This polarizing conveyance is one of the last of its kind: the rarely seen and seldom heralded 1969 Corvair. Chevrolet’s full-line advertisements made little mention of the Corvair by 1969, because it was simply (to them) an embarrassing afterthought in Chevrolet’s hierarchy by that time. Today, it proudly sits at GM’s Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, MI.
Even today, a Corvair owner can barely back his car out of the driveway without someone barking a Ralph Nader comment at him, and most people who are cognizant of American cultural history have at least heard of Unsafe at Any Speed. In reality, however, Nader wasn’t responsible for the Corvair’s death at all; in fact, he inadvertently gave it a stay of execution.
Furthermore, the Corvair pictured in this article was not even the subject of Nader’s enmity–the 1960-1963 models were singled out for being unstable. The Corvair, however, made up only one chapter of the book; many other cars were scrutinized as well. Later Corvairs were among the best handling cars on the road at the time, with their Corvette-like rear suspension design. The real reason for the Corvair’s demise can be seen serenely gliding down the freeway at the left of the above picture.
The Mustang, of course, was the real reason that the Corvair eventually failed in the marketplace. For the same price, a consumer could buy a completely traditional sporty car with a traditional heater and effortless V-8 acceleration. Any technician in any town in America could fix it. For the same reasons the 1960 Falcon outsold the 1960 Corvair, the 1965 Mustang outsold the 1965 Corvair.
And after that, there was no way that General Motors was going to pour more development funds into the Corvair–the Camaro was the inevitable answer to the Mustang, and Chevrolet didn’t need two sporty cars that cast the same sized shadow. GM originally planned to discontinue the Corvair after the 1966 model year, making room for the Camaro; but the embarrassment over the Ralph Nader fiasco must have led them to continue to produce the Corvair, even though it made no financial sense to do so. Basically, GM said “na na na na boo boo” to Nader, and made the car anyway, all the way through the 1969 model year.
And that’s where our feature car comes in. It is one of only 6,000 Corvairs made in 1969, and they were all produced at the Willow Run plant, which is now being demolished. Corvairs of this vintage were basically built on a separate line, almost by hand, as Willow Run had moved on to the production of the popular Nova. By some accounts, ’69 Corvairs were not that well-built, and buyers actually received a coupon for another Chevrolet model in the future, almost as an apology.
This ’69 Monza convertible has 40 miles on the odometer, and looks all original.
The interior’s where you’ll find most of the differences between the ’65 and ’69 model Corvairs. ’69s had high backed bucket seats, a more thickly padded instrument panel, camera case black dash inserts, and a three-spoke steering wheel. Doors and hinges are not interchangeable with earlier models either. One could order a Corvair with three engine choices: 95, 110, or 140 horsepower. This Corvair sports the Saginaw 4-speed manual, so it likely carries a 110 or a 140, which was the 4-carburetor option.
This ’69 wears a super-’60s color combination: Fathom Green exterior and Medium Green interior. The only real external differences between a ’65 and a ’69 Corvair are the side-marker lights, taillights, and a few emblems. ’69s are considered special by Corvair enthusiasts, but that doesn’t make them much more valuable. ’69s are more of an interesting and uncommon oddity.
photo credit: hemmings.com
The exception would be the last Corvair made–#6000. Nobody knows what happened to this car, or nobody’s talking about it anyway. A common rumor is that GM crushed 6000 because it didn’t want anybody to own the last Corvair. They were that embarrassed by it.
Of course, the Corvair is a perfectly delightful collector car today. They’re beautiful, fun to drive, reasonably fuel efficient, and easy to find parts for. They’re also inexpensive and fairly uncommon, two things that a first-generation Camaro cannot claim. And after all these years, one trip to GM’s Heritage Center may convince you that they’ve finally accepted their compact experiment.
The XP-892 clay proposals for what might have been a third generation Corvair are quite interesting in that they strongly indicate the design direction of both the second generation Camaro and upcoming Vega.
In fact, considering that it appears from the clay models that the third generation Corvair would have reverted to a conventional front engine/rear drive layout, it’s conceivable that if the Corvair name hadn’t acquired such a bad reputation, the Vega might have been called Corvair. There’s even a drawing of one with the name ‘Viva’, which seems awfully close to ‘Vega’.
That’s a photo from the XP-873 project, another small car program initiated just prior to XP-892. Many of the styling proposals of XP-873 are shown around contemporary Opel Kadetts of the time, so it’s no supprise 873 eventually surfaced as the 1972 Opel Manta B Concept :
These were some of the final rear-wheel drive XP-892 studies before the program was canceled in June 1968 :
Looks like a preview of the Colonnade Roof of the ’73 GM Intermediates.
