Automotive History: How The 1960 Corvair Started A Global Design Revolution

(first posted 8/5/2011. Updated and expanded 1/22/2019)     The Corvair was a revolutionary car, but in quite different ways on each side of the Atlantic (or Pacific). In the US, the Corvair was unprecedented for its rear-engine, the first American mass-production car to adopt a configuration common in Europe since the 1930s and even earlier. But its stylistic design didn’t exactly set Americans agog; the “flying wing” roof had been seen across the 1959 GM line, and the rest of it was perhaps a bit too bland and aseptic for so many Americans weaned on chrome, fins, and long front ends with bold grilles. Its very low height suggested a sporty car, even though the initial 1960 sedan had no real sporting aspirations; that would come a bit later, in the Monza coupe. And undoubtedly, its clean lines were attractive to many American import car buyers, which explains why it sold so well to that contingent.

The Corvair had no real lasting influence on American car styling. Meanwhile, the 1964 Mustang, Ford’s response to the Monza,  was largely the design antithesis of the Corvair, and we all know how Americans reacted to that. And its influence on the pony cars and sporty coupes was huge. But the reaction in Europe was almost the polar opposite: the Corvair instigated the biggest design revolution of the modern era, one whose effects are still with us today.

Let’s briefly consider what made the Corvair’s design and styling so unique and influential. Clearly, the key stylistic goal for GM was to absolutely avoid this. Ok; this Austin A30 is a somewhat extreme example, but the problem with small cars was always that as the length was reduced, the proportions became increasingly less attractive.

That wasn’t the case with the VW, which was designed well before long three-box sedans had become the norm. Although its shape was a shorter version of the classic streamliners of the early ’30s like the Tatra, its proportions were balanced. But of course the VW was seen as completely anachronistic in Detroit.

Chevrolet’s solution was to make the proportions of the Corvair as close as possible to that of its full-sized cars. And they succeeded to an extent no one else ever has. The whole “greenhouse” and side windows are extremely close to those of the larger car, as seen here when we enlarge the Corvair to make it as long as the big Chevy. This was a very deliberate optical effect. No one to my knowledge had ever shrunk a large car so successfully and completely.

And of course, something had to give to make that happen since the Corvair was only 180″ long compared to 211″ for the Impala. That something was height: the Corvair was a mere 51.3″ inches tall; that’s exactly the same as the Toyota 86, a modern sports car. It looks even lower in modern traffic.

There was of course a price to pay for that low height: a very low seating position. The seats in the Corvair were mounted very low to the floor, which necessitated a driving position very much like a genuine sports car. That wasn’t exactly space efficient, and the Corvair scored relatively poorly in that regard compared to it main competition. But of course it was precisely what led to it becoming such a successful sporty car in the guise of the Monza; the first of its kind and a direct predecessor to the Mustang and so many other sporty cars to come.

Both the Falcon and Valiant had taller seats and thus a more traditional seating position and better space utilization.

Because the 1959 Studebaker Lark was a last minute rush job carried out in 1958, it was the beneficiary of some advanced styling aspects, thanks to Chrysler and GM. Its front end design was donated by Chrysler’s Virgil Exner, whose son Virgil Jr. was a consultant on the Lark. This was confirmed here. And there’s little doubt in my mind that its strong horizontal accent line and rear end were the result of someone having seen an early Corvair clay. But the end result suffers from the Austin A30 problem: the proportions are far from ideal, as Studebaker was just shortening a 1953 vintage body. Expedient, but hardly groundbreaking overall.

And although many Americans  came to embrace the Corvair as a sporty alternative, they were unlikely to appreciate the uniqueness of its proportions and styling since it just looked like a smaller big Chevy, minus the fins and chrome grille. But in Europe, it was a different story.

The Corvair was the smash sensation of the 1959 Paris Auto Show (above), and unleashed a wave of copy-cats on an unprecedented scale. It instantly eclipsed Pininfarina’s influential 1955 Florida coupe as the most significant influence in European design.

To help put it in context, here a shot of a ’60 Corvair (right front) in Paris traffic. It’s easy to see how different its low, wide stance, clean flanks and big car proportions stand out in the traffic there of the times.

To fully grasp the extent of its impact, let’s quickly revisit the major historical design/stylistic themes up to that time.

Prior to the thirties’ aerodynamic revolution, almost all cars had their headlights in a prominent location on both side of the central radiator, the “classic” arrangement.

The streamlined and rear-engined Tatra 77 of 1934 helped usher in a new kind of face, one which the VW Beetle soon made the world’s most recognized.

Its influence would soon spread, even if not in original form, as most American cars by 1941 adopted the wide-set headlights in a modern interpretation of the traditional front end.

During WWII, GM design studios considered many approaches to future post-war cars, including rear-engined cars with radically new front end styling that would have deviated dramatically from the traditional classic approach.

Pininfarina’s 1946 Cisitalia 202 GT resolved the two major design influences, in a harmonious and balanced package that still featured the basic aspects of the classic face happily married with smooth pontoon/aerodynamic styling.

In the end, GM’s new 1948 and 1949 cars came to a very similar resolution, acknowledging how iconic and powerful the classic front end was, especially on a long hood.

