In the mid-1950s there appeared upon the American scene an air-cooled, beetleshaped German automobile bearing the ungainly title of “Volkswagen.” Hardly anyone took it seriously at first; it was too small, too ugly, and much too noisy for American tastes, people said. Furthermore, it had a four-speed gearshift, just at a time when stateside drivers in droves were forsaking their three-speed manuals for one or another of the new automatic transmissions.
Nor was that German name any help, for the wounds, the hatreds and the resentments of World War II were still fresh in the public’s collective mind. Surely there wouldn’t be a market for this little intruder on this side of the Atlantic.
But of course there was a market for the “Vee-Dub.” It was economical to operate, simple to repair and fun to drive; and it proved to be a tough little bugger, besides. Before long it was selling in substantial numbers.
Detroit began to think again, and by October 1959, in time for the debut of the 1960 models, Detroit’s Big Three had prepared small cars of their own. Not as small as the Volkswagen, to be sure, and not nearly as Spartan, but a far cry from the two-ton, 18-foot battle-wagons that had in recent years become the stock-in-trade of the American automobile industry.
There were sharp differences among the three newcomers, Chevrolet’s Corvair, Ford’s Falcon and Plymouth’s Valiant. The Valiant, designed by Virgil Exner, was the most stylish, and it introduced the world to the “Slant Six,” a virtually unbreakable engine that would remain in production for nearly 30 years. The Falcon, powered by an uncomplicated (and initially somewhat flawed) pushrod Six and looking like a miniature version of the big Fairlane, was the most conventional of the trio. And the rear-engined, air-cooled Corvair was by all odds the most innovative.
It was also the one that bore the greatest resemblance – at least from an engineering standpoint – to the Volkswagen. And the Volkswagen had become by that time a very hot ticket on the sales floor. The men of Chevrolet had every reason to be optimistic.
But only for a little while, for the Falcon, with first year sales running 74 percent ahead of the Corvair, simply creamed the competition. Even the Valiant was breathing down the Cor-vair’s neck, and might actually have outsold it had Chrysler’s manufacturing capacity been greater and its dealer organization stronger.
Wisely, then, Chevy shifted its marketing strategy. In two ways. Three-fourths of those first-year Corvairs were four-door sedans, but somebody at Chevrolet was astute enough to see that the family sedan was not really the Corvair’s strong suit. Rather, this was a “driver’s” car, beot suited to the man or woman who finds joy in driving an automobile, and satisfaction in doing it well. Which, of course, called for a “sporty” image.
At the same time, as the Falcon had amply demonstrated, there was a ready market for a reasonably priced, conventionally styled family sedan of manageable size. And so, in a matter of weeks following the Corvair’s debut, work got under way on development of the Chevy II, later to be known as the Nova.
Initially, the Corvair line included two trim levels, the base 500 and the deluxe 700, each available in a choice of two body styles: sedan or club coupe. But four months into the model year a new Corvair was introduced. This was the Monza 900, a coupe fitted with front bucket seats, a fold-down rear backrest, fancy wheel covers and special insignia; and featuring upgraded trim throughout.
Within months the Monza coupe had become by far the most popular Corvair, outselling the Series 700 sedan – previously the volume leader – by better than two-to-one. Meanwhile, plans were made to expand the 1961 line to include a Monza sedan. Also new for ’61 were station wagons, available in both the 500 and 700 series, as well as a practical little Corvair van, known as the Greenbriar Sports Wagon.
Powering all of the Corvairs was a flat-opposed, air-cooled, six-cylinder engine, whose first edition derived 80 horsepower from 139.6 cubic inches. For those drivers who wanted a little additional punch, a 95-horsepower, high-compression alternative with a somewhat livelier camshaft was available, priced at just $27 additional. By 1961 the aluminum block had been bored to 144.8 cubes, and although standard horsepower remained at 80, the optional version was rated now at 98 horsepower.
