Museum Classics: Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum, Part II – The Corvairs

In a belated companion to my nearly year-old discussion regarding the Hudsons of the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum, here is the follow-up: the Ypsilanti collection of Chevrolet Corvairs. Because the Corvair was assembled at the nearby Willow Run factory, Ypsilanti is in some ways its spiritual home. Contrary to what people who tell Ralph Nader jokes will have you believe, the Corvair was relatively successful with roughly 1.5 million of them sold. The museum has five of them.

Here was Chevy’s initial interpretation of the Corvair, the 1960 model, a Volkswagen-inspired economy car. It’s still vaguely invigorating that a conservative corporate monolith like General Motors would sign off on such a thing, but here it is, the car whose design inspired so many imitators everywhere but here.

Unfortunately, the Corvair did not succeed as well as Chevrolet had hoped, although more than 250,000 were sold in the first model year. Here is the spartan interior and bench seat of that first-year Corvair. It was roomy for a compact with its flat floor, but more buyers preferred the Falcon, which must have given Ford some schadenfreude.

There is a surprising number of small differences between the 1960 Corvair and the 1961 Corvair: The engine was even five cubic inches larger for 1961 (145 vs. 140 cubic inches).

Photo posted by the New Hampshire Corvair Club.


The earliest 1960 models are sometimes called “horn slot” cars, because they had three little slots in the valance. These were eliminated early on in the production run.

The Corvair found its footing with the introduction of the Monza in the middle of the 1960 model year: This sporty 1964 Monza coupe is a good representation of the average Corvair in the mid 1960s.

The Monza’s interior is what made it the success it was. With bucket seats and a floor-shifted four-speed stick, the Corvair lived up to its vaguely sporting pretensions. No longer a strictly no-frills economy car, the Corvair Monza appealed to a different sort of buyer.

The 1964 model was the last of what Corvair fans call the “EM,” which simply stands for “Early Model.” It is also a bridge between the two generations of Corvair, with a camber compensating spring to help tame the rear swing axles and a larger 164-cubic-inch flat-six (up from 145 cubic inches).

In 1962, the engine that most people remember when they think of Corvairs was introduced: the turbocharged “Monza Spyder” (“Corsa” starting in 1965) engine. Here’s an example of a 1965/1966 turbocharged 164 (you can tell by the sticker on the air cleaner – later versions had 180 horsepower rather than 150). The pre-1965 turbocharged engine would have also had a generator rather than an alternator.

The museum had two 1969 models when we visited, including this blue coupe. The basic drivetrain layout of the Corvair stayed the same for its entire run, but the LM (Late Model) Corvair had an entirely new suspension in 1965, eliminating the swing axles that were to become so controversial. Notice the air pump on this car. Making the Corvair meet increasingly stringent emission standards would have been expensive had they decided to continue producing it, which was another reason that the Corvair didn’t survive into the 1970s.

It’s been well-documented here that the Mustang and its mechanically-simple-yet-sporty formula was the real reason for the Corvair’s demise. It’s also well-documented that Corvair development was drastically curtailed before Ralph Nader’s book even came out. If anything, it is unlikely that there would have been a 1967-1969 Corvair without Ralph Nader – the Camaro would have simply taken its place and a few diehards would have been sad about the loss of their favorite car.

I still dream of finding the last Corvair – number 6000 – in a barn somewhere, but that’s not going to happen. It was never titled and there’s no evidence that it still exists. Rumors say that it was crushed, but nobody knows (or at least nobody has come forward to say for certain). What we do know is that exactly 6000 Corvairs were mostly hand-built on a separate Willow Run assembly line in 1969. This convertible, which belongs to a very nice volunteer at the museum, was one of them.

There were few updates for the late Corvairs, including a more heavily padded dashboard and high-backed bucket seats. This example is painted in one of my favorite colors for Corvairs, Fathom Green.

As a Corvair owner myself, I have a love-hate relationship with them, largely because I bought a poor example. Here’s a picture of mine as I was repairing the rusted rocker panels, an important and very heavily built part of the convertible Corvair.

Here’s the engine torn apart for re-ringing and clutch replacement. I’ve had the drivetrain out of mine about four times in the sixteen years I’ve owned it, primarily due to my learning the car’s eccentricities along the way.

Although I enjoy working on my cars, the Corvair is a car that is affordable enough that you should buy a good one. I still kick myself for not selling mine when a good maroon Corsa convertible came up for sale locally about six months after I bought it, but that’s not the car’s fault.

The Corvair is fun to drive, and although I’m not as passionate about them as the true fanatics (they say you can’t own just one, but I’m proof that you can), they are an exciting part of General Motors history. If you can stand the Ralph Nader jokes, you could do a lot worse in the collector car world. If you’re looking for a fun way to pass a few hours while you’re in the Ypsilanti area, you could also do a lot worse than visiting the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum.