Curbside Classic: 1963 Corvair Greenbrier – We Don’t Want A Better VW Bus

(curbside images by captchris from the CC Cohort)

(first posted 3/29/2012)    Sometimes being great just isn’t good enough. In every objective parameter, the 1961 – 1965 Corvair Greenbrier had the VW bus beat hands down: twice the horsepower, wider seats, better driving position, superior visibility, roll down rear windows, a smoother ride, available automatic, more luggage space, four headlights(!). Geez; what more do you want, folks? Yet the Greenbrier, one of the most advanced and daring vehicles ever built by GM, failed. No wonder GM gave up trying to build exceptional vehicles; why bother?

The story of the Corvair Greenbrier and its commercial van and Rampside pickup (CC here) variants starts out the same way as the Corvair itself: a response to the rapidly growing inroads the VW was making, in both Beetle form as well as the bus and pickup. The VW micro-bus especially carved out a nice little niche left completely uncontested by the American manufacturers: an efficient, compact people mover.

All Detroit had on tap were its conventional wagons, which as they got ever longer and lower, were ever less inviting for certain folks to clamber into their third row seats, never mind the single-digit fuel economy.

Most of the Suburban-type vehicles suffered from lack of any back doors altogether. The VW micro-bus, with its big barn-doors and tall upright seating, found favor with everything from families to churches to those with wanderlust, given its easy conversion into a camper.

It only made sense that if GM was going to build a bigger and better VW sedan, why not build a better VW bus? And so they did; which was a substantial undertaking. But this was the bold, daring and ambitious GM of the end of the fifties: and so they built a completely new unitized body, borrowed a front suspension from other Chevys, and popped in the air-cooled rear engine and transaxle from the Corvair sedans (having fortified a few of its more vulnerable components). The goal, and result, was to make a highly versatile vehicle, with “at least nine lives”.

Here are all nine. Except I don’t see a bunch of stoned kids driving through an Iowa field to get to a remote quarry swimming hole to go skinny dipping. I guess Chevy hadn’t anticipated that quite yet. Nine lives was just a starting point; Greenbriers could be used in hundreds of ways that folks had never thought of. Just needed a bit of creativity. That was just a few years away.

I look at these old brochure shots and think: “What were folks not thinking?” This was the true origin of the American mini-van: compact, roomy, comfortable ride, reasonable amenities, automatic transmission available; what more do you want folks? Fake wood paneling? Probably.

Or this? As much as I have a certain perverse and suicidal fondness for these scary-handling, traction-less, rough-riding, noisy-engined, solid-axled, rear-brake-locking shit-boxes (I owned a Dodge A100), the front-mid engined Econoline and its ilk were in a different league altogether from the Greenbrier, in so many ways. Not size and price-wise; the Econoline and Greenbrier were squared off perfectly that way.

The Greenbrier rode, handled and steered and went like; well, let’s say unlike anything else out there at the time, unless Tatra had made a mini-van. With its 80 hp (95 – 110 in ’64 -’65) it had double the power of the VW bus, allowing actual American-style cruising speeds, instead of fighting headwinds at 43 mph, and hills at 31 mph. Not that the Greenbrier was exactly brimming with power, but it did the job, most happily with the optional four-speed stick.

That’s not how Mrs. Lloyd-Jones’ Greenbrier was equipped; it had the Powerglide. Just as well, as it only enhanced the capabilities of the all-time greatest wheeled non-four-wheel-drive snow-mobile in the world, never mind my grade-school neighborhood in Iowa City. On really snowy mornings, we’d run down to their house, and pile in her Greenbrier, along with the about 15 other kids from the neighborhood.

