By on April 22, 2010

You wake despite the hope that you would never awake, in fear that the wildest night of your life with Corvair was all just a dream…ooops; never mind. But if a car ever inspired one to emote and wax poetically, it was the Corvair, especially the 1965. So I’ll try hard to restrain myself: the 1965 Corvair was the best European car ever ever made in America. And if that alone doesn’t explain the Corvair’s inevitable failure, lets just say that in 1965 Americans were eating a lot more Wonder Bread than baguettes.

I’ve been sitting on this gem of a Monza coupe Stephanie found parked in front of a small wood products mill in the industrial part of Eugene. Shooting it sure brightened a rainy day. It’s a brilliantly clean and timeless gem. I hadn’t planned on using it today, but then I realized how critical it was in telling not only the story of the Camaro’s existence, but also so much about why Detroit lost the war against the imports and eventually crashed.

I can’t do the Corvair’s birth and development full justice here, but it started out to be something quite different from how it ended up. Or did it? What arrived in the fall of 1959 was a terribly stripped little car, with a drab monotone gray taxi-cab interior, rubber floor, and totally devoid of chrome trim. Born in the depths of the 1957-1958 recession, the original 1960 Corvair lost its $4 sway bar and any pizazz to GM’s bean counters who wanted a cheap car to fight the VW Beetle and the Ford Falcon, and still make a profit. Given the Corvair’s complex alloy engine, that was already seeming unlikely.

But a rear-engined small car intrinsically offered great enthusiast potential, as Porsche had shown so convincingly. In fact a Porsche 356 was used as a test mule for the Corvair engine. The Corvair had great potential, but its intended mission in life was as confused as its buyers. The Falcon made a much better compact for most Americans’ needs in schlepping the kids and the groceries, and GM realized it instantly. The highly pragmatic Chevy II was rushed into production, and the Corvair was quickly dressed up with bucket seats, a higher output engine, and an available four speed: the Monza. Out of desperation and necessity, GM invented a new genre: the small sporty car; for American cars, that is. The Europeans had been chasing that for quite some time.

The fact that GM bean counters didn’t give the early Monzas that sway bar and other suspension upgrades that the Corvair’s father Ed Cole bitterly wanted every Corvair to have from day one is very telling, and perhaps the most significant aspect of the Corvair story and its failure to compete against the imports: GM perpetually elevated style and flash over substance. With just a few more bucks and a costless change to a faster steering ratio, the early Corvairs could have been as brilliant as they inevitably had to make the 1965.

Instead, the Corvair Monza’s real role in life was to inspire the Mustang, which elevated style over substance to a whole other level, resulting in a colossal commercial success. America’s brief fling with chasing the sporty imports ended before it even properly started. By the time Chevrolet sorted out the Corvair’s suspension and added some zest to its engine via turbocharging, the game was already essentially over, although Chevy didn’t quite realize it yet.

It assumed (hoped?) that Americans were much more in love with the Corvair’s inner beauty than its bucket seats and cute looks. Not so, as the Mustang made so perfectly clear. Who cared if the Mustang had a flaccid Falcon suspension, dull steering, mediocre brakes and a large percentage of them came with a feeble little six? Never underestimate the power of a long hood to create a fad, especially in America. A cheap V8 didn’t hurt either.

The Corvair, and the idea of what the Corvair could be, died on March 9, 1964. Within a few months of the Mustang’s introduction, Chevrolet rushed the Camaro into production, and halted any further development and marketing of the Corvair. And so the brilliantly styled and refined 1965 appeared that fall as an unloved orphan, or even worse, as an abortion.

I’ve always been torn about my feelings for the gen1 and gen2 Corvair. Let’s just say that my first car was a white ’63 Monza with the optional higher output engine and with a four speed stick. And I’ve always regretted not finding a barn to keep it for my old age. So I’ve got a bit of a built in bias, to Corvairs in general, and the gen1 in particular. It’s hard to be objective about  the first real car love of your life.

Of course the ’65 and up was the better car, with its new Corvette-sourced non-swing axle IRS and faster steering ratio. Styling wise is where it gets hard. The ’65 is certainly a brilliant design, so light and airy and almost timeless. But for reasons that go beyond having one, I’m also deeply emotionally involved with the original 1960 design. It was the more radical of the two, for its time anyway; the 1960 Corvair was a an utter bombshell when it was shown in Europe, and created a styling revolution there whose influence was all too obvious well into the nineties.

Ironically, the gen1 Corvair’s styling is not as highly praised in its home country as the 1965, which in turn had very little effect on Europe. Among other things, that may well be because four doors are much more common in Europe than coupes, and the 1960 four door was so superb and worked even better than the coupe, whereas with the 1965 was the opposite: the four door didn’t work well at all. To each their own: they’re both some of the best to ever come from the Bill Mitchell era at GM, and will go down in history as classics.

The 1965 Corvair handled unlike anything ever made in the US up to that time. I had the pleasure to whip a friend’s 1965 Monza coupe just like this one through the back roads of northern Baltimore County on more than one occasion, and I’ll relive them, curve by curve, forever. And  his had the wretched two-speed automatic. Whatever; Corvairs, except the higher output Spyders and Corsas, were pretty much a stand-on it proposition anyway. Ok, I’m rationalizing; the Powerglide sucked big time. But even it couldn’t diminish the pure joy of setting up the Monza in each curve, harder and deeper each time. In those days of flabby power steering, there was nothing finer than the unassisted steering on a rear-engined car, especially with the ’65′s faster ratio.

I had flung my old ’63 through several hundred miles and several thousand curves of a deserted Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway in the late fall of 1973, and it never once tried to bite me. Having the right tire pressure was the key, as well as understanding how a swing-axle rear engine car will react if you hit the brakes in a curve. While the ’63 would dance if you knew how to lead properly, the ’65 was a trained pro. It made anyone with a half-way decent touch feel like they were Dancing With The Stars. And unlike the earlier ones, it was never going to give you a push for stepping on its toes.

It’s easy to forget one of the Corvair’s finest but most overlooked virtues: braking. In that era of pathetic little drum brakes on front-heavy conventional cars, the overworked fronts always overheated and faded, and the rears locked, as what little weight was on them shifted forward. The Corvair, like any rear engined car, almost perfectly weighted its brakes evenly, as its rear weight shifted forwards. That alone was worthy of an Eureka! moment the first time one fully experienced and appreciated it.

