(first posted 6/3/2014) The Corvair story is an almost endless book; it’s way too long to completely encompass in one chapter. I’ve been writing it since I got behind the wheel of my first car, a 1963 Monza four-speed. Many of the chapters have been put to word here at CC, and I’ll give links to them as we go along and at the bottom. But I’ve never encountered a genuine Curbside Classic™ Monza Coupe, which is really the most important chapter of them all. The Monza coupe was an accident, and a very happy one, as it saved the Corvair’s bacon, turning it from an unconventional but dowdy economy car into the inspiration for the whole sporty car boom of the sixties. And I’ve been ruminating about its roof line for a long time…
The Corvair arrived in the fall of 1959 only as a four door sedan, in two model lines. The 500 model was an ultra-stripper, devoid of almost any bright work, and with a very dreary gray interior (no other colors available). Not likely to be bought by the stylish guy in the rendering.
The Corvair 700 added some chrome, and a slightly better interior, which was still down in Biscayne territory. Why? The Corvair was of course a response to the very successful VW Beetle, as well as the #2 selling import, the Renault Dauphine, another rear-engined (and four door) economy car. The 1958 recession undoubtedly tempered any notions of the Corvair being anything other than a true economy car, and Chevrolet struggled to keep its price competitive. Those measures included leaving off a front stabilizer bar and a rear camber-compensating spring, the absence of both were implicated in the Corvair’s tricky handling at the limit and resultant accidents, which soon stained its image (CC History here).
But Chevrolet got it mostly all wrong, as the Beetle and the other imports came only as high-trim versions. The Beetle was cheap in price, but it was not a stripper. And many VW buyers could well afford more, but were making a statement against the excesses of Detroit. The Corvair and the other 1960 from Ford and Chrysler rather missed that important point.
The Corvair’s design was very fresh and contemporary, although its “flying roof” had been seen on 1959 GM four door hardtops. But it was the Europeans that went ga-ga over it: unlike the giant full-size American cars that may have had some advanced design themes but were on a totally different scale, and way too over-ornamented, the 1960 Corvair was to their scale.
And it shocked them with its extremely clean lines, highlighted by its very strong horizontal break/accent line, as well as its front end that broke the European convention. The Corvair was an unexpected hit of the 1959 Paris Auto Show, and revolutionized global design, its influence lasting for decades. Our story on that has become a CC classic on that subject.
The Corvair coupe, also in 500 and 700 (above) models, arrived in January of 1960, as a mid year addition to the line. Why the coupe was a late addition is unknown, although Chevrolet did roll out other Corvair body styles over a three year period, with the ill-fated Lakewood station wagon (CC here) arriving in 1961 and the convertible in 1962.
The 500 coupe (above) did allow Chevrolet to offer a 1960 Corvair priced below $2000 ($1984), as the four door sedan ($2038) was priced some 3% higher than the Falcon four door, and above that psychologically-important $2000 barrier. Not that it helped sales much; these 1960 500 and 700 coupes sold quite poorly, accounting for just 16% of 1960 Corvair sales. The fact that their substantially shortened roof line meant less rear seat room was undoubtedly a factor; the sedan was quite roomy for a compact, and claimed to be a six-seater; the coupe’s rear seat was best for kids or compact adults.
The Corvair coupe’s roof has always been a bit of a mystery to me, as it was clearly designed to be a genuine sporty coupe, and these two clays from 1957 show that even early in its design evolution, that was the case, even though two very different approaches were being considered. The bottom one appears to have an even more fore-shortened rear seat. Perhaps Chevrolet had the Karmann Ghia in mind with it? (story here).
The question is just what Chevrolet did have in mind with its 1960 coupe. It straddles that line between a two-door sedan and a genuine sporty coupe, which might well have had a more flowing roof line or been a hardtop. But it’s quite clear that when the 1960 coupe arrived, it had no genuine sporty or sporty-luxury pretensions. And there were no plans for that in the works. That seems a bit odd, in retrospect.
In order to generate some spark for the new 500 and 700 coupes, in February of 1960 at the Chicago Auto Show, a one-off customized coupe (on elevated stand on right) was shown, with bucket seats, four speed transmission, full chrome window trim, full wheel covers and other details. The attendees were very enthusiastic about it, and the out-sized response triggered the decision to rush a version into production, in May of 1960, even though it was already very late in the production year.
Here’s a newspaper clipping about the process that led to the Monza’s production. Chevrolet General Manager Ed Cole is quoted: “(the) decision to add the (Monza) model to the 1960 line resulted from overwhelming reception it has received at three major auto shows”.
It’s a bit hard to imagine that Chevrolet really didn’t have a Monza in mind all along, as it really was the rather obvious true fulfillment of the coupe (and convertible, in 1962). But from everything that’s out there, that’s how it happened: it took auto-show attendees to convince Chevy that there was a demand and market for a compact sporty car. There’s no denying that the Monza coupe caused a rush to similar bucket-seat sporty versions of the Falcon and Valiant, and most of all, sparked the creation of the 1965 Mustang (I called the Monza the most influential car of the decade).
