(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Great piece, Paul. Every time you write about the Corvair, it reminds me I should put one on my “bucket list.”
Agreed, love it when Paul swings for the fence on these. Just realized I’ve never even been in a Corvair..
Never been in a Corvair? You kids! As a kid I first rode in our neighbor’s new sedan in the fall of 1959. It had a gasoline heater, much appreciated in midwestern winters. Vastly different car from the one friends bought new in 1967, the better handling, curvaceous coupe shown above. One thing I especially remember about all Corvairs owned by friends, right through the 1970’s here in SoCal: they were well loved and meticulously maintained by their owners. Our midwestern neighbors had their car for close to ten years and I don’t remember any rust despite salted roads. Its dark blue paint was washed and waxed on a regular basis. It required a fair amount of maintenance in later years but proved the maxim that any car regularly serviced can last.
I wish I was old enough to appreciate Corvairs.
Everytime I see one, I see a rear engine Edsel with the safety of a Pinto.
Damn Ralph Nader!
They were actually one of the safest cars of the time period, as long as you respected the rear-engine layout. Better brakes, better handling, better traction than anything else…plus the rear-engine design made a nice front crumple zone that absorbed energy in a front-end collision, similar to modern cars. A schoolmate of mine who totaled her Corvair back in the 80s can attest to that!
The biggest danger I guess was carbon monoxide if you had a leaky heater system. I’ve owned mine for over 26 years now, and never had a problem with that aspect, but you definitely can’t neglect it.
For its day it had some good engineering for crashworthiness(for a small car)
The Unibody crumpled and the front suspension and crossmember protected the front-mounted gas tank. GM engineers hadn’t discovered yet the collapsible steering column or the hood that didnt come thru the windshield.
Little known factoid is that Pontiac was considering a version but axed it in the nick of time
I had a 1963 Pontiac Tempest and learned the hard way that the transaxle in the back was borrowed Corvair technology. It had a high compression 1/2 of 389 CI four cylinder reminiscent of a slant six. Call it a lazy four. It had a small 4 barrel carburetor, a torque tube connecting the bell housing and transaxle, and was evenly balanced weight front to back. I needed to repair the transaxle and finally found someone who knew it was Corvair technology. A rather unique car.
A suspension design that actually reduces grip when you need to slow down is a dumb idea.
Well Monsieur Niedermeyer, I’d say in some area’s our taste for classic cars comes very, very close.
The MkI Corvair is a styling icon that has influenced more designers then the good ol’ Mustang has.
Louis Bionnier, who designed the BT and CT 24 Panhards was inspired by the Corvair and its floating roof, as was David Bache who is responsible for the Range Rover.
Look at the little European toddlers from the sixties like NSU Prinz and Renault R8, Simca 1000 – all Corvair DNA
So many cars of the sixties bear the Corvair DNA, light wide and a low window or shoulder line.
The only sorry thing about the Corvair is, that after its failure, GM never had the cojones to give a guy a blank piece of paper to design something new.
‘t is was what Patrick Le Quement said to his boss, the chairman of Renault when he pleaded to start to produce theTwingo :
“The biggest risk Renault can take, is to take no risks at all “
There are very, very few American cars that I would honestly consider importing over the pond.
The 2nd gen Corvair is one of them, along with an early Toronado, a ’67 or ’68 Firebird and maybe an AMC Hornet or Ford Maverick.
Nothing really against American cars, they’re just not to my tastes. I respect a lot of them, but as a generalisation I don’t lust after them.
No offense taken, at least not from where I sit. 🙂
I think that most of us realize that no country’s vehicles – hell, no vehicle, period – fits every country’s road conditions and consumer preferences.
This would be an incredibly boring site had we not had these vehicular variations. I only get frustrated when people ignore the reasons behind these variations, and declare all vehicles of a particular country as “crap.”
Ralph Nader was right. My college roommate had one. It was cool. We drove it all over Mexico, but it would also put you into the corn field with no warning at all. It happened to him three times I know about. Twice I had to go pick him up.
Sure, it’s an easy fix. I know people who collect them today. Still, in my world, you only get one chance to kill me, if I can possibly help it. To this day, I won’t buy a GM vehicle, and it’s not just because so many of them are such junque. Bankruptcy. Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving crew.
Actually not to get into a whole battle, but Nader was WRONG, the 1st generation Corvair was investigated by the government and it was found to handle no better or worse than comparable cars from that era. Could be that your friend was a shitty driver.
They were cleared from any wrong doing, can the Corvair be tricky if you F-up? Yes, just like a 356 or a 911 or any other rear engined car, I assume you won’t buy a Porsche either?
Please go back to ttac…..
First question I would ask someone that had an issue with the 1st gen Corvair: “What was your tire pressure?”
Of course the problem was tire pressure. Too bad the total idiots at GM forgot to tell this to my old roomie in time to keep him out of three corn fields. Bad cars are bad enough, but one that tries to kill you is worst of all.
Incompetent drivers dont help either
GM absolutely told your old roomie to keep a 10 psi difference between front and rear tire pressures — it was right there in the owner’s manual. Of course, that didn’t help when you went to full-service gas stations, and the pimply-faced gas jocky checked your air pressure and, thinking the fronts were low, filled ’em up with air.
My 1987 Porsche 944S and 2002 Porsche Boxster both also specify a F/R air pressure difference, albeit only a 7 psi difference instead of 10 psi. I guess the only difference now is that Porsche has a sticker on the inside of the gas lid with this info on it…in retrospect, if GM would have a put a sticker on the gas lid, maybe it would have prevented some of the problems.
I always admired my old roomie. He was a Rice engineer who later worked for NASA and helped our guys go to ….. tha’ moon. Maybe he shudda have read the manual. Fat chance I will ever buy a GM product.
The first gen Corvairs were totally busted. Low tire pressure WAS the problem. Anyone who says different is not in possession of the facts. BTW, neither my old 911 or my wife’s 996 has ever seen the inside of a corn field.
JimBob clearly doesn’t know much about the subject of Corvairs. The fact of the matter is this: The very reason that Ralph Nader became a household name was based on a complete falsehood. The U.S. Government did a very extensive (an understatement) test (thrashing would be a better word) of The early Corvair (a 1963), an early 60’s Falcon,a Valiant, and a VW beetle and a Renault, as well as a 1967 (sec.gen.) Corvair. They did this at Nader’s insistence because he wanted these “dangerous” cars off the road. I have a CD that I got from the government (all 134 pages of it) that explains all the test procedures, and they were brutal. It also contains all the letters from Nader and his assistants telling them how to conduct the tests,right down to the coefficient of friction of the pavement where the tests were to be performed. They even played around with tire pressures (putting 26 psi in the FRONT tires as well as the back ones) They installed outriggers on all the cars tested. When all of this was over, and the results were in, they called in a panel of three automotive engineers to go over their findings to see if they had left out anything. The engineers concurred completely with the findings. The only cars that they were able to overturn (the outriggers kept them from actually overturning) were the VW and the Renault. The early Corvair came out at or near the top of all the tests (excluding the 67 Corvair). In a couple of the tests the,67 Corvair developed so much grip (.74g) that it wasn’t included in the results.Bottom line: The words they used to describe how the early Corvair compared to the other cars (67 excluded) were “compared favorably”, and “at least as good” The very thing that Nader built his reputation on was a lie.
You hit the nail squarely on the head as to the real reasons why the Corvair didn’t survive in the marketplace; in the years that I owned one, it got tiring having to repeat that no, it didn’t flip and it wasn’t dangerous to drive, and that Ralph Nader didn’t have the car outlawed.
Americans’ preference for high horsepower, slow revving V8s in their performance cars, and the limit to what would realistically fit in the Corvair’s engine bay, drove the nails into the Corvair’s coffin. The relatively high production costs of the Corvair, which shared little with other GM cars, probably didn’t help matters, either.
Also wrong: all Studebakers were yellow and had Ford engines.
Not wrong: the Corvair was a blast to drive.
I had to laugh when I read your comment about yellow Studebakers. When I grew up, it seemed like every Studebaker was a green 4 door. I always though they sent all of the unsold stock of green 4 door Studebakers to East Tennessee and sold them at a deep discounts to get rid of them.
