CC Charts: Domestic Compacts, 1958-1960 — No, The Corvair Was Not A Flop; It Had A Higher Market Share Than The F-Series Does Today

One of the more common myths that I’ve heard over the years is that the Corvair was essentially a failure, a sales and commercial flop. Far from it! In 1962 its market share was higher than the current Ford F-Series, the best selling vehicle in the US. In all of its first four years, the Corvair’s market share was higher than of the current RAV4, the best selling passenger car in the US.

Yes, the market is much more fragmented now, but nevertheless, the Corvair sold quite well in its heyday (1960-1965) until the Mustang came along and spoiled the fun.

Here’s a chart of sales (in 000’s) of five main compacts during this time frame. A couple of notes: I’ve consolidated Valiant, Lancer and Dart (1963-up) sales as they were of course very similar, with the Dart’s prices being only slightly higher. I consolidated the 108″ wb Rambler (Classic) with the 100″ wb American from 1958-1962, as in 1963 the Classic went to a 112″ wb, hence the huge drop that year.

Unfortunately, this particular charting software only allows five Y axis data points, so the Comet is missing, as well as the B-O-P compacts. It can be argued that they were all in a slightly elevated “senior compact” class.

I tend to prefer market share over actual sales, as it gives a better picture of their relative success in a market that changed from year to year, sometimes considerably so. 1961 was a recession year, which exaggerated the market share of the compacts, with the Falcon scoring a whopping 8.4% share. But its market share (and sales) dropped quickly after that, undoubtedly to a large extent because of the introduction of the mid-sized 1962 Fairlane and then the Mustang.

A few more observations: The Chevy II was a strong success from its first year (1962) and outsold the Falcon in its second year. Surprisingly, the Corvair’s best year was also in 1962;  one might assume that Chevy II would have affected it negatively. But then no less than 75% of 1962 Corvairs were Monzas, which created a unique market of its own.

If one adds Corvair and Chevy II sales, the combined total gave Chevrolet a whopping 8.7% share in 1962 and 8.1% in 1963. It was the combined success of the Corvair, Chevy II and the full-size Chevrolet that gave the division its highest ever market share ever (29.1%) in 1962.

The Corvair handily outsold the Valiant in 1960 as well the combined Valiant and Dodge Lancer in 1961 and 1962. But that changed in 1963, with the restyled Valiant and Dart. The combined Chrysler compacts had the highest market share in 1963 already, and then stayed at the top from then on. There’s absolutely no doubt that the controversial styling of the 1960-1962 Valiant and Lancer substantially impeded its sales.

Some 1.7 million Corvairs were sold in total; that’s a significant amount. As to the Corvair being unprofitable (as has also been commonly said or suggested), there’s no reason to think that was the case. GM had very high profit margin expectations of all its programs back then, although the Corvair probably struggled a wee bit to achieve them initially (1960), hence the very cheap interior. But as soon as the Monza came along, the situation quickly changed, as its incremental costs were negligible in comparison to its higher selling price. The success of the Monza was an unexpected boon, both in rescuing the Corvair from its somewhat flawed economy car origins as well as in padding its profitability.

There’s nothing fundamentally more expensive about building a rear engine car; more like the opposite, as the enduring success (and high profitability) of the VW Beetle proved. It was the cheapest car to build in its class, thanks to it having been carefully engineered to be so from the get-go by Porsche. But many other European manufacturers were also building rear engine cars, and their low production costs was one of the attractions. There was no drive line, they could weigh less, and with air cooling, there was no radiator and related cooling system components.

Yes, Chevrolet had to build a large aluminum foundry for the Corvair’s crankcase and heads, but that was well amortized not only by the Corvair but also by the Vega, the Cadillac aluminum V8, as well as numerous automatic transmission housings and such. GM would have had to build it, sooner or later.