Curbside Classic: 1966 Chevrolet Corvair Monza – The Best European Car Ever Made In America

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(first posted 7/25/2013)    If a car ever inspired me to emote and wax poetically, it was the Corvair, especially the second generation that delighted us upon its arrival in 1965. So I’ll try hard to restrain myself (as usual): The 1965 Corvair was the best European car ever made in America. And if that alone doesn’t explain the Corvair’s inevitable failure, let’s just say that in 1965, Americans were eating a lot more Wonder Bread than baguettes.

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This little gem of a ’66 was found, parked in front of a small wood products mill, in the industrial part of Eugene. Shooting it surely brightened a dreary and rainy day–it’s such a brilliantly clean and timeless gem.

Corvair 1960 blue

I can’t do full justice to the Corvair’s birth and development here, but we’ve covered it extensively in so many previous posts like the one here. And it started out to be quite different from the way it ended up…or did it? What arrived in the fall of 1959 was a terribly stripped little car with a drab, monotone-gray taxicab interior, a rubber floor, and totally devoid of chrome trim. Born in the depths of the 1957-58 recession, the original 1960 Corvair lost its $4 sway bar and any pizazz to GM’s bean counters, who wanted a cheap car that would fight both the VW Beetle and Ford Falcon and still make a profit. Given the Corvair’s complex alloy engine, that already seemed unlikely.

But a rear-engined small car intrinsically offers great enthusiast potential, as Porsche had shown so convincingly. In fact, a Porsche 356 was used as a test mule for the Corvair’s engine. The Corvair had great potential, but its intended mission in life seemed as confused as its buyers. The Falcon was a much better compact for the needs of most Americans–mostly schlepping kids and groceries–and GM realized it instantly. The highly pragmatic Chevy II was rushed into development and the Corvair was quickly dressed up with bucket seats, a higher output engine and an available four-speed: behold the Monza. Out of desperation and necessity, GM had invented a new genre: the small sporty car–at least for American cars, that is. The Europeans had been chasing that for quite some time.

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It’s telling that the GM bean counters didn’t even give early Monzas that sway bar and other suspension upgrades that were either planned to be included (an optional handling package was offered), and perhaps the most significant aspect of the story of the Corvair’s failure to compete against the imports: GM’s consistent and persistent elevation of style and flash over substance. With just a few more bucks and a cost-free change to a faster steering ratio, the early Corvairs could have been as brilliant (and safe) as Chevy was forced to make the 1965 model. Full story on that GM Deadly Sin here.

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Instead, the Corvair Monza’s real role in life turned out to be inspiring the Mustang, a car that elevated style over substance to a whole other level, yet became a colossal commercial success. America’s brief fling with chasing the sporty imports ended even before it got a proper start. By the time Chevrolet sorted out the Corvair’s suspension and added some zest to its engine via turbocharging the game was essentially over, although Chevy didn’t quite realize it yet.

They assumed (hoped?) that Americans would be much more in love with the Corvair’s inner beauty than its bucket seats and cute looks: not so, as the Mustang made so perfectly clear. Who cared if the Mustang had a flaccid Falcon suspension, dull steering and mediocre brakes, and that a large percentage of them came with a feeble little six? Never underestimate the power of a long hood to create a fad, especially in America. A cheap V8 didn’t hurt either.

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Both the Corvair, and the idea of what it could have been, died on March 9, 1964. Within a few months of the Mustang’s introduction, Chevrolet rushed the Camaro into production and effectively halted any further significant Corvair development and marketing. And so did the brilliantly styled and refined 1965 appear, that fall, as an unloved orphan–or worse yet, an abortion.

I’ve always been torn about my feelings for the Gen-one and Gen-two Corvairs. Let’s just say that my first car was a white ’63 Monza with the optional higher-output engine, sport suspension and a four-speed stick–and I’ve always regretted not finding a barn to keep it in for my old age. So yes, I’ve got a bit of a built-in bias to Corvairs in general, and to the first generation in particular. It’s hard to be objective about the first real car love of your life.

