Vintage Review: 1964 Corvair Monza 110 HP, 4-Speed – Now Even More Of A “Poor Man’s Porsche” – And Finally An Explanation For Its Handling Exoneration By NHTSA

Corvair lovers may endlessly debate their preferences for either the gen1 (1960-1964) or the gen2 (1965-1969), but one thing is for certain: the 1964 was the best of the first generation. For a gen1 lover and former owner like me, that makes it the most desirable Corvair of all. It still had its original pert and groundbreaking design that was so massively influential world-wide, but now with two significant improvements: a bigger, lustier engine and an improved rear suspension. The Corvair’s nickname “a poor man’s Porsche” was now closer to the truth. Now how about improving that slow steering…

This review also gives me the opportunity to report on a significant breakthrough in understanding the long-unresolved conflict with the ’60-’63 Corvair’s obvious snap-oversteer, jacking and rolling tendencies and the NHTSA’s 1972 report that exonerated its handling. It turns out there’s a logical explanation after all.

We’re not going to recapitulate the Corvair’s rapid evolution from the 80 hp economy car that arrived in 1960 into the “Poor Man’s Porsche”, but let’s just say that although Chevrolet clearly intended it to be more of the former, the latent Porsche-like qualities were baked in from the get-go, thanks to its supple 4-wheel independent suspension, “thistledown” steering, excellent braking and nimble handling thanks to its rear engine and very low center of gravity.

While the Europeans went gaga of its truly unique and groundbreaking proportions and styling, American sports car enthusiasts were more enamored of its dynamic qualities, as in the first American compact to have some genuine sporty abilities, even if they were yet a bit underdeveloped. But the potential was there. As were its handling quirks, thanks to a swing axle rear suspension, heavier than ideal engine and no mitigating factors, such as a standard anti-roll bar in front and a camber-compensating spring in the rear, which is precisely what the Porsche got in 1959, substantially mitigating its oversteer.

Several American race and rally drivers like Jerry Titus and Denise McCluggage drove and tested the new Corvair and quickly came to realize that under the right conditions, as in exceeding its cornering power or certain sudden maneuvers would cause its rear wheels to tuck under, jacking up the rear end and readily causing a roll if it was not caught quickly.

We’ve covered this issue in greater detail in my post “1960-1963 Corvair – GM’s Deadliest Sin?“. It’s been the subject of endless debate, especially since in 1972, NHTSA released a report that effectively exonerated the 1960-1963 Corvair’s handling. I have struggled with that results and conclusions of that report, because the inherent shortcomings of the Corvairs uncontrolled swing axles was all-too obvious, even though I never experienced it in my ’63 4-door Monza with the uprated 102 hp engine, 4-speed stick, because I’m quite certain it had the option RPO696 sports suspension option that somewhat crudely but effectively snubbed its worst qualities. But that option, with inherent negative camber on the rear wheels and straps to limit rear axle downward travel only went on a relatively small percentage of 1961-1963 Corvairs. And the Corvairs tested did not have that option.

I always thought there was something fishy about that report, and now, after all these years, Ate Up With Motor has uncovered the reason why: it turns out that the ’60-’63 Corvair’s rear jacking tendencies were also mitigated by more weight on the rear suspension, which changed the camber to negative and avoided the tendency of the outside rear axle to “lock” against the universal joint and jack up. This was discovered by Jerry Titus back in 1960, and his solution was to place several sandbags in the rear of the car. Sounds counter-intuitive, but it worked. And the RPO696 sports suspension option did the same thing, but with shorter rear springs and those straps. Crude but effective.

It turns out that the NHTSA’s tests of the Corvair were only done with a significant load in the car, to represent a passenger load of 4-6 persons. So inadvertently, NHTSA tested the Corvair in a condition of negative rear camber that significantly impacted its handling vices. Of course in reality, Corvairs tended to inherently appeal to those that didn’t carry 4-6 passengers, and most often drove solo or with one passenger. This is a reflection of Ate Up With Motor’s dogged persistence in his research, and it finally clears up the conflicting experience of drivers (and roll-over victims) with the NHTSA’s report. Kudos Aaron! Logic prevails, but it often requires persistence to find the underlying truth that supports it.

On to the actual review:

Car Life opens this review with a somewhat unusual choice of graphics: dyno charts of the three new engines available in the ’64 Corvair, starting on the left with the base 95 hp (gross) version, which also includes net hp (82) and torque numbers. Somewhat surprisingly, Chevrolet had been publishing net hp and torque charts for many of its engines since at least 1955 when its new V8 arrived. They did tend to be cagey about the higher output versions, but with a bit of digging, pretty much all of them can be found (or extrapolated).  The middle chart is for the popular 110 hp optional version whose main difference was a livelier camshaft that allowed it rev higher higher, hence the additional hp. And on the right is the turbocharged 150 hp version as used in the Monza Spyder.