So what happened to the Corvair faithful, the true lovers of the fine art of Dancing With a Car? They discovered the BMW 1600/2002. Or maybe the Datsun 510, if they couldn’t afford the baby Bimmer. Or something else; but whatever it was, it wasn’t very likely to come from Detroit in any case. The 1965 Corvair might have been the last chance for GM to keep a critical and influential segment of the market. I say might, because it probably wasn’t in the wind anyway. The breezes blowing from Europe and Japan were becoming stiff gales, and it would have taken a hell of an effort to head them off. The Corvair was left to wither on the vine, and the Vega sure as hell wasn’t it; pissing into the wind never was a particularly smart thing to do.

The Corvair was just the innocent canary in the mine, and it’s croaking was inevitable. Americans wanted a Camaro, even if it was the antithesis of the Corvair: lousy brakes, heavy or over-assisted steering, terminal understeer, rear axle hop under acceleration and braking, etc.. But it had that long hood and big, cheap V8s. The Big Gulp trumps a Perrier. Good times too, once you do some work on that mono-leaf rear end, put on some proper brakes, and some shocks, and…well the Camaro eventually got there, more or less. But certainly not to start with.

Its an irrelevant issue now; old history. The Corvair lived in an era when cars were still all imperfect, unlike today. And it had its shares of imperfections too. But the few things it did well made it stand out head and shoulders from the (American) pack. And those very qualities that it excelled in are ones we take for granted now. The Corvair was way ahead of its times, calling out from the wasteland; but then prophets are rarely appreciated in their time.

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108 Comments on “Curbside Classic: The Best European Car Ever Made In America: 1965 Corvair Monza...”


  • avatar
    LectroByte

    I have a fondness for Corvairs as well, thanks for sharing that one with us.

  • avatar
    Bancho

    That car is in beautiful shape. I love the looks of these. IIt’s really unfortunate how things turned out for this vehicle.

    • 0 avatar
      th009

      50 years later, it still looks good.

      And you can certainly see that it influenced design on the other side of the Atlantic as well: look at Claus Luthe’s designs, for example, and it’s clear that he, too, admired to Corvair’s clean lines.

  • avatar
    eastcoastcar

    As a kid, I drove a new Monza, as my friend’s dad was a Chevy dealer. What a cool car it was. I was always sorry that GM didn’t beef the car up, and get serious about it. I had ridden in an older Porsche 356 and totally loved that car. The Monza reminded me of that 356. I remember the basic Corvair as well, and the Corvair van, which reminded me so much of the VW bus. But that engine needed far more design quality than it had. Still, the Corvair was a great start, had GM decided to continue its development.

  • avatar
    obbop

    Unsafe at any speed?

    • 0 avatar
      twotone

      All cars are — if you don’t know how to drive. Porsches were an “ass-end-into-the-woods” learning experience for those used to front engine cars of the 1960′s.

      Twotone

    • 0 avatar
      probert

      The original corvair was what was referred to in that book. This model had trailing arm rear suspension and was a very nice handling car – no camber issues.

  • avatar
    twotone

    Nice car! The way they designed the Corvair’s accessory belt contortion was a work of art. I’d include the 1962 Studebaker Avanti on the “best European car ever ever made in America” list.

    Twotone

    PS: Put the original wheels on this baby.

    • 0 avatar
      tced2

      “accessory belt was a work of art”
      On more than one occasion I helped my father put the belt back into the “work of art” shape on a 1st-gen Corvair. Roughly, the belt went through a 90-degree turn to run a fan on top of the engine – that’s where it seemed to come out of the pulleys/guides.
      We had two 1st-gen cars – a Powerslide version with the shifter on the dash – and a 4-speed. Heater was a problem – as for all air-cooled engines.
      2nd-gen was a beautiful car and by that time the bugs had been worked out – typical Detroit pattern.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      I heard alot about that fanbelt flipping off and there is a solution I’ve been told. Certain brands of belts work better than others. The other part of the solution was to install it on a cold engine so that you could cause the alternator pulley to slip when you pushed it with one finger. That meant the belt was still a little loose when the engine was cold and when the engine expanded as it got hot the belt was not too tight.

      There are gadgets that were sold that made the idler pulley spring loaded but they accomplished a similar effect. Constant loading regardless of the engine’s size cold or hot.

    • 0 avatar
      cstoc

      I never had an issue with the fanbelt coming off on my Corvair. It had the OEM guides and deeper pulley grooves that all but the first year or two had. I heard about it throwing belts even in the ’60s , but for m it was just not an issue.

    • 0 avatar
      mondo56

      Paul what a fabulous thread.

      Gotta say straight up I preferred Gen1 but I love them all. It reminds me of a truly golden era in styling when we were served up the likes of Lotus Elan and what is indubitably the koolest sexiest car ever made, the XKE.

      Haven’t read through all the enthusiastic responses so I don’t know if someone else mentioned this too, but I recall one feature of the Gen 1 Corvairs that really rocked me: that gas-fired heater.

      My feet were cold the entire winter and I’d have given anything to own one of those beauties. Buddy across the street had one and while I sat shivering in anticipation of the puny-at-best output from my MGA’s heater, his Corvair would toast your eyebrows.

      Could never find out anything about this accessory but I do recall you could walk away from the car and still hear it roaring there on the firewall.

      Someone else mentioned the problem of heat from an air-cooled engine so I’m wondering if the gas-fired heater on my friend’s Corvair was some sort of freak.

    • 0 avatar
      cstoc

      Your friend’s gasoline heater wasn’t a freak. It was a factory option on Corvairs from the 1960 model year until it was deleted later on (due to lack of sales, I presume). My dad once told me they worked well but the car’s fuel economy was noticeably worse when it was running. The other kind of Corvair heater was called the “fresh air heater” by GM, but the “fresh” part was only true if you kept the engine extremely clean free of oil and exhaust leaks.

    • 0 avatar
      mondo56

      Thanx cstoc–know I didn’t dream that heater.

      Funny I’ve never seen anything like it on any other car. My early vehicle purchases seemed all cursed with puny heaters so it may be that gas-fired Corvair heater has spoiled me for life.

      But hey, speak of that Corvair engine, it’s funny GM went out on a limb and tried a boxer, a format that’s worked so well–not so much in the Tutonic vehicles where it was born (sorry, those Deutsche-wagens just all seem over-engineered to me) but say in the Subaru, where it still takes the cake.

    • 0 avatar
      twotone

      My 1967 Porsche 911 S had the optional gasoline heater.

      Twotone

    • 0 avatar
      mondo56

      That’s pretty hot–pun intended.

  • avatar

    Thanks for sharing. Corvairs are one of all time favorite cars and I too can’t ever fully decide which I like better. Maybe the second generation but still either is a bargain classic and I’d love to have one at some point.

  • avatar
    7th Frog

    Wow, what a beautiful car. I know little about them but this thing is simple looking and elegant. I want one!