Damn, these were good looking cars. You’re absolutely right on the styling of the Gen1 versus Gen 2–I love ’em both, but the Gen 1 sedan is truly revolutionary, while the Gen 2 coupe almost looks Italian sexy. Which gets me thinking on Europe … I wonder if The General ever thought of selling the Corvair internationally? I know they were incredibly silo-ed as a company at that time, but it seems to me the car could have done really well there, with a customer base that would have better “understood” the car. Perhaps it was too big for Europe? Corporate myopia? But imagine the world if GM had sold the hell out of the Corvair in Europe while cheerfully serving us Big Gulp Camaros.
You have to think that the idea of overseas sales was at least considered for the first generation. The size was right, and the dashboard is perfectly symmetrical to allow for relatively easy production in a right-hand drive version.
The problem may have been achieving a competitive price. The Corvair is believed to never have been particularly profitable, and regardless, it would have commanded a relatively high price as an import in Europe. Setting up another production line in Europe might not have been a viable option, either. And while considered fuel efficient by U.S. standards, I’m not sure it would have been considered as such elsewhere.
At a car show years ago, some guy had a ’65 or ’66 4-door that had been assembled in Switzerland. Also, some of my moms relatives in the Netherlands had one, though I never saw it.
That’s true about European assembly of CKDs, but I didn’t mention that because I was focused more on full European production, which probably would have been more cost effective.
Interestingly, the export of fully-assembled Corvairs exceeded that of CKUs by a factor of two to one. CKUs may have been assembled mostly in countries with particularly high tariffs on completed cars.
Aside from import duties, which were prohibitive in some countries, a lot of potential markets had displacement-based taxable horsepower rules. By American standards, a 2,680 cc six was itty-bitty, but to buyers in many nations, that was an expensive proposition in terms of ownership costs. It wasn’t as harrowing as the prospects of, say, owning a mid-sixties Imperial in France (without bothering to do the actual calculation, I’m guessing the Mopar 440’s taxable horsepower rating would have been “yes, all of them”), but it was more in the luxury car category than family sedan territory.
The Corvair was sold abroad, some were even assembled abroad as knock down kits in Belgium, I believe Corvairs made it as far as Australia even, a couple made it to Cuba just before the embargo kicked in in 1961.
The Corvair was sold in Europe, and the gen1 was not that uncommon in countries that bought higher numbers of American cars: Switzerland, Holland, etc..
But American car sales started to decline by the mid sixties, as the Europeans filled the niche with their own bigger cars. BMW started making sixes; MBZ, etc…I think very few gen2 Corvairs were sold, By that time, Europeans who still wanted American cars bought the really big ones.
Because of the exchange rates back then, US cars were very expensive. A big sedan was considered a luxury car. The Corvair wouldn’t have fit into that equation. There were better and cheaper choices for sporty cars made in Europe.
Interesting. I had not realized the degree to which the Corvair was available Internationally. In addition to the pricing and fuel efficiency issues, I imagine distribution was an issue as well. I am sure a huge challenge was how to organize the dealers and provide service and support for the product in various countries.
Corvairs are very rare in Australia and the one pictured in the link below is the only one I have ever seen.
Really clean and original and just parked on the street like any other car. Check out the number plates, lol
There is so much to be said about this car…so much swirl and chaos and noise….it’s hard to know where it begins.
To start: the premise. WHAT…were they THINKING? They were copying the most successful imported car of the times, the Volkswagen. And, for what? The Type 1 was made to provide transportation for a PRICE.
Many of the cost savings couldn’t be duplicated in the States. The 1950s VW was made in a war-torn land, with starving workers desperate for productive activity, in a plant nobody legally owned using equipment that didn’t have monies due against it. The only costs were the materials, the pittance in wages, and the heroic struggles to keep the plant from being dismembered for salvage by whatever government held sway.
Compare to the States, where the UAW was in its glory years; where bean-counters were starting to control the industry. Equipment had to be shown to pay against investment. Plants were running at near-capacity; more car lines meant more car plants, and those needed to be designed, land procured, built – and then judged against profit/loss statements.
The Corvair’s price, or its status in the GM scheme of things, would be judged against all that.
Then, the layout. The KdF-Wagen was conceptualized by a German gadfly in 1932. Engineering, and understandings of engineering, had come a long way since. Rear-engine was still the layout at some European companies; but the Mini had shown another way – and Renault was soon to follow.
So, the Corvair would try a layout which might promise better performance, but which was flying in the face of a trend of engineering rationality.
Who would buy it? Chevrolet didn’t know. They tried selling strippers to compete with VW – and those were left languishing. They were surprised, so I read, to learn that the heavily-optioned models were the ones selling.
Sales were disappointing. The corners cut with swing-axles without limiters, caused some horrific accidents – an invitation for a radical lawyer looking to make his bones and find his fortune, to try using the media culture to demonize an industry. This being the era of impalement deaths from gaudy steering columns, the era of Jayne Mansfield’s decapitation, the era where a Detroit barge could neither avoid an accident nor let its occupants survive…the table was set. Had Nader not done it, someone else would have. But the Corvair was a pinata waiting to be smacked.
In the midst of this, the beautiful redesign…the refinements needed – and virtually no promotion to buy it. Tragic….tragic! Such engineering…basically abandoned by the company that put it together; allowed to be vilified by a clever agitator and demonizer; finally to be a special-order-only product and then to disappear without notice three years later.
I never owned or drove in one…rode in one, one time, as a kid. But I loved my Super Beetle and somehow I think I would have gone nutzo over this. The rear-engine handling advantage is real; when it’s good, it’s very good.
Had not Unsafe at Any Speed come to be…imagine that today we could find water-cooled, properly-braced, rear-engine sports and economy models today…how much more interesting the world would be.
As usual, JPT, you did a wonderful job of summing up the many complex factors that led to the Corvair’s lack of long-term success (I refuse to deem it a “failure,” given over one million units over ten model years).
On your last point, I have a different opinion: I think the rear engined configuration was doomed for mainstream cars. As you pointed out, the Mini showed a new, more efficient direction, and Americans’ desire for power steering and air conditioning – both difficult to achieve in a rear engined car until fairly recently – gave front engined designs an advantage.
Does anyone know what role, if any, tighter emissions standards may have played in the disappearance of rear engined cars from the U.S. market?
I have understood that water cooling (with a thermostat) allows much more control of engine temp than does air cooling, which has so many more variables. The lack of ability to nail down and maintain a particular operating temperature was, to my understanding, the fatal flaw with air cooled engines in the emissions era.
Once the air cooled engines were consigned to the scrap heap, I think that everyone scratched their heads and figured that the rear engine idea that was so popular in the 30s was an idea whose time had come and gone.
In America, part of that reason for the ‘failure’ of the water cooled rear engine automobile is that the market was almost entirely Renault’s. And Renault’s were, in the American sense, strange, weird, easily rusting, and guilty of second-rate support.
You’ve got it right on the environmental point.
Also, keep in mind that the ‘successful’ drive train layout (water cooled FWD) was a complete failure in the US due to the lousy sales of the Mini (it was withdrawn from the us market in ’68) for more-than-Renault reasons. It didn’t succeed until the Rabbit was introduced, and the American buyer’s willingness to try it then was based heavily on the past reputation and dealer network of the Beetle.
One word and number: Porsche 911. See my longer comment below.
Not being an engineer, I can only guess. Craig might be able to recall some of the GM buzz.
But it WAS emissions which led to the early departure (compared to other markets) of the VW Type 1 in the States. The Beetle had a catalyst and fuel injection; but an air-cooled engine has to operate over a highly-variable engine-temperature spectrum; whereas a water-cooled engine can control its operating temperature much tighter.
There was simply no WAY the Beetle could go to water cooling. At the time, VW didn’t have resources or knowledge or other needed ingredients to take their van to front-engine…so they did put water jackets on the engine. With some success.
And that was the limitation, I think. Not engine position but cooling. There wasn’t the technology to have a practical water-cooled rear-engine car in the lineup. Emissions mandated water cooling; which mandated a front mount.
Today it’s much different. We now have electric power steering; huge demands on alternators which have been engineered for much greater power output. Imagine, today: A water-cooled transverse engine/transaxle in the REAR…with an electric water pump, a front-mounted, OR a radial, radiator or heat exchanger.
Alloy braces in the front, and the cabin braced a la the SMART car. So you’ve got the handling advantage of a mid-engine car with the fuel economy and emissions compliance that comes with water cooling. The braced front box is your cargo space; with a mid-engine package, there might be room for a storage space in back as well.
