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.
Chevrolets unique Corvair, certainly needs to be remembered for the outstanding car that it is, on more than a few points.
The styling of both generations (1960-64 & 1965-69) went on to influence so many other car designs around the world. The styling of second generation 1965-69 model is nothing short of outstanding, quite possibly one the best looking most balanced post Second World War cars to come out of America.
But, I think the collector car market, is finally becoming aware of this long under appreciated classic. A car GM can be proud of and I understand has in the GM Heritage Collection.
Simply love the Chevrolet Corvair, so much better than any garden variety Camaro or Mustang.
Rather than using the unique Flat-6 and despite the potential weight penalty or additional drawbacks of other prospective alternative engines, would the Corvair’s profit margins have experienced a further increase had it been designed around an existing engine or an all-alloy version of an existing engine found in other GM models?
GM did not have any other rear engined (water or air cooled) cars from which take a suitable engine from. The Corvair, was for Chevrolet, a step well out of its comfort zone, but a car that turned out to be exceptional.
Porsche did not have anything that came even close to a turbo charged Corvair until the early 1970s. And the early Porsche 911s really did have handling issues that Porsche owners don’t want to talk about.
Though less than ideal and partly inspired by the V6 and BOP V8 Corvair conversions, was thinking of something like an inline or slant 4-cylinder and V6 of similar displacements as the Corvair Six that drew upon Chevrolet’s existing 153, Turbo Thrift, GM 90-degree V6 and SBC V8 engines in tandem with the all-alloy CERV units as well as the BOP V8 and Buick V6.
The Chevy designs were already said to have shared much with each other, add Pontiac’s work on the OHC-6 that shared internal dimensions with the Turbo-Thrift OHV and it would have potentially solved many of Chevrolet’s future engine needs over the next decade at the lower end of the range.
What with the notorious Vega unit or rushing to buy back the tooling of the Buick V6 from AMC for re-introduction in 1975, followed by the 1977 90-degree and 1979 60-degree V6 engines.
I believe most/all of the V6/V8 Corvair conversions involve flipping the drivetrain and putting the engine where the backseat originally was, making it into a 2 seater mid-engine car. Putting a heavier water cooled cast-iron V6 or V8 in place of the alloy air cooled flat six would have made the Corvair even more tail heavy and raised the center of gravity, which very scary impact on handling and stability – Nader would have had even bigger books sales.
Keep in mind that with the exception of the SBC, the engines you’re describing came AFTER the Corvair, in some cases by a lot. The Super-Thrift 153 and Hi-Thrift 194 in the Chevy II arrived for 1962, along with the Buick Fireball V-6. Pontiac started development work on the OHC engine in 1959, around the time the Corvair debuted, and it wasn’t actually ready until the 1966 model year because they were still sorting out the cam drive.
So, these were NOT existing engines Chevrolet could have just dropped into the Corvair. (The CERV was not a production car and its aluminum SBC was not a production engine; among other things, it had a linerless block that, judging by the Vega ten years later, would not have been ready for prime time in 1960.)
As to your question, the answer is pretty clearly “no.” The Y-body “Senior Compacts” were essentially stretched versions of the Corvair body shell, with front-mounted, water-cooled engines — aluminum engines in the case of the F-85 and Special. They were not big sellers and they were expensive to build, so their profitability was indubitably a disappointment.
Fair enough. What was getting at is Chevrolet and GM overall engaging in some joined-up thinking (I know – separate divisions and all, leaving aside the non-Chevy badged Corvair ideas) at the beginning if not during the Corvair’s conception (like the 2nd gen stillborn Corvair units), which if viable incorporated whatever then experimental features were available at their disposal to get the engines to match or further undercut the Flat-Six engine’s weight.
From reading the following (depending on the source of course), the weights of other possible alternates range from being 15lbs lighter than the Corvair Six to about 50 lbs or so heavier and that is without bringing up other developments that could have helped them serve as suitable alternatives in terms of weight, power, wider usage and longevity.
This is basically what the Y-body project was supposed to be. The corporation figured they could offset the expense by basically assigning each of the divisions certain subassemblies and having them all share the results. It didn’t really work and was, so far as I can determine, deeply resented by almost everyone involved.