That looks like it has a tilt front end.
Vauxhall was using the Viva name at the time, so it was “in the GM family”.
The Vauxhall Viva was sold in Canada but it’s poor rust resistance meant many angry customers and few survivors.I think they wouldn’t want any reminders of the Viva name,it was one of the last rust prone Vauxhalls
As the owner of a beetle I moved up in MY1969. I had been impressed by a buddies 66 or 67 corvair. Would have bought one probably but the etching was already on the tombstone. Sometimes the General was a big disappointment even then. They were a perfect car for a bachelor sailor who was finally leaving a very happy association with a too small beetle.
That side by side photo with the Mustang really shows what an elegant and ‘modern’ design the Corvair is, the nose clean and crisp where the Mustang is fussy and over embellished (it’s not really, but is when compared to the Corvair).
And is that a Studebaker Avanti on the freeway closest to Ralph?
I think it is! What are the chances of an Avanti driving by in ANY picture?
I was thinking the same thing, an Avanti? What are the odds.
That’s the first thing I noticed 🙂
That green over green is an awesome combination.
It is jarring to see a Corvair in that shade of green that (IIRC) was new in 1969. I am used to seeing these Gen2 Vairs in several colors, but not this one.
Isn’t it lovely? Best Corvair colour combo available for ’69?
The Heritage Center isn’t normally open to the public, is it? How’d you score a visit?
A guy from a Buick forum I’m on set up the trip to coincide with the Woodward Cruise (actually the day before). We went two years in a row, and I was happy as a clam. I think I stayed longer than anyone.
Well done. They have an amazing collection there I’d love to see myself one day.
Typical of General Motors to kill off a car design just after they fixed it.
They were practicing for the Fiero.
I love the fact that you own both a Mustang and a Corvair. How ecumenical! I’ll bet you split your ticket when voting as well. 🙂
The Corvair and Mustang are such thoroughly different concepts. It is not hard to see how they would appeal to such widely different constituencies. Although I gravitate more toward’s the Mustang’s vision, I can understand the pull of the Corvair. (Or is it push?)
I had forgotten how low production got on Corvairs near the end. 6,000 units is a Studebaker Hawk kind of volume (which is not a good thing). For Chevrolet Division of General Motors Corporation in 1969 to offer a line (with three body styles, no less) with this kind of volume is mind-boggling.
Oh, you know I don’t play favorites! I’m an equal opportunity purveyor of junk… 🙂
To be honest, with all the talk about how differently Mustangs and Corvairs must drive, there really isn’t that much of a difference. The Corvair steers a little lighter, and bumps don’t upset it quite as much, but their ultimate handling ability is about the same. Of course, I have a 1″ front sway bar and GT springs on the Mustang, while the Corvair’s stone stock.
Puhleeze! Breathe a bit on the ‘Vair and it will out handle the Mustang hands down, especially on bumpy turns. I have an ’88 LX 5 Liter flop top and would trade it for a 140 Corsa in a heartbeat. My Mustang is my very own barn find – it’s in my garage! Haven’t driven it in 15 years. Only has 26k miles on it.
It’s amusing that the Nader pic has an early Mustang and a Studebaker Avanti in the background.
And almost no traffic. The good old days…I remember freeways looking like that.
They still do. U.S. 20 across Northern Iowa is like that.
Many times on I-64, traversing southern Indiana, you are often in the only car you can see. Obviously traffic starts to pick up as you get nearer to Louisville but there is still a 30-40 mile stretch that is pretty much deserted. It can be pretty spooky after dark, especially through the Hoosier National Forest.
I-85 between Petersburg, Va., and the N.C. border still looks like that. There’s only about one exit every 20 miles. Makes for a boring drive, but it’s nice not to have to fight traffic.
I-88, at only 65 miles west of Chicago, is like a deserted island. All cornfields to the Mississippi.
That’s what I meant: I remember freeways like that in the Midwest. Actually, back then I-80 looked like that a lot; not so much anymore.
But the ultimate empty highways are in the West; try crossing Nevada sometime on one of the two-lane highways.
And a Beetle too, which was another car critiqued in “Unsafe” from what I recall.