Service? Quick-disconnect drop-down engine cradle. Since most cars need service at specialized repair facilities these days anyway…that’s just one more step. Modular removal might make for quick engine swaps; even a “borrowed” drivetrain while major repairs are made.
It’s doable…but not in this gun-shy regulated environment. Perhaps one of the Asian companies will try this in third-world markets.
Jeez; have you all forgotten that Porsche had no difficulty in meeting smog regs with their air-cooled 911?!? In fact, the 911 NEVER lost power during the whole “Malaise Era”. Given Porsche’s close association with VW, I can assure you meeting smogs regs was NOT the reason they killed the Beetle.
The Beetle was grossly outdated in terms of being cramped, not enough luggage space, noisy, poor heater, poor passive safety, comfort, etc……..
The Beetle was already a dead man walking in Europe by the late sixties, and only in the US did it enjoy good sales for a few more years. But the modern cars of the competition were going to wipe it out, especially the Japanese, like the Corolla and such.
The Beetle had to be replaced, but not because it couldn’t meet emission regs. Hell, if they really wanted to, they could have stuck a Rabbit/Golf engine in the back, or whatever. Plenty of folks have done that in recent years.
Porsche, of course, had reason to engineer its air cooled engine to smog regs – that was all they were selling, and it was a thoroughly competitive car in all respects. VW, as you say, was at the tail end of its lifespan, and a whole different issue.
As for Corvair, I suspect that GM saw no reason to master the learning curve on emissions from air cooled engines. The air cooled engine was a bastard-child at GM by the time emissions became an issue (if not before), and there was no way any significant resources were going into keeping it legal. Easier to just let it die.
Well…there’s several points here. There’s meeting emissions regulations; and then there’s meeting emissions to a COST. I’d already copped to my non-engineer status (actually I AM an engineer, but of the Choo-Choo Charley variety)…
…but from what I’d been able to deduce, from VW’s actions on the Beetle to 1977 and from what I’d read from the laymen’s tech mags and the buff books: The VW flat-four was a dirty engine; and emissions controls made it run all the hotter. In the last years they tried a catalytic converter and Bosch fuel injection…but it was a losing battle, on a car that otherwise had seen its day.
Porsche had none of that. They had an advantage in that they could ignore cost; but could NOT ignore the essence of what made a Porsche a Porsche. As I recall (From C/D; I could never own one or even afford to know someone who did) the 924 had an acceptance problem simply because it violated the Porsche engineering format.
There’s that. Then, Euro acceptance of the Beetle, which was a whole ‘nuther can of worms. Unlike American buyers, who saw the Beetle as a repudiation of the planned-obsolescence Detroit world…the Europeans, in large part, saw the Beetle as a war relic – a reminder of an ugly, shameful, bloody and horrific recent past. When the Beetle was available and cheap, they swallowed hard and bought. When options came, they jumped on them.
So the Beetle’s declining sales in Europe, like its acceptance in America, was partly emotional – entirely different sets of emotions.
Rear engined cars appeared to be the wrong configuration.
If you come to thnk of it, it all started with Hans Ledwinka who worked for the Chech Tatra company.
Dr Porsche was one of his pupils and the Tatra Streamline car with a rear mounted air cooled V8 was considered to be avant garde very fast, comfortable but dangerous at speed.
As a matter of fact, the German officers loved the car as autobahn cruiser in the second WW but the car was dismissed because it kiled many German officers.
The concept was used by Dr Porsche for the Beetle, Renault adapted it, so did Fiat but Citroën adapted the air cooled boxer engine only for their 2CV.
By the time the Corvair was launched, the Mini was launched and so was the Renault 4 (which was copied from the 2CV but without its practical backdraws)
By 1961 the world saw that both the Mini and the Renault 4 did work
The Mini even a budget sports-car, which was capable to beat much more expensive cars, the Renault 4 as being the first ultimate, practical, humble no-nonsense utility vehicle in the world. ( first mass produced hatchback)
Although the Morris Minor and Renault Dauphine soldiered on, the Corvair concept was simply launched too late.
Had it had FWD and the flat six positioned low in the body, it might have been a world conquerer, like the othe two FWD cars.
The rest is history; the world choose FWD.
You never drove one. That’s painfully obvious, given your comments. It takes twenty minutes behind the wheel, on a road like a snake with stomach cramps, to understand this car.
First off, the idea that the Corvair was obsolete the day it came out, thanks to the Mini is wrong. It may be easy to claim in 50+ years of hindsight, but we forget that for the first year or two the Mini came out it’s wasn’t the world beater success we’d like to believe. Unlike the Mustang which was instantly fashionable and sold like mad, the Mini didn’t take off and become the car that we all like to remember until a couple of years after its introduction. In the early/mid ’60’s. Which means that during its development period and early sales, the rear engine setup on the Corvair was still reasonably state of the art on a worldwide basis.
And in America, where Detroit was still turning out variations of a stick in the mud conservative 1934 automobile (with automatic transmission), it was down right revolutionary. Prior to the Corvair’s introduction, the last technological advance in American car layout was the Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow.
Yeah, it didn’t sell as well as hoped. Consider the audience it was presented to. Between the mediocre sales of the Corvair and the later triumph of the brougham, justification is given for H. L. Mencken to be one of the most understanding geniuses of the 20th century. Most American car buyers seem to have a propensity for conservative, flash and stupid.
To me, this was the peak of the 20th century American automotive industry – and the initial signs of the depths that it was going to sink into in a very short time. I adore the Corvair (and my lack of ownership of one is one of those little matters that have to be corrected in the next 10-15 years before time runs out) with the same fervor that I’m bored to tears by the Mustang.
The former was brilliant and subtle. The latter was mundane and flashy. And, obviously, it wasn’t even close which one sold to the American buyer. As usual, he went for flash over substance. Mencken was a genius. And the American car industry deserved bankruptcy long before it happened.
“No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.” H.L. Mencken, (1926)
I’m not sure why you think I’m dissing the Corvair – I’m not.
I’m saying it was a product of engineers, but put forth without managerial leadership. Nobody really understood what it was to be; where it was to go; what part of the market it was to sell to.
No, I never drove one. Yes, I’m well aware of the advantages of rear-engine weight distribution.
I disagree, there was a direction for the Corvair at first, cheap entry level car, they changed course mid-stream in the early 60’s once sales of the mid year introduced Monza Coupe really started to take off while sedans languished, some in charge at Chevrolet started to take notice, take at look at a first gen Corvair ad from 1962-1965, you can see what the Corvairs intent was, it was the first domestic real sport compact. You can see the shift in focus around 1962, the short lived Lakewood wagon came and went, while more and more focus was shifted over to the Monza and turbocharged Spyder.
The problem was not that Chevrolet didn’t know what they wanted to be, the problem was that it was to gourmet for most domestic buyers McDonalds tastes.
My understanding is that Ed Cole, Chev Prez and Corvair daddy had too much of an engineering head, which was probably the marketing problem!
I believe they sold something like 1.8 million ‘vairs in 10 years. GM may not have been pleased with the numbers back then, but they would be today!
To me, the Corvair hold a place for me much like the Studebaker Avanti. Neither car was the right choice for either company to produce, but I am sure glad they did! I love the history and discussion of both.
It’s ashame that people were hurt and killed in the Corvair because an $15.00 spring was left off the rear suspension, just like the $8.00 shield was left off the Pinto gas tank.
I have driven several early (64) Corvair and they were a blast! I bet the later ones with IRS are even more fun!
With all due respect, Syke, you are making the same mistake as the person who misjudged the initial impact of the Mini. Namely, judging the past with the benefit of 50 years of hindsight.
There were very good reasons that people bought Oldsmobile Delta 88s or Ford Mustangs instead of Chevrolet Corvairs or a fussy, hard-sprung European import, and it wasn’t because they were too stupid to know any better or intent on proving H.L. Mencken correct.
They were people like my parents, who needed a car to transport my brother and I, along with other family members at times, for long distances. For example, when we went to Disney World in 1973, we drove from Shippensburg, Pa. to Orlando. Flying, in those days before airline deregulation, was simply too expensive. It was the same for other families we knew – and we weren’t poor, and neither were those families.
When my grandmother’s great aunt died in July 1973, my parents loaded up my brother and I, along with my 60-year-old grandmother and HER 87-year-old aunt for the trip from Shippensburg to Lorain, Ohio. That’s a six-hour trip, one way, on the Pennsylvania and Ohio Turnpikes.