The bigger issue is that any of the other engines you’re talking about, even if they had been available then (which in many cases they were not), would have involved a fundamental alteration of the Corvair’s basic configuration. Adding a water-cooled inline or vee engine, even one that was as light or lighter than the actual Corvair six, would have quickly resulted in a very different car, and not necessarily a better one. That’s a long way to go for a modest savings in engine weight, and probably a less effective solution, dynamically, than making the 1964-type suspension (front anti-roll bar and rear compensating spring) standard from the start.
I’m also not convinced that any of those alternatives WOULD have saved a meaningful amount of weight. The aluminum 215 was very light for its displacement, but it wasn’t much if any lighter than the Corvair engine, and neither was the all-aluminum 283 in the CERV-1. An all-aluminum 153 probably would have been, but I have a hard time seeing it as an improvement in any other way.
IIRC correctly it was discovered the BOP V8 was designed with a provision for growth from 3.5-litres to about 4-litres, when Rover were looking at a 4.4-litre for the stillborn P8 project that unlike the 4-litre required more development.
As the BOP V8 started out as a 180 cubic inch design before growing to 215 cubic inches, it taken together with the 4-litre equates to an all-alloy V6 displacing around 2.2-3-litres that is more in line with the Corvair yet along with an all-alloy 153 (itself capable of being reduced in capacity to as low as 1.8-2.0-litres).
The challenge then would be how to sufficiently develop the all-alloy version of the Buick V6 (would the slightly different 215 Oldsmobile V8 would have been a better basis for an all-alloy V6?) and have it receive a similar level of attention the Corvair Six had, when looking at experimental versions of the Corvair Six that included water-cooling, OHC, fuel-injection and potential enlargement to 2.9-litre (180 cubic inches).
Fwiw Leyland Australia later experimented with a 3.3-litre V6 that took a different approach to how the Buick V6 was created, one which was said to actually fix the vibration problems by taking out a pair of cylinders in the centre as opposed to GM – Buick’s lazy attempt where they just took the two cylinders off the end off the block that created irresolvable harmonic balance problems requiring two redesigns.
The 4.4-liter version intended for the P8 was presumably the tall-deck engine that went into the Leyland P76, which was a much later development.
The Buick V-6 approach was not “lazy” — compromised, to be sure, but the balance problems of a 90-degree V-6 are intrinsic, and removing the center cylinders rather than the ends does not resolve it. The only way to remove it is with a balance shaft; without one, you can alter the firing order to shift what plane(s) the imbalance occurs in, but not the existence of the imbalance.
However, this is beside the point. Installing a water-cooled inline or vee engine in the Corvair would have fundamentally changed the car, and probably not for the better: An inline-four, V-6, or V-8 would have a very different form factor than the flat six, and any weight savings (which I can’t see being very much if any) would have been more than erased by the added weight of the cooling system and radiator, which the Corvair was not designed to accommodate. It’s hard to see any advantage there in any sense, unless you were going for something like the Crown Corvair conversion, which, as Ole notes, put an SBC ahead of the axle to make the Corvair a mid-engine two-seater. Crown Corvairs were fun toys if you didn’t get carried away and break the differential, but they had a very different objective than a Corvair sedan or even a Monza coupe, and were not something Chevrolet had any reason to produce.
The Buick and Oldsmobile aluminum V-8s were an absolute nightmare from a manufacturing and warranty cost standpoint, and they were expensive to produce (which is why the Fireball V-6 was created). The Y-body cars they powered sold in much smaller volumes than the Corvair and were probably not especially profitable, particularly factoring in all the manufacturing headaches. So, there’s no reason to think a Corvair designed along those lines would have done better
Yep. Somehow Porsche gets a free pass for a rear engined car, And did for decades.
Though I keep reading ‘that the traditonal oversteer is much reduced”
I’ve been reading that for decades.
It did do well, overshadowed by a Rambler and the Falcon but definitely a sales success, I dont think it came here new but theres a few about I saw my first Monza recently nice looking car actually.
Historically, the Corvair was labeled as a failure, because the Falcon blew it away in sales, while it barely beat out the Valiant. But, it’s all relative, and “failure” depends on the narrative you’re trying to push and how fast and loose you want to play with the English language. For instance, Chrysler was traditionally considered a distant #3, although there was a period where they were ahead of Ford, because Mopar’s Dodge/DeSoto/Chrysler mid-priced contenders were much stronger than Ford, which had nothing at first, and then just Mercury. Mercury really didn’t become a serious force until 1949.
