Curbside Classic: 1961 Chevrolet Corvair 95 Rampside – It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time

(first posted 8/17/2011)    There have been very, very few vehicles produced in post WWII America that can be accurately described as unique.  Not “sort of” unique, but unique in the true sense of the word: that there is absolutely nothing else like it.  The Corvair Rampside is one of those vehicles.  And not necessarily in a good way.  This little truck reminds me of a question that most of us have been asked at one time or another: “Just what, exactly, were you thinking?”

It is well known that the Volkswagen was a significant influence on Chevrolet’s engineering team during the creation of the Corvair  (CC Here).  Once the Corvair’s design team got its bread and butter sedan out the door for 1960, it shifted its attention to commercial variations.  Volkswagen’s Type 2 van and pickup truck had been logical offshoots from its passenger car program.  The Type 2 van (and to a lesser extent, the pickup) had been well received in Europe and were beginning to make inroads in the US.  Also, Chevrolet’s product planners certainly knew that there was a similar small truck line under development at arch-rival Ford.  With so much attention being given to commercial vehicles smaller than Chevrolet’s C-10 pickup and panel delivery, the world’s largest automaker was not about to ignore this market.

Chevrolet’s new little trucks would hit the market as the 1961 Corvair 95 series.  First, why 95?  The number represented the wheelbase of the trucks, shortened from the 108 inch wheelbase of the of the passenger car.  The vehicles were of unit construction, but utilized a rear subframe for additional support of the engine and cargo area.  Mechanically, the 95s were mostly standard Corvair, right down to the rear swing axles.  However, the front suspensions were largely carried over from the full sized passenger car in 1961-62 (and then from the C-10 in 1963-64).  A slightly beefed up version of the Corvair sedan’s 80 horsepower engine was mated to either a Powerglide or the buyer’s choice of a 3 or 4 speed manual.

The Corvair 95 line initially consisted of two vans and two pickups.  The commercial van version was the cleverly named Corvan.  Chevrolet also introduced the Corvan’s passenger-carrying offshoot, the Greenbrier.  As interesting as the two little vans may be (and they will certainly warrant their own CC at some point in the future), our attention today will be devoted to the strange little pickups, which are unusual even by Corvair standards.

Like the vans, the Corvair 95 pickups also came in two flavors – The Loadside and the Rampside.  Of the two, the Loadside is the really rare one (fewer than 3000 were built between 1961 and 62) which was basically a standard Corvair pickup.  The Rampside is the one remembered for its single unique quality – the hinged panel on the passenger side that lowered to become a ramp into the vehicle’s ultra-low cargo bed.

We all know that the pickup truck has but a single reason to exist:  The large open compartment in the back for carrying lots of stuff.  So how do you give your customer a usable pickup when your starting point includes a rear engine?  VW’s answer was to make a high flat bed with drop down side panels all the way around.  Lockable storage compartments filled in the unused area under the flat bed.  Chevrolet took the opposite approach.  In order to maximize capacity in the bed, the Corvair 95s traded-away the flat floor.  The result was a pickup bed with maximum depth in the middle of the vehicle, and a raised portion at the rear of the truck so as to accommodate the engine compartment.

One look at the inside of the bed of one of these and you can see why the Loadside (confusingly named because you could NOT load it from the side) disappeared so quickly.  With no access to the bed but through the teeny tailgate, it was singularly lacking in practical appeal.  The Rampside was an ingenious workaround of the Loadside’s Achilles heel and the problematic shape of the load floor of these pickups.  With a bed wall that converted to a ramp, the vehicle got badly needed access to the lowest part of the bed as well as a built-in ramp not found on anything else in the industry.  Although the payload was comparable to that of a conventional C-10, the inconveniently shaped bed floor cost the 95s a lot of utility points.  That Chevrolet offered a plywood platform to make a flat but shallow bed did not really overcome this weakness.

