So now we get to the car that I was really most interested in: the new 1965 Corvair Corsa. Its mission was to protect the turf it had carved out for itself back in 1961, when the Monza coupe was a big success, well beyond anyone’s imagination. It created a whole new category of American car: the sporty compact. That obviously was designed to appeal to import buyers, who had found well-appointed, sporty (to various degrees) compacts very compelling, driving up the import share of the market to 10% in 1959.
The Corvair mopped up a lot of them. In 1960, the new Corvair garnered a 3.6% share of the total market, imports lost 4.5 share points. In 1961, propelled higher by the Monza, the Corvair had 4.9% share of the market, while imports were down again, having lost a total of 5.0 share points, almost exactly the number that Corvair carved out for itself.
I’m not suggesting that all of its sales came from former import buyers, but undoubtedly a very healthy percentage did. But then the Mustang came along in the spring of 1964, and was an unexpected runaway success. And the Barracuda jumped in, with a similar format, offering muscular V8 performance for a very reasonable price. How would the beautiful but very different air-cooled rear-engine Corvair compare?
The big stunner was the new styling, about which there no leaks, unlike the Mustang, whose 1963 Mustang II concept was a very clear predictor of what was to come. The ’65 Corvair dropped down out of the blue, and the staff at C&D went gaga over it. And folks are still doing that today. It was a stylistic masterpiece, one that has held up incredibly well thanks to its exceptionally clean lines.
There’s a nice mini-history of the genesis of the Corvair here, for those still unacquainted with the subject.
The history continues, and asks the question just why the Monza was so successful with the sports car crowd, given that it really had very limited genuine performance chops to start with, and certainly didn’t look like the typical sports car. But something about it clicked, and undoubtedly it was the fact that unlike back in the early-mid ’50s, sports/import buyers were now more about the image than actually taking it to the track on weekends. It was sporty enough, that was the key. And it was decidedly different, in almost every respect, and that was the other half of its appeal. And folks took to calling it “The Poor Man’s Porsche”.
Yes, the turbocharged Spyder, when teamed with the optional sports suspension, kicked it some, but the steering was still somewhat painfully slow, and even turbocharged, the Spyder was never going to be a drag strip or red light type of car. But the GTO and Mustang and others of their ilk soon showed that that’s what a very rapidly growing segment of the market wanted. These weren’t former sports car buyers; these were more of the go-fast-in a-straight-line types, who appreciated a factory hot-rod when they saw it. Or secretaries and Moms who saw a cute car when they saw it.
The ’65 Corvair addressed all of the inherent limitations of its predecessor: the new IRS, largely taken from the Corvette, drastically mitigated the tendency of the rear end to become ill-behaved under certain conditions. Spring rates were adjusted. Wheel travel increased. Roll center lowered. The suspension was tuned very effectively. The result was simply the best handling American car, and by a mile. And the steering was quicker.
Obviously, at high speeds, the rear end was still going to want to run wider than the typical front-heavy understeering American car. Raise the speed more, and it’s in a classic four wheel drift. That might still not be what a lot of Americans would expect, but it was an absolute joy to those that could take advantage of it.
Car and Driver placed the Corsa right up there with the BMW 1800TI, the Alfa TI, the Volvo 122S, the Mini Cooper S, the Saab GT and the Cortina GT in terms of being an exhilarating drive for the enthusiast driver. Terrific, but that’s not exactly a very big niche of the market.
Lots of details about the Corsa’s optional 180 hp turbocharged as well as a bit about the standard 140 hp 4-carb mill. The increase from the 150hp version in ’64 presumably involved a bit more boost, as the torque rating increased to 265 lb.ft. @3200 rpm. The power peak came at 4000 rpm. It was a bit faster, with a 10.2 second 0-60 time, but hardly breathtaking, especially compared to the 271 hp 289 Mustang, with an alleged time of 5.2 seconds.
The reality is that the turbocharged Corvair engine was a mixed bag, due to the primitive technology of the time (it had no boost control whatsoever). And boost came on late, and was not fully there until about 3200 rpm, which was only 800 rpm below its power peak. It could be forced to turn up to 5500 rpm so as to be (mostly) in the boost rev range when shifting, but even then the brief moment of letting up on the gas to shift resulted in a momentary lag. It was clearly outclassed by the mostly linear power that the V8s made.
But there was much to love here, including the nicely-shifting four speed transmission, and its mostly good ergonomics, for the time. Visibility certainly wasn’t an issue!
C&D tries to mitigate the Corvair’s power delivery issues by pointing out that a base Mustang V8 would be about equally quick to 60, but that’s missing the point, as the Corsa was the top Corvair model, and the 180 hp engine was optional to boot. A more direct comparison would be a Monza with the still-optional 110 hp engine vs. the base V8 Mustang. And if the Monza had the Powerglide, it would likely be hampered further.
All that being said, in the middle of Mustang Mania, the ’65 Corvair managed to get a decent little bump in sales, to 236k. If one spreads out the ’65 Mustang’s 680k over 16 months, it outsold the Corvair by almost exactly 2:1. Not too shabby. Of course in 1966, Corvair sales started their rapid decline. The market for what the Corvair had to offer was evaporating, attacked on two sides: the Mustang on one, and a growing resurgence of small sporty imports.
Is it a coincidence that BMW’s new 1600-2 arrived in 1966? Even with its boxy gen-1 Corvair inspired styling, it was a much more compelling (and cheaper) package for the enthusiasts.
But here’s the final verdict of this comparison, by David E. Davis no less. And it’s not surprising.
The final line sums it up: “It doesn’t go fast enough, but we love it”.