Now, which car do you think most people would prefer for those two trips (with the same list of passengers)? A hard-riding, good-handling but cramped Corvair or BMW 2002 with a buzzy engine and lots of road noise, or an air-conditioned, smooth, quiet Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme or Ford LTD Brougham?
Good handling is fun, but most people back then weren’t buying cars to drive at the autocross or on the Tail of the Dragon. They were driving them to work, on shopping trips or on vacations. They expected to cart around their kids – and even various relatives on a regular basis.
On the super slab, great handling matters a lot less than effective noise control, good air conditioning, enough room to keep the kids from squabbling endlessly in the back seat (ask my parents) and a quiet V-8 that doesn’t drive you crazy with constant droning by mile 30 of the trip. Not to mention the fact that said drivetrain is likely to be much more reliable than the ones offered in those more exciting imports.
(Amazingly enough, my parents, with jobs, a house and two kids to raise, weren’t inclined to spend their free time tinkering with their car’s engine.)
So, yes, they had no interest in a Chevrolet Corvair or a BMW 2002. They wanted a Pontiac Grand Ville or an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme with a quiet, reliable V-8, air conditioning that could freeze meat and an overall level of reliability that didn’t require membership in the local car club to keep it running. That hardly made them clueless or stupid.
Today, of course, there has been so much cross-pollination that BMWs have great air-conditioning, low-level Chevrolets offer decent handling and road feel and everything is relatively reliable. But it wasn’t that way in the 1960s and 1970s. The differences were much more stark, and going from one type of car to another really was like stepping into another…galaxie.
Were luck, today we can have a new, modern safe car for driving as well as a Corvair for fun! Corvair safety was a hot topic in 1966, but now we talk about it in as a historic retrospective, simply because the Corvairs that exist today are largely treated as antiquities rather than transportation.
It’s funny but cars that were not that great 20 to 50 years ago can be great hobby cars now thanks to modern part manufacturing and supply. For example are VW Beetle parts. No one remembers that in the 50s and 60s VW parts were hard to find and expensive but today they are abundant and cheap. 1980s 4 cylinder Chryslers, while known to give trouble when new are today easy and cheap to repair. You can almost build an engine with parts gathered on ebay!
Also important to remember is that the history of car manufacture is a process of trial and error, and we are lucky that a company as large as GM was willing to break the model and introduce a car so radically different when the competition just offered smaller versions of there large cars with no real innovations.
Ok, back to the debate…
Though I have to add that the 1964 and 1965 years were the best years for Corvair sales of their entire decade long run, was it a terrible failure? eh, nearly 2 miilion cars in about 10 years of production wasn’t that bad, but sales indicate that people did respond to the new 65 re-style well, after that, the Corvair fell off the map.
Good point. Most car companies would kill to have their failures sell as many units as the Corvair. Most of them would kill for their successes to sell that well. I’d be curious to look at the ten years of Corvair sales against, say, the final ten years of Studebaker.
The 1964 and 1965 model years were not the the Corvair’s best sales years; the best years were 1962 and 1963. 1964 sales were down substantially (probably due in large part to the Mustang mid-year) and while ’65 was up about 20 percent, it didn’t even sell as well as the initial 1960 cars.
The model year figures are (rounded to the nearest thousand):
Maybe it was the best years for the Monza series(64-65)? I don’t recall, I would have to look it up, 65 was the best year for the 2nd generation, but thats not saying much.
Nope, the best year for the Monza in total sales was 1962, followed by ’63. 1962 Monza sales came very close to the grand total of all ’65 Corvair sales. In 1965, the Monza and Corsa sold more than 180K combined, which was more than three fourths of Corvair sales, but still not as many as ’62-’63.
The big dropoff for ’66 was presumably due to continuing Mustang-mania (’66 was the best model year the Mustang ever had), the effect of Nader’s attacks on the Corvair (right or wrong), and the two previous factors having led to GM abandoning any attempt to market or further update the Corvair.
IIRC, with the Camaro now sharing showroom floors, Corvair production fell to something like 27K for 1967, then to something like 15K in ’68, and 5K in ’69.
OMG. What part of “Unsafe at Any Speed” do you not get?
In Texas, Detroit is our best customer for synthetic rubber and plastics. The last thing we want is for them to fail. So, WAKE UP. QUIT MAKING SILLY EXCUSES. GET YOUR HEADS OUT OF YOUR ASSES.
Dude, chil, stop being a schmuck and banging a drum for a 50 year old book, ONE chapter of the book was about the Corvair, thats it, and again, as I pointed out yesterday, the Corvair and GM were cleared of any wrong doing.
CLEARED???. Tell that to you old boss at GM (or use some other pitiful excuse). For the rest of us, that is total BS. Can you say “LOW TIRE PRESSURE” in another language?
Tell us once again just how it was that the once mighty GM went BANKRUPT. Sure, that took awhile, but it was a truly cooperative effort. The Corvair was a well meant beginning of the subsequent decline, but the numbskull thinking that made it fail was revealed even at that early date.
Curious. Nader’s “Unsafe at any Speed” was published in 1965. Over 100 lawsuits followed. Corvair sales were:
1965 – 247k
1966 – 110k
1967 – 27k
1968 – 15k
1969 – 6k
According to Wiki, it was a cost cutting measure – no anti-sway bar – that put my life at risk. Excuses for this are pitiful and disgusting. I guess old GM employees are just like anyone else, only less so. We can only hope that the current generation is better.
…and Gore would have been POTUS!
I think in many respects the real reason for the Corvair’s existence was that Ed Cole (who was chief engineer of Chevrolet during its development) had been interested in rear-engined cars since the ’40s and seized upon the recession and the demand for economy cars as the opportunity to push through a project to which the corporation otherwise would have been very resistant on general principle.
He said in an interview in the early ’70s that the reason for making the Corvair so different was to differentiate it from the standard Chevrolet in order to avoid cannibalizing sales. I assume that’s what Chevrolet told the corporate product committee and I can understand how that would sound great in those sorts of meetings, but as you point out, from an economy standpoint it was really pretty ludicrous, especially when you consider that at that point, the Corvair had even less commonality with any other Chevrolet product than the Corvette did.
While the Corvair design team obviously looked at VW and Porsche, there was also a lot of the Corvair’s engine design that was pretty much a clean sheet of paper — and not just for Chevrolet. There were a fair number of air-cooled twins and fours, but in the late ’50s, the only air-cooled flat sixes were a few aircraft engines (the Porsche 911 didn’t arrive until seven years or so after the Corvair program started). The Chevy guys found that because aircraft engines are so different from passenger car engines in operating conditions and manufacture, there wasn’t much worth copying. So, the development program ended up being a lot more elaborate than just being a scaled-up copy of the Typ 1 VW.
If Unsafe at Any Speed hadn’t been published, I doubt it would have made much difference in the Corvair’s fate. GM had already decided to let the Corvair die a natural death months before Nader’s book was even announced; the Corvair was doomed almost as soon as Mustang sales hit the six-figure level.
I think there’s a clear parallel to be drawn between the Corvair and the much later Fiero, which was another project that Pontiac wanted to do because it was novel and interesting and sporty, but had to sell to the corporation as an economy car. We can find various other examples, too.
In each case, the storyline is about the same: Some bright young engineer or group of engineers latches onto a nifty idea either because it’s a great idea or just because it’s nifty, manages to get the division general manager’s support (it’s helpful here that a division’s chief engineer was often the leading candidate to become the next general manager), and eventually cajoles or coaxes the corporation into letting them put it in production, often by making unhappy compromises and/or unrealistic promises. The nifty idea appears on the market, is proclaimed nifty by the usual crowd, and then turns out to have some hithertofore-unforeseen flaws or drawbacks, frequently though not always resulting from the aforementioned compromises and/or unrealistic promises. Bright young engineer and company come up with clever solutions that address most if not all of the flaws, but development and production lead times mean the solutions are not ready for a few years. Bright young engineer then gets promoted or otherwise moves on, sometimes even before the solution goes on sale, leaving the nifty idea in the hands of successors who either aren’t that interested or have their own pet projects to cultivate. The corporation, which in most cases wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about the nifty idea in the first place (as they generally are not about products that aren’t cheap to build and likely to sell in massive six-figure quantities), axes the nifty idea as soon as it seems expedient to do so. The usual crowd wails that once again, the company has dropped a product as soon as they finally made it what it should have been in the first place and surviving examples become cult collector’s items.