Through 1958, every major American car still sported these basic design elements, most of all the prominent high-set, wide-apart headlights, including the dramatically new 1957 Chrysler products. Predicting 1960 turned out to be harder than they thought.

The only major exception in the US was the brief mid-fifties fling with close-set headlights at AMC. By 1958, Rambler headlights were back in their customary place.

It was GM’s grandiose 1959 big-car redesign that finally broke the mold, at least in mass market (along with the ’59 Edsel). Although all the attention if often directed to the wild fins, it was really their front ends that were a lasting radical departure from the norm. No one had done this before, except on show cars. By 1960, almost every American car had lost its high headlights. The face of American cars was changed forever.

And of course, GM stylist Carl Renner’s “flying wing” rear window debuted here too.

Arguably the weakest of GM’s 1959 designs, the Oldsmobile, has a front end that predicts the 1960 Corvair’s. Below that strong horizontal line that dips in the middle, is a relatively flat face, with too much chrome, of course. It’s the work of Irv Rybicki.

He either had a hand in the Corvair’s front end too, or it was just a case of internal copying. Take a good look at it, because we’re about to hop a Constellation and fly to Europe, to see where things were at when the Corvair crashed their party, and all the love children it quickly spawned. But before we do that, let’s keep in mind that in the fifties, automotive design was in a very different state of development, especially in Europe.

The Big Three, led by GM (1952 LeSabre above), invented the concept of in-house design studios, because they could afford it. Independents and most European companies commonly contracted out their design work, or hired freelancers for a specific job. This largely explains why Pininfarina became so influential; it offered a high-class service on a mass scale; unprecedented up to then. And it was largely the Big Three, Pininfarina, and a few smaller design houses that predominated the trends in the industry until well into the sixties, or later.

American design had already exerted its influence in Europe prior to the Corvair, but often in ways that Europeans had mixed feelings about. Fins, gaudy multi-tone paint jobs, chrome…these were imported particularly through the Big Three’s captive European operations, like this German Ford 17M. And although these design trends influenced other European companies, it was Pinifarina who most of all cultivated a distinctly European design language, and one so influential, that it kept American influence in check.

The Peugeot 403 is a typical representative of  Pinifarina’s “pontoon” style, very much influenced by his 1946 Cisitalia, which combined the smooth envelope of the thirties’ pure streamliners with classic proportions and enough details to hold the eye.

Pininfarina’s seminal 1955 Florida coupe ushered in a dramatic new roofline, crisp and elegant, to top off its smooth flanks. But its front was still very much in the traditional idiom, and one that would soon grace a whole raft of cars. The Florida’s front end didn’t interest Detroit, who had mostly moved on from that, but its roofline sure did, and soon became the only way to go with coupes for some time. Pick and choose; that’s how the design world works.

By 1960, Pininfarina’s influence in Europe was almost omnipresent, profoundly flavored by the Florida coupe. Slab sides, sharper edges all around, just a hint of fins, but always very prominent headlights with the hood dropping between them, and that Florida C-Pillar, of course.

Compared to this now deeply-rooted design language, the Corvair turned it all on its head. Almost everything was different from the Fiat, except for the models in the same poses. The roof line, which was totally new but a bit too faddy to have long legs, played a secondary role to the Corvair’s other distinct features. That was its unique horizontal belt/character line, which completely encircled the car, like a seam by which the top and bottom halves were joined. This created an overwhelming feeling of horizontality, accentuated by the very flat front trunk and rear hood.

And that face was unlike anything seen before, ever, except for that hard-to-look-at ’59 Olds. And one that did not endear itself to Americans. But it was a face that would revolutionize European design, and not just the obvious rip-offs, but even front-engined designs.

Before we take the grand tour of all of the Corvair’s far-flung progeny, let’s hop a DC-7 back for a brief look at the Corvair’s origins in GM’s design studios. GM’s ill-fated Cadet small car program may not have been a engineering precursor with its front engine and RWD, but it was designed by Ned Nickles, who designed the Corvair along with Carl Renner. An appreciation for a clean line and smooth flanks was on display here. Nickles would go on to head Buick design, and Renner had designed the Chevy Nomad and was the father of that flying wing roof.

The final Corvair design was mostly complete by August of 1957, and GM was rightfully protective of its new baby. Engineering prototypes had a completely different body (above), and were badged as Holdens to throw off the curious competition.

Its noteworthy that what the Europeans saw in Paris was only the four door sedan, as the Corvair coupe didn’t appear until the following spring.  So most of the Corvair’s early influence was the sedan, although coupe influences were seen later too. Enough of the Corvair, let’s hop a 707 back and take the grand tour of its progeny, in approximate chronological order of their appearance:

The most blatant copycat was also the first. The NSU Prinz, a complete 1961 restyle of NSU’s little two-cylinder car, was a faithful rip-off of the Corvair. Even the flying wing roof made it here, although slightly blunted.

NSU’s slightly larger four-cylinder 1000/TT continued the theme, or even enhanced it with the Corvair-like quad headlights. Like the Corvair Spyder, the high performance TT/TTS versions were highly capable pocket-rockets.