A three-speed manual transmission with floor-mounted lever was standard, though the two-speed Powerglide automatic, optional at $146, was specified by 60 percent of 1961 Corvair buyers.
But to the connoisseur, the transmission of choice was the all-synchro four-on-the-floor manual box, priced at a remarkably reasonable $65.
Fully as innovative as the Corvair’s rear-mounted, air-cooled engine was its unusual suspension system, with wishbones and coil springs up front, semi-trailing arms, coil springs and swing axles at the rear. Tubular shocks were fitted all around. No sway bars were provided, an omission that may have ultimately cost the Corvair its life. But more of that, presently.
By 1962, production – including 18,007 Greenbriars – reached 310,538 units – a figure that proved to be the Corvair’s all-time high. Available that year was a Regular Production Option consisting of stiffer springs, shorter rear axle limit straps and a front antisway bar, items which in combination brought about a significant (and badly needed) improvement in the car’s handling characteristics. Standard horsepower remained at 80 for cars equipped with manual transmissions, but was raised to 84 in combination with the Powerglide unit. Meanwhile, the optional engine’s output was advanced to 102 bhp.
A smartly styled Monza convertible became available for 1962, but the station wagons, handicapped by severely limited cargo space, sold poorly and were dropped at mid-season. Monzas, by that time, accounted for three-fourths of all new Corvair passenger-car sales. (That fact really defines the difference between the Corvair’s market and that of the Falcon, for it was the standard two- and four-door sedans that accounted for the bulk of the little Ford’s production.)
To the performance enthusiast, Corvair’s big news for 1962 was the Spyder package, RPO 690, which became available from Chevrolet dealerships across the country commencing in April. Featured was a turbo-charger that boosted the pancake engine’s output from 102 horsepower (in the premium version) to 150. No doubt the men of Chevrolet were aware that Ford would soon be offering an optional 260-c.i.d., 164-horsepower V-8 for the Falcon, and they wanted to stay ahead of the curve. The turbo-charger was an ingenious method of giving the Corvair engine a welcome shot of vitamins, for it would have been quite impossible to stuff a V-8 into the car’s diminutive engine compartment – not to mention what that modification would have done to the car’s already severe rearward weight bias.
Available only on the Monza club coupe and convertible models, the Spyder package cost the buyer an extra $317.45. At that price it was a bargain, for according to Car Life magazine the turbo-charger cut about five seconds off the Corvair’s zero-to-sixty time and added eighteen mph to its top speed. For a time, predictably, Chevrolet was hard-pressed to keep up with orders for the Spyder.
In operation, the turbo-charger was simplicity itself. Langworth and Norbye describe its function thus: “Turbocharging works like a windmill driven by moving air, in this case exhaust gases, which spins a turbine wheel or impeller. Power is transferred by a shaft connected to another impeller (compressor) that pressurizes fuel and air into a veiy dense mixture. As the rate of exhaust flow increases and the temperature rises, the compressor turbine spins faster, creating positive pressure or ‘boost’ in the manifold.” In the interest of avoiding detonation, as well as to ensure that the car would perform smoothly at low rpms, Chevrolet fitted the Spyders with the 8.0:1 compression heads of the standard Corvair engine, in lieu of the 9.0:1 ratio used by the optional, unblown powerplant.
Jim Wright, Technical Editor of Motor Trend, described in specific terms what the turbo-charger did to the Corvair’s performance: “Because of the inherent lag in a turbo-driven supercharger, there’s very little difference in acceleration over the standard Monza 102-hp engine until you hit second gear. This is where the boost starts building, and from here on you know the turbocharger is worth the price. We clocked 0-30, 0-45 and 0-60 mph in 4.5, 7.4, and 11.1 seconds. The standing quarter-mile averaged out to 17.9 seconds ET, with a trap speed of 80.5 mph. This is a good 10 mph faster
quarter-mile time than a well-tuned 102-hp Monza can make. It’s also about two full seconds or more quicker.”