Anyway, with Chrysler being such a distant #3, the fact that the Valiant came as close as it did to the Corvair in sales, means it was still considered a smash hit, even if the Corvair, and Falcon (and Rambler), still outsold it initially.
Of course, things change, and distort, as time passes by, and people are constantly trying to re-write history. Nowadays people hear “failure” and they just think “total flop.” Of course, if the Corvair had been a true flop, it wouldn’t have lasted ten model years, and two generations. The Corvair was also more expensive than the Falcon. In 1960, the cheapest Corvair models were about $60-70 more than an equivalent Falcon. That might not sound like much of a difference, but it probably equates to around $500-600 today, and might have been enough to sway a price conscious buyer. The Corvair also had nicer models priced even higher, although Ford did respond pretty quickly, with the Falcon Futura.
Personally, I wouldn’t call the Corvair a failure. The worst I’d say about it, perhaps is “didn’t live up to GM’s expectations”. Still, a pretty cool car. I wonder, if GM had never built the Chevy II, how the Corvair would have fared, sales-wise.
Thoughts from the biased view of a Chevrolet dealer’s kid, back in the day when such things “really mattered”:
Definitely, the ‘failure’ of the Corvair is that it didn’t outsell the Falcon. Back when I was a kid, to the car-crazy it was a matter of faith that Chevrolet always outsold Ford, and had done so ever since 1936 (which I believe was the last time Ford outsold Chevrolet) . . . . . with a couple of exceptions in 1957 and 1959, and those were always argued around the technicalities of ‘calendar year’ and ‘model year’. The sales race was that close those two years.
Forgotten at the time to the ‘general wisdom’ (oh it existed, definitely to the 14th floor) is that the Corvair was noteworthy in that it didn’t cannibalize the sales of the full sized cars the way that the Falcon (and Fairlane, and Mustang) did, to the point that years later Hank the Deuce would be complaining about with how all those successful new models, Ford’s market share always remained steady. Meanwhile, Chevrolet continued to expand.
The Chevy II was inevitable. Because the main job of Chevrolet was to Beat Ford. In all sizes. And what GM transformed the Corvair into was obviously the right path. It’s tempting to says that’s what the Corvair should have been from the beginning, except that nobody realized that market was there, in that kind of numbers, until the Monza was introduced. Kudos to GM for catching on so quickly.
And (unfortunately, to me) also kudos to GM for catching on so quickly with the realization that the Camaro was what was needed when the Mustang took off. The average American customer for that kind of car wanted a V-8 and traditional American drivetrain. Save the exotic layouts for the minority who probably were less apt to buy American in the first place
Now then you mention it,let’s go a step further and wonder how the Corvair would have fared if Ford had gone with the FWD Cardinal instead of the Mustang?
Also, CC user Carmine have posted some scans showing mock-up clays of a proposed 3rd-gen Corvair that never was from a old issue of Collectible Automobile. https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-american/curbside-classic-1965-chevrolet-corvair-500-double-or-nothing/ Hemmings blog also did an article about it. https://www.hemmings.com/stories/2021/05/26/did-the-chevrolet-vega-develop-out-of-stalled-plans-for-a-third-generation-corvair
how the Corvair would have fared if Ford had gone with the FWD Cardinal instead of the Mustang?
I don’t think the Cardinal and Mustang were mutually exclusive. The Cardinal was aimed at the VW; the Mustang at the Monza.
The Corvair was unique in that it wasn’t really the same car in 1960-61 as it was after the Chevy II came out, when it sort of became a pre-Mustang.
I have to come to the defense of the conventional wisdom here, at least for 1960-61. For a Chevrolet in that era to be so far behind the Ford (in both absolute sales numbers and in market share) and a mere 7-10 points of share ahead of something built by Chrysler – sorry, but that is a fail. Chevrolet was the undisputed king of the US market then, with an unbeatable ownership base and dealer network. This was an era when people shopped less, and Chevy owners tended to go back to their dealer and buy another Chevy. The only thing that kept the Corvair in 2nd spot (or 3rd, actually) was the Valiant’s funny looks – and in a period where Chrysler was a hot mess. It is clear that Chevrolet management saw things this way when they greenlit the Chevy II in early 1960.