So we’re mostly caught up to 1963, when this coupe was one of 117,917 Monza coupes sold that year, a reduction from the all-time high of 144,844 in 1962. I ran into it recently, where it was sitting after having been found stored for many years. It’s not in the greatest shape, and was re-painted a somewhat garish metal-flake gold, but it tugged at my heart strings with the full force of its air-cooled flat six.
As mentioned earlier, my first car was a ’63 ‘Vair, but a (white, naturally) Monza sedan, gifted to me by my brother, (similar to this ’62 Monza sedan above). He had bought it from an elderly woman in Towson for $75, in the fall of 1972. It was leaking oil from its push-rod tube seals, an inevitable malady, and one readily fixed. He drove it out to Iowa, and gave it to me when he took a job in Greenland, where even the Corvair’s legendary traction on snow and ice was not going to be useful.
I was pleasantly surprised that it had the up-rated 102 hp engine (a perkier cam, mainly), as well as the four-speed transmission and the sports suspension package, which included the front stabilizer bar, stiffer springs, a lower ride height with some negative rear camber, and some rear swing axle limiter straps, that limited rear wheel travel downwards, to limit the dreaded “tuck-under” of the swing axles. Unexpected, that on older woman would have bought one like this. And even more unexpected, that my brother would lay this on me, as I had lusted after a Corvair ever since I first fell in love with it in 1960. And this one was equipped exactly as I would have ordered it in 1963, unless it was to be a Spyder.
I’ve had endless debates about the sedan vs. coupe design, and as much as I like the coupe, the sedan usually wins. The coupe’s roof is just a bit too short, for such a long rear end.
And the sedan is a lot more practical, with a rear seat perfectly comfortable for adults, not just an extra wheel and tire. And as well, there was that distinctive flying wing.
How I loved that car. And it was in great shape, except for some little rust holes on the tops of the fender, just behind the front outboard headlights. I understand that was a weak spot, from salty slush getting trapped there, in rust country, that is. Otherwise, it was very solid. No such issue with West Coast Corvairs.
I just couldn’t stop driving it; my first taste of automotive freedom. Almost right away, I headed off on a 3000 mile fall trip, out to Towson, and then down the full length of Skyline Drive and the whole Blue Ridge Parkway, during the fall color peak. In 1972, there were hardly any other cars on the road; I hear today it’s jammed during the fall colors.
It’s a 600 mile ribbon of winding road, following the spine of the Appalachians. It was the perfect place to become deeply familiarized with my Corvair’s handling, which thanks to its sports suspension, was perfectly suited for the job. No matter how fast I dove into the corners, it never once gave me the slightest disconcerting response. I knew what I was dealing with, and would never have hit my brakes in a corner, or over-reacted to the inevitable nudge of oversteer out back, unlike many of the folks who had bad experiences in Corvairs.
A properly set up Corvair, with the right front/rear tire pressures, will work its rear tires some, what with 62% of the weight out back. But as long as its balance isn’t upset by abrupt braking or steering inputs, it will track beautifully in the fast corners, with excellent grip. That’s not to say that the Corvair is a genuine sports car; its manual steering is light but woefully slow, with 5.25 turns lock-to-lock. There’s a reason that a lot of fast-steering kits were sold in after-market catalogs. That goes for the shifter too; the throws were long; but there were remedies for that too.
The other reason was of course out back. The Corvair’s air-cooled flat six was designed as an economy car engine, with zero sporting aspirations. The cylinder head had small valves and ports, and the camshaft was very mild. The original 1960 140 CID version was rated at all of 80 (gross) hp, which arrived at a very modest 4,400 rpm. It really was very VW-like in that regard.
Even with the up-rated 102 hp Turbo-Air engine in my ’63 (with 145 cubic inches), and the four speed, it was hardly fast. 0-60 came in about 15 seconds; not really bad for the times, but not exactly brisk either. Don’t even ask what one saddled with a Powerglide took. The turbo-charged Spyder helped considerably, and we’ll get to that another day soon.
Still, the Monza made for a satisfying driving experience, faster than many of the domestic compacts until they got V8s, and most import cars; certainly more so than the VW and such. But it couldn’t hope to keep up with a V8 in most American cars, until the road got curvy. And it did deliver decent mileage, up to 25 mpg, in my experience. The traction on snow was superb, which I soon put to good use in the Iowa winter that year, including experiencing the ultimate outer limits of its rear-engine dynamics on a frozen reservoir. My Corvair hijinks are here.
Having expressed my preference for the sedan, I’d gladly take a coupe home; I’m an equal opportunity gen1 Corvair sucker. A gen1 Corvair is pretty much on the top of my future toy car list; do I have to decide between one or the other? But in my dreams, I see an alternative body style that Chevy didn’t build, one that would avoid such a Solomonic decision. Stay tuned…until tomorrow.
More Corvair reading: How The 1960 Corvair Started a Global Design Revolution AH: 1960-1963 Corvair – GM”s Deadliest Sin? 1962 Corvair Monza (Lakewood) Wagon CC Corvair Coupe Design Evolution 1960 Corvair Monza Coupe: The Most Influential Car of the Decade Auto-Biography: 1963 Corvair Monza