Curbside Classic: 1962-1965 Chevy II – Chevy Builds A Compact, Take II (Updated)

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(first posted 9/16/2013. Updated and expanded 4/6/2023)    Ed Cole’s bold and daring rear-engine 1960 Corvair was to be Chevrolet’s ultimate answer to all those pesky imports and the other domestic compacts also arriving that year. But within just months of its debut, Cole realized it was not going to succeed in its original mission, thanks to the instant spectacular success of the pragmatic Ford Falcon. A crash program to build a Falcon-fighter was initiated and the relatively dull result was about as different from the Corvair as possible: The Anti-Corvair; otherwise known by its equally uninspired name: Chevy II.

Corvair 1960

Chevrolet had a lot riding on the Corvair; a bit too much on its swing-axle suspended rear wheels actually. GM made a mammoth bet on Ed Cole’s air-cooled, rear engine baby. The great irony is that although the Corvair essentially failed in its original mission of a low-end, economical compact, hence the decision already in November of 1959 to develop the Chevy II, the Corvair ended up being a surprise success once the sporty and well-trimmed Monza coupe came out in the spring of 1960. The Monza went on to bring in a lot of import owners and intenders, unlike the Falcon and Chevy II. And of course it directly influenced the creation of the Mustang.


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By the late fifties, the Big Three’s strategy of ignoring the rapidly swelling growth of imports (and the Rambler) was running out of steam, if for no other reason than because the Big Three’s cars were foreshadowing America’s obesity crisis. The 1958 recession suddenly made Americans (and the Big Three) realize how large and excessive they had become. And the success of the Rambler and Studebaker’s Lark really forced their hand. Compacts all-round was the Big Three strategy for 1960, and they each went about it rather differently. The winner, strictly in terms of sales numbers? The 1960 Falcon (CC here), even if its sales undoubtedly cannibalized the big Ford, almost one-for-one. So the Falcon was not really a profit winner for Ford overall, but the inevitable fragmentation of the market had begun, in earnest.

Valiant 1961 fq

The 1960 Valiant (CC here) was widely considered a better car than the Falcon, but its controversial Exner styling was all wrong for this class of economy cars. The Falcon hit the sweet spot of the market: cheap, simple, cleanly-styled, economical, and perhaps the most important quality: it was unchallenging, visually and otherwise. What both GM and Chrysler failed to grasp is that in order to move Americans into a compact, it needed to feel like it was “safe” to do so: un-risky in terms of styling, handling, technology, and even resale. The Falcon nailed all the key points; the Corvair and Valiant didn’t.

Chevrolet Chevy II 1962-01

The Chevy II program obviously was a fast-paced one, given that the go-ahead was given in the late months of 1959, and it appeared in the fall of 1961; that’s some 21 months or so from the green light to Chevy IIs rolling off the assembly lines. And this is for a completely new car. If you ever read that it takes 3-4 years to create a new car from scratch, here’s one obvious exception, but hardly the only one: the 1960 Valiant did it in some 18-19 months.

The Chevy II was a surprising anomaly, given that GM’s body-sharing program was such an intrinsic part of its whole operation. It shared nothing with the B-O-P compacts (Tempest, Special, F-85), which used a lengthened version of the Corvair’s body and also bristled with adventurous technology too: alloy V8, V6, slant four, independent rear suspension, etc. No, the Chevy II was a clean-sheet car; well perhaps a clean back of the envelope car, as there wasn’t really much to it: as simple, boxy and pragmatic as possible. And cheap to build, most of all.

Unlike every other GM car (except the Corvette) the Chevy II’s original (1962-1967) X-Body platform was never shared by any other car. The 1967 Camaro used a significantly different 2nd generation X-Body derivative, as used on the 1968 Chevy II. It shows the huge power and profitability of the Chevrolet Division and Ed Cole at the time.

But GM did take advantage of its later start to give it some features that the Falcon and Valiant lacked, like a proper hardtop coupe with a unique roof.


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As well as a convertible, which neither the Falcon or Valiant had.

 Chevrolet Chevy II 1962 wagon 3 seat -07

And lo! Even a three-seat station wagon. Take that, Falcon! Yes, Chevrolet was determined to outdo the Falcon on every point possible; if the Corvair had failed in its original mission, Take II would not.

Chevrolet Chevy II 1962 engines-10

And that included under the hood. Instead of just a small six, Chevy threw a four into the fight. Why? Chevy obviously needed a new six for its full-sized cars and trucks. So rather than develop a small-block six like Ford did for the Falcon, Chevy created a new six cylinder that it could share across all its lines, and then lopped off two cylinders for an economy four. How’s that for cheap and pragmatic? And a bit unusual, as fours just weren’t big with American car buyers of domestic cars.

Chevy II 153 four

Realistically, the 90 (gross) hp 153 CID four ended up in a lot of fleet cars, as well as in the cars of a few thrifty retail Chevy II buyers.