Two other points: The combination of the Corvair and Chevy II was less than half of the Valiant/Dart’s numbers by 1964. Yes, the Chevelle certainly stole some sales, but this poor showing continued after the Belvedere/Coronet came to market. Two compact Chevrolets (that shared almost nothing but a dealer network) that, combined, could not outsell a vehicle by Chrysler was a massive fail.
The last point on the sales/share thing is that if we want to consider the Corvair as the original Mustang, then don’t we really have to include the Mustang in the Falcon numbers? I would argue that the Corvair was an even bigger failure as a Mustang competitor than it was as a Falcon competitor. The Corvair was a unique proposition in the American market – one that appealed to a small (and influential) group of sports/import car aficionados but not to the market at large. I defend the Corvair as a unique offering in an era of homogenized US cars and a well-executed niche car, but I think calling it a success is too big of a stretch. It was a success for the niche it was, but that is a big asterisk for the term “success” in this context.
In the bigger picture, Chevrolet Division went from success to success to success after 1957 and for the next 20+ years. The harsh truth is that the Corvair played a very small role in that story.
Disclaimer: God knows, I understand the urge to root for an underdog. But just as you perform a valuable service here in keeping my Studebaker-love grounded in reality, I feel the need to offer a similar service for you when it comes to the Corvair. 🙂
The only quibble I have is the idea of the Corvair being a failure as a Mustang competitor. Rather, the Mustang wildly outperformed expectations as a Corvair Monza competitor to the point where GM once again started a crash program to come up with a conventionally-engineered offering that would compete more directly, at which point development funding for the Corvair program was cut off.
I’ve often surmised that Lee Iacocca killed the Corvair and Ralph Nader indirectly put it on life support, the plan was likely for the Camaro to directly replace the Corvair for 1967 but GM didn’t want to be seen as caving in to pressure tactics and let it run for 3 more model years until they could no longer without putting money into it to meet new standards.
Several people who were at Chevrolet in the late ’60s has spoken or written about this in the last decade or two, and they all swear keeping the Corvair in production through 1969 was not done to avoid the appearance they were caving it to Nader. Rather they realized that Corvair buyers were unlikely to buy any other Chevy and it cost little to keep it in production, and they didn’t want to discontinue a new design after only two years. They likely expected higher sales though.
Although there are some similarities, I wonder how many people actively cross-shopped the Corvair and Mustang. When comparing these, recall that the Corvair was offered as a four-door sedan the Mustang never had. They were both smallish American sporty cars but still very different.
The Corvair was unique in that it wasn’t really the same car in 1960-61 as it was after the Chevy II came out, when it sort of became a pre-Mustang.
The Monza arrived in 1960.5, and in 1961, the Monza made up some 60% of Corvair sales. So the arrival of the Chevy II has no real bearing on it.
Chevrolet was the undisputed king of the US market then, with an unbeatable ownership base and dealer network.
“Undisputed king”? Ford substantially outsold Chevrolet in 1957, and was very close in 1959. Ford had been very competitive since the early ’50s. Yes, Chevy won the race most years in the ’50s, but Ford gave it a very serious run for the money.
I’ve never asserted that the Corvair was a success in its original mission, as a cheap economy compact to compete against the others in that class. Clearly and all-too obviously, it did fail in that particular mission, and that’s why the Chevy II was created. My whole point about the Corvair is that Chevrolet turned a lemon into lemonade, thanks to the Monza. And as such it was successful, in terms of pioneering a hugely important new market niche and at volumes that undoubtedly were quite profitable for Chevrolet. And as I’ve said so many times, it obviously didn’t cannibalize big Chevy sales, as it sucked in a different type of clientele.
The Falcon and Valiant appealed to buyers who were fed up with overly large big Detroit sedans; the Corvair appealed to import buyers and those looking for something different, sporty, and attractive. As such, the Corvair was successful in that role, and bolstered Chevrolet’s overall market share.
