(first posted 9/16/2013) Chevrolet’s bold and daring rear-engined 1960 Corvair was to be GM’s ultimate answer to all those pesky imports and the other domestic compacts also arriving that year. But within just months of its debut, the GM brass realized it was not going to succeed in its intended mission, thanks to the instant spectacular success of the pragmatic Ford Falcon. A crash program to build a Falcon-fighter was initiated, and the dull result was about as different from the Corvair as possible: The Anti-Corvair; otherwise known by its equally uninspired name: Chevy II.
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 baby, as it shared almost nothing in common with its full-size cars. Not only was its development spendy, but a whole new plant to cast its aluminum engine blocks and transaxle was required. It was precisely for this reason that GM had resisted building a small car for so long, ever since it pulled the plug on its similarly-advanced Cadet back in 1947. The Cadet simply couldn’t meet GM’s then lofty 30% profit margin expectations. It was much easier to just build more big Chevies, and sell the low-line versions cheap.
But by the late fifties, that strategy was running out of steam, if for no other reason than because the Big Three’s cars were foreshadowing America’s obesity crisis. 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? The 1960 Falcon (CC here), hands down.
The 1960 Valiant (CC here) was 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: unchallenging. 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.
The Chevy II program must have been 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. 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. 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.
As well as a convertible, which neither the Falcon or Valiant had.
And lo! Even a three-seat station wagon. Take that, Falcon and Valiant! 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.
And that included under the hood. Instead of just a small six, Chevy threw a four into the fight. Why? Chevy desperately needed a new six for its full-sized cars and trucks. So rather than develop a small-block six like the Falcon six, 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.
Realistically, the 90 (gross) hp 153 CID four ended up in a lot of fleet cars, as well as in a few thrifty retail Chevy II buyers.
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. But Chevy was determined to get and keep the II ahead of the competition, and solution was once again highly pragmatic.
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.
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.
Now some impatient folks instantly saw the obvious potential in the 1962 Chevy II, and weren’t content to wait until the factory started building V8 Chevy IIs. Here is a 1962 Hot Rod article detailing the swap of a 360 hp fuel injected 327 into a ’62 Chevy II. Special parts from the factory were already 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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
But plenty of shitty little Chevies were sold in 1962; 403k of them, which was slightly more than the 1962 Falcon’s 397k. Just how many of those sales came out of the big Chevy’s hide is another story. I don’t have the number readily available, but undoubtedly a substantial portion. Which is exactly why GM resisted building small cars for so long. But then the compact boom of the early sixties was a short-lived boom; by 1966, the Falcon’s sales fell off a cliff, and although the new 1968 Nova sold decently enough, pony cars had become the hot new thing, leaving the compacts fighting for the crumbs. Until 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.
But well before that, the Chevy II had a devastating effect on Chrysler, unintended as it was. At a Detroit area cocktail party in the spring of 1960, Chrysler’s new President William Newberg overheard Chevrolet’s General Manager Ed Cole making reference to a smaller Chevy that was to be launched in 1962. Since the Corvair was already out, Newberg leaped to the conclusion that Chevrolet was going to substantially downsize its full-sized cars for 1962. Sure…makes sense, eh?
That lead to the disastrous rushed 1962 downsizing for Plymouth and Dodge, all based on an overheard quip at a party. Of course Cole was talking about the Chevy II, as it turned out. Yes, the titans of industry with their brilliant decision making processes cultivated at the best business schools in the world, made only well-considered decisions. Not only was Ed Cole’s Corvair the wrong car for its job, but in turn that led to a near-death experience for Chrysler. I bet Newberg took to calling the Chevy II “the Shitty Little Chevy” too.