Well said!! I’d also add that the “pet project” fate you so beautifully describe is actually a “good” outcome. Others, like the Vega, just wind up being a barely improved mess unloved by virtually everyone. Or dismal failures that never make it out the door but cost significant money, like the GM Wankel.
Chevrolet never seemed to figure out what this car was. First, it was a strippo economy car. Next it was a sporty euro-inspired car, but without the suspension or steering to back up its potential. I think Chevy envisioned this version as a compact for intelligent people. If they envisioned it as a real european sports car, why was there a 4 door?
All the while, the car seemed to be screaming to all who would listen what it was – it was as you have so ably described. You were listening to the car, but few others were.
I have never been under the thrall of the Corvair, but you have convinced me that the thing had some merit as a drivers car. It is so maddening that Chevy could never get it right. Chevrolet in 1962 or 64 or 66 had virtually unlimited resources. Unfortunately, they also had a terminal case of blindness about finding a market and exploiting it. Maybe if a company like AMC or Studebaker had been able to come up with something like this, they could have treated it as the niche product that it was and made it a really great niche product. But Chevy in the 60s was not about niches, was it.
The problem with the Corvair’s inception was classic GM: The car was ramrodded thru because Ed Cole believed in it. He was president of Chevrolet, later president of GM (one of the last good ones), and a shining light in the company. With lots of personal power from his previous accomplishments (among them the SBC). So he had the internal power and authority to get the car built.
What he didn’t have was enough power to overcome the resistance of what I’ve always called the “drone crowd”. The conservative non-thinkers who were more interested in protecting their own turfs and repelled at the thought of taking a chance with something different, advanced and unique. It might not work, and somebody would have to be blamed for the failure. Not me! Better not to try than possibly fail.
This is the same crowd that replaced attempts at brilliant engineering with vinyl roofs, velour interiors, opera windows, etc. You know. Those cars.
So once the Corvair was in process, if the drone crowd couldn’t stop it, they could as least attempt to mitigate the (in their perception) risk by nit picking bits and pieces out of the design. It was their attempt to minimize the risk. And keep the costs down. Cheap failure is always preferable to expensive failure.
While the drone crowd were always there in the GM corporate offices, they didn’t really hurt the product as long as all the cars being produced were nothing more than yet another stylistic revision of what had been produced last year, five years ago, ten years ago, etc. Once the designs got radical and different, however, their attempts could seriously damage it. Not that they realized that’s what they were doing.
I do not disagree that what you describe was a large and growing problem at GM in the 60s. However, Chevy in the 60s was very much about doing what it could do, and not at all about listening to the market. Virtually every big new market niche was initially discovered and exploited by Ford, with Chevy’s contribution a me-too product 2 or 3 years later. Thunderbird. Mustang. Bronco. LTD. Also little things like Magic Doorgates and reversible keys. While all this was going on at Chevy, John DeLorean at Pontiac (after his predecessors Knudsen and Estes) had a sense of the market and improved on the muscle car concept that Chrysler had been bumbling around with since 1962 but failed to really do it in a way that would really sell.
Chevrolet in the 60s was huge, and had become a increasingly dysfunctional mess because they had been so successful at doing one thing very well for so long (an attractive, reliable car at a popular price). Cole’s idea of the Corvair was certainly an attempt at something different, but I still think that his vision was “Hey, look what we can do” and expected America to lap it up because we were so used to lapping up new Chevrolets. Cole had no better feel for the market than anyone else at Chevrolet at the time, and what flashes of promise the Corvair did display were shot down by your drone crowd of accountants and micromanagers.
For all that though, the Corvair (as most enthusiasts see it) was never going to amount to more than a niche product. It was a lousy Falcon or Valiant, which was where the volume was. And, without someone like Zora Arkus Duntov to really nurture it and make it what that niche really wanted, it became a kind of sports car that was ruined by being watered down in an attempt to sell it to the number of people that Chevrolet was used to thinking about.
Agreed. As much as I love the Corvair, Chevrolet should never have gone down this (curvy) road. It was Cole’s love child, and Chevy never really saw it as their own.
Wonder what DeLorean could have done with it…
I don’t know if I’d agree that Chevy didn’t listen to the market. They did very well in the 1960s. Yes, Ford was a bit more adaptive but they had to be given their also-ran status.
Keep in mind that the Corvair was a direct response to the VW’s success in the marketplace; it wasn’t just an engineer’s wet dream.
I suppose it is possible that a Zora could have cultivated a bigger sports coupe market for the Corvair, But in the long run was a rear-engined car viable anyway?
Well, at one point Chevrolet was considering a junior Corvette based on the Corvair as well, ooohhh so so pretty Monza GT
I question how seriously Chevrolet actually considered production of the Monza GT; it’s been fairly well documented that there was some fear of cannibalizing Corvette sales, which is also the reason why we never saw a Pontiac Banshee.
Chevrolet dealers certainly felt Chevy was not responsive to customers. According to John DeLorean, by the late sixties, the Chevrolet Dealer Council was getting pretty antagonistic about the fact that Ford had so many products and features that Chevy didn’t.
Though the Banshee was front engine, which is why it was considered too close to the Corvette, the Monza GT rear/mid and was aimed more at the 911. They got as far as a production feasible car with real doors and a real interior, but when support for the Corvair dried up, so went the Monza GT, it does still exist today in the GM Heritage Collection.
To me, it is an interesting contrast between the Idealist (Cole) and the Opportunist (Iaccoca). Cole had the power to push the Corvair through, but it was Engineering driven (build a better Beetle?) and not Market driven. Even when developing products to meet emerging market needs (like the Vega), there still seemed to have been an American Engineering hubris that led to “moon shot” products that couldn’t meet financial targets or customer price points, and were then severely damaged by bean counters (who are easily blamed for “bastardizing the cars” but were arguably doing their job). That said, Cole was clearly a brilliant Car Guy, and fought effectively to preserve the vision that GM should be an innovator.
In contrast, Iaccoca just had a knack for finding a buck. Throughout his career, especially at Ford, Lido had the magic touch in reading the market and generating the right response, both for sales success and corporate profits. While one could argue that he’d lost his touch toward the end at Chrysler (the TC, the endless chromed-brick K-variants, etc.), he was very effective at hyping what was on the ground at Chrysler when he arrived, and developed a pitch for the company that was perfect for the time.
I found myself thinking about what would have made the second-generation four door look better. How about a roofline more like the Jaguar XJ — with a gentle arc to the rear and a semi-fastback profile?
That got me thinking about how the weakest part of the coupe’s design is the overly hunchback look of the C-pillar. A bit more curve and perhaps a kick up at the base of could have filled it out a bit better.
Otherwise a brilliant design that is indeed timeless.
Your comment has me looking at the car again. The proportions of this Corvair are much like those of the 1967-69 Barricuda hardtop. Similar roof slope that is neither fastback nor notchback, and a fairly long rear deck. The Corvair carries the look off better than the Barracuda (which really only looked good in its fastback version) but neither one really hit the mark of what was considered a good looking car in that time period.
Yes, it looks like a Barracuda notch, and I think both cars are lovely!
Yes, the trunk is longer than we’re used to, in relation to the hood. The effect is more trim little skiff than cigarette boat. Per Paul’s point about the Euro-ness of the Corvair, it also reminds me of the Panhard coupes he wrote about once.
I just don’t see the resemblance between the ’65 Corvair and the ’67 Barracuda coupe. From most angles the Barracuda’s rear window appears concave, but from all angles that of the Corvair looks convex. That and the very different-thickness C pillars are what I look at, not the similarities that may exist in overall proportions.
I agree that the fastback ’67-’69 was preferable to the coupe. Late in the run of Malcolm in the Middle Malcolm got himself his very own first car – a ’68, I think – that was a hopeless wreck, but I understood the impulse. When they were new, it was obvious what a leap they were above the crude first-gen Barracuda.
(It was obvious why there was no 2nd-gen Corvair wagon – because of the Chevy II – but I’ve never understood why in 1967 the canceled Valiant hardtop coupe and convertible continued on with Barracuda badges & styling, whereas the wagon was simply dropped. The Valiant and Dart wagons through ’66 appealed to lots of people, including some we knew.)