I understand the urge to root for an underdog. But just as you perform a valuable service here in keeping my Studebaker-love grounded in reality, I feel the need to offer a similar service for you when it comes to the Corvair.
Thanks, but I’m not rooting for the underdog; just laying out some facts to put it in perspective. Having spent as much time as I have with the Corvair and its role and the sales stats in the market, I am able to come to an objective perspective of it, which might seem surprising to you. The problem is this: I have found most people tend to have very black and white polarized feelings or assessments of things, including (especially) cars. Win-lose. Good-bad. Like-dislike.
For some odd reason, I tend to see and focus on the areas in between the polar ends. I have no dewy-eyed feelings about the Corvair. It was a flawed concept in a number of ways, and yes, it failed in its originally-intended mission. But as I’ve said so many times before, through the brilliance of the Monza package, the Corvair was redeemed. And the Monza single-handedly created a huge market for sporty compacts and pony-cars.
It wasn’t just the Mustang either. The 1963+ Valiant Signet and Dart GT sold very well. The Falcon Futura did quite well too. And every other compact also offered a bucket seat variant. These were all copying the Monza.
So yes, the Monza was hugely influential, and that has been recognized by the industry ever since it happened, and Iaccoca made no bones about the Mustang being created to compete with it.
But influence only goes so far; the Corvair sold in healthy numbers, and was profitable, and brought in new buyers to Chevrolet. If your only criteria is in “winning” the sales race, then yes, against the other compacts, it was a loser. But in reality, it essentially had a market niche of its own, until the Mustang came along.
I suppose I could create a sales chart comparing the Monza to the Futura,Signet, Dart GT, Comet S-22, Skylark, LeMans, Cutlass Rambler 440-H, as these were all competing for this sporty compact segment. But the winner would be obvious.
There’s more to life and car sales than simple black and white, winner-loser.
But thanks for trying. 🙂
The Corvair failed in its initial mission as an economy compact as 1960 American compact buyers were looking for cheap, shrunken versions of familiar cars (Falcon), not a more expensive exotic that was so different in many respects (Corvair). Then, Chevrolet stumbled into creating a new market niche with the Monza. A good looking, fun to drive sporty car with decent performance and mileage. There was really nothing else like it in 1961. The suspension and handling quirks were basically eliminated in 1964 and the 1965 restyle was nothing short of fantastic. The big question here is not why the Corvair failed against the Falcon, but why the ‘65 masterpiece failed so miserably against the Mustang? This was pre-Nader so the brand wasn’t poisoned yet. I can recall that after the Mustang appeared Chevrolet sort of lost interest and Corvair marketing disappeared, while the Mustang saturated America. Maybe the cars still attracted different types of buyers, but I can’t understand why the biggest, most popular car company in the world, with ad money to burn and a demonstrably superior car, couldn’t have given the Mustang a better game.
Before the Mustang arrived, Ford had introduced the Falcon Sprint with the small V-8, which had been a terrible flop whose only real value was for homologation. So, Chevrolet assumed the Mustang was going to be more of the same, and that since the Sprint had failed to meaningfully threaten the outgoing Corvair, the new Corvair would eat the Mustang for breakfast. However, the Mustang’s sales success was so strong and so immediate that alarm bells started going off even before the ’65 Corvair debuted.
Part of the problem was that it became clear early on that the Mustang was selling to the same kind of buyers who had been buying the Corvair Monza. So, when the new Corvair arrived, it was no longer perceived as being its own thing with few direct rivals. It was now definitely in the same segment as the Mustang, and in that sense, Chevrolet discovered it had bet wrong on many important particulars, none of which could be easily fixed. (For one, buyers turned out to really love the long-hood/short-deck look, which was the opposite of the proportions of the second-generation Corvair.)
So, for once, Chevrolet decided not to succumb to the sunk-cost fallacy and immediately started working on a new model to out-Mustang the Mustang rather than vainly trying to convince punters to embrace what now looked like last year’s fad.
The big question here is not why the Corvair failed against the Falcon, but why the ‘65 masterpiece failed so miserably against the Mustang?
AUWM already said it, but the key two issues were:
1. the Mustang’s classic long-hood, short deck proportions. The Corvair’s short-hood, very long deck proportions were never going to appeal to fairly conservative Americans beyond a certain degree.