“Last” Corvairs, or at least the last couple of years are interesting as it was deemed from “high on the mountain” that no changes were to be made to the Corvair, other than what was needed to meet new Federal standards, so they essentially raided the Camaro parts bin for what they needed, the energy absorbing steering column with built in 4 way flasher button and the steering wheel are all straight from a Camaro, so are the seats too. The addition of a 3rd warning light besides the traditional Corvair “Temp-Press” “Gen-Fan” warning lights was a new BRAKE light too.
I looked at a 69 Corvair once that was for sale, it was well cared for and it had all of its original paperwork, including the “Sorry you bought a Corvair” voucher that was good until 1974 from what I recall.
I thought that GM had kept the last Corvair and that it was in the GM collection, I know that I have seen photos of a similar colored Corvair coupe in the background of some other pics I’ve seen of the GM Heritage Collection, if I recall, the collection is so big that only a small percentage is able to be shown at any time. So the last Corvair might only rotate to the collection every once in a while.
No, the legend of #6000 is widely discussed in Corvair circles. GM definitely doesn’t own it (or they won’t tell anyone).
It got dumped into National Rent a car fleet, 😉 JK
I think that the black gear knob in this car means that it might have a 3 speed manual, used to be that the black knob was for he 3 speed and the white knobs were for the 4 speeds, but I don’t know if that lasted until 1969 Corvairs and I can’t tell in the photo, it also looks like it has the 110hp engine from the trunk/hood emblem.
This Corvair’s definitely a 4-speed…shift knobs in ’68 and ’69 were black. My ’65 does have a white knob.
So does mine, I wasn’t sure of when they changed it.
My 65 500 coupe has 3 spd non synchro with black shifter knob, for what its worth.
If I ever buy a Corvair, I would try to find a 69. It would be a rare find. Especially a 2 door 4 speed. Once dove a 68 bus pop top camper that had a Corvair engine and powerglide. Seemed to run pretty good, I only drove it a couple of miles. For a while a lot of people were putting them in VW’s, especially buses. I saw an early Datsun 620 pu with one sticking up in the middle of the bed. My only question was, why? Now you can’t carry anything in the bed.
Not sure how common the 4-speed was, but all 1968-69 Corvairs were two-door cars. The four-doors were dropped after 1967.
Well, that increases the odds of finding one. Never cared for 2nd gen 4 door. Looks OK on 1st gen.
I’m confused by two things I’ve read in multiple places, including this article and/or earlier comments in this thread:
1) GM ordered a stop to any further development on the Corvair after 1965; in fact, GM originally planned to stop building the Corvair after 1966, when the Camaro was introduced. The Corvair was only continued in production beyond that point to spite Ralph Nader/so people wouldn’t perceive GM as having caved.
2) GM was working on proposals for a third-generation Corvair until 1968.
Don’t these contradict each other? Was the third generation supposed to be a radically different vehicle from the first two generations? Was it not even proposed until after 1966? Did Chevy originally see the Camaro and Corvair being sold alongside each other long-term?
I imagine that the “3rd generation” ideas were being thrown around while the Vega was still under development, or leading up to the development of the Vega. The Vega or rather the official launch of what was called the GMini or GeMini program, which lead to to the Vega was announced at the grand opening of the new GM Building in Manhattan in 1968. I imagine hat during planning stages of the Vega, that there was at least a brief idea of some sort of rear engined car in the line up, it might have not carried the Corvair name, but the idea was on the table at some point or another.
I have always been puzzled why the ‘vair (in Monza coupe form) didn’t compete better with the Mustang in 1965-66. The ’65 restyle resulted in a beautiful car with Corvette-like handling, with none of the oversteer issues of Gen I, and the brouhaha over the Nader book had yet to hit. By this time the Chevy II was the real competition for the Falcon and GM would seem to have free reign to heavily market the new ’65 as a plausible, if not superior, Mustang alternative. But, for some reason, GM decided the Camaro was to be the Mustang fighter and this interesting, revolutionary (at least for Detroit) and by now safe car was killed off. I guess the public was not ready to buy an American Porsche in any numbers and sought the security of traditional front engine V-8’s.
It had advantages that were readily seen as advantages during that time. The concurrent Muscle and Pony car explosions that had happened between 1964 and 1967 made the Corvair look like quiche at a rib and burger cookout.
This is an interesting perspective and could go a long way to explaining why John Delorean was so hated within the GM corporate world. While a good deal of it was certainly jealousy, it’s quite possible that the phenomenal success of the GTO (which spawned the whole sixties’ musclecar craze) didn’t fit in, at all, with the performance direction GM wanted to take and had invested so much in, i.e., the more European, rear engine Corvair. Undoubtedly, many would have considered the success of the GTO as the final nail in the Corvair’s coffin, but GM refused to let it die simply out of spite.