Chevy also dropped the Chevy II/Nova wagon after 1967, and the Falcon wagon only continued beyond that point because it had begun sharing its body with the Fairlane in 1966 (both used a wheelbase unique to these two wagons, set in between the normal Falcon and Fairlane wheelbases, with each essentially using its own front clip on the same body from the cowl back). So it wasn’t just Chrysler.
The reasoning was apparently that intermediate wagons had cut into the compact wagons’ market. For similar reasons, as well as competition from ponycars, hardtop and convertibles were disappearing from compact lineups as well. Due to the aforemention competition, it is true that compact sales were down across the board in the mid-to-late ’60s.
We’ve discussed the disappearance of the compact wagons before. How much it was driven by intermediate wagons having decimated the market for compact wagons, as opposed to manufacturers wanting to upsell customers to more profitable intermediate wagons (and save the expense of doing tooling for compact wagons), is debatable. Around 1968, small cars sales began to rise again, and in hindsight the Big Three might have been better off keeping the compact wagons around. Subcompact wagons proved to be strong sellers, as a way of maxmimizing space in small exterior package. In the early ’70s subcompact-less AMC would have some success in the compact segment with the Hornet wagon, and Chrysler would also bring compact wagons back with the Volare/Aspen in 1976, followed by Ford’s Fairmont in 1978.
Hmm. Went back and looked, still see the similarity, still want one! 🙂
I’m particularly intrigued by the rear end of the gen2 model. It’s definitely moving away from the straight lines of the first generation and the drop to the rear as well as the pinching of the tail reminds me of several later Jaguars, the ’72 BMW Bavaria, and the Peugeot 504 among others. And in a ’66 Chevy product – wow.
During early stages of Corvair’s development, All configurations were tested and I always was surprised that Ed Cole too quickly put aside the fwd configuration to favour the rear-engine layout. In addition, Maurice Olley, current head of chevy’s advanced engineering, wasn’t a partisan of the rear-engine drive. For me, Cole brought his colleagues around to his point of view and he eliminated all other suggestions.
I recall reading that they ditched the FWD because they thought the costs would be even higher and they felt that the FWD cars without any power assisted steering required too much effort to steer. GM was no stranger to experimenting with FWD at this point, the UPP FWD which ended up in the Toronado was in its early stages of development around the time the Corvair launched.
I know these arguments but I find them too superficial. It wouldn’t be too costly to feature the car with a power assisted steering. Later, Ed Cole admits his error and Chevy worked on a FWD Corvair’s successor: http://deansgarage.com/2012/an-interview-with-roy-lonberger-part-2/
I think it was a combination of cost and the fact that in the late ’50s, front-wheel drive was still pretty primitive — and a lot of contemporary examples had many bad habits, including very heavy and balky steering with a lot of kickback. Even with the rear engine, Chevrolet adopted a very slow ratio for the Corvair’s steering to minimize steering effort and I don’t think they would have considered FWD acceptable in that regard.
As for making power steering standard, keep in mind that they dropped the front anti-roll bar because it added $4 per car. On a full-size Chevrolet, power steering cost $75 retail, which suggests it would have been something like $18 per car in terms of manufacturing costs. Also if you’re looking at an under-$2,000 list price, adding $75 for power steering is a nontrivial expense (that’s almost 4 percent of the list price). Chevrolet kiboshed the original plan to make Powerglide standard for the same reason.
Futhermore, I think It would be unnecesssary to use a power steering if GM’s engineers and management would have created a small car more closed to european cars (Size, displacement, etc,..) rather than six cylinders. The most of FWD’s european pioneers begans with four or two cylinders engines. Citroën tried to develop a citroën FWD (22CV) with a V8 engine and it was a disaster.
The Ford Taunus P4 is probably a decent touchstone in this regard, although I’ve never come near one, much less driving one, and don’t know how heavy its steering was.
Aside from the steering, I imagine one of the big issues for Chevrolet would have been wanting to avoid the expense of CV joints.
For me, in the sixties, the Corvair was the most interesting car from Detroit with a good conception for rear-engine car but it already wasn’t any more an view of the future in this time. I think the cost of CV joints was worth the cost of an aluminium cast engine but I don’t say GM enginneering didn’t want producing a car smaller than the Corvair: I have found a conceptual rendering on this site (http://www.moaaad.org/catalog_cat1d.php?pageNum_RScategory1=23&totalRows_RScategory1=54&decade=1940s) which shows a small car ( an early proposal for chevy cadet maybe with a FWD layout and with dimensions roughly closed to Chevy chevette’s dimensions ) If it was a FWD cars, It shows that GM’ enginneers (Maccuen!) toyed with the idea. Maybe, GM’s managers didn’t like the idea to produce a too little car.
To me nothing says Bill Mitchell, not even the ’63 Riviera, like the ’65 Corvair and the two year only ’66-’67 A-bodies. I always preferred the second gen Riviera over the first (my favorite being the ’68-’69) and have recently become a huge fan of the C3 Corvette.
The rest of the domestics took such a drubbing by Mitchell and his team that the Broughamification of cars was the natural response, like the way older women become more reliant on hairstyles, makeup and jewelry to stay attractive or at least feel that way.
The red feature car looks terrific with its Rally wheels. The owner gets it and wisely resisted the temptation to give it whitewalls.
Really a great article Paul, one of your best.
Nice cars,hardly ever see them at UK shows though,maybe it was a bit to daring for the time.All the other compact cars were basically baby Yanks and looked it,people can be very unadventurous when it comes to something new.
The styling of the ’65 dashboard was a huge advance over any other GM product; those tunneled gauges and the semi-wraparound driver area soon migrated to many other GM vehicles.
I grew up in the back of (used) Corvairs. Dad always had them as his car until the mid seventies. As a little kid I loved that the heat came to the back seat passengers first.
My favorite was a black over yellow Monza convertible- 66 I think. Dad bought it non-running and rebuilt the engine in our garage over the winter of 1973. I was always annoyed that he didn’t hang onto that car for me, but he said there was too much rust in the cowl and rockers – that by the time I got it I’d have two halves of a car rather than one whole.
It is on my list of cars I’d still like to own. Closest I came so far was looking at a cargo Corvan when I was in college. Too much rust under it is what scared me off…would have been an interesting ride, but not so much as that yellow Monza….*sigh*.
My dad had a white 63 Monza 4-speed and it was stunning with the red interior. I remember the heating vents like Bob mentioned. The other cool thing was that the rear seat would fold down and make a little bed, at least for a small fry.
Gosh Paul, I’m a Mustang guy and you’ve now got me imagining the landscape if GM had manned up on the Corvair, built it as it should have been built from day one and then put the development dollars the Camaro got into the Corvair.
Would we have ended up with two camps in the sporty/muscle car wars? A Mustang-esque faction that took lowlier platforms and slapped racier exteriors and bigger engines in them vs manufacturers that built something rear engine and revolutionary from the ground up that could not only go but handle as well?
What would the Corvair have looked like in 1975 in this alternate universe?
Very pretty car flawless..but for me the first gen monza…..whoooa
I came back for a second look at the red beauty. Flawless is right. I’m at a loss to think of a more attractive car. BMW 3.0CS is close, so is the rotary NSU but this is better.
So much of my Corvair love comes from the styling of the 65 2-door. If it wasn’t for this model Corvairs would be no more special to me than the equally interesting, and bland looking, Pontiac Tempest.
BTW Paul love the photos, they capture the lines of the car perfectly. I felt the same way about that black ’65 Continental you shot.
Agree with you on the 3.0CS, one of my favorite car shapes ever, along with this one.
My dad got one of these as a sort of mid-life crisis project after my mom died (he was 48 or so when he got it). He drove it for a while, and then had some kind of carburetor issue he couldn’t track down (or wouldn’t pay someone else to), and after a while it stayed parked in his driveway, deteriorating, like so many other project cars. I’m not sure I ever saw it run; I never rode in it. (I was an adult by this point.)
I think this generation of Corvair, and maybe the original Toronado, represents the peak of GM’s engineering prowess, and of its willingness to actually put it to use. Nothing GM has put into production since even comes close in terms of outright daring. There have been some impressive Corvettes, but they are just another refinement of the basic front-engine/rear-drive paradigm.
Corvair is defenitely an American car, not any European car in the sixties had hydraulic valve lifters, soft suspension, overmultiplied self centering steering, This gave the car definitely a Detroitesque personality.
