Automotive History: Corvair Warm Comfort – Heating Optional (1960-1961); Your Choice of Gasoline or Engine Heat

(first posted 6/15/2017)     I may fancy myself a bit of a Corvair-O-Phile, but there’s still lots to learn. The trip to the Ypsilanti Museum yielded some new information about the proposed gen2 modular engine. One of the other subjects we discussed there was the Corvair’s heating system(s), are lack of them, unless one ponied up for one. I made some assumptions there that need to be corrected. And unraveling that mystery also explains the missing storage area behind the rear seat starting in 1961. This Corvair heater saga once again confirms what a difficult development the Corvair had, and the challenges in bringing down its costs.

The Corvair had a difficult gestation and birth. It was Chevrolet’s Chief Engineer Ed Cole’s baby, and his obsession with rear engines and air cooling forced numerous new and advanced technologies on the company with which it had no previous experience, and was totally out of the traditional Detroit engineering comfort zone. It was conceived to be an economy car; a bigger VW, to put it most succinctly. But it was not cheap to build. That was a serious problem.

In order to build the Corvair’s complex aluminum flat six, GM had to make major new investments in a large aluminum foundry, as well design a transaxle and other unique components, never mind it being GM’s first domestic unibody. The Corvair was inevitably going to not be an economical car to build. And as the costs to build it were firming up, compromises had to be made to try to contain them.

Cole badly wanted the Corvair to come standard with the Powerglide automatic, as a key part of its advanced powertrain. A standard three-speed manual was forced on him. And the 1960 Corvair was stripped of any and every other possible convenience and safety equipment, including a sway bar or any other device to minimize its tendency to tuck under its rear wheels in extreme handling maneuvers. That whole story has been covered here.

We could go on and find so many issues that challenged GM to make the Corvair profitably, but let’s focus on its heating systems. Somewhat curiously, the Corvair was originally designed to only have an (optional) gas-fired heater. The fact that this heater was optional is not that odd, given how heaters were still generally optional on most cars; certainly in the low-priced sector, the VW being a glaring exception (it had a standard heater since 1939, quite possibly the first car to do so). Of course how anyone other than in Florida or Hawaii might be ok without one is another question; even Southern California can get quite chilly in the winter.

In the typical Cole engineering-heavy approach, the Corvair’s trunk-mounted gas heater worked great. A similar system was optional on VWs, and not uncommon in Canada and some US northern states. But it was of course expensive, and also reduced fuel economy somewhat.  The result was that a Powerglide and heater-equipped Corvair was pushing right up against the Biscayne, price-wise.

There were other issues with the 1960 Corvair that were seen to make it vulnerable to the competition from the Falcon and Valiant. One of them was the front trunk, where the spare was located, was problematically small. But like VW, the 1960 Corvair offered at least a partial solution, due to extra space available behind the rear seat. That area, shown in brown above, was a good-sized well that could be accessed more advantageously with the optional (of course) fold down rear seat.

This restored 1960 sedan shows how that area was flat with the folded rear seat, and created a considerable-sized storage area, assuming no rear passengers. And of course it was even easier to access on the four door. Actually, the original well went even farther back a few more inches, behind the panel in which those after-market speakers are mounted. But this is the best sedan picture I could find.

And here’s the coupe version.

It’s hard to overstate the range of major changes made to the 1961 Corvair, which resulted in the 1960 model being somewhat of an orphan, parts-wise. These changes, including a substantially revised engine that now had 145 C.I. (140 formerly), new front end sheet metal that created a convex face from the previously concave one, new rear axle ratios, and many others.

But perhaps the biggest one, along with the larger engine, was a new heating system (still optional, but at lower cost). It now utilized the heated air blown over the exhausts in that area behind the rear seat, and even tapped cold air from the fan housing so that hot and cold air could be blended for the right temperature. And there was a three speed fan to help keep that warm air moving to the front of the car, including the defroster outlets. A pretty major new re-work, for a one year-old car.

Note: what is inaccurately termed “Heat Exchanger” in the drawing above is not a genuine heat exchanger, but just a heat distribution manifold. If there was a serious exhaust leak, it could pass CO into the passenger compartment, as well as unpleasant odors from oil leaks.

The price to pay for the cheaper heater was the loss of that rear storage well. The optional fold-down seat was still available, but there was now mostly a shallow well above the heater. My ’63 Monza 4 door had the fold down rear seat, and I did use it for my longer trips, as it made a nice flat loading surface, but I had remembered seeing that deep well on some 1960 Corvairs, and always wondered what happened to it. Now I know!

And speaking of that new Corvair heater, how well did it work? Well, I distinctly remember a drive on I80 from Perry Iowa back to Iowa City on a bitter cold evening, and the Corvair could not maintain a comfortable temperature inside. By the way, that’s something that never happened to my in my two VW Beetles, which generated plenty of heat once warmed up, although one absolutely had to keep the vent window cracked very slightly, otherwise the VW’s practically air-tight body kept the heat from flowing in properly.

Since this is a “stale air heater” (using the actual engine’s heated cooling directly, like pre-1963 VWs), this heater had at least one recall to fix a problem with carbon monoxide getting into the passenger compartment. Chevrolet downplayed the issue somewhat, and said that in the worst case, “it would take 8 hours of driving to make the driver dangerously drowsy”.  I remember some 15 hour drives in my Corvair, and the heating air didn’t always smell like a bouquet. It smelled downright oily, from the invariably leaking pushrod tubes.

I assume the reason Cole originally went with the gas-fired heater was because he determined that that the maximum output from the heated cooling air would be insufficient in very cold temperatures. The gas heater was still an option in 1962, by which time the engine-heat unit was standard. But by 1963, it was not listed anymore.

One of the other big changes for 1961 involved moving the spare from the front trunk to the engine compartment (1964 shown here).

That, along with the new convex front fascia, increased luggage space in the front. Was it also done to compensate for the loss of luggage space behind the rear seat? Probably a combination. One thing is for certain: moving the the spare tire from the front and hanging it out over behind the back axle did nothing to help the Corvair’s weight bias.

Presumably, the many drastic changes to the ’61 Corvair improved production costs; in any case, Chevrolet lowered the starting prices for 1961 by some 3%, undoubtedly to improve its competitiveness against the Falcon, which was a huge seller.

All these changes were actually relatively unimportant compared to the most important one of all: the 1960.5 Monza coupe. It completely changed the Corvair’s image and market trajectory; instead of a bare-bones economy car, the Corvair, in the form of the Monza, was now a stylish and sporty compact car, the first of its kind. It may have cost as much as a Biscayne, but it was essentially an mini-Impala, and conveyed about as much (or more) positive image for its delighted owners. Needless to say, the Monza’s surprisingly big success spawned the Mustang and all of the other smaller sporty and ‘personal cars’ to come. Americans in the 60s were ready for cars to reflect individuality, personality, style and image at an affordable price, and the Monza did just that. Leave the cheap economy car market to to others to fight over…like the Japanese.

I called it “The Most Influential Car of the Decade”, and I’m not just blowing hot air.