Perhaps the most surprising example is the Fiat 1300/1500 sedan that appeared in 1961. Given that Pininfarina had designed the larger Fiats, like the 1800 shown earlier in this post, the 1500 appeared with a very Corvair-esque design, albeit in a taller format. But the key Corvair features are quite intact.

The Corvair’s distinctive front has been adapted for a conventional front engine car, but the eyebrows dropping slightly to the flat hood is almost perfectly preserved. Was Pininfarina shocked? Undoubtedly. The Corvair was the first car to upset his apple cart and near hegemony on European design.

Next up: the Simca 1000 of 1962. A brand-new rear engined small car to compete with the similar Renaults, the Simca has a very nice Corvair face facsimile, but doesn’t carry the horizontal line back from there. Still, the overall influence is unmistakable.

The Renault R8 appeared the same year, a major restyle of the very rounded Dauphine. Like the Simca, the Corvair’s influence is strongest in the front end. Hardly a blatant rip-off, but clearly the Corvair had a hand in its tranformation from fifities round to sixties box.

The VW Karman-Ghia 1600L of 1962 was quickly dubbed the VW Monza, for very obvious reasons. It’s one of the fewer Corvair clones that played off the Monza coupe’s very long rear deck.

The most beautiful and faithful homage to the Corvair—thanks to their proportions and low height—was Panhard’s 24 1963 coupes, both in the longer 24 C seen here,

and the 2+2 Model 24 TC. Now that was an exquisite application of creativity to the basic Corvair theme (Panhard History here).

On the other side of the globe, Mazda’s 1963 Familia 800 appeared sporting that distinctive Corvair waist-line bulge and band. And who designed it? None other than a young Giorgetto Giugiaro, working for Bertone at the time. Everyone is getting into the act.

The Familia family also included a handsome little coupe.

Well, it wasn’t only Bertone that got Corvair fever. Already in 1961, Pinifarina’s lovely “Jacqueline” Cadillac Coupe showed perhaps the first dparture from his previously ubiquitious high and stand-alone headlights.

One year later, the Pininfarina 1962 Alfa Romeo 2600 Coupe concept shows the unmistakable influence of the Corvair’s dominant horizontal break line and low headlights. Hardly cribbing in the usual sense, but the change from Pininfarina cars just a year or two earlier is obvious. It should be noted that by this time the firm employed a number of designers, including the American Tom Tjaarda.

And Pininfarina’s work on mainstream cars also reflected their adoption of Corvair principles, as in their design for the  Datsun Bluebird/410 of 1964.

The all-new rear-engined Hillman/Sunbeam Imp also debuted in 1963, with a face that Ned Nickles would recognize anywhere.

And back in Japan, Hino’s new 1963 Contessa coupe also pays its respects.

Now we come to perhaps on of the most lasting and broadly dispersed influence of the Corvair. BMW’s Neue Klasse of 1964, which started with this 1500 sedan, carrys the Corvair’s front end and belt line quite proudly, if somewhat disguised.

The BMW 2000 Coupe is a bit more unabashed in flaunting its Corvair roots.

The 1602/2002 popularized BMW’s Corvair themes,

especially from the rear.

BMW adopted these design principals wholesale, and made them their own. When BMW speaks of their design DNA, it’s the Corvair they’re referring to.

And since BMW’s horizontal accent line became such an indelible part of almost every subsequent BMW, it was with us through 2003 (if in ever less prominent form), until Chris Bangle finally flamed it away.

Let’s not forget the cute little Peugeot 204, also designed by Pininfarina.

It appeared in 1965, and its rear end is its most faithful aspect.

Since the USSR was always a bit late to design parties, its almost surprising that the ZAZ 966 appeared in only 1966. Vladmir Putin’s beloved little rear-engined sedan carries an air-cooled V4. I suppose they may have more likely bought an NSU to actually crib, but the end result is the same, and very faithful indeed.

This last one may be a bit controversial, but it can not be denied that the Tatra 613 of 1974 (designed by Michelotti) is still paying homage to the Corvair, to some degree or another. Ironic too, that the granddaddy of (semi-modern) rear-engined cars would acknowledge its latest member to the club. The circle is completed.

I was going to leave it at that, but is it too much of stretch to say that the increasingly ubiquitous face of modern cars that predominated the next few decades can all trace their roots back to the Corvair?

The Audi 100 represents typical exponent of the school: a simple horizontal face, with lights planted at each end.

The Ford Taurus of 1986 takes it even further back to the Corvair, lacking a grille altogether. The aero look soon became predominant and overplayed, and soon burnt itself out. It was the same problem the Corvair had in the US back in 1960:

Americans generally prefer a good strong face on their cars and trucks.

Europeans are more willing to still indulge the Corvair’s lasting influence. What was true fifty years ago still has some relevance today.

Postscript: And what did GM adopt for the front of its Corvair successor, the 1971 Vega? The classic 1950’s Pininfarina front end, right down to the egg crate grille. The Corvair’s face was just too…European.


Related: Pininfarina’s Revolutionary Florida: The Most Influential Design Since 1955