There are two catagory of drivers in this world, those who have driven the 140Hp second generation Corvair and those who have not,
Take the tightest interchange ramp flat out and don’t worry, the Corvair will take you out of the curve and bring you back home on your feet.
Those GM donkies should be grilled forever in hell, for the unforgvable (deadly) sin of having destroyed their finest creation.
I think you are a little hard on the average American driver.
If you live in a place with lightly-trafficked, lightly-policed switchback roads, then I’d expect the Corvair to be a blast. But how many of us are so fortunate?
My commute consists of 4 90-degree turns (with stop lights) and perfectly straight roads. I think I can drive through the entire state of Illinois without touching my steering wheel. In that kind of situation, what good are the Corvair’s virtues? I’d have to go on vacation just to get proper use out of it.
I appreciate good handling cars as anyone but around here it’s almost pointless. All of a sudden that conventional front heavy 396 Camaro makes much more sense. You can enjoy it at every other stoplight(if nobody sees you and you don’t run out of gas that is).
My drivers ed car in 61 was a four door corvair with a glide. I preferred my 53 tudor flathead ford for reasons that make no sense today. I joined the navy that summer and by the time I was in a car buying mode again I had been all over and had come to appreciate the vw beetle. Bought one of them new in 66 and went back to the states for sub school.
That year one of my classmates had a 65 or 66 corvair like the red two door one in the picture. Drove all over new england in that. Thought the vw was inferior to that car in most respects. VW engines pulled studs etc when you made them faster. They had to revise their metallurgy when they went to a 1600. They only had a 1300 then so we didn’t know that yet. The corvair looked to me like it was much tougher. Unfortunately by the time I came to this conclusion (which I still hold) the corvair was on it’s way out. The corvair when stuffed into a vw was a world beater.
With reference to water cooling. It doesn’t seem to be much of a problem to water cool a rear engined car. There were loads of baja bugs that stuck radiators on the roofs but the ones that had greater applicability to the big picture IMO did not. Radiators at the front and electric fans and radiators stuck outside the engine compartment. All sorts of water cooled engines in old bugs thanks to Kennedy Engineered Products and Pinto Beans.
We could get really lost wondering “what if”. I tend to do that too much but one thing I did learn a long time ago. I don’t really care what anyone has to say, I drive what I want. If I could do 66 over again, I think it would be a corvair.
My last thought (for awhile) on the subject:
Ed Cole wanted the Corvair to be radically different so it wouldn’t suck sales from the regular Chevrolet. He intended the car to appeal to other than the already Chevrolet faithful.
The Fords of the 60’s (Falcon, Fairlane, Mustang, hell take it up to Maverick) weren’t that well thought out. Instead, Ford mastered putting out new cars on the cheap. Remixing the same old parts around on different platforms, or even using the same platform with different styling.
The problem with that approach was . . . . . . . all those Falcon buyers previously drove Customs. Those Mustang buyers traded in Falcons. At some point, I remember reading a passage where Hank the Deuce jumped down the throat of some underling (possibly Iococca?) yelling, “You’re coming up with all these new models, and at the end of the year our market share hasn’t changed!”
I wholeheartedly agree that the Corvair and Toronado were the high point of GM. After that, it was all downhill. There was a time when General Motors was magnificent, and I was glad that I grew up at that time, and in that place.
Ford’s return on investment for the Falcon platform and other associated bits undoubtedly dwarfed that of Chevrolet’s return on investment for anything associated with the Corvair.
Even allowing for the Falcon’s stolen sales from Ford’s low-line full-size cars (although I would argue that the 1960 Ford was simply not an attractive car in the first place), I would say that, over the long term, Ford was the one that recouped its initial investment, many times over, in its first domestic compact.
The Corvair was essentially dead after 1966, while the Falcon platform was being recycled well into the mid-1970s (Granada and Monarch) before it was finally replaced by the Fox platform in the fall of 1977 (Fairmont and Zephyr). I’m not aware of any Corvair mechanicals or body stampings that GM was able to recycle for other cars.
In the automobile business, like it or not, that is what ultimately matters. We can wax poetic about how well the Corvair drove, but the bottom line is that GM and other car makers are in business to make money (and that includes Toyota, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, etc). GM circa 2008 and the current drama with Peugeot-Citroen in France shows the pain when they aren’t making money.
Stockholders, managers and UAW members expect to receive dividends and paychecks, and, for that to happen, the vehicles made by the manufacturer must sell at a profit. From that angle, I’m not seeing how the Corvair was a better idea or more “well thought out” than the Falcon. Given that GM rushed out a Falcon clone within two years of the Corvair’s debut, GM must have thought that Ford was on to something with the original Falcon.
I had the privilege of driving a 65 Corvair. It was, however, for a VERY short distance. In 1975 I purchased a 1965 Dodge Polara with a slant six in order to arrive at a mapping firm earlier than any available puplic transport would alow. At the same time, my younger brother purchased a 65 Corvair. The Dodge served me well getting to and from my summer job as a surveyor. By the summer of 76, it had outlived it’s usefulness so I called a wrecker that would pick up cars. He said that he would be right over. My brother’s Corvair was parked behind my Dodge so I called my brother at work to find out where he kept his keys. His keys in hand, I started his car, put into reverse, let out the clutch and backed it down the slope of our driveway. Selecting reverse had been a little difficult but when I tried to get it into first to pull it into the carport of my parents home it was not cooperating. Something was not right. The final time that I tried to force the gear lever into first, the whole shifter, linkage and part of the surround pulled right out of the floor. Left with a totally disconnected linkage that I had dropped into the passenger footwell, I let gravity pull the car onto the street in front of the family home. I called my brother to try to explain what had happened expecting the worst. Unexpectedly, he took it as though it was inevitable and just asked me to see if the wrecker could take his car as well. That surprised me as I knew that he loved driving that car.
Not many Corvairs made it to here .Ralph Naders book did however, but were they really any worse than a VW?
I doubt it VWs are quite evil to drive fast and roll quite easily once its limits are exceeded and he kept quiet about those.
Hillmans unsuccessful Imp was quite at home on race tracks in the same class as the Mini and Jim Richards Sidchrome Imp is a racing legend here and that had a rear engine so the configuration could be made to work.
Unsafe at Any Speed and Nader in general also had some pretty negative things to say about the Beetle. The Corvair is really only one chapter in that book.
Some of Unsafe (I have the early-1970s version) discusses how pointy fins, slant-forward front ends, and bladelike front fender tips (e.g., ’59 Cadillac, ’63 Riviera, ’67 large Oldsmobiles) have hurt or killed people. The book concerns not just potentially harmful engineering, but also potentially harmful styling.
In 1972, Nader’s Center for Auto Safety published “Small on Safety,” an examination of a dozen lethal safety flaws of the original VW Beetle. I witnessed two them with my very eyes, when a Beetle ground-looped tail-first into a wall (snap oversteer) and the poor driver was partially ejected through the rear window (weak seat mounts).
Once by chance, I gave Nader a rode across town in my little NSU. I explained to him how all the Beetle’s key flaws seemed to be improved upon buy it’s progressive 1960’s-era design. I recall Ralph being completely bored by all that, especially when I told him how few NSUs were running around the country.
Every time I see a pic of a Corvair, or saw a real one, a friend’s mother had one, a turbo, no less, I think the back axle needs to be moved forward a few inches. Kind of like an early Funny Car, but with the axle moved in the wrong direction.
First, I think that CARMINE should be enshrined for his statement, “stop being a schmuck”, something I sense PN would love to say to numerous contributors, including me.
Second, of the cars from the past, only two would find their way into my garage today-a C2 Corvette or a one or two gen Corvair. I loved my ’64 Monza, black-on black-on black convertible (110 horse, 4-sp) which I paid $100 for in 1969. Eelco quick steering arms, available just down the street at JC Whitney, were a quick fix for lethargic steering. When I needed a quick pick-me-up, I’d head for Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago so I could hear my twin glass packs (also sourced from JC Whitney) sing.
My roommate inherited a ’65 Vair 4dr hardtop, with a Powerslide, but it was light years ahead of my ’64 in terms of ride comfort and handling.
While the Gen 1’s styling was trend-setting, the ’65 coupe was one of the best designs ever.
And by the way-Corvairs used to wax Mustang asses at the Sunday auto crosses at Soldier Field.