  • avatar

    I’ve had that feeling about the Corvair since our family’s first one in 1959. Part of the motivation for the restoration project I took on 3 years ago and now have the privilege of driving.
    http://www.widman.biz/Corvair/corvair.html

  • avatar
    Russycle

    Beautiful car. I guess my dad was in the demographic that the Corvair was chasing. As we kids started to grow, he traded in his VW convertible for a Corvair Greenbriar van. Not the best use of the Corvair platform. I’m not sure how long he had it, but I still remember going camping in it and having to stop every few miles to let the engine cool as we climbed steep, curvy mountain roads. After that trip he traded it in for Chevy van with a V8….

  • avatar
    tparkit

    Styling and proportion that was far, far ahead of its time — and often unequaled today.

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    This looks like a 110hp, twin carb Monza. The best one was the 140hp, four carb Corsa although some people prefer the 180hp turbocharged version.

    As you mentioned briefly, GM tried to build an econobox and produced a sports coupe (even if some had four doors). The tragedy is that they were too dumb to recognize what they had accomplished.

    This example is in spectacular condition. About the only thing I don’t like is the tires. They look a bit too big for the car and the white lettering is tacky. We have a similar car which my wife inherited from her father. Unfortunately, it was exposed to Kansas winters and is nowhere near as nice. We think about restoring it but that would be expensive, perhaps prohibitively so.

    Don Yenko, a Chicago Chevrolet dealer, bought a batch of Corvairs from GM, made a number of changes which included ripping out the back seat, and sold them as Yenko Stingers. The title says that, not Chevrolet Corvair. The racing driver and engineer, John Fitch, developed and upgrade package for the Corvair. The result was called the Fitch Sprint although the title didn’t change.

    The Corvair has become a cult car. There is a national club (www.Corvair.org) with chapters across the country. There are independent Corvair specialists, both mechanics and parts dealers. Parts are not a problem. Once the original GM supply ran out, independent manufacturers began making good quality substitutes.

  • avatar
    msquare

    People will always cite the Mustang and Nader as contributing factors to the demise of the Corvair, but there was one other: the rear-engine configuration had run its course.

    European manufacturers that embraced rear engines from VW to Renault to Fiat to Rootes were moving away from it by the late 1960′s in favor of front-drive layouts. By the late 1970′s only the Porsche 911 held out. And air-cooled engines had their limitations as well, again, only the 911 holding out until the turn of the century. And the 911 continues to be regarded as a car that performs in spite of, rather than because of, its layout.

    You probably have to go to the second-generation Camaro/Firebird to see the Corvair’s true influence. Those were excellent-handling cars, and the GM sedans equipped with sport or heavy-duty suspensions were no slouches either, setting standards among domestic cars and even acquitting themselves well against imports.

    Unfortunately, the Corvair was an engineering dead end. Good car especially in second-gen form, but little of it could be carried over to other models. Though it would have been great to find a low-cost way to get that independent rear into other cars.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      I disagree that the Corvair engine was a dead-end. It was a dead-end for the amount of money and effort that a company like GM was willing to give it. VW hung in there another decade in the US market utilizing fuel injection and even longer in markets where air pollution regs weren’t very strict. What Porsche did to keep their design alive was simply amazing to me even today. A combination of intense materials design, tolerances, injection, cooling design, exhaust design, plain old engine design, etc. In fact a have a few books that chronicle the Porsche aircooled engines from the beginning to the end and have learned ALOT. Has also been interesting to compare that to what other companies like Fiat, Citroen, Tatra, and VW have done over the years to advance their own engine designs. I still ADORE the sounds of a flat six whether they are from a GM or a Porsche. Other aircooled automotive engines as well too, just not as much. GRIN!

    • 0 avatar
      msquare

      Even in 1965, a 911 cost twice as much as a Corvair. It cost half again as much as a Corvette. Interestingly, its performance envelope wasn’t that much larger than a contemporary Corvair. Acceleration was only marginally better than a Corsa, top speed was higher, and it probably would have beaten a bone-stock Corvair on a road course. Or maybe not. The Corvair’s handling by contemporary accounts was less quirky.

      You simply can’t compare a virtually hand-built, low-volume car to one designed to be produced at a rate of nearly 300,000 per year at its sales peak.

      Sure, there are plenty of what-ifs had GM continued to develop the concept, but it was already outdated by 1969. Dropping the Corvair was not a GM deadly sin. And yes, though I’ve never read anything about it one way or the other, upcoming emissions and safety regulations had to be a factor as well.

      Remember also that the 911 was a red-headed stepchild at Porsche once the 924 and 928 came out. It stagnated for a few years in the late ’70′s and early ’80′s before a new administration decided to develop it again.

      The fact remains, though, that 10 years after the Corvair went out of production, the only car left on the market with an air-cooled horizontally-opposed rear engine was the 911. And it sold for something like $26,000 in a time when a ‘Vette barely broke $10K.

    • 0 avatar

      Good points, though I can’t help but think of the Fiero when I think of the Corvair. Being a child of the ’80s, the first time I heard about the Corvair, it was in the same breath as Nader. But I knew about Fieros long before I ever heard of the Corvair. Both cars had their teething problems, both suffered under GM’s bean counters, both were cancelled just as they were becoming serious contenders in the high-performance market and potential competiton to the Corvette.

      I certainly hope that we see more mid-engine layouts in future compact cars, as manufacturers move toward hyper-efficient mileage without giving up performance and handling.

  • avatar
    dolo54

    beautiful car. nice write up!

  • avatar
    Jimal

    It was the decade before my birth, but my dad had a series of Corvairs in the early 60′s. I think his last one was a ’65 sedan before moving on to Buicks. A GM employee at the time, he kept cars for about a year before trading them in. A couple weeks back he handed me an envelope that contained all the order and sales paperwork for the various cars he had purchased since the mid 50′s. The list included everything from the Volkswagen Beetle to a Fiat 600 (IIRC, it wasn’t a 500) to the Corvairs, a Buick and eventually a Vega (the first car I remember), with several cars in between. He also has a carbon copy of a letter he wrote to Chevrolet complaining about the quality issues with his Chevy II wagon. An interesting read, all of it.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Absolutely. Beautiful. American. Car.

  • avatar
    mtymsi

    I have always liked the second generation’s styling, a true classic. Unfortunately Corvairs were before my time so I’ve never had the opportunity to drive one. Had I been of age to purchase one during their run I probably would have.

  • avatar
    cstoc

    The car shown here is beautiful, but it’s a 1966-1969 (they’re hard to tell apart), not a 1965 (the front badge differs on the ’65). My dad had a Gen1 Corvair, a 1961 Lakewood station wagon. I was a tidy size, carried useful amounts of cargo, and was a blast to drive. It had a 1964 Monza engine that my dad modified (it dyno’ed at 160 HP at the wheels) with a 4-speed manual, manual brakes/steering, and no smog controls to confound the engine inputs. Circumstances forced us to sell the car, but I wish I still had it today.

