  Sales plunged to 104,000 cars in 1966, 27,000 in 1967, and then to 15,000 and 6,000 in the final two years.  Judging by these figures, we can say that though the Corvair was knocked to the mat by the Mustang, it was finished off by the Camaro.

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These sedans fared even worse.  With a four door in both base 500 and Monza trim levels, these made up only around 20% of Corvair sales from 1965-67, and were killed at the end of the 1967 model year.  So, were these attractive little four door hardtops killed by the Mustang and Camaro?  Or were their wounds self-inflicted?  Maybe buyers of compact cars with four doors were (and are) conservative, practical people by nature, who appreciate function over form.  The four door second generation Corvair, unfortunately, offered the opposite.

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I was surprised to learn (according to Corvair.org) that  Chevrolet built only 82,109 of these Corvair hardtop sedans from 1965-67.  Funny, it seemed that these were relatively common back when.  Or maybe I just kept seeing the same ones over and over.  And I had forgotten that the four door did not even live through the final two (depressing) years of the series.  So, I guess I really found something here when I stumbled across this very original example while its driver was inside munching on a Steakburger.

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I read somewhere that we do what we know how to do.  Ford knew how to take a garden variety car and spice it up into something special.  They did it with the ’55 Thunderbird, and again with the ’65 Mustang.  Chevrolet knew how to sell beauty and style.  Unfortunately, Chevy was still trying to sell a modernized version of what was hot in 1956 – the swoopy, sexy four door hardtop.  But in a world of practical Falcon, Valiant and Nova sedans (with optional V8 engines, mind you) this shapely, stylish car failed to offer enough steak(burger) to go with it’s sizzle.

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Looking at these today, it is a fascinating car on so many levels.  I always considered these four doors to be quite attractive cars, and maybe my second favorite Corvair of all, after the early Lakewood wagon.   And to find one of the low-end 500 models is an added bonus.  I can’t help but wonder what kind of buyer might have picked this car out in 1965.  Someone who missed his ’53 Corvette but was looking for a Biscayne four door hardtop?   But it’s good to know that someone is keeping this old air cooled Chevrolet on the road.  Though I have never really been a Corvair guy, I like this car more and more the longer I look at these pictures.  You can keep your Monzas, your Corsas and your Turbochargers.  Give me a petite little four door hardtop and I will be a happy (and thrifty stylish) little camper.

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