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But the little tell-tale I6 badge on the lower fenders was to be seen on the vast majority of Chevy IIs. The 194 CID Hi-Thrift six made 120 (gross) hp, which put it ahead of the Falcon 170 CID six, and about midway between the 170 and 225 inch slant sixes available on the Valiant.The 194 six gave quite decent performance; a Car Life test of a Powerglide-equipped ’62 Chevy II yielded a 0-60 time of 14.0 seconds.

But Chevy was determined to get and keep the II ahead of the competition, and solution was once again highly pragmatic.

Chevy II V8 ad 1964

So starting in 1964, the tell-tale V8 badge appeared in the fenders II. The 283 was available in both two-barrel (195 hp) and four-barrel (220 hp) versions, making it the undisputed hot rod of the compact class in 1964. But that was just the warm-up act. In 1965, the 327 joined the Chevy II party, in 250 and 300 hp versions. As if that wasn’t enough, for 1966, Chevrolet upped the ante again.

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The 350 hp L-79 1966 Chevy II Nova SS was simply in a class by itself; an unbeatable combination in terms of bang for the buck. And now a highly sought-after collectible. Not many survived the street wars they were subjected too.

Chevrolet had already teased a 340 hp 327-powered Chevy II back in 1962, when it built one as a prototype for a dealer-installed package. A Motor Trend review showed it to be a veritable rocket, not surprisingly.

Chevy II engine swap

Here is a 1962 Hot Rod article detailing the swap of a 360 hp fuel injected 327 into a ’62 Chevy II. They used over-the-counter parts available to facilitate this, including engines with modified blocks and oil sumps, as well as all the other parts to affect the change-over. Despite the skinny little 13″ tires, the resultant Chevy II scooted from 0-60 in 5.2 seconds, with endless strips of black rubber on the road left behind as a testament.

Chevy II HR 1962 IMG_2712Large

The resultant car was utterly unprecedented in 1962; a genuine GTO or hemi-killer. Needless to say, many Chevy II’s gave up their sixes or fours for this greater good, and probably many didn’t use all the factory parts either.

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The point being is that the Chevy II quickly became the el-cheapo hot rod of choice, for decades on end (has it ended yet?). There was simply no cheaper way to get down the road in a straight line faster than to find a beater Chevy II and drop in the sbc of choice, and…

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The result is that finding an unmolested Chevy II, like this coupe here, has become almost impossible. It took several years since I started doing CCs in 2009 until I found these two original Chevy II CCs. Meanwhile, how many hipster-driven Falcons, Rambler Americans and Larks are there on the streets? Is it because there aren’t any original Chevy IIs left, or because their image is so tied up with hot rods?


One thing is for certain: those early V8-swappers quickly came to realize the profound limitations of the Chevy II’s “Mono-Plate” rear leaf springs. It was a perfect example of how the Chevy engineers wrung out every unnecessary expense, creating a single tapered leaf spring that thickened in the center to take the place of the usual pack of leaves. It worked reasonably well enough on the milder versions, but the V8 Chevy IIs were notorious for axle tramp, and drag bars or other stiffeners quickly became the number one aftermarket accessory for anyone hoping to keep the rear tires in contact with the pavement. The Mono-Plates eventually went the way of the Corvair’s swing axles.

Chevrolet 1964 230 six-1964

Before we leave the Chevy II’s engine compartment, perhaps the most unusual (and likely least common) engine was the 155 hp version of the 230 six, available only in 1964. It had a slightly more aggressive cam, and was lavished with standard chrome engine trim, which oddly was not the case with the V8s. On to the passenger compartment, which wasn’t nearly so well lavished-upon.

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Fawn; the favorite color of Chevy II interiors. And this is a Nova, no less, the top of the line. Below it were the 300 and 100. Chevy wasn’t exactly being generous with its interior appointments, unless one sprung for the SS’ decent vinyl. The base 100 really did the expression “stripper” justice. My father-in-law briefly had a Chevy II, which he called “a tin can lined in Saran Wrap”. It was known as the Shitty Little Chevy in the Squires household, rather understandable given that it replaced a late fifties Mercedes 220S with leather and wood.

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But plenty of shitty little Chevies were sold in 1962; 403k of them, which was slightly more than the 1962 Falcon’s 397k. And presumably few of those cannibalized big Chevrolet sales, as the ’62s had a banner year too. In fact the Chevrolet Division had the highest market share (29.1%) ever in 1962, thanks to the Chevy II and Corvair sales peaking at 293k units. Ed Cole struck gold twice, with both compact Chevys.


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But the compact boom of the early sixties was short-lived; by 1966, the Falcon’s sales fell off a cliff, and although the new 1968 Nova sold decently enough, pony cars and mid-sized cars had become the hot new thing, leaving the compacts fighting for the crumbs. But they enjoyed a resurgence in the seventies, by which time the Valiant and Dodge dominated the segment, looking much like pragmatic Chevy IIs, updated a bit.

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Related CC reading:

Vintage Car Life Comparison: 1962 Ford Fairlane V8 vs. 1962 Chevy II Six – The Old Ford V8 vs. Chevy Six Battle Updated, With Surprising Results

Vintage Motor Trend Road Test: 1962 Chevy II With 340 HP 327 Corvette V8 – Factory Built; Dealer Option Coming Soon!