    • 0 avatar
      Syke

      Gotta be a ’66 or ’67 then, no side marker lights. And after ’66, there was NO development whatsoever, other than getting rid of the turbos.

    • 0 avatar
      ttacgreg

      The tail lights are the big giveaway. The ’65 inner circular component was larger diameter.
      The ’66 introduced the front air dam mounted way down below and behind the front bumper on the tucked in body work. I bought one and put it on my ’65.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    I never got the corvair. I have always figured that in 1960, GM (at the height of its power and hubris) answered a question that nobody was asking. “Look what we can do” is not always a good subsitite for “What can we do for you?” Sort of like jazz music in the 60s, that lost all of its audience but a devoted core of followers.

    The Corvair failed its original mission entirely. I think that the Valiant/Lancer/Dart may even have outsold it, but I could be wrong about this. It developed into a niche vehicle, and never sold that well even though it was the sole occupant of the niche. And GM never understood the niche anyway, as they continued pushing a 4 door.

    I will agree that the styling is very nice, particularly on version 2.0. And I am the first to understand the appeal of an oddball vehicle that does exactly what you want it to do. And I am sure that GM learned a lot about handling from the car, as its post-Corvair cars wrestled the handling crown from Chrysler.

    Truthfully, my favorite part about this curbside classic is seeing the enjoyment of folks who are obviously al lot more into this car than I am.

    • 0 avatar

      The best-seller of the domestic compacts was the Falcon, followed by the Rambler Classic. (The Classic was a little bigger than the compacts, closer to the size of the Mercury Comet.) The Corvair outsold the Valiant and its Dodge Lancer twin, but it was well below the Falcon. The Falcon was much more ‘normal’ — the Valiant was peculiar looking, the Corvair had some oddball engineering.

      As someone else pointed out, however, the Corvair did better than the Falcon at scoring conquest sales. A substantial number of Falcon sales came at the expense of the full-size cars, which was Ford’s ongoing problem in the sixties and seventies; however clever its new product concepts, its overall market share did not increase significantly.

  • avatar
    Syke

    The second generation Corvair was easily the best car Chevrolet (hell, GM) ever built. And after they let it die, it was all she wrote. GM was toast from that moment on, although we wouldn’t see it for another 30 years. Losing the desire to build something wonderful (even if the final execution was flawed) in favor of keeping the accounting department happy was the cancer that killed them.

    I still remember going into dad’s dealership upstairs every September to see the new models a couple of weeks before they hit the floor. And I’d always be looking for the new Corvairs first, even if dad had a Corvette back there. And even in 1963, the Monza Spyder got my interest before I looked at the split-window coupe.

    What was that H.L. Menken quote? “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public”? The Corvair’s living proof of that. Instead of a wonderfully lithe, handling car, we gotta have that big V-8. Vroom, vroom, effin’ vroom.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    It’s a relief to find I’m not the only one who might like the Gen-I’s looks better.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Isn’t this really the story of GM in a nutshell? By the time the flaws are worked out in the marketplace GM gives up on and lets the vehicle languish and die a slow death?

    For interesting reading, read (Wiki is a good start, then follow the links, and perhaps Paul already wrote something once about the end of Corvair production at the Willow Run (Ypsilani), MI plant.

    Nice write-up for a pretty little car. Thanks Paul.

  • avatar
    carnick

    Paul, I think this is your very best CC ever (maybe not the most exotic or special car, but the most probing, perceptive, thought-provoking and asute write up) – thank you!

    You hit the nail on the head with all that was right, and wrong, with both the Corvair and GM (and the American buying public?). Your story almost brings a tear to my eye of what could have been (in the words of the great poet John Greenleaf Whittier, “For of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: what might have been…”). The Corvair is the ultimate ‘what might have been’ story for GM, and emblematic of GM and its entire history, a mistake they seem to keep repeating over and over again: start with a fundamentally good idea, and then screw it up with flawed execution and only doing it 3/4 right.

    The Corvair was everything you said it was. My passion for cars was awakened in the 60′s during the Corvair’s life (while like everyone else I lusted after hemi Chargers back then, the Corvair could have been the best fun daily driver to come out of GM – like the difference between the hot girl you want to sleep with for a night vs. the one you marry for life). But, sadly, like so many other half-baked screw-ups from GM, a combination of bean counters who will never realize you can’t cost-cut your way to greatness, and limits to the strategic vision of too many of their executives, it didn’t get done right, and the rest was history.

    Exactly as you said: the best European car made in America. It’s too bad GM didn’t know how to make a European car in America (and most Americans didn’t want a European car back then).

    I owned a 65 Corvair Corsa when I was a college sophmore (77), and I absolutely LOVED it. But, truth be told, mine wasn’t quite “stock”. It had a 289 cubic inch Ford V8 (putting out about 350 hp) mounted in mid-engine setup, in a box where the back seat used to be, coupled to a 4-speed Muncie tranny. The guy that built it used to race it at Lime Rock CT in the 70′s (it was yellow and black, #5, for anyone that might have been around back then). God it was fast, and sinfully fun to drive. The sheer power in that weight car was amazing – it would suck the headlights out of contemporary Corvettes and other lesser machines like Trans Ams and Z28′s. It was a particular blast at stoplights. People would look across and see what looked like a ‘kid’ with a tarted-up Corvair (of all things unholy!), with huge tires, fender flares, spolers and air dam, big numbers on the doors, emergency engine cut-off switch on the rear fender (which my jerk friends would shut off when they saw me at a stoplight), and they would think it’s just some pathetic little wheezing flat 6. Not. When the light would turn green, all that was left was a memory.

    The best part was, with a mid-engine layout, it actually handled. It was my first “mid-engine” car, and was nothing short of a religious experience. I learned first-hand the meaning of ‘polar moment of inertia’.

    Being a young, stupid, and cash-strapped 19 year old college student with a part-time job, it was my only car, and sole transportation. Which was so practical as a daily driver (no heat). Being basically a hot-rod which was never intended for daily use, the much higher power of the engine quickly found all the weak links in a car that was originally designed for a fraction of that much torque. Interesting things would break unpredictably.

    The pivotal event was when I was driving home late one night with my girlfriend, doing about 60 mph on a secondary highway, on a sweeping downhill right curve, when I saw a wheel whiz past me on the left. My first thought was, man, some poor sap just lost a wheel, that’s gonna hurt. Then the horrible moment of realization, as I recognized the welded steel yellow wheel as one of my own, off the driver’s side rear. Two words came out of my mouth, the first of which was “Oh _____”, the car proceeded to spin, and after doing a couple of 360′s, came to rest a few inches from a large tree.