2. Conventional drive trains including V8s.
Also, consumers like the hot new thing. That somewhat describes the Monza in 1961-1963, but it was getting old already. The Mustang was the new hot fad. Which also petered out pretty quickly, after some 4-5 years.
And the ones who ended up learning this the hard way were Chrysler-Plymouth. The 1967–1969 Barracuda hardtop was similar in proportions and aesthetic to the second-generation Corvair, but it flopped hard, even though it had the benefit (for conservative buyers) of conventional powertrains and V-8 power. (I think the second-generation Barracuda hardtop is quite an attractive car, especially from the rear, but contemporary buyers clearly did not agree in any great numbers.)
Do the Corvair number exclude the Corvair vans and trucks? (and likewise Falcon vans)
A few things are going on here. 1961-62 were the compacts best years (and would look even better here if the B-O-P compacts, Comet, and Lark were included). By 1964-5, the more upscale compacts had grown into intermediate size, Studebaker was faltering, and all of Detroit was pushing more profitable mid-sizers. And of course there was the Mustang. The first-gen Corvair was a success, especially since it pulled in buyers that otherwise wouldn’t have gone near a Chevy showroom. The second-gen Corvair except in its first year was not. Ralph Nader’s book is usually considered the culprit (even though its first chapter made it clear it was about the 1960-63 models only), and the Mustang became the “it” car for the sporty/youthful crowd. But bigger than either of those factors was that the Corvair just wasn’t profitable, with so many parts not shared by any other GM car, the need for exotic engineering to boost power, and dealers needing to stock parts and train mechanics for this unusual car. GM lost interest in the Corvair when the cheap-to-build Falcon became hot. Chevy did get a compact-car uptick with the redesigned Nova late in the decade, and these cars would be an important part of the marketplace in the ’70s especially after the oil shock.
The big surprise to me from this chart is AMC’s collapse in 1963. That’s when a handsome new line of Ramblers began replacing their 1950- and 56-vintage models. What happened?
Surely despite the “Corvair” and “Falcon” branding the vans and pickups would’ve been counted as truck division sales? Passenger vans would be a wild card, sometimes they were counted as trucks (“station buses”), sometimes as cars with the sedan-based station wagon line and early on sometimes both depending on trim level!
Including the vans and trucks wouldn’t affect the numbers that much in any case. The Corvair 95 and Greenbrier only accounted for roughly one-tenth of Corvair production in the years they were offered.
The big surprise to me from this chart is AMC’s collapse in 1963. That’s when a handsome new line of Ramblers began replacing their 1950- and 56-vintage models. What happened?
From the text, which apparently you missed: 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.
In other words, when the Classic went to a 112″ wb in 1963, it became a mid-size car.
No; truck and van sales are not included in these.
I think a point that everyone is missing in discussing the success/failure of the Corvair is what its role was supposed to be. Chevy management did not want a small profit compact that would take sales away from the big profit full-size Chevy, they wanted a compact to take sales away from the foreigners – in particular VW. The Corvair was the only Detroit compact that did not cannibalize sales from more profitable full-size GM models, while Falcon and Valiant sales came mostly from full-size Ford and Plymouth models and likely substantially reduced the overall profits of Ford and Chrysler.
The Corvair could never match the sales of the Falcon (or Rambler) because all the compact foreign cars sold annually in the US in the late 50s/early 60s did not add up to the almost annual 400K+ compact sales of the Rambler and Falcon during that time. Thus I would argue the Chevy II was a mistake, because it almost certainly took some sales away from the low-end Biscayne/Bel Air full-size Chevy, but very few sales away from VW, Fiat, Volvo and the other mass-market foreigners.
As has been pointed out on CC before, the problem with labeling the Falcon a success and the Corvair a failure has to do with how each vehicle affected their respective company’s overall bottom line.
Yes, Ford sold way more Falcons than Corvairs, but at what cost? Sales figures indicate that the Falcon most definitely ate into sales of the higher profit margin, full-size Ford. So, in effect, the the much thinner profit margin Falcon cost Ford money.
There was no accompanying dip in full-size Chevy sales. The Corvair, with its radical rear-engine drivetrain (unlike the Falcon’s completely conventional set-up) had its own, specific market. While Ford customers might have cross-shopped a Falcon against a Galaxie, none of the Chevy faithful were cross-shopping a Corvair with a Biscayne.