Please note that I said “down” to her house; the Lloyd-Jones lived half-way down a sloping dead end that ended down by the mud flats near the river. Didn’t matter; she’d put it into gear, the little six way back there would spool up like a city bus engine, and when the torque converter wouldn’t convert any further torque, the Greenbrier would slowly crunch its way through a foot of fresh snow, uphill, never spinning a wheel. The more kids, the better the traction. Never once was the Lloyd-Jones Lincoln School Express late or canceled. (BTW we didn’t have “snow holidays” back then; you either came, by Greenbrier or on foot, or didn’t).

And on the way to Lincoln School, we’d pass by Ted Gay’s house, where their Econoline Station Bus wasn’t leaving the station; level driveway and street notwithstanding. And we’d holler at Ted through the Greenbrier’s full-roll-down rear windows, as he trudged to school in his rubber galoshes. “Sucks to be you!” The downside of those windows were that one of Ted’s well-aimed snowballs could come flying right through. That can’t happen in a VW bus or Econoline.

If I was late, I’d have to find a third-class seat in the luggage area right over the engine, which was much deeper and longer than the VW’s; the distinctive soft and purring moan under my butt undoubtedly patterned my deep and lasting love for Corvairs, and greatly enhanced the thrill of having a Cor-snow-vair as my first car.

Corvair Greenbrier ad 01

As the ad says: Traveling Fun Starts With A Greenbrier Sports Wagon.

Enough about the horrors of Iowa winters during the “Little Ice Age”; from the sound of things lately, Iowa has slipped down to Louisiana. But summer did eventually come back then (in the first week of June), and it was time to go camping. Well, not the Niedermeyers; my father had more than his fill of all the camping he was never actually going to do in WWII. But some families indulged in that sort of thing, and the Greenbrier had optional camping accessories that would make a VW Westfalia blush: roof top tents, awnings, cabinets, fold down beds, cooking arrangements of some sort or another; double ovens, as far as I know.

Here are the Not-Niedermeyers, my not-father all relaxed and mellow, working on his tan and puffing on his pipe while waiting for the thick not-steak to get to a perfect not-medium rare, enjoying a nice lakeside camping spot with their one and only beloved and precious child Paul.

And then when Paul Not-Niedermeyer turned eighteen, and was ready to hit the road, his not-parents gave him the keys to the Greenbrier camper and said: “Bon-voyage, dear son. Go out and have some adventures; it’s an exciting big world beckoning out there. Oh, and here’s some money. Most of all, have lots of fun with the girls the Greenbrier will attract like flypaper, and don’t worry about staining the cushions”.

Well, I did have a bit of fun in the back of someone’s Greenbrier after I left home, although the cushions were in about this shape, and the stains were (mostly) from vomit. A bunch of guys from Chicago ended up in Iowa City, and I worked with them (briefly) on a construction job. They shared a Greenbrier almost exactly like this one, although I suspect what rust it had was a bit more malignant than the superficial rust-ina this California van is sporting.

Man, was I jealous. I suppose I could have worked a bit longer digging foundations and bought my own. But my job-ADD wasn’t quite up to that; it was easier to stick out a thumb and just MM about having one, and how I would fix it up, and that 140 hp engine I would put in it, and the anti-sway bar, and the wheels…….well, as I said earlier, I did end eventually up with a Dodge A100, but that’s another story. But there’s a lesson somewhere there, one I’m still working on.

Theirs had the three-speed stick like this one too…eerily familiar indeed. I drove it once or twice, after I was the only one still able to; never did like getting really sauced. I didn’t realize how much it felt like a small-scale GM transit bus until I drove one of those a few years later. The distant motor, which was well-hushed, especially with a few bodies strewn around back there. The slow shifter (well, the transit buses had “Powerglides”).

The steering, like the Corvair sedan’s, was a bit slower and vaguer than the VW’s. But the accommodations up front were decidedly better: the seating position was much less hunch-back provoking; almost sedan-like. Great visibility too, to make sure no drunks or lovers in the field by the quarry are going to be run over. And excellent braking balance in case I didn’t see one of them until it was almost too late. And of course the traction, in case I had to just drive on over them…but I covered that all-too-well already. “Can I have another drive?”

