Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1961 Corvair Monza 98 HP 4-Speed – The Poor Man’s Porsche?

The Corvair underwent a major transformation between 1960 and 1961. What arrived in the fall of 1959 was an unorthodox rear-engine economy sedan, with a modest 80 hp and a standard three-speed manual that did it no favors. The optional Powerglide was actually not any slower, but it didn’t enhance its latent sporty but still mostly repressed sporty qualities.

Those came out of the closet in several stages late in the 1960 model year, starting with the high-trim bucket-seat Monza coupe in May of 1960. A higher-output 95 hp engine followed sometime later. But what was really missing, especially for the higher-output engine, was a four-speed manual. There’s also a bit of uncertainty about whether some of those were installed in some late 1960 MY cars, but it was clearly available for the 1961 MY, making the transition mostly complete except for the optional HD suspension, which became available in the fall of 1961.

CL notes: “…the 98 hp Monza with 4-speeds is now the poor man’s Porsche, accord to some people, and at just over half the price, who wants to argue?”  Having owned a similarly-equipped ’63 Monza, I might.

CL points out that contrary to popular belief, the Monza does not come standard with either the uprated engine or the 4-speed; they were optionally available on all trim levels. The Super TurboAir cost $26.90, and the 4-speed $64.60.

CL called the front trunk (frunk) not very ideally shaped for the hard rigid suitcases of the time. But they failed to point out that it was significantly bigger than the 1960’s, which had the spare tire right in that well. For 1961, along with a lot of other changes, the spare moved to the rear engine compartment, which improved frunk space but only worsened the rear-weight bias to 63%.

All the Corvair engines got a slight increase in displacement for 1961, from 140 to 145 cubic inches. The Super Turbo-Air engine was hopped with a substantially more aggressive camshaft, revised carburetor calibrations, stronger valve springs and a free-flowing exhaust system and muffler. The changes gave the engine a somewhat lumpy idle and its torque peak went from 2300 rpm to 2900 rpm.

CL disagreed with the decision to change the standard final drive ratio from 3.55:1 in 1960 to 3.27:1 for 1961; undoubtedly done because of feedback that the Corvair wasn’t quite as fuel efficient as many buyers had expected (19-23 mpg). But combined with the engine’s higher torque peak, this was not an ideal ratio; the optional 3.55 ratio was projected to shave a second or second and a half off the 0-60 time (15.5 sec.), which was decent for a small sporty car but hardly breathtaking, especially compared to the larger V8 American cars. It’s better to compare it other compacts and European imports, including the Porsche. The only vintage review we have of one is a 1957 1600 Speedster, which was the lightest body style and clicked off the 0-60 in 13.3 and the 1/4 mile in 18.8, for which the Monza took 20.3 seconds. A regular-engine Porsche 356 coupe would probably have roughly split the difference.


The new 4-speed gearbox’ ratios ( 3.67, 2.35, 1.44, 1.0) were a bit less than ideal; first was very low and allowed 2nd gear starts. 2nd was a bit on the low side obviously too. Third was a nice around-town gear, especially with the higher 3.27:1 final drive ratio. The transmission’s operation was less than ideal too, with a long-throw shifter that was vague, a weak 2nd gear syncro, and unwanted noise. Several staffers pointed out that the VW’s transmission was superior an all these accounts. Nevertheless, it was a substantial improvement over the standard three-speed, which also had an unsynchronized first gear.

The Corvair’s steering “is extremely light and definitely slow”.  As to the Corvair’s controversial handling: CL points out that the Corvair’s suspension tuning has been set up for initial understeer, but that obviously with 63% of its weight on the rear wheels, swing axles and no efforts made to tame those factors (other than the differential air pressure recommendations of 16/26 lbs F/R), oversteer was of course inevitable at the limit. CL notes that “it takes a lot of guts even to approach an oversteer attitude. If you do approach this point the car gives plenty of warning, and provided that the brakes are not applied, the car is still easily controlled“.