So, while GM might have lost to Ford in the compact sales race, they won the war in the much more lucrative full-size battle.
Why Ford added the LTD model, to get more full size sales, but then overlapped their luxury makes.
It overlapped Mercury but there was room, too, for Merc to move upmarket. The post-1961 two-model Lincoln Continental lineup left the sedan base price about halfway between a Cadillac Sedan de Ville and a Fleetwood 60 Special while the convertible was firmly in Fleetwood territory. Hence the hidden-headlight Marquis and turning the full-size Merc into a “junior Lincoln” rather than a “fancy Ford”.
As I’d implied below, Ford’s top wagon long had a cachet no other “Low-Priced Three” product enjoyed until the four-seat Thunderbird defined the personal-luxury segment, so the time was ripe for a Ford Division luxury car.
Not necessarily. The problem Mercury faced, and the thing that had turned the effort to separate it from Lincoln into a disaster, was that fitting it into a neat slot in a quasi-Sloan hierarchy only made sense for the corporation, not for dealers. For franchisees, the object was to have something cheaper to sell than the Lincoln, and the dilemma was that a bigger, fancier Merc was going to be too rich for that, while potentially also getting buyers to choose a less-profitable Mercury over a Lincoln.
This was the same thing that made the Plymouth VIP a flop. It was supposed to be an LTD/Caprice fighter, but Plymouth was still sharing floor space with Chrysler, so having an extra-fancy quasi-luxury model made no sense for dealers. (If you could upsell someone into a VIP, you could almost certainly upsell them into a lower-end Chrysler, which would be more profitable.)
In 1960 VW sales continued their sharp upward trend while Corvair feasted on the bones of the marginal imports. There were plenty of sleepless nights in Coventry, Turin and above all Bremen over that.
As the 1960 model year final numbers came in, while Chevrolet management could salve the Corvair’s loss with undiminshed full-size sales, in Dearborn they could at least come to see it was mostly their low-end full size buyers going to Falcons while their lead in high-margin station wagons and convertibles remained undiminished. They were selling fewer Big Fords but their ATP was going up.
The same thing a few years later at Chrysler, even as non-fleet sales of full-size Dodge and Plymouth nosedived while the Valiant-Dart became the class bestseller it was giving them the conquest sales they had long wanted but rarely got while longtime D-P loyalists were as likely to trade *up* to a Chrysler Newport as *down* to a Valiant.
An aspect of the “failure” of the Corvair was that many elements of it were not adapted to other Chevy or GM car lines over time.
For example, as Ford decided to build the Mustang and then cannibalized Falcon sales, the engines and chassis architecture had simply migrated to the Mustang platform (and, later, to the Maverick, the Granada, and so on).
The Chevy II and the Camaro did not take much of anything from the Corvair, so the Corvair rear-engine engineering investment dead-ended roughly where it started, a few years later. But one didn’t know how things would go, when the Corvair program was initiated. GM could have stolen years on the rest of Detroit, had rear-engine/air-cooled cars become the standard. I applaud GM’s willingness to step out and try something new.
The Corvair was a success in its day. It just didn’t carry over into any sort of generational automotive movement in the direction of the Corvair in the long run, at least in Detroit.
Yes, auto snobs love to put the Corvair in same class as Vega and Citation, and say “GM never learned, blah blah blah”. But also, Chevelle took a lot of buyers away from Corvairs, too.
But, VW also gave up on their air cooled cars in the 70’s. And some were outright failures, like 411/412. Golf/Rabbit/Dasher were in development in early 70’s, or sooner. So GM would have still ended Corvair around same time, too.
GM’s downfall started with Vega, I say, and the rest is history.
Another point was that Corvair was successful in its appeal to import fans, versus Falcon/Valiant. Then, the Vega was meant to be a ‘new import fighter’, but its quality was infamous.
The air-cooled Beetle was built until 2003 in Mexico, it just wasn’t imported to the US after 1979.
The Transporter was built with air-cooled engines until 2005 in Brazil.
