Vintage Reviews: 1960 Chevrolet Corvair – Motor Life and Car Life Test Versions With Powerglide, 3-Speed and 4-Speed Manuals

This week we’ll take a closer look at the new 1960 compacts, starting with the most radically new one, the Corvair. Motor Life tested all three in a comparison that included the usual measured road test as well as a long distance trip test, to see how these compacts measured up to the real-world demands. And I’m also including some reviews from Car Life, for more perspective, especially since they tested all three transmission versions.

I’ve written a raft of posts on the Corvair, a car that has a special place in my heart as my first car (’63 Monza four-door four-speed), but these tests were interesting to read as they represent the motoring press’ first take on it. The Corvair was the most unique new domestic car since the FWD Cord 810.  As such, it was a rather bold gamble by GM, but its father, Ed Cole, had enough political push to make it happen. And the result was, well, mostly quite good, although the Corvair’s best days were still ahead of it.

 

The Corvair was a radical solution, for an American maker. In hindsight, it’s easy to question the decision to have a rear air-cooled engine. But in the late ’50s, when it was being developed, that configuration still offered some very real advantages. The floor could be low and flat, steering could be light, negating any need for power steering, and braking was inherently better, since the front-rear weight ratio prevented the front brakes from being overwhelmed. The lack of a liquid cooling system was also still seen as a benefit.

It’s important to note that in 1960, the Corvair was positioned as an economical compact car, and not the sporty car it quickly morphed into when the Monza coupe appeared in the spring of 1960, along with an available high output engine and followed soon by a four speed transmission. The Monza drastically transformed the image of the Corvair, and was a surprise hit, causing Ford to create the Mustang. I’ve argued that it was the most influential car of the sixties, launching the whole affordable sporty car sector.

Meanwhile, the initial 1960 Corvair clearly had a few rough edges, some that would be corrected in 1961 when it was substantially revised in a number of ways. And given its role as a family economy car, its potentially tricky handling at the extreme limits had been identified, but not seen as an issue given its intended role. It was simply a question as to which end would go through the fence if a corner was taken in excess of its (considerable) abilities.

The Corvair’s four-wheel independent suspension came in for praise, since it yielded a significantly better ride on rough roads. Traction was superb. The body was stiff and rattle-free. It was a car that rewarded drivers, even if its performance potential was still rather limited in its initial form.

 

The interior of the Corvair came in for praise and criticism. “The Corvair’s (interior) capacity in one of its happiest assets. It is the lowest American car on the outside yet it has the most interior headroom, bar none.(!!) Foot room, front and rear is quite good and the nearly flat floor makes the packing of more than four passengers into the car possible, if not too comfortable.”

This shows painfully just how bad the interior space utilization of America’s big cars were at the time. As to riding three across, naturally it was a bit more painful than a full size car with its greater width. But it was uncomfortable even in the widest of them.

But the choice of interior materials came in for criticism. Chevrolet really pinched the pennies here, in an effort to keep prices low and the profit margin high in the face of building a car that was not intrinsically cheap to build. The Monza solved that issue very effectively, and GM quickly figured out that a penalty box Corvair was not what its buyers wanted. They wanted some pizazz to go along with its spunk.

Somewhat surprisingly, the front luggage compartment was deemed more commodious than expected, despite the spare still being stored there (It would move to the engine compartment in 1961). And then there was the additional luggage area behind the rear seat, which could also be flipped down for a large cargo area.

Motor Life’s Corvair was equipped with the Powerglide, which was presumed to be the cause of lower gas mileage (19.3 mpg) and the somewhat modest performance (0-60 in 18.2 seconds).  It was speculated that the standard three-speed manual would improve both figures. The fuel economy undoubtedly so, by 3-4 of mpg (I used to get 24-25 mpg in mine). But in terms of performance, as the subsequent tests by Car Life shows, that was actually not the case. The three-speed’s ratios were not at all conducive to good performance, with the gap from second to third being a canyon. Ed Cole originally wanted the Corvair to come standard with the Powerglide, but costs scotched that. In reality, the three-speed was a poor choice for the Corvair, and the PG a better one. That is, until the four speed came along.

Overall, the Corvair received a very positive appraisal, with some caveats. In the second part, the Corvair gets taken on a long-distance trip.

I’m not going to offer a lot more commentary on this section. The Corvair’s interior space was lauded, although the bench seats lacked adequate cushioning. It had a good ride, responsive handling, although it tended to bob a bit over bumps, an intrinsic feature of its rear engine and swing axles.  Fuel economy over the 912 miles was 20.3 mpg, with average highway seeds of 60 mph.

It ended with these words: “Chevrolet’s baby, although a compact, is no less adequate or comfortable for average distance family travel than a standard sized car…In short, the Corvair is compact only from the outside—inside it’s big enough”.

Thanks to CC Contributor Vince C., we also have three shorter reviews of the 1960 Corvair by Car Life (R&T’s sister publication), of all three transmission versions: Powerglide, three-speed and the new four-speed that came along late in the year. And there’s a surprise: the Powerglide version was quicker than the three-speed stick.

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