The Spyder’s 47 percent horsepower increase was accompanied by a 57 percent boost in torque, which obviously put some strain on the engine’s internal parts. Chevrolet countered this by employing heavy-duty components including special pistons, rings and valves; different bearing inserts; a chrome steel crankshaft and heavier connecting rod columns. A heavy-duty, eight-plate oil cooler was supplied, and dashboard instrumentation included head temperature and manifold pressure gauges, as well as a 6,000-rpm tachometer.
But the Corvair was coming increasingly under attack – and not alone from Ralph Nader. Car and Driver called it “one of the nastiest-handling cars ever built…. The rear wheels would lose traction, tuck under, and with the tail end jacked up in the air, the car would swing around like a three-pound hammer on a 30-foot string.”
|Base price Options on dR car||$2,481 f.o.b.|
factory, with standard equipment; federal excise tax included. Turbocharger
$317.45 additional Turbo-charger, bumperettes, radio, white sidewall tires,
windshield washer, left outside mirror
|Type||Flat opposed, air-cooled six- cylinder|
|Bore and stroke||3.4375″ x|
|Displacement||145.0 cubic inches|
|Horsepower @ rpm||150 @4,400|
|Torque @ rpm||210 @3,300|
|Valves operated by||Pushrods|
|Fuel system||1 triple venturi sidedraft Carter|
carburetor, mechanical pump
|Electrical system||12-volt coil|
|Exhaust system||Single, with cross-over|
|Type||Single dry plate|
|Type||4-speed manual, fully synchronized, floor|
|Ratios||18.0 gear; 15.0 overall|
|Turning diameter||38′ 3″ curb/curb|
|Type||4-wheel hydraulic, drum type|
|Effective area||126.1 square inches|
|Type||All-steel unitized body and|
|Body style||Convertible coupe|
|Front||Independent, ball joints, wish|
|bones and coil springs|
|Rear||Independent, swing axles,|
|trailing wishbone and coil|
|Shock absorbers||Delco dircect acting telescopic|
|Wheels||Pressed steel, drop-center rims|
|Tires||P185/80R13 (originally 6.50/13)|
|Overall height||51.5″ (top up)|
|Road clearance||7.5″ (minimum)|
|Shipping weight||2,525 pounds|
|Crankcase||4 quarts (less filter)|
|Fuel tank||14 gallons|
|Horsepower per c.i.d.||1.03|
|Weight per horsepower||16.8 pounds|
|Weight per c.i.d.||17.4 pounds|
|Weight per sq. in.||20.0 pounds (brakes)|
|Acceleration 0-30 mph||4.5 seconds|
|0-45 mph||7.4 seconds|
|0-60 mph||11.1 seconds|
|Standing % mile||17.9 seconds/80.5 mph|
|Top speed||110 mph|
|Stopping distances||31 feet from 30 mph; 161 feet|
|from 60 mph|
|(From Motor Trend, June 1963)|
|Acceleration 0-30 mph||3.9 seconds|
|0-60 mph||11.7 seconds|
|0-90 mph||25.7 seconds|
|Standing mile||18.5 seconds/ 77 mph|
|Top speed (est.)||110 mph|
Part of the problem was the fact that the Corvair’s handling characteristics contrasted sharply with those of the typical American car; and not a few drivers found themselves in trouble as a result. For instead of the understeer to which most drivers were (and still are) accustomed, the Corvair was inclined to severe oversteer. That is, the driver would find his car negotiating a tighter curve than he had bargained for; with the result that the Corvair would occasionally spin out and leave the road while traveling backwards, sometimes overturning in the process.
Several factors contributed to the difficulty.
First, the Corvair – whose engine hung out behind the rear axles – carried 62 percent of its weight on the rear wheels. The Volkswagen’s rear-engine layout bore some similarity to that of the Corvair, but its engine was by far the lighter of the two, and it was located almost directly over the driving wheels, rather than aft of them.
Second, the Corvair’s swing axle caused the wheels to change camber upon encountering a bump or a pothole, a situation not encountered when fully independent suspension was used as it was in the 1965-69 Corvairs.