Obviously the Ford F Series is hugely popular in North America, but even its vaunted #1 position is a little misleading as the F150 and SuperDuty 250 and 350 models are lumped together but are really quite different. I would be curious to see market share and sales data on some other GM “failures” like the Vega or even Citation. Regional sales preferences also have a huge impact on perception of popularity. In my liberal California town, the Bolt EV seems to be everywhere; it’s almost the new Prius.
The only reason the Corvair was a failure was that it had no successor. The horsepower wars of the late 1960’s blinded all of the big-three, but perhaps GM most of all. So all the things they might have learned in how to build a successful import fighter were lost in the haze-inducing coke-bottle fenders of the Vega. The second-generation Corvair was a much better car than the Vega. Heck, the first-generation Chevy II was a much better car than the Vega. All the big-3 went backwards in the 1970’s, it felt like all the lessons they learned in the early 1960’s they had forgotten by 1971.
JM Solberg wrote, “The second-generation Corvair was a much better car than the Vega.” I can attest to that. We had both in our family and the Corvair was more enjoyable – and more comfortable – to drive.
There’s a question whether or not Chevrolet ever made money on Corvairs. I doubt it. They were complicated cars to manufacture. From experts in the Corvair hobby, I’ve been told Chevy made a few bucks on Corvairs in the 1962 and possible 1963 model years when Corvair sales were highest.
A typical rear-engine car made in Europe may have been cheaper to make than a front-engine equivalent. Many, like the Renault Dauphine, Fiat 600 and Simca 1000 had cast-iron water-cooled 4-cylinder engines and simple swing axle rear suspensions.
But Corvairs were different. Let’s take the engine for example. Two aluminum crankcase halves, two aluminum cylinder heads, two exhaust manifolds, two carburetors, two thermostats, two valve covers, six individual cylinder barrels, twelve push rod tubes and a dozen or more sheet metal shrouds for the air-cooling setup.
Not to mention all the studs, bolts, nuts, sheet metal screws, spring clips, O-rings, gaskets and hardware necessary to fasten everything together. This was a labor-intensive engine to manufacture. Today, the cost of having a qualified Corvair mechanic do a complete rebuilt on a Corvair engine costs around $5,000. For that kind of money, you can buy a well-dressed Chevy 350 V8 crate engine with a new block and rotating assembly.
Let’s take a look at the suspension. It’s true that the early series Corvair had swing axles at the rear. But it was not a classic swing axle design. It had semi-trailing arms with expensive spherical wheel bearings at the outer ends.
The late series Corvair was even more sophisticated, for the design of the rear suspension was lifted from the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray. So, for around $2,100, you could purchase a base-line Corvair 500 equipped with a near-duplicate Corvette suspension. (They were great for autocrossing). How could Chevrolet possibly make money on a car like that?
Not enough? Let’s take the performance models. Corvair Spyders, made available from 1962 to 1964, were equipped with turbochargers. And the base engine on Corvair Corsas, made available from 1965 to 1966, had not one, not two, not three, but four individual carburetors. An engineer’s delight. (Not so much for the cost accountants!)
My brother owned a ’60 Corvair, OK car but terrible for Minnesota winters, to low for snow, poor heat and I think the push rod tubes started to leak after a few years. I remember resealing those tubes. The O-Rings were baked rock hard and cracking.
My friend owned a fiberglass “replica” of a Ford GT that was powered by a small block Chevy using a Corvair transaxle. The transaxle was flipped around as the engine was in a mid-engine location. The problem with this setup is it drove off the coast side of the ring gear rather then the normal drive side. If you had enough to drink and maybe hit your head hard enough then it might remind you of a Ford GT40. Lots of money wasted on those projects.
Interesting that in 1965 twice as many Corvairs were sold compared to Chevy II’s. The Chevy II had more body styles and engine options than the new body style Corvair too – hard to call that a failure.
I recognize that the Chevelle ate into the Chevy II’s numbers, but they didn’t seem to affect Corvair sales all that much (if at all).
Without much serious research, I’ll bet that from ’64-’69 Chevrolet offered more sizes of car than anyone up to that point, and maybe since.
Corvette, Corvair, Chevy II/Nova, Chevelle, and full-size. 67-69 adds Camaro.
I’m pleased to see so much love for Chevrolet’s Corvair .
I liked them and they certainly did affect other auto designers .