    The message from the gods of cars was, while I could afford to buy the car, I couldn’t afford to keep something on the road as a daily driver that was intended as a weekend track toy. So, it left my life (and was replaced with an infinitely more practical, wll-thought out decision of a bondo- and rust-filled, poorly amateurly restored Porsche 356B cabriolet).

    What is even more ironic (and would be funny, if all of us weren’t the owners of GM, thanks to our government deciding to give them $100 billion of our money) is that the company keeps doing the same thing over and over again – start with a basically good idea, and find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The Corvair may be the ulimate poster child for that special kind of incompetence. Followed by the Vega, with its brilliant half-baked engine (aluminum block + iron head = grenade) and Soviet-quality sheetmetal which literally started rusting right on the showroom floor. Then a repeat performance with the Fiero, fundamentally brilliant and innovative with its mid-engine and plastic body panels, hamstrung by its own cost-cutting fatal flaws (a Chevy Citation engine with about 3 quarts of oil capacity, which made for interesting demonstrations of the laws of thermodynamics (and pyrotechnics). And, for an encore, the last Pontiac GTO, with a great engine but looks that were the world’s best cure for insomnia.

    The funny thing is, with all of these cars, GM still managed to improve most of the problems and almost get it right – and just as it did, it cancelled them. The Gen 2 Corvair fixed the handling problems of the Gen 1, and the turbo Corsa engine was a great performer – and then was killed in 1969. Even the Vega finally sorted out the major engine issues, only to be put to sleep. They finally got it right with the Fiero with a V6 engine and 5 speed – in its last year of production. Not to break its schizophrenic pattern of getting it right and then quitting, in its last year of production the last GTO got the “good” engine (6.6 liter) – and, true to GM pattern, was killed.

    Isn’t that one of the clinical definitions of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different outcome? Senior management that doesn’t fundamentally understand the car business (like, Whitacre)? Chevy Volt, anyone?

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Thanks, Man, have I had fantasies about a mid-engined ‘Vair like yours. Treasure the memories (I’m sure you do).

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Yeha the Volt could be sold as so many different kinds of cars. The engine-assist version, a fully battery powered version, etc. Too bad they sunk their own ship when they canned the EV1 and the NiMH battery.

  • avatar
    relton

    I made a mid-engined Coirvair race car, back ’bout 69. Used a 427 Corvette engine. This was a relatively simple engine swap, if you could get your head around sawing the car up big time. The engine will mate to the Corvair gearbox, 66 on, with all stock Chevy parts. You just had to figure out which ones.

    Never got to run it in competition, though. NHRA changed the rules when they saw it. I sold it to someone who just had to be tortured and punished when driving.

    Bob

  • avatar
    Slow_Joe_Crow

    That is very neat looking little car, and it reminds me of an odd bit of serendipity. Back in 1994 my wife was taking a professional exam in St. Louis and with an afternoon to kill I stumbled on a Corvair club autocross. There were some very quick cars, including at least one small block conversion. Funnily enough I also walked into a Studebaker show at local mall around this time as well,

  • avatar
    gsnfan

    Sadly, this isn’t the only time where a great idea turned horrible. The GTO had great engines, but it looks too much like a Dodge Stratus. The Saturn could have been a worthy competitor to the Civic and Corolla, but it was too cheap and unreliable. The Fiero was supposed to be a Ferrari competitor (a halo car that showed everything that GM could do wouldn’t hurt), but it had to share parts with Chevys. Should I go on?

  • avatar
    midelectric

    After reading all the comments about how the story of the Corvair is the story of GM and it’s downfall (the sentiments of which I agree with), I have to wonder whether GM deserves the lumps. If the Corvair was such a great car why didn’t it sell like a Mustang? Maybe the American car buying public like flash over substance and as long as it doesn’t break down, are happy to deal with archaic leaf sprung live axles, drum brakes and crap handling. Though it seems short-sighed from where we sit, GM cut a loser and went in the direction people were buying, shareholders demand no less. If Americans want to know why US car companies became innovation-averse and outdated, maybe the answer can be found in why the car-buying public ran past the Corvair to get behind the wheel of a Mustang.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      BINGO!!! I agree. A certain portion of the blame does lie with the innovation adverse mainstream vehicle consumer. The imports soak up the early adopters just fine (hybrids, electrics, AWD, etc).

  • avatar

    I look at the Corvair as of a piece with the Tempest with the OHC Pontiac 6 cyl, the “rope” drive and rear transaxle. GM was big and rich and could afford to experiment a little. When the experiments didn’t show immediate success – in no small part due to the interference by the suits and bean counters who compromised the design and development, the suits and bean counters were quick to kill the experiments.

    • 0 avatar
      msquare

      While the Tempest had all of the above-mentioned features, it didn’t have them all at the same time. The flexible driveshaft/rear tranny Tempests had either a slant-four which was half of a 389 V8 or a 326-inch version of the complete V8. The OHC six came with the larger, more conventional Tempests that followed it. It was the first engine ever with a reinforced rubber timing belt, and it worked just fine.

      Everything else is true. Whether you take the Buick/Olds aluminum V8, Olds turbocharging same, the Corvair, the 1963 Corvette, the Toronado or the Tempest, GM was on top of the world back then, but retreated back to a less adventurous footing when the conventional cars sold better and were less likely to arouse the ire of product-liability lawyers.

    • 0 avatar

      You could add the Toronado to that list, as well, and Buick’s aluminum V8 and its cast-iron V6 sibling, which went on to long and fascinating lives after GM wrote them off.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed, all of those belong with the things I mentioned. GM seems to have been open to new ideas in the early to mid 1960s, but that seems to have gone away by the end of the decade – perhaps in kneejerk response to the Corvair/Nader debacle.

    • 0 avatar
      tced2

      Another reason that the innovations dropped off was that GM had to devote more engineering resources to clean air after about 1970.

  • avatar

    Oh, and the 2nd gen Corvair is one of the best looking postwar cars period. Maybe even a cleaner design than the 70.5 Camaro.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    I was raised in an industrial suburb of Chicago filled with families, so my world was full of big family vehicles. Consequentially, I knew of one Corvair. It was driven by the mother of the saddest loser of a Boy Scout in the history of our Troop.

    His name was Bruce, and he had a square head, bad teeth, and a need to cry when confronted. He was unlucky. His father tried to be our Scout Master, but wasn’t smart enough to understand fire dangers. He wore thick glasses and had bad teeth too. He used to be able to smoke a cigarette and smile at the same time. Bruce’s mother applied makeup like she was from Ringling Brothers. She had fake orange hair and when she drove up in the old Corvair, her appearance was unforgetable.