This precisely mirrors my own experience, and I did a lot of spirited driving, including some 600 miles of the endlessly-curvy Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway in the late fall, when it was virtually deserted (back then). I approached that limit often, and could feel mild oversteer set in, but by staying on the throttle, it was all utterly benign, and lots of fun, constantly finding that limit and not pushing it.

“If the limit is exceeded on a smooth surface, the car will turn broadside or even do an about face. If the limit is reached on a rough surface, the car tends to chatter and hop well in advance of a spin out“. This is of course the inevitable result of either exceeding the limit, or doing something wrong, like stepping on the brakes in a turn that was felt to be taken too quickly. And of course, it was possible for the rear wheels to jack up, depending on the surface and other factors, which could then launch the Corvair into a roll or throw it off the road. This was of course the issue that ultimately made the Corvair’s handling controversial.

A VW or Porsche was capable of this, but their weight distribution of 42%/58% F/R was significantly less extreme than the Corvair’s 37%/63%. The Corvair’s big six cylinder engine was pretty heavy, and that rear weight bias was about as extreme as it got, and far from ideal. And it’s what came to bite the Corvair in its (heavy) tail.

The Monza interiors are beautifully done“, but there were a few minor quibbles. Contrary to popular assumptions, the Corvair’s interior dimensions were larger than the Falcon’s and Valiant’s, thanks to its very flat and low floor and despite its low 51/5” overall height. The rear seat even in the coupe could seat three, although getting back out was a bit of a challenge.

CL closes with the statement about many folks having taken to calling the Monza a poor man’s Porsche, and not disagreeing with it. But they rightfully conclude with the statement: “However we think that the sales success of the Monza shows that people will buy advanced engineering and the conveniences of a compact car, with price and economy definitely a secondary consideration.” I’d modify that to say that the sales success of the Monza shows that people will buy a sporty-looking and feeling compact car with a nicely trimmed interior, with price and economy secondary considerations.

At the top, I said that I might argue to point about the Monza being the poor man’s Porsche. There were a few key issues that kept it from that: the slow steering, the less-than ideal gear ratios and shifter feel, the lack of suspension upgrades (rear anti-camber spring, front anti-roll bar, etc.), the excessive rear weight bias, and the somewhat too large of its overall size and weight. Some of those issues were addressed in later iterations, others not so much so.

I really enjoyed my ’63 Monza (Super Turbo-Air, 4-speed, HD suspension), but in comparison to the ’63 and ’64 VWs I had afterwards, it was a bit too floppy and loose in comparison. The transmission is one key example: the VW’s box was always a delight to use, with perfectly-spaced gears and super quick and easy shifting. The Corvair’s…wasn’t. The steering was a similar comparison: the VW’s was quick and very accurate; the Corvair’s wasn’t. I know it may seem odd, but the VW was intrinsically “sportier” inasmuch as it was more fun to drive hard all the time; which one mostly did, or I certainly did. It invited that and thrived on it. The Corvair always felt a bit like I was pushing it hard, and preferred to take it easier, although once under way, it was a fun ride. More of a sporty cruiser than a genuine sports car.

I should point out that there were aftermarket kits to make its steering quicker and reduce the shifter’s travel, as well as the camber-compensating bar. These really did make a difference for those Corvair buyers who wanted to enhance its qualities.Mine didn’t have any of those.

And there’s the fact that the VW felt better built, was a lot more economical, was much more off-road capable with its higher ground clearance and just suited my tall body better. These are qualities that I placed importance on, but of course the VW was slower, a trade off.

If I was wanting a truly sporty coupe in 1961, I’d have gotten a VW Karmann-Ghia and spent a few more bucks souping up the engine. Now that’s a genuine poor man’s Porsche. That’s not a putdown on the Corvair, which had a lot of positive qualities; just my preferences.


Related CC reading:

Auto-Biography: 1963 Corvair Monza – The Tilt-A-Vair  PN

1960 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Club Coupe: The Most Influential Car of the Decade   Paul N

1963 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Coupe: A Coup For Chevrolet; A Sedan For Me   Paul N

1963 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder Convertible: The Turbo Revolution Started Here   Paul N