The effects of the crude turbocharging of the time are very graphic, with a suppressed hp and torque output below 2400 rpm and an explosive increase in both from that point on. Of note is that the turbo engine makes only 55 hp @2000rpm, whereas the naturally aspirated version both make some 75. This resulted in weak initial acceleration; in fact the turbo was essentially useless in first gear, and 0-30 times were the same as the naturally-aspirated version. This caused Motor Trend to put in the title of its 1962 Monza Spyder test “Chevrolet Has A Problem With The Corvair Turbo“. Of course once at speed, the turbo provided for a meaningful boost in performance, but with a 12.1 second 0-60 time, it still wasn’t going to give a V8-powered compact (or the coming Mustang) a run for the money.


Meanwhile, the 145 cubic inch naturally aspirated versions weren’t exactly all that brisk either; a ’61 Monza with the uprated 98 hp version and 4-speed did the 0-60 sprint in 15.5 seconds. Acceleration isn’t everything, as Porsche had long proved so effectively, but expectations were increasing. The solution was more displacement; via a longer stroke, the 1964 versions now had 164 cubic inches (2.7 liters), but that was not all used for more maximum hp. Revised camshafts for both the 95 and 110 hp units favored increased low-end torque over maximum horsepower, which is of course much more useful in real-world driving. And that was further enhanced by revised by gearing in 1st and 2nd gears, to close the gap with 3rd gear, and made possible thanks to the improved torque characteristics.

The acceleration numbers perhaps understate the all-round improvement, including the ability to now climb mountain grades in 4th gear instead of third. Still, the reduction of the 0-60 sprint from 15.5 seconds to 14.0 is meaningful, as was the improved 1/4 mile time and speed from 20.5 seconds @67 mph to 19.5 @70 mph.

As to comparisons with a real Porsche, a review (coming here soon) of a 1963 356B 1600-S (with the higher-output 88 hp 1.6 L engine), it took 12.8 seconds for 0-60 and did the 1/4 mile in 18.9 seconds. And that rich-man’s Porsche did cost almost twice ($4408) what this Corvair convertible cost ($2736), although a fairer comparison would be the Monza coupe, which equipped the same way would have been right around $2500.

That review of the ’63 Porsche extolled the benefits that accrued from the changes made to its rear swing axle suspension in 1959, fitting a transverse camber-compensating spring along with lower rate torsion bars. Oversteer was drastically reduced, and only made itself a possible threat while driving fast in the wet. Aftermarket parts supplier EMPI quickly saw the light, and their camber compensating springs became a hot aftermarket item for VWs, pre-’59 Porsches and 1960-1963 Corvairs. But Chevy wasn’t buying them; at least not until 1964 when the growing bad press and lawsuits (pre-Nader) essentially forced their hand.


The revised suspension increased understeer by adding an anti-roll bar in front and a transverse rear leaf spring (“camber compensating spring”) at the rear, along with softening the rear coil springs. The static negative camber can be clearly seen in this picture. This combination reduced the roll couple, and resulted in improved handling, cross-wind stability, less roll, and essentially eliminated the dreaded jacking up of the rear swing axles under extreme cornering loads. Presto! Swing axles can be tamed, and very effectively at that.

The Corvair’s brakes were also improved for ’64, with a wider and finned drum on the back. That may sound a bit odd, but due to its rear engine the rear brakes created a much greater percentage of the total braking power than in a front-heavy front engine car, one of the inherent advantages of a rear engine, along with much lighter steering. It still had to slow a ratio, with 4.75 turns, probably a choice by Chevrolet to minimize overly quick transitions by inexperienced drivers. The Porsche had 2.5 turns, but that could easily be rectified on the Corvair with an EMPI quick-turn steering knuckle.  And then a short-throw shift gate to really get closer to living up to that nick-name.

There were also improvements to certain engine components, utilizing parts first developed for the turbo engine. But it’s not that these were remedying some inherent defect, as the Corvair engine quickly developed a reputation for being long-lived, like the VW engine. Turns out there was a very logical explanation, thanks to their air-cooling.

The end result was a significantly-improved Corvair, and one that now more fully lived up to its nickname and its hard-driving owners.

And of course it’s the one I would get if I were were getting one. As much as I admire the gen2 svelte styling and double-jointer rear suspension, I’m in love the gen1’s styling as well as its swing axles. But make mine a four door “flattop”, with the 110 hp engine and the 4-speed. There’s something about the original concept and design of these that just speaks to me, like my white ’63 did on those 600 miles of endless curves of Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway in October of 1972.


Related Reading:

Ate Up With Motor: Reconsidering the 1972 NHTSA Report on the Corvair

Automotive History: How The 1960 Corvair Started A Global Design Revolution

Automotive History: 1960-1963 Chevrolet Corvair – GM’s Deadliest Sin?

Auto-Biography Part 13: 1963 Corvair Monza, My First Car – The Tilt-A-Vair

Vintage Motor Trend Road Test: 1962 Corvair Monza Spyder – “Chevrolet Has A Problem With The Corvair Turbo”

Curbside Classic: 1960 Corvair Monza Club Coupe – How Some Auto Show Attendees Created The Most Influential Car Of The Decade