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Of course, the ’65 and later models were better cars, with their new, Corvette-sourced non-swing axle, IRS and faster steering ratio. Styling-wise is where it gets hard: The ’65 is certainly a brilliant design, so light and airy and almost timeless. But for reasons that go beyond having one, I’m also deeply involved emotionally with the original 1960 design. It was the more radical, at least for its time: The 1960 Corvair was utterly a bombshell when it was shown in Europe, where it created a styling revolution whose influence was all too obvious, even well into the 1990s.


Ironically, the Gen-one Corvair’s styling is not as highly praised in its home country as the 1965’s, which had very little effect in Europe. That might well be because four-doors are much more common than coupes in Europe, and the 1960 four-door looked so superb (its styling worked even better than the coupe’s), while the reverse was true in 1965, when the four-door didn’t work nearly as well. It was nice enough, but looked way too much like a contemporary four-door Chevelle and lacked the very distinctive look of the first-generation four-door. To each their own: Both are among the best ever of GM’s Bill Mitchell era, and will go down in history as classics.

The 1965 Corvair handled unlike anything previously made in the U.S.  I had the pleasure to whip a friend’s 1965 Monza coupe (just like this one) through the back roads of northern Baltimore County on more than one occasion, and I’ll relive them, curve by curve, forever–and his even had the wretched two-speed Powerglide automatic. Whatever. Corvairs, excepting the higher-output Spyders and Corsas, were pretty much a stand-on-it proposition anyway. OK, so I’m rationalizing; the Powerglide sucked, big time, but even that couldn’t diminish the pure joy of setting up the Monza in each curve, harder and deeper each time. In those days of flabby power steering, there was nothing finer than the unassisted steering of a rear-engined car, especially one with the ’65′s faster ratio.

In late fall 1973 I’d flung my old ’63 through several hundred miles and several thousand curves of a deserted Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway, and it never once tried to bite me. Having the sport suspension and the right tire pressure was the key, as well as understanding how a swing-axle, rear-engined car will react if you hit the brakes in a curve. While the ’63 would dance if you knew how to lead properly, the ’65 was a trained pro. It made anyone with a halfway decent touch feel like they were Dancing With The Stars. And unlike the earlier ones, it was never going to give you a push for stepping on its toes.

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It’s easy to forget one of the Corvair’s finest but most overlooked virtues: braking. In that era of pathetic little drum brakes on front-heavy conventional cars, the overworked fronts always overheated and faded, and the rears locked as what little weight was on them shifted forward. The Corvair, like any rear-engined car, weighted its brakes almost perfectly evenly as its rear weight shifted forward. That alone was worthy of a Eureka! moment the first time one fully experienced and appreciated it.

So what happened to the Corvair faithful, the true lovers of the fine art of Dancing With a Car? They discovered the BMW 1600/2002. Or maybe the Datsun 510, if they couldn’t afford the baby Bimmer. Or something else; but whatever it was wasn’t very likely to come from Detroit. The 1965 Corvair might have been the last chance for GM to keep a critical and influential segment of the market. I say might, because it probably wasn’t in the wind anyway. The breezes blowing from Europe and Japan were becoming stiff gales, and it would have taken a more serious and concerted effort than the Vega to head them off. The Corvair was left to wither on the vine, and the genuinely sporty compact coupe/sedan market was handed over to the imports. Now that was a Deadly Sin.

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The Corvair was just the innocent canary in the mine, and its croaking was inevitable. Americans wanted a Camaro, even if it was the antithesis of the Corvair: lousy brakes, heavy or over-assisted steering, terminal understeer, rear axle hop under acceleration and braking, etc. But it had that long hood and big, cheap V8s. A Big Gulp trumps a Perrier. Good times too, once you do some work on that mono-leaf rear end, put on some proper brakes, and some shocks, and…well, the Camaro eventually got there, more or less, by about 1971. But certainly not to start with.

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It’s an irrelevant issue now; old history. The Corvair lived in an era when all cars were still imperfect, unlike today. Yes, it had its shares of imperfections too, but the few things it did well made it stand out head-and-shoulders above the (American) pack. And the very qualities in which it excelled are taken for granted now. The Corvair was way ahead of its time, calling out from the wasteland; but then, prophets are rarely appreciated in their own time.