(first posted 8/16/2011) Bittersweet. That’s the best word I can come up with to sum up the Corvair. It failed in its intended role as a mainstream compact to compete against the pragmatic Falcon. Then in the spring of 1960, the Corvair suddenly found its true calling as a sporty car, in the form of the Monza, and generated substantial sales that brought new buyers to Chevrolet. The Monza snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, and it was Ford that had to scramble to create a Monza competitor, in the form of the Mustang.
In the process of transforming from a thrifty compact to a spiffy sporty car, one version got lost in the shuffle: the Corvair station wagon. It was almost production-ready by the time the Monza found its new niche, so it appeared in 1961 as the Lakewood wagon. And it bombed; compact wagon buyers snapped up Falcons, and were not interested in a rear-engine wagon, despite having a trunk in front along with the rear cargo area, unprecedented at the time.
Given that GM had already given up on the Corvair as a serious competitor in late 1959 by greenlighting the Chevy II, which appeared in 1962 with a wagon, the answer to the question in the headline can only be: well, let’s see if we can figure it out.
The Corvair was the brainchild of Chevrolet’s new General Manager Ed Cole, a brilliant engineer who was responsible for a number of successes including the 1955 Chevy small block V8. He was intrigued by airplanes and their air cooled flat six engines. And the explosive success of the VW in 1955 undoubtedly influenced him too, although probably not in a copy-cat way. That wasn’t his style. But he decided that the time was right for Chevrolet to field a compact, and it would be a triumph of left brain thinking.
The intrinsic qualities of the rear engine: a compact engine/transaxle unit without any space intrusion into the body, superb traction, and light steering that needed no (then) expensive power assist were compelling. The rear engine was coming into its heyday in Europe around this time and into the sixties. He was smitten, and bitten by the rear-engine bug, and he was tenacious. And its obvious shortcomings were either ignored, band-aided, or left as open sores.
We’ll do a more thorough analysis of the Corvair’s strengths and weaknesses in our Friday finale, but let’s just say Chevrolet knew that the Corvair was not going to be an effective competitor to Ford’s very conventional Falcon and Chrysler’s Valiant within months of its fall 1959 launch. By December, the decision to quickly develop the pragmatic Chevy II was made, which really sealed the Corvair’s fate as a quirky outsider whose only real future was in its sporty Monza variant.
The Corvair program was ambitious, and new variants were planned to come on line in subsequent years. That included the 1961 Corvan utility van, Greenbrier passenger van, Rampside pickup, and a lovely convertible that appeared in 1962 to reinforce the Monza’s sporty image. And the Lakewood wagon, which also arrived in 1961, in response to a question no one seemed to be asking. At least not compact wqgon buyers.
Falcon moved some 50k wagons in its first year, and almost 100k in 1961. But then wagon buyers (back then) were intrinsically a more pragmatic and conservative bunch. And as compelling as a rear-engined wagon is in certain respects, in others it has serious deficiencies.
It may seem advantageous to have two cargo areas, the rear one as well as the front trunk. But the Corvair’s rear cargo area is obviously somewhat higher than a conventional wagon, and is directly over the motor. Back when the rear cargo area was promoted as a mobile kiddie play pen, the Corvair’s came up short; or tall actually, and a bit noisy, although cozy and warm in winter.
And the front trunk was, well handy, to be sure, but with 10 cubic feet of space, it wasn’t as small as often made out to be. In the wagon, the spare had to live here (not shown), whereas in the other Corvairs it had migrated to the engine compartment in 1961. The rear cargo area offered 58 cubic feet, for a combined total of 68. The Falcon had 76 cubic feet in the rear alone, and a longer and lower load floor.
The other problem was potentially a bit nastier: the more one loaded up a Corvair, the more unbalanced its intrinsically precarious front-to-rear weight ratio became. And the wagon’s roof made it heavier back there to start with. This was not the kind of wagon to haul the family on vacations, stuffed to the gills and with a roof rack. And that was the norm back then. The Corvair’s already touchy handling at the limits would suffer in direct proportion to the load.
If the Lakewood had any real future, it was as a sport wagon, but that concept was still a decade or two away. In 1961, wagons were family haulers. In fact, the 1961 Lakewood wasn’t even offered in Monza trim; only as the very spartan 500 and slightly less-so 700.
In 1961, which was the Corvair’s best sales year, almost 25k Lakewoods were sold; not abysmal, but only about a quarter of Falcon wagon sales. In 1962, when the Chevy II arrived with a wagon version, Corvair wagon sales shriveled to some 6k. And for some reason, they weren’t called Lakewood anymore. But that dorky name will always by synonymous to the Corvair wagon. But why Chevy went ahead instead of killing the Lakewood, given that the Chevy II was just one year away, is highly questionable.
In 1962, a Monza version of the wagon was available too, as our featured car makes obvious. The 1962 Monza sedans and wagons came with bench seats, so either this one has had the buckets switched in, or they may have been the factory optional ones.
I didn’t get to drive this wagon, but sitting in the driver’s seat brought back a flood of memories. And I’ve wondered for years if I would find the Corvair more cramped than I remembered it to (not) be, given how I managed to be able to fit into seemingly anything back then.
No, the Corvair is pleasantly accommodating, despite its low-slung build. Every dimension is adequate, even headroom. Ed Cole made the most of the Corvair’s flat floor, and in some respects it is roomier than a Falcon (and a full size Chevrolet). The basic Corvair package has very compelling aspects, and the visibility from the sedan and coupe were absolutely superb; not bad for a wagon either.
This Monza wagon has had the popular dashboard transplant; how many Spyders gave up their lovely dashes for this swap? It was the goal of every die-hard Monza owner to have a set of Spyder gauges. And every visit to the junkyard meant keeping an eye out for a new Spyder arrival before it was quickly plundered.
Of course, not all the gauges were relevant; certainly not the boost gauge. I suspect the cylinder head temp gauge was rarely put back into action too. But the tach, and the looks of it were what we were after. I never found my Spyder donor.
Under the cargo area is the popular upgrade engine, the 102 hp Turbo-Aire (not stock air cleaners). It arrived in the spring of 1960 for the new Monza coupe, initially with 95 hp, and 98 in 1961. A bit more compression, a more ambitious cam, and recalibrated twin carbs gave the rather modestly powered base Corvair engine a bit of zest. Not truly sporty, but less phlegmatic than the base 80 hp engine, for sure. The standard Corvair heads had tiny valves, to give it good low-rpm torque. It wasn’t originally designed to be anything but a low-rpm engine with modest specific output, for its original intended role as an economy car.
It took the Spyder’s turbocharger, and bigger valves to wake it up (to 150 hp). But the turbo was a somewhat cantankerous affair, and the definitive Corvair engine for regular driving is the four-carb 140 hp engine that appeared in 1965. With its better breathing heads, it offers decent performance without the hassle.
When I hitchhiked out to California in 1972, I crashed with a friend of my older brother’s, a seismology student at Cal Tech. He was the stereotypical nerd, even if he did have long hair and great weed. And what did he drive? A virtually identical red Monza wagon. He was heavily into Corvair wagons, and had a couple more stashed in the end of the driveway, but this one was his primo find: a four speed Monza wagon.
He waxed eloquently about the Lakewood’s intrinsic superiority and advantages, in great detail, and in true nerd fashion. It was the same kind of true-believer sermon you would expect from a Citroen DS Break (wagon) owner. And riding around with him in it and hearing his endless Lakewood praise answered the question I posed in the headline: the Corvair wagon was built for Corvair nerds.