In hindsight, it is easy to see that this truck had failure stamped on its forehead at birth.  What happened here?  While I have never really been under the Corvair’s spell, I can understand that the car was a bold swing for the fences as a modern compact sedan.  But just whose idea was it to make it into a truck?  Was the 95 sort of an afterthought?  “Uh-oh, great car but I just got a memo that we have to make a truck out of the thing too.”  Or was it the hubris of a company that was convinced that the American public would lap up whatever it put into Chevrolet’s showrooms?  Either way, it was a painful lesson for GM that what may have made sense for VW in immediate postwar Europe was not necessarily relevant to 1960s America.

Of course, the eventual champion in the compact truck market turned out to be Ford.  The 1961 Econoline series met the Corvair 95 model for model.  With its conventional front engine configuration, the Econoline had the advantage of an unencumbered load floor in both its van and its pickup.  The result was that the Econoline’s sales swamped those of the little Chevy.  In 1963, for example, Ford sold over 11,000 Econoline pickups to Chevrolet’s 2,046 Rampsides.  This was in spite of the Chevrolet’s 2 foot advantage in cargo floor length and a slightly higher payload rating.  The Rampside would be discontinued after selling only 851 units in 1964.  (Fun fact of the day:  Chrysler managed to sell more Imperial convertibles in 1964 than Chevy sold Corvair pickups.)  The 1964 El Camino, with over 30,000 sold, removed any doubt about the lack of viability of its air cooled older brother.

The entire Corvair 95 series would be replaced quickly, with the 1964-65 phase-in of a new, more conventional van design based upon the Chevy II.  The discontinued Rampside (the sole remaining Corvair pickup) was not missed.  Ford, too, would abandon the odd looking Econoline pickup after its initial version.  (Chrysler was, of course, late to the party with its 1964 A-100 pickup, another forward control model which failed to survive to a second generation).  What is really interesting here is that Detroit completely missed the most obvious (and only really successful) formula for a small pickup truck:  Take a conventional big pickup and shrink it.  Toyota and Datsun would make a lot of money from this oversight.

It is not often that your correspondent in rusty central Indiana manages to bag and tag a vehicle that has eluded Paul Niedermeyer in the land of the perpetual car, but we have one for your enjoyment today.  Since I started contributing to CC, this is the first vehicle that I actually attempted to chase down.  I was backing out of my mother in law’s driveway when I spied this Corvair pickup turning the nearest corner.  I had to wait for traffic, then dashed after it, but I was too late and it got away.  I gave up and started to go home, but as I cut through the parking lot of a big home improvement store, there it was.

I waited several minutes after taking photos, hoping to talk to the owner.  He must have had quite a shopping list, because he never came out to add to the sole bag of mulch in the back before I had to leave.  So, what can I tell you what I can about this one?  First, I believe it to be either a 1961 or ’62.  Later models moved the rear license plate off center and eliminated the fragile protruding license plate lights, so it is not one of the ultra-rare ’63-64 models.  Mathematically, it is probably a 1961, because this was the only year that Chevrolet really sold any of them (almost 11,000 units, compared to 4,100 in 1962.)   Otherwise, the year is anyone’s guess.  The truck also carries a really old California AAA bumper sticker and appears to be very original other than a repaint and newer hubcaps.

I am not sure what the legacy of this vehicle is, if indeed it has any at all.  Although it must have seemed like a good idea at the time, it may have been the biggest sales flop of GM’s postwar history.  In fairness, none of this era’s forward control pickups really set the world on fire, the VW included.  In 1963, for example, the Falcon Ranchero would outsell the Econoline and Corvair pickups combined by nearly 40%.  But the Corvair 95 pickup was failure taken to a whole new level.  Still, it is vehicles like this one that provide some spice in a bland world.  A sunny day and a trip to the home center with the Rampside – what a fun and unusual sight, either in Indianapolis or anywhere else.  It always was.  The Corvair 95 pickups turned out to be two vehicles in one:  Perhaps the least useful truck ever and maybe the coolest Corvair of them all.  It is indisputably a Curbside Classic.