I owned 3 Corvairs back in the early 70’s… A gen 1 coupe, and a gen 1 convertible….I then owned a 1965 Turbo Convertible, I loved them, the turbo was fast, quiet and handled well. All of them had 4spds,heaters were scary from a health point of view, always fumes :-(…Sold the 65 and bought a Triumph Spitfire….Still miss the Turbo….another one of those cars I never should have sold.
There is no doubt that the gen2 Corvair coupe and convertible are beautiful, but I have to say I also love the somewhat maligned four-door hardtop.
I have never seen one in person, but when I do, you can be sure I’ll be all over it–and report back on CC!
Wow, the history of the Corvair almost perfectly fortells that of the Fiero. A great idea murdered by the bean counters that finally gets made right in the 59th minute of the 11th hour. I was too young to get into Corvairs but did do the Vega tour. I later got into Fieros and have remained with them since 84. Always loved the look of the 65 and newer Corvairs. A high school buddy of mine had one. We had a lot of fun in that car. Thanks for a realy great article.
A little late, but just came across this thread while looking for a VW part. I had a 65 turbo convert power top red on red with white top that I loved. Drove like it was on rails. Original 13 inch rims, but put 10 inch wide 15 inch rims without modification, balanced and blueprinted 180 hp turbo motor that put out 225 hp and 289 ft lbs of torque on the dyno. 0 – 60 in 5.2 seconds but only had a top speed with a 4 spd & positraction diff was only 125mph but it got there quick and race through the cones with ease . I just got tired of putting back in 6 different fallen out valve seats. Had to weld up the chamber and seat pocket and press in a new valve seat each time. that kinda ruins the CC job on the combustion chamber and the fun. A buzz kill for sure. Tons of interior space and drove like butter. Now I wish I had it back. If only they had continued development which included a duel overhead camshaft and lots more. I ate Porsches for breakfast. Great car and this was the first year of the double jointed rear half shaft axles, which were actually corvette half shafts and a bombproof Saginaw trans. This car would spin and never roll. the older corvairs had the single jointed axles like the older VW bugs had. That was the reason the older ones rolled. In a hard corner with attitude, the rear of the car would lift at the trans and pigeon toe the rear wheels like the old VW bugs did. New design did not do that, but was too ltae to save the corvair. I miss that car.
Another pic of the car
My first NEW car was a ’66 Corvair with the 140 horse engine. I eventually put an aluminum V8 in that one, but my next car was a ’68 with the standard 110 horse. As much as I loved the first one, the 2nd one — released when the nameplate was on its deathbed — left me flat. Sure, a big part was due to less power, but it was more than that. Among other things, it was a victim of the Clean Air Act. Unwilling to invest in actual engineering, GM just stuck a massive smog pump directly over the top of the distributor. It made changing or adjusting the points a 3 hour job.
But just as you said, the next new car I bought after that was a ’72 BMW 2002. Tell you the truth, it wasn’t nearly as good a car as the ‘vair.
This little jewel of GM harkens back tot he era of USA building and engineering, we always had a ‘vair or two in the family in the 60’s and our cuz bought a …..get this.. a 1963 white SPYDER convertible with a black gut, the most beautiful dash in a car ever seen and that sucker would wind up to 80 mph in third gear!!!!!! I learned how to drive stick on that car as a kid and when she bought it from GMAC credit for like 1800 bucks in 1964 it was the deal of the year!!!! Alas, time, the lure of v-8’s and a bad axle and blower bearing sidelined the car but it lay int he garage up until 1983 or so when she sold it for like 5 grand to a guy from the CORSA club who planned to restore it!!! FUN CAR< SCREW NADER!!!!!!
I saw this comment today at Bring-A-Trailer and couldn’t agree more…
Sep 11 at 5:20 PM
In 2011, Paul Niedermeyer at Curbside Classic did an outstanding design/historical review of the Corvair. Well worth a read. I had not connected the Neue Klasse antecedents in the Corvair. GLWTP, Vernis- and enjoy Cobble Beach this weekend?
Check out the 4-door Fitch Corvair for sale and the comments. The enthusiasm is infectious, what a car!
My older brother was a design engineer at Chevrolet from 1960 to 1970. Read Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed”. Most of what he published about the Corvair is accurate.
I owned a 1965 for 7 years, then a 1966 for 12 years until 1990. Drove the “65 through high school and college and the “66 through grad school and my early career days. It was a better all round car than anything else on the road until front wheel drive cars were sold in the U.S. Its limitations were a smelly heater and the 60-63 models swing axle design. Safety wise, the gas tank sat in front of the dash in the trunk and the steering column is a spear pointed right at your neck, not unlike other cars of the era. My brother said they started a campaign at GM giving out bumper stickers saying “I love my Corvair” to conteract the bad PR of Nader’s book. Some design engineers took a pre 1963 Corvair out on the GM test tract and ended up flipping it.
So, as a joke, the engineers who owned Corvairs would mount their bumper stickers upside down, so when their car would flip, you lettering on the sticker would be right side up. With these adverse results, Chevrolet had Argus Duntov design a fully independent suspension for the rear of the Corvair, as he had done for the Corvette. In 1965, the only cars I am aware of made in America with fully independent suspensions, was the Corvette and Corvair. So, Ralph Nader, your efforts help to kill the Corvair, and, also allowed a student/career nubie to drive a poor man’s Porsche for 19 years enjoying every minute of it. Never unintentionally spun out, never got stuck on the side of the road and drove the Corvair from coast to coast, through America’s great cities, the deserts, mountains and prairis and upto Alaska and back, 200,000 miles of pure motoring bliss.
Totally agree with PNs original premise, and it’s certainly one of the best looking cars of the ’60s… even considering some of the greatest European designs, this one is competitive. Always wanted a 65/66 4 spd coupe, but the right opportunity has never presented itself.
It’s safe to say that I am somewhat prejudiced about LM Corvairs.
My very first car, in 1971 was a ’67 Monza.
I’ve owned 7 (so far).
This “keeper” is my current one.
I’ve been curious for a long time and seeing this story means I have to ask. Do you just walk up to the car outside the house and start taking pictures as seen here. I can’t imagine if one is seen that every owner would be more than happy to talk versus the one who wants to know wth you are doing.
In this case, the car was actually across the street from a commercial facility (nut dryer), in front of an empty lot.
I have shot thousands of cars, many of them in front of (presumably) the owner’s house. If folks come out, I wave my phone/camera, and say (or gesture) about taking some pictures of their fine old car. And that I take pictures of old cars on the street for my blog.
I have only elicited a negative response in just a handful of cases, literally maybe two or three. I don’t know what to tell you, but what one projects can be readily perceived, unless it’s a person that is not normal. One has to feel 100% confident that one’s intentions are going to be perceived correctly. Without that confidence, I understand that some folks might feel nervous. I am never nervous, and it always works for me. If someone comes out of the house looking anxious, I flash them a smile that invariably puts them at ease. It’s been proven that humans have a keen ability to size up another person in less than a second. it’s a critical skill for self preservation: to determine if someone new that’s encountered is a genuine foe or not.
An additional factor is that generally speaking, Eugene is a fairly mellow place, and folks are not as paranoid and insecure as they might be in some other places.
And of course the overwhelming percentage of folks who drive vintage cars are used to getting attention. With old beaters, it’s a bit different, but the key is to express genuine appreciation for whatever the car is. Everyone likes attention, even it’s through their old car.
Thanks for another great story, Paul.
This is rather late and hopefully I haven’t shared this here before but in the 80s I had a little experience with a related model. While my friend was using his employer’s Corvair pickup, the fan belt slipped off and he overheated the engine (weak design feature?). He and I replaced a head gasket but the head bolts kept pulling loose so we got plenty of practice at re-torquing the head. Finally it got road-tested and returned. It had an AC power socket in the bedside, a drop-down ramp on the other side and, with two people up front, 50/50 weight distribution. I recall my friend saying, like Paul says, that if GM had kept developing that line, we’d have some great cars today.
Great article Paul. My first (running) car was a ‘66 Corvair Monza Spider 2 door coupe, purchased in 1971. 3 speed manual with 4 one-barrel carbs. Loved how it handled but basically gave it away after Nader killed the resale values. After going thru a few British and Italian convertibles, in 1980 I bought a ‘76 BMW 2002 – which I still have. My car story is exactly what you said happened to the Corvair faithful:)