Oh, handling; we haven’t talked about that yet. Saving the best for last, of course. Like all things Corvair, it’s a bit of a multi-faceted story, although less controversial than the sedan. For one, the Greenbrier had a substantially better weight distribution, thanks to the driver’s compartment being over the front wheels. That advantage might have been partially offset by its shorter wheelbase. But the real issue is, what are we comparing the Greenbrier to?

The Corvair was pitched (literally) as a family sedan, at least in the beginning. So folks stepping out of their front-engined, rwd Bulgemobile might have their hands full (or heads cracked) when the unfamiliar Corvair exhibited some unexpected tendencies when they entered a turn too fast and jammed on the brakes.

But the Greenbrier was up against the VW bus and the Econoline. Hardy har har! Two of the most wretchedly-handling boxes ever put on wheels (that’s the pre-1968 VW bus I speak ill of). The Econoline’s two cart axles would hop, skip and lurch over every minor imperfection in the road; never mind a bumpy curve. The rear wheels were so lightly loaded, even its feeble little six would light the inner one up accelerating out of a tight corner.

Compared to those two, the Greenbrier was a Porsche 911; one of the later ones at that. Sure it would oversteer, and maybe even jack up some, like these on an autocross course (yes; there are two classes just for Greenbriers). With a camber-compensating spring, some good shocks, and a 140 hp engine, these can be pretty nimble indeed.

Of course, handling isn’t just about reeling in a badly executed corner at 9/10ths, or flipping out of one. When it came to all-round ride/handling/roadability/braking/steering, the Grrrreenbrier was in a distant class of its own. At least until the second gen VW bus came along in 1968, especially if it had a Corvair engine swapped into it, like a guy who came to smoke out some errant bees in our house did to his. Fit like a charm, like this one here. He said the thing would just whistle over the Donner Pass. I believed him, after he gave me a short ride.

Ok, so America didn’t take a shine to the Greenbrier. Like the Corvair sedan, 1961 was the best year sales-wise, with some 18,500 sold. By 1964, it was 6k. The only reason some 1,500 were made in the fall of 1964 was that Chevy’s new Econoline-fighter, the 1965 Sportvan was held up because it was stuck in the snow of a UAW strike. It’s doubly ironic that it was called “Sportvan” and that the brochure shows it at a ski lodge. Fake snow on a movie set in Southern California is my guess. Love that front beam axle showing so proudly in the picture. Sport indeed; of some sort.

Whatever. America, you had (and blew) your chance at a world-class vehicle (with a bit more refinement, anyway). Can you imagine a gen2 Greenbrier, with the ’65 ‘Vair rear suspension, and a snazzy restyled body, and a turbo option, and disc brakes, and a THM transmission, and…Instead, you end up with another crude and rude box on cart axles. What the Chevy II did to the Corvair, the Sportvan did even more obscenely to the Greenbrier.

Ironically, Chevy tried to play up on the Greenbrier’s image as a VW love-bus wanna-be, in this ad for one of their many other pathetic failed attempts at making a mini-van. I guess Chevy was cursed from the get-go.

Well, VW had the last laugh. They did keep developing their bus, and it ended being rather Greenbrier-esqe: nice seating position, more powerful engines, better visibility, even a six cylinder boxer! What, you say?

The VW-Oettinger WBX6: VW contracted with long-time tuning-house Oettinger to develop a six cylinder version of the “wasserboxer”. When VW decided to pass, Oettinger got the rights and built it themselves, in 3.2 and 3.7 L versions, with up to 180 (net) hp.

Looks right at home there too. Well, the Corvair turbo had 180 hp back in 1965! Enough lamentations. You’ve got your shitty Chevy Express vans, or whatever they’re called now. It’s what you obviously wanted all along, and deserved. But some of us still long for what could have been. Or actually was. I’d take this Greenbrier in a heartbeat. Let’s see…oversize cylinders, TRW pistons….