Vintage Reviews: 1960 Chevrolet Corvair – Motor Life and Road & Track 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 22-24 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 Road & Track, 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.


This first review was a press event held at GM’s proving grounds near Milford, MI. The tested version had the three-speed stick shift.

The praise for the Corvair’s excellent space utilization is lavish: “Hip room, leg room, head room—all are so nearly equal to what has become standard practice in US cars that all excuses for having a ‘big’ car become silly…the nearly dead-flat floor makes the large 6-seater even sillier.”  The Corvair’s relative quietness is noted too, thanks to the very smooth and mildly-tuned boxer six hanging out back.

The steering was slower (4.8 turns) than would have been preferred, but it did make it quite light and easy to park. The Corvair’s slow steering was something that tended to blunt its genuine sporting capabilities, even as its performance potential was considerably improved. “Fast steering” kits would become a common aftermarket upgrade for more serious sporting drivers.

R&T reiterated the same reality as did Motor Life about handling: “The Corvair positively understeers under any and all conditions up to the point of total loss of adhesion. This is accepted as the best design practice and only during the wildest possible cornering is the effect lost. Only then does the rear-end weight make itself felt, and with the usual and expected result—on a total spin-out the rear end swings out into oversteer.”  I’ll add that in my time with my Corvair, despite very enthusiastic driving through curvy and mountainous terrain, I never arrived at that limit, or felt it was imminent. I did feel the rear end start to make itself known, in a controlled degree of oversteer, but never did I lose total adhesion, except of course when I was doing so on purpose on snow and ice.

R&T discusses the issue of the Corvair’s tires, which were a new wider, lower profile design and used unusually wide (5.5″) rims, for the times, and discussed the issue of their highly differential F/R pressures. A further recap of its handling, which was already developing a bit of a rep at the time, ensues, with the same issues as discussed earlier. It was inevitable that a rear engine car, especially one with such a large and heavy engine resulting in 60-62% of the weight being on the rear tires would expose Americans to something decidedly different, at its limits.

The Corvair went on to develop a rep for nasty and deadly crashes as a result of loss of control from sudden maneuvers, braking in a fast turn, and/or likely poor judgment given Americans’ familiarity with front-heavy understeers. This was undoubtedly exacerbated by GM’s decision to leave out a $4 sway bar, as well as not make other changes, such as an anti-camber compensating spring. I covered this dark chapter of the Corvair here, asking is it was GM’s Deadliest Sin.

Performance was “frankly a little disappointing”. The Corvair’s 140 CID (2.2L) six was tuned extremely mildly, rated at 80 gross hp, 65 net hp. The result was acceleration that was below the norm given its calculated power-to-weight ratio. It was chalked up to the engine’s inability to rev, as well as the less-than ideal ratios in the three-speed transmission. Initial timed runs to 60 took a VW-like 22.5 seconds, and after some more runs, a best time of 19.5 seconds was achieved. That’s over a second slower than the PG equipped Corvair in Motor Life’s test above.

But ML did note that the Corvair’s gearing and low-rev engine made for an exceptional low wear index. Top speed was not tested, but Chevrolet’s number was 88 mph.

Lots of positive comments about space, seating, light controls, and virtually fade-proof (drum) brakes, thanks to its rear engine, which resulted in near perfect 50-50 F/R braking distribution.

The Corvair’s gas-fired auxiliary heater was lauded (that became optional in 1961 with the advent of a standard heater using the engine’s cooling air).  Their conclusion was that the Corvair was to be lauded since it needed no power steering, brakes and other power accessories to function fully and properly. “In fact, the Corvair is a sane, sensible, well-designed car of a type we’ve been asking for for 10 years.”  But their prediction of Chevrolet having difficulty meeting demand turned out to be wishful thinking. But then this was essentially the voice of John Bond, who owned and ran Road & Track, and was a tireless advocate for smaller and more rational cars.

R&T also tested an automatic transmission version sometime later, and found that it was quicker than the three-speed:

R&T points out that this was the first time they had encountered or heard of an automatic version being quicker than the manual version. But their number clearly showed that to be the case, with the PG Corvair making the 0-60 sprint in 17.5 seconds, versus 19.5 for the stick. Note that this PG Corvair was lent to them by a private owner, and tuned up properly to factory specs. It was a second faster than Motor Life’s PG car. The explanation is not really all that surprising, since a torque converter covers the gear ratios of at least two gears, and then gives an additional torque boost when shifting into High. I’ve pointed out that a two-speed Powerglide is more than comparable to a three-speed manual. And this example really shows that in the best light.

But what it really points out is the need for a four speed manual.

Stirling Moss summed up his experience with a three-speed manual Corvair: “First and 2nd gears feel like first and 2nd in a 5-speed box, 3rd feels like 5th!” Not unlike the ridiculous wide ratios in the Vega’s three-speed manual. History repeats itself.

R&T was able to get a four speed transmission from Chevrolet in the summer of 1960, several months before it became available in the ’61 models. they had it installed in publisher John Bond’s personal Corvair, and were most enthusiastic about the results. The car accelerated quicker (0-60 in 16.4), and was much more fun to drive. And this was still the base 80hp version.

The gear ratios were still not ideal, with first and second still being too low (this issue would be solved in a year or so with better spaced ratios). Shifts were made at 4800 rpm, showing just how modestly the base Corvair engine was tuned. But third gear was an extremely welcome addition, giving a gear that was ideal for around-town puttering, or shifting down in corners. And for passing, when the starting speed was low enough, say 50 mph.

Somewhat curiously, they also got better acceleration times for the three-speed, using a different protocol. Now 0-60 came in 17.8 seconds, only 0.3 seconds slower than the PG version.


There was considerable anticipation of the expected arrival of the higher-output 95 hp version, which had a revised camshaft allowing higher engine speeds, up to 6000 rpm, although power peak was still well below that.

There is also some discussion about the Corvair’s sales not quite meeting expectations, and “vicious rumors” about fan belts jumping, and a few other issues. It ends with this prophetic line: “The true test of this car’s public acceptance will come during its 2nd and 3rd year of production—and we think the air-cooling feature alone is enough to warrant a slight premium in first cost”.

As it turned out, Corvair sales jumped significantly in 1961 and again in 1962, but it was thanks to the Monza and its bucket seats which really made the Corvair appealing, not the air cooling. And folks were happy for the small premium in price for that.


Here’s some of our CC gen1 Corvair Bibliography:

How the 1960 Corvair Started a Global Design Revolution   PN

 1960 Monza Coupe: The Most Influential Car of the Decade   PN

1960-1963 Corvair: GM’s Deadliest Sin?   PN

Warm Comfort: Heating Optional – Your Choice of Gasoline or Engine Heat   PN

Cold Comfort: 1962 Corvair Factory Air conditioning   Tom H.

CC 1962 Corvair Lakewood Wagon: Why Did We Go Ahead and Build This?   PN

CC 1963 Monza Spyder Convertible: The Turbo Revolution Started Here   PN

CC 1963 Monza Coupe: A Coup for Chevrolet, A Sedan for Me   PN

Auto-Biography: Tilt-A-Vair   PN