Consider, too, how Ed Cole had a habit of sticking with a model even if it wasn’t initially successful (the Corvette). But even Cole eventually lost interest in the Corvair (and it was coming up on the time for his departure, anyway).
One has to wonder how differently things might have been if Pontiac had been given a version of the Corvair right from the beginning, instead of the rear transaxle, rope-drive Tempest. Ironically, it would seem like Delorean would have loved a performance Pontiac version of the Corvair and it might well have usurped the GTO program, altogether. He was, after all, a huge champion of the short-lived OHC Pontiac six-cylinder, trying to make the Firebird with that engine an ‘American Jaguar’.
Of course, it was under Pete Estes that the Corvair went away. Estes was one rung ahead of DeLorean as chief engineer of Pontiac (under Bunkie Knudsen) then Divisional General Manager before getting moved to Chevrolet. Estes had plenty of performance bona fides himself. It was under Estes (IIRC) that Pontiac refused to go in on a version of the Corvair, choosing at the last minute a version of the Olds/Buick Y body instead for its 1961 compact. In DeLorean’s book, he seemed to feel that Estes had good instincts, but tried too hard to work with the 14th Floor, which had a tendency to micro-manage and wrongly diagnose operational problems. DeLorean saw that being a good company-man at Chevrolet had not gotten Estes very far, so he tried to do his own thing.
I think that the Corvair had been Cole’s baby from start to finish, but by the mid 1960s it was clear that the thing would never be a hit. It would never be more than a niche vehicle, and GM has traditionally been too big to be satisfied with niche vehicles. The Corvair was like a string quartet or a jazz saxaphone in an era when everyone wanted the Beatles and the Stones.
If I recall correctly, it was Bunkie Kundsen who killed Pontiac’s version of the Corvair, which was named “Polaris” in the early stages of its development.
About 20 years ago, Special Interest Autos ran a story on the proposed Pontiac Corvair, along with photos of proposed Buick and Oldsmobile versions.
The Pontiac did have a different front and taillights (which looked like the taillights of the 1961-62 Tempest) compared to the Chevrolet Corvair, but the Oldsmobile and Buick versions were basically badge-engineered versions of the Pontiac.
I recall reading that the manufacturing personnel didn’t like the Corvair, because it was so different from anything else Chevrolet was making at that time. I’m sure that hardly endeared it to the accountants.
The dealer body had turned against the car, too. By 1968, even some Chevrolet dealers were refusing to carry the car. It undoubtedly didn’t help that quality control was terrible by 1968. Car Life tested a 1968 coupe, and while they liked the performance and styling of the car, the list of things wrong with their test car was eye-opening even by the lax standards of that time.
Great analogy, Carmine.
I remember learning in 1974 [at 12 y/o] that the Corvair was built until ’69. I was amazed that only 5 years had passed, on what seemed at the time a decade plus old model.
Chicago SunTimes auto writer had an article about the last ‘vairs, and said “If only they had kept a little longer, til the [then happening] energy crisis…”
I’m a recent Corvair fan.I see very few at UK shows I like everything about this one especially the colour combination
“For the same reasons the 1960 Falcon outsold the 1960 Corvair, the 1965 Mustang outsold the 1965 Corvair.”
I’ve rarely heard it explained better. Nader gets far too much credit/blame for the car’s unfortunate demise. America was ready to move toward the edge of the box but not outside it. Bummer. The Corvair was a good car that deserved better.
Why didn’t they send the tooling overseas? I’m sure it would have done quite well in Europe. And the dash looked like it totally could have been converted to right-hand drive for the UK markets. What a waste.
That could have been interesting? An Opel Corvair? Vauxhall Corvair?
Wouldn’t have worked. By 1969, Europe had lept way ahead of what the Corvair offered. Think BMW E3 six cylinder 2500/2800, which made 170 hp from the same size engine as the Corvair’s, but those are European DIN hp, not gross. The 140 hp Corvair had maybe 120 hp net. A 50% difference.
Even the BMW 1600tii or such would leave Corvair in its dust. The Corvair’s engine was not designed or optimized for European conditions. It was designed to be a lazy, low-rpm engine for American conditions.
The Corvair also wasn’t very space efficient for its size, for European standards.
It was an obsolete design, that wasn’t nearly fast nor efficient enough for European expectation by then. The Corvair’s design wowed the Europeans in 1959, and some were imported in the first year or so, but in the sixties, European cars progressed very rapidly.