    We had to endure Bruce because his bloviating moron of a father was a Scout Leader. On camping trips each of us dreaded and cursed the possibility of having Bruce as our tent partner, and we would force the newest scout to endure a weekend camping trip with the whiney, crying, farting giant baby of a Scout. Worse, who ever was forced to bunk with Bruce, was forced to deal with his father too, since Bruce would always cry for his father during the night. The old man would end up trugging up to the tent which held his precious baby in white boxers pulled up over his gut, shirtless, with a Pall Mall dangling from the crack in his smile.

    On Saturday nights, we would watch Bruce’s mom pull up in that wreck of a Corvair and stumble out of it wearing some kind of animal print polyester outfit, with a cigarette hanging from lips with enough lipstick covering them to grease down a Fiat. She walked like she was drunk, yelling, “Where’s MY Brucie?” and exhaling white clouds as she impaled dried autumn leaves with her spiked heels.

    Then it happened. I ended up Bruce’s tent mate. I had failed to cut a deal with my pack, and came late to an camp outing. My mom was too busy to take me, and so I ended up having to take a ride in that Corvair, with Bruce sharing the back seat with me, as his parents filled the front seat. I was mortified.

    The Corvair smelled like a cross between an ashtray and a cat box. When I squeezed myself behind the old man into the back seat, Bruce got all orgasmic and happy like he was just released from day care. He actually bounced and rocked in excitement, and would have lost his thick-lensed glasses if not for the wide black elastic straps securing them around his head. It felt cramped and airless, as his mom twisted the ignition key with her fake orange nails.

    The Corvair farted and died. “Pump it, honey!” cried out the old man. “Damn it, I am!”, came her response. “I gotta get dis thin’ to a garage, it’s goin’ through plugs wit’ dose leaks.” On her second try, the Corvair farted into life.

    With the engine behind me, and Bruce beside me, I was both deafened and nauseous at the same time. I better understood why Bruce wore two hearing aids. The back seat had no leg room, forcing me to look directly into Bruce’s father’s Brillcreamed slicked hair.

    With two overweight adults in the front, a drooling, 14 year old square-headed baby and a nauseous First Class Boy Scout, you wouldn’t know the Corvair was accelerating if it wasn’t for the din behind me, because the car seemed overtaxed by it’s load.

    “Ya know, dis car’s got it’s truck in front!”, Bruce dutifully noted to me, as his oniony breath melted the left side of my face. His braces glissened with spit and he sprayed a conversation at me about how he was going to be an Eagle Scout, how he was going to make sure he peed before going into his sleeping bag, and how he thought that the Brady Bunch was cooler than the Partridge Family.

    I couldn’t get out of that Corvair fast enough. It was the first time I arrived at Scout Camp feeling dirtier than when I usually left Scout Camp. The guys in my Pack felt so bad for me, they all treated me like my dog died.

    So, I hate Corvairs.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    Chalk me up as another that regards the 2nd-gen Corvair as one of the greatest GM tragedies. I especially like the convertible version.

    With just a modicum of effort on GM’s part, the Corvair could have been what it was supposedly envisioned to be – the American VW Beetle/Porsche. Just think, if the Corvair had been the success it should have been, there might never have been a Vega.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    My first car was a ’66 Mustang with that “flaccid” little six and my second was a 260 c.i. Mustang convertible basketcase (brought it home in pieces). The Mustang’s six wasn’t a problem. It was the rariety of a four speed transmission could with that engine that was the real problem. My 200 c.i. six made 120HP and the later Corvair came stock with a 110HP or a 95HP engine.

    The Mustang three speed manual just sucked in the TN mountains with the six. There were too many occasions when I needed to split gear shifts (as if it had a two speed axle). I HATED that tranny for the gears it lacked. My later Beetles with less power and one more gear climbed the TN mountains better.

    My Mustang brakes did suck. In fact it was due to the Mustang’s drum brakes, the single circuit master cylinder and the fact that they failed TWICE on me coming down the mountain during my ownership that I have become a brakes connoisseur! My Beetles brakes would fade away to nothing after 3-4 100-0 kph stops in heavy Naples, Italy rush hour traffic but they never failed outright. The Mustang’s wheel cylinders failed both times.

    The Mustang suspension in stock form was as bad as anything I have driven. The rear end would slide out on damp roads with the slightest provocation. Even my Beetles out manuvered that car.

    All that said – I still want another gen 1 Mustang – with some updates to the suspension, tranny, and brakes. A 2+2 please.

    Having pulled my Corvair donor engines apart I’ll say Corvair was a typical example of GM quality (sloppy). LOL!

    I have a ’65 110 HP that am I installing in a ’78 VW Westfalia. Worry not all two of you VW enthusiasts. I’m not altering the Westfalia in any way and I’m saving all the parts in case I want to go back to VW “power”. The VW engine was good but needs more displacement for a vehicle this size on modern American roads. The Corvair implant was the easiest way to get that displacement. The other option is a Jake Raby “Camper Special” for many thousands of dollars. I don’t think I want to get that deep ($$$) into this project. Just want to cruise at 65 mph and a reasonable RPM.

    The Corvair fits very well in the ’78 VW chassis and pushes the horsepower from 67 HP to ~110HP. I may go abck to the 95 HP heads for more heat resistance. And I’m using the Corvair four speed manual transmission so the gearing will be better than the low VW gearbox (think 5 billion rpm at 65 mph). Megasquirt may be in this engine’s future.

    The engine design looks okay but the aluminum castings are terrible. Where the VW castings are “perfect” the GM castings have msitakes – bearing supports that aren’t lined up correctly, fins on the heads that are incomplete, and areas between the fins that air supposed to pass through that are full of flashing.

    GM’s machine shop made most of the poor casting mistakes right. The head fins are correctable with a long 1/8″ drill bit on a rechargable drill. Leaky seals that let the pushrod tubes leak onto the exhaust manifolds and thus into the cabin heater air stream have been largely corrected by modern O-ring materials that can survive the heat. I still prefer the VW heater design b/c there are six places the Corvair can leak carbon monoxide into the cabin heat (every exhaust port). The VW design starting in about 1965 keeps the heater air flow separate from the engine cooling air. Yes the VW heater boxes do rot out eventually but the Corvair just needs a gasket to fail or the exhaust manifold nuts to loosen.