Third, and perhaps most important, the Corvair was extremely sensitive to tire pressures. The factory recommended 15 p.s.i. front, 26 rear, cold; and the owner was well advised to heed those numbers. But Americans are notoriously careless about such matters, and most people had long been accustomed to 30 pounds all around. The average service station attendant hadn’t a clue as to the critical nature of the issue, in part because General Motors downplayed the matter of tire pressure, giving it virtually no publicity.
Knowledgeable owners, those who took pride in their driving skills, soon discovered the availability of after-market equipment capable of helping to correct the problem. Perhaps the best-known supplier of such hardware was EMPI, which marketed both an accessory front sway bar and a camber compensator, the latter being a device designed to keep the wheels in proper contact with the road. Chevrolet’s own heavy duty suspension package – less effective, but still helpful – remained available, reasonably priced at $22.
Visually, apart from minor changes in trim, the 1963 Corvair Spyder was virtually identical to its immediate predecessor. But there were several mechanical revisions. For instance, although advertised horsepower remained at 150, performance was enhanced by means of a hotter camshaft, and to help cope with the speed, self-adjusting brakes were used.
For 1964, Chevrolet did something they should have done in the first place: They fitted an anti-sway bar between the Corvair’s front wheels and a monoleaf transverse spring under the rear end, more or less duplicating what EMPI had been doing for some time, on an aftermarket basis. Apparently the rationale for omitting these items on the 1960-63 models was twofold: First, the modifications tended to raise the level of road noise, in an automobile that was not particularly quiet to begin with. And second, they added about $4.00 to the cost of producing each car. Not much of a difference, surely, but multiplied by the 1,129,431 Corvairs produced over that four-year period, it begins to look like real money: just over $4.5 million.
Almost equally important from the buyer’s perspective, in that era of the “horsepower race” were revisions to the Corvair engine. Thanks to a lengthened stroke, displacement was increased for 1964 to 163.6 cubic inches. Standard horsepower was raised to 95, but oddly enough, that of the Spyder remained – at least for advertising purposes – at 150. Torque, however, was increased from 210 to 232 pounds-feet.
By 1965 there was a new generation of Corvairs, one that largely overcame the objections that had been leveled against the earlier models. This time Chevy engineers employed fully independent rear suspension, patterned after that of the Corvette. It was an enormous improvement. Car and Driver commented that they had made “an engine-behind-the-axle car handle as well as any rear-engined sedan, better than most front-engined passenger cars and even better than many sports cars.”
Styling of this second-generation Corvair was sleek, smooth and sensational. The 700 models were dropped, but two-and four-door hardtops were offered in base 500 as well as Monza trim. The Monza convertible was retained, and at the top of the line was a new series called the Corsa, powered by a four-car-buretor, 140-horsepower engine and available in either two-door hardtop or convertible form. The turbo-charger, which raised the engine’s output to 180 bhp was optional on the Corsa models at a very reasonable $161.
But by this time the public was well aware of the Corvair’s reputation for potentially troublesome handling characteristics. There had been numerous lawsuits, and the death of comedian Ernie Kovacs, when his ’62 Corvair had spun out of control, had been widely publicized.
The new and much improved Corvair had come too late. By 1966, sales were in a free-fall, and production was winding down. The Corsa was dropped at season’s end, and so was the turbocharged engine. At this point, of course, Chevrolet was about to introduce a new “sporty” car, the Camaro, which would inevitably cut further into the Corvair’s market. By 1968 only three rear-engined types would remain: a coupe and a convertible in the Monza line, and the bargain-priced 500 coupe.
Early in 1969, with sales down to a bare trickle, production of the Corvair was halted, after barely 6,000 examples of the final edition had been built. A pity, too, for by that time the rear-engined Chevy had become a very fine little car, truly a “driver’s machine”; and a remarkable value at prices ranging from $2,258 to $2,641.