I wouldn’t be so negative, though it was getting old and rear engines had most run their course, though I would have to point out that 120hp 911’s that were available at the time, even the baddest 911’s managed 190hp, and I assume that it wouldn’t have been a direct translation, but a Corvair massaged for the European market, fuel injection, different gearing, disc brakes, hell Corvair engines can run in airplanes and airboats, you’re telling me that one couldn’t be made to work in Europe? These changes could have made the Corvair contemporary till 1974-1975? But that would probably be it.
Look, I love the Corvair, but it was never really suitable to European conditions. Even though it was called a “poor man’s Porsche”, that was relevant in the US only. Keep in mind the Corvair had a 108″ wheelbase, the same as an S-Class then. It was way too long and wide to have been a competitive sports car there, which were all much smaller, narrower and lighter.
But it also couldn’t have competed as a proper sedan either, because for its size, it was not space efficient. And its large 2.7 L engine would have thrown it into a high tax bracket.
You throw out a lot of “ifs” there; including disc brakes, fuel injection, etc. But the fundamental reality was that for European standards, the Corvair engine was a bit of a relic by then, in terms of performance and efficiency. That’s not to diss it as an engine capable in a number of ways, but introducing the Corvair to the European market with its pushrod engine as essentially a new car (to them) would have been a profoundly difficult sell.
I’m pretty familiar with the European market of that time, and I just don’t see it. France, maybe; that’s the one country it might have worked, on a limited scale. But not Germany; they would have found it too compromised. Germans had a soft spot for big Ami cars with V8s, but the Corvair wasn’t that.
What would’ve made France the most potentially forgiving market? Didn’t they have a particularly punitive tax on large displacement engines?
They were more open-minded about eccentric cars, which is what the Corvair would have been in Europe. The Germans are to objective and rational, and would have focused on all of its weak points. And I just don’t see the Brits being very interested either; the were still very chauvinistic about their cars then.
The Swiss might have accepted it; they were still rather enamored of American cars back then, and it had great traction.
It’s important to remember that the only American cars Europeans did buy back in the 50s-80s was the big V8 Yank Tanks, as well as the V8 Mustang. The American compacts would have been laughed out of the market, what with their slow steering, crappy handling, drum brakes, etc… The big Three didn’t even try; of course they had their own European ops, which already made cars in the compact category.
I took my ’64 Corvair to a nearby Chicago Chevy dealer in 1969 to have some fairly basic problems looked at and was turned away flat. Reason? “We no longer have a Corvair mechanic, he left.”
A mid-May 1969 article about #5999 and #6000:
Humorously, #5999 is still around!
Here’s a neat website…
..And a summer 1969 ad mentioning the $150 voucher:
$1985 with a 3speed and a radio? That’s not a bad deal for 1969, right around this time Ford was starting to pimp the stripper Maverick for like $1995? With “nothing”, if I was looking for a cheap car right around this time, I would have grabbed one for that much, 2car 95hp, AM radio, not a bad deal.
I wonder, are the using the $150 voucher to get to the $1985? I wonder how many of those, I’m assuming 6000 or so vouchers that were issued, Chevrolet ever got back by 1973? I assume that there is number somewhere within the deep dark file rooms of some GM warehouse somewhere of how many people used these, on a Vega? Nova? Camaro? Maybe some even moved up to a Chevelle? How many traded their Corvairs back in? And many used the voucher but kept their Corvair?
I wonder how many were bought and kept for curiosity? There always seem to be some low mileage 1969 Corvairs on ebay.
I knew of a few Corvairs lingering back lots of Chevrolet dealers down here in Miami even until the 1990’s, I worked at one place where there was a 67 or so Monza with a/c & powerglide “sunbathing” in the backlot, from what I could figure out it was left some repair, that was probably too expensive and then not picked up.
I can only imagine what the corvair could have become if GM had stayed the course like Porsche had, its a shame that the dies and some future development had not been handed over to GM Europe (Opel?) and turned into a high end GT.
Awesome color, I’ve never seen a Corvair in this shade of green! Do these cars at the Heritage Center get started up regularly, or are they true museum pieces at this point? I’d love to go there one day (somehow)!
I’m not sure how often they’re driven or run, but they do rotate them occasionally, and many of them go to shows and museums around the country. The staff there is happy to open hoods for you too. I had one of them pop the “hood” on the Corvair Monza SS show car. The Super Spyder was also there. There are about a half dozen Corvairs at the Heritage Center.