    I still like the Corvair and would like to own one. Why is it that a car manufacturer like GM will leave out a $4 part (60′s dollars) or a $100 part (21st century dollars) rather than including it and passing on the expense to the customer? The dollar amount is inconsequential and if some small details add up to a vehicle people brag on, have confidence in, and tell their friends about – isn’t it worth it?

    Which Corvair do I want? I want the ’64 Corvair Monza convertible. It’s got the early looks and the later suspension and engine refinements. Best of both worlds. I like them all but the ’64 is the best to me.

    • 0 avatar

      The ’64 Corvair does not have the later suspension. It has the most-tweaked version of the original swing-axle suspension, with front anti-roll bar and a transverse camber-compensator rear spring. (The center-pivoted spring supports part of the static weight, allowing the rear coils to be softer, but it doesn’t contribute to roll stiffness.) It’s a definite improvement over the early cars, but it’s not the same as the ’65-’69 suspension, which is a three-link IRS similar to that of the Sting Ray (the main difference is the use of coils, rather than a transverse leaf). The hub carriers are supported by trailing arms, which transmit torque to the body; the halfshafts act as the upper control arms, with additional lateral links acting as lower arms.

  • avatar
    65corvair

    As a 65 Corvair owner, everything you said in this article is true. Rare to find positive coments the Corvair. It handles better and rides better than my Toyota Matrix. One thing wrong in the article is it’s a ’66. But if you can tell the difference, you need to get a life!

  • avatar
    garvent

    Have enjoyed many fine articles at TTAC- this one on the Corvair is by far the best. Great job and I love the feed back from the readers. I had a very long association with the Corvair and, in fact,from 1971-86, I designed and manufactured a line of 28 products for the car including flaired front spoilers (air dam) with optional beake scoops, rear spoiler, rocker panels with brake scoops, flaired stone guards and on and on. People would see my Red ’66 and ask if it was a GM prototype Camaro, a Corvette, an Itailian sports car and some said it was the best looking car they had ever seen, period. I loved the way it went quickly around corners – starting with mild understeer, transitioning to neutral handling and, with a little bit more throttle, moving to gentle and very controllable oversteer – it was beautiful!! What was really fun was watching some muscle car trying to keep pace with me as his straining front tire folded under and his front end was sliding to the outside guard rail. Boy, did that make them angry! They just did not understand that their ox-cart, leaf spring/solid axle rear suspensions just could not do the job.
    Oh, by the way, of the eight import fighting compact cars introduced by the Big Three in 1960-61, the Corvair was the only one that did not take sales away from the dealers other, conventionial big cars and, therefore, was a success because it was the only American car at that time to actually attract the import minded buyer. Decades would continue to pass by while the Big 3 tryed to solve the riddle of how to appeal to the import buyer; they didn’t know they had it when they had it! Shame, shame!
    Many thanks again for recognizing the first foreign car build in America and my only lament was that GM did not have the determination to stick with it and do it right for the long term.

    • 0 avatar
      rudiger

      “Oh, by the way, of the eight import fighting compact cars introduced by the Big Three in 1960-61, the Corvair was the only one that did not take sales away from the dealers other, conventionial big cars and, therefore, was a success because it was the only American car at that time to actually attract the import minded buyer.”This is a salient point that is too often overlooked when discussing the Corvair. While the Falcon (and, to a lesser, extent, the Valiant/Lancer) get a lot of praise as being bigger successes than the Corvair, the point that they were traditional in their drivetrain layouts speaks volumes about who bought them and how big a success they actually should be considered. It could be argued that the Corvair, which sold in pretty good numbers, too (until Nader, anyway), was a much greater success due to the fact that it had an unorthodox drivetrain appealing to a completely different market.

      It’s also worth noting that the original Mustang I concept car (which came out at about the same time as the Corvair/Falcon/Valiant) was also a rear-engined car. Although production was never seriously considered, one still has to wonder how much the Corvair’s bad publicity played a role in altering the Mustang’s design from a 2-seat, rear-engined sportscar to the 4-seat, ‘sporty’ car based off of the traditional, front-engine, rear-drive Falcon.

      Maybe if GM had done a better job of engineering the Corvair and it had sold better in later years, the Mustang story (and even Ford, as a whole, since the Mustang I’s drivetrain was a V4 lifted from the new, front-drive German Ford Cardinal/Taunus) would have been much different.

  • avatar

    Obligatory plugs for more info on the Corvair:

    http://ateupwithmotor.com/compact-and-economy-cars/65-rebel-yell-the-life-and-death-of-the-chevrolet-corvair.html

    …and the fascinating mid-engine Crown Corv8 conversion:

    http://ateupwithmotor.com/sports-cars-and-muscle-cars/67-crown-v8-corvair.html

  • avatar
    Werther

    “Ironically, the gen1 Corvair’s styling is not as highly praised in its home country as the 1965, which in turn had very little affect on Europe.”

    No, it did not have an affect (unless, of course, you think the style is affected). It had an effect.

  • avatar

    I always greatly preferred the gen2, but your account of the gen1′s influence on styling amazed me, and gave me a lot more respect for that car, though I still prefer the gen2. The gen2 is a timeless and virtually flawless design, and I disagree with you about the 4 door–I think it looks great, too. Even the dashboard is really nice on this car.

    I loved the account of driving on Skyline, where I had one of my own best drives, and the dancing metaphor.

  • avatar
    NoChryslers

    Such a purity of line in its design. Absolutely beautiful.

    I guess it wasn’t all Ralph Nader’s fault that the Corvair died, then?

    • 0 avatar

      Not at all. In fact, I think GM probably kept it alive longer than they otherwise might (given that they decided in 1964 not to spend any more money on it than necessary to meet regulatory requirements) to keep it from looking like it was canceled in response to Nader’s attacks.

      Even Nader admitted the second-generation car was vastly better than the original, though.

  • avatar

    @VanillaDude,

    I don’t doubt that your ride in that Corvair was unpleasant, but I hope you never speak about a human being again the way you talked about this obviously very unfortunate Bruce. Don’t you have even a shred of compassion? Your story reflects extremely poorly on you.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    That’s a beautiful car.

    I’m not much of a Corvair student, but I believe the Corvair needed to happen, and needed to die. Its existence was/is vital to American automotive history.

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming

    To my eyes the 1960s represented the high point of General Motors (at least here in the US). Never before or since has that corporation taken so many engineering and product risks. The Corvair was indeed one of its most interesting risks.

    I’d agree with the posters above who argue that the Corvair was ultimately doomed because rear engines were an endangered species. If the Corvair had started as a front-engined car it plausibly could have evolved into a more sophisticated alternative to the Mustang. Not that it would have sold as well. But with a front engine, it would at least have stayed in the ball game.

    I’m not at all surprised that GM didn’t recognize that a European-style sporty coupe had potential. GM really didn’t do small and nimble. The whole cultural weight of the corporation pushed in the opposite direction, e.g., by 1964 most of GM’s compacts had grown to mid-sized status and embarked on another cubic inches race. What does surprise me is that none of the other American automakers were smart enough to go European. AMC had the most potential, and it dabbled around the margins in the 1970s, but even its best sporty coupes (e.g., the Hornet Xs) were half hearted.

  • avatar

    My father bought and restored a ’65 Monza convertible, bright red, in the early 70′s. Some of my first memories are of riding in the car down the streets of Littleton, Colorado, listening to “Downtown” on the radio with the top down.

    Not long after it was restored, however, it was stolen by a couple of drunk kids, who took it on a joyride and totaled it.

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    Occastionally GM actually showed some engineering cojones. The Corvair was one of these times. My friend had a new ’65 180 hp turbocharged Corsa back then, and it was – quite simply – a Porsche eater. Wonderful car…and as those pics show, it had styling that’s still strong today.

    Oh well, we know what happened during the rest of that decade and on into the future.

    GM laid off their only two engineers, hired 100s more MBAs, and proceeded to set the standard for awful engineering…a standard of abysmalness only exceeded by Microsoft today.

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    I wish I could find the internet link (and I can’t) but GM’s Corvair engineers had been working on an OVERHEAD CAMSHAFT Corvair engine for later introduction in the second generation of cars, as well as the interesting fact that the GM TurboHydramatic 350 3 speed automatic, has a hollow center shaft. Why? Because it was going to eventually replace the pathetic two speed Powerglide in the Corvair (obviously with a different transmission case and altered internals for rear-engine use). The inner mechanics were set-up for use to send the power back in the direction from which it came (which is also done in the Corvair Powerglide).

    The other factoid that nobody seems to remember is that the 1961-1963 Pontiac Tempest and LeMans, the 1961-1963 Oldsmobile F85 and Cutlass as well as the 1961-1963 Buick Special and Skylark, were all related to the Corvair.

    In other words, had GM decided to make the Corvair more “conventional” and put an engine in the front, they could have done so at any time. But that would have been admitting defeat.

    The independent rear suspension could even have been retained – after all, the Tempest shared that with the Corvair! The Tempest even had a rear transaxle and front engine, some 16 years ahead of the Porsche 928! Nobody seems to remember that…. nor the GTO’s “daddy” the 1963 Pontiac LeMans 326 (the only year that Pontiac used their own V8 in the small unitbody mid-sized cars).

    For that matter, GM “could” have simply sawed off the Chevy V8 and made a V6, put that in the front, done the transaxle in the Pontiac Tempest manner and called it the Corvair anyway, right from the git-go. But they didn’t do that, either.

    The point is, yep. These WERE very popular “back in the day” with no small portion of that popularity being the fact that it had a Chevy bow-tie on it. Kind of like the 1980′s-1990′s-2000′s halo that Toyota had.

    My father used to say “if they put a damn DONKEY in the showroom, and put a (Chevy) bow-tie on it, it’d sell….” He was right.

    At least, back in the day, anyway.

    Just imagine what GM ‘COULD’ have done though. My uncle actually wrote to GM and said – put that Corvair engine in the front. Make it front wheel drive.

    My idea would have been to put that Corvair engine in the front (the new OHC version), leave the transaxle at the rear (the new 3 speed automatic or 4 speed manual rear transaxle from the Corvair) and add a gasoline heater. And add front disc brakes (which Studebaker had done by 1963 on Avanti and made optional on other cars, years ahead of “the big 3″). Even lowly Ramblers could be had with front disc brakes as an option by 1965 (and standard on the Marlin).

    This would have fixed the rear-bias handling of the Corvair (a lot of VW’s and Corvairs back in the day, used to end up backwards in ditches the first day of any inclement winter weather).

    • 0 avatar
      Dr Lemming

      Good points. In perhaps a vague sense the 1967 Camaro WAS what the Corvair could have been, sans the IRS and transaxle of the Tempest.

      The Camaro looks like it has a family resemblance to the Corvair, e.g., the windshield appears to be identical. Creating a stand-alone platform is prohibitively expensive for a niche vehicle, and I assume GM was able to bring the Camaro to market as quickly as it did because it raided the parts bin. I’m curious as to what came from where. The first-generation Camaro doesn’t look all that closely related to the ’68+ Nova.

  • avatar
    NoChryslers

    If GM ever gets the urge to do another rear-engine car, this would be ideal for inspiration style-wise.

  • avatar
    MadHungarian

    Got that right on the braking. Didn’t need antilock brakes; you could jam on the binders, the rear end would not skid, and the front wheels still steered. As a result, back when I had a ’66 I avoided T-boning a lady in a Beetle who pulled out of a driveway right in front of me.

  • avatar
    probert

    Your conflict over the styling – early versus later – is one I’ve also had. Earlier generally wins, although this is a very pretty example.

    I think the styling influence of the early corvair is underestimated; it can easily be seen in the nsu sport prinz and the bmw 1600 – 2000.

    Thanks for another great post.

  • avatar
    Whuffo2

    I had a ’63 Monza for a couple of years and it was a pretty good little car. Dependable and it didn’t use much gas and it’d go almost anywhere. It had its problems, though – the performance was not exactly thrilling and the shifter (4-speed) was vague and awkward. The heater was less than useless; not much warmth, lots of smells.

    It handled pretty good – but it was obvious that the weight was in the back when you went around corners and there was always a feeling that it’d bite if you pushed just a little too hard.

    Pretty nice little car considering the time it was born in, and it shows how GM developed smaller cars to come. But I wouldn’t want another one – there’s been much, much, MUCH better cars built since.

  • avatar
    catbert430

    My cousin got a 1963 monza convertible with a 4-speed as his first car when he turned 16.

    I was only 11 at the time and he used to take me for rides out in the country where his family lived in Western PA.

    He drove like a maniac and I was sure every curve in the road would be death.

    Loved every minute of it.

  • avatar
    Syke

    If you’ve ever wondered about not being able to lose a reputation:

    Advance copies of Laura Bush’s autobiography hit the press today, and she finally opens up about a car crash in 1963 in which she was driving an Impala, ran a stop sign and hit another kid driving a Corvair, killing him.

    Of course, the accident isn’t her fault, the kid’s dead because he was driving a Corvair.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/36818869

    Give me an ‘effin break!!!!!

  • avatar
    islander800

    Great CC! My first car was a ’65 Monza 4-speed with the 140 4-carb engine and I still vividly remember what a joy it was to drive that car.

    I got it at 21 years of age and rebuilt the engine in a friend’s garage, removing the drivetrain by jacