Curbside Classic: 1960 Corvair Monza Club Coupe – How Some Auto Show Attendees Created The Most Influential Car Of The Decade

(first posted 11/27/2012.  Update: it’s almost surprising how many previous readers/commenters didn’t get the point of this article. It’s clearly not about the first Monza’s rear engine, which was undoubtedly not influential. Its significance was all about offering a fashionable, well-trimmed sporty coupe at very affordable prices. It has long been established as absolute fact that the Monza’s surprising popularity in 1961 motivated Lee Iacocca to create the Mustang. And that led to both the explosion of pony cars as well as the popularization of coupes, which eventually became the best selling body style in America.)

It’s difficult to overstate what a significant car the 1960 Corvair Monza Coupe was. There is no doubt that it turned the industry’s conventional thinking on its head–that compact cars should only be penalty boxes for thrifty folks. That’s what the whole American industry took for granted, and none more than Chevrolet with its Corvair sedan.

It arrived in the fall of 1959 seriously de-contented, devoid of any overt pizazz or sizzle, despite its very low-slung and fundamentally highly attractive body. Motor Trend gave it their COTY.  The Europeans went gaga over it. But the highly conventional Falcon outsold it two-to-one, and the Chevy II was rushed into development. And then something totally unexpected happened, thanks to some auto show attendees that knew better what they wanted than did the car company executives.

The Corvair was always planned to be a thrifty, compact family sedan, with no overt sporty or up-scale ambitions. It arrived in two trim levels: the almost shockingly austere 500 (above), with an interior only a taxi company owner would appreciate.

The 700 included the typical step up trim one might find on a Biscayne sedan of the times, with some chrome trim and a barely decent interior but still with rubber flooring and not even a horn ring. Austere; and conveying anything but prestige.

A coupe version had been in the works, as part of the expansion of the line that would eventually also see a wagon and convertible. The coupe was due to arrive in similar 500 and 700 level trim in May of 1960. To spark some enthusiasm for the two door coupe, Chevrolet showed a customized one-off at the Chicago Auto Show in February (similar to this one, but with wire wheels and no side strakes). It had chrome window surrounds, a spiffy name, and….bucket seats! That was something almost unheard of in an American car, especially in a popular-priced one. The crowd loved it, and Corvair-Papa Ed Cole rushed the Monza into production.

The rest is history; very big history. The Monza became an instant hit, even though Chevy could only build a very modest number of them before the model year was over. The Monza became the Corvair sales leader by a huge margin in 1961, and for the rest of the Corvair’s life, the 500 and 700 were relegated to near-obscurity. The Monza gave the Corvair a whole new reason for existence, as well as sparking a monster market segment.

Ford instantly followed suit with the bucket-seat-and-console 1961 Futura, and the Valiant sported a similarly-trimmed Signet coupe for 1962. Even the dowdy Rambler American got in on the act with its 400. Bucket seats and a bit of sporty trim in a compact package were suddenly the hot thing. For the same price (≈$2200) as a big, dull Biscayne sedan, Americans could enjoy a modest-sized dose of glamor.

Ironically, that had been the same premise of the original Nash Rambler, exactly one decade earlier. George Mason knew he could never sell a low-content compact in enough numbers to make a profit, given how cheap the Big Three’s low-end full-size cars were. The well-trimmed Rambler sold modestly; perhaps the fact that big cars weren’t yet all that huge in the early fifties had something to do with it. But it did spark the whole Rambler line and direction. The formula was changed some by George Romney, who created enough volume with compact and mid-sized Ramblers to make it work for a while, especially during the recession era bracketed by 1958 and 1961.

During the fifties, full-sized cars became progressively bigger. But what really changed in during that decade was the import boom. They all came well-trimmed; there were no strippers in their midst. And sporty coupes like the Karmann Ghia were catching on. In retrospect, it’s rather odd that Chevrolet didn’t plan for a K-G type sporty coupe version all along, given its relationship to the Volkswagen, the Corvair’s stated nemesis.

Because that’s exactly what the Monza ended up being: the Corvair Karmann Ghia. But it took a crowd at the Chicago Auto Show to point that out to Chevrolet.

Lee Iacocca knew a good thing when he saw the Monza, and exploded the sporty coupe segment wide open with his 1965 Mustang. Turns out a long hood in the front turned was much more popular than one in the back. Not surprisingly; certain shapes and proportions seem to be hard-wired into our heads, libido and wallets.

It became known as the pony-car market, and when Americans got a bit older and bigger, they traded in their cramped pony cars for mid-sized coupes, which became the best selling segment for the better part of two decades. You might call it a stretch to credit the Monza for that chain of events. I call it self evident.

 Having done the history, let’s take a look at the actual 1960 Monza Club Coupe. I didn’t find this one the street. They’re quite rare, as only 11,296 of them were built at the end of the 1960 MY year. They’re even hard to come by on the web, until I stumbled into this fine little blue coupe, on a web site dedicated to its restoration by its owner: It was her godfather’s car, and she documented its resurrection in great detail.

The 1960 Monzas have some unique aspects, and some mysterious ones. It’s the only Monza to have the distinctive concave 1960 Corvair front end, and its wheel covers were only used on that very short model year, which is a bit odd.

As a kid at the time, I was very aware of the 1961-1962, Monza, and there were several around. Then one day, I took a different street on my walk to elementary school, and ran into one of these. How odd! I knew what the 1960 Corvair looked like, but had never seen a Monza version. I kept thinking someone was messing with my head, being convinced there was no such thing. Did someone customize it?

There are those famous bucket seats. Keep in mind, this was two years before the Impala SS arrived with bucket seats. The Monza really was a pioneer, and undoubtedly inspired its big brother. This car is an automatic, with the funny little shifter-handle under the dash.

There was an up-rated 95 hp Turbo-Air engine that made 15 hp more than the standard one, thanks to a Duntov cam and a bit more compression and a four speed stick became available sometime later in the spring of 1960, a few months after the start of Monza production. The first version of 1960 Monza Coupe brochure doesn’t mention either of them; just the 80 hp unit, and the three-speed and Powerglide.

No matter; the public was hot with Corvair fever, and took what they could get until the full 1961 Monza line-up was ready, which included a late-intro sedan version too. It would be nice to think the Monza sedan played a role in sparking the sporty-sedan market of more recent years, but that really would be a stretch. The coupe did quite enough.

What’s really significant about the Corvair too is that its sales were almost totally incremental sales, undoubtedly from previous import buyers or from other brands. Ford’s Falcon sold more units, but they were almost totally at the expense of the full-size Ford, which meant that Ford overall in 1960-1963 performed quite modestly, whereas Chevrolet had some of its best years ever.

One might even go so far as to say that the Monza spelled the end to the low-end car from Detroit. Once folks got a taste of a properly trimmed car, and what that exuded in terms of prestige and satisfaction, stripper sedans soon became the province of flint-skins, and died off within a decade or so. Everyone knew what the Chicago Auto Show attendees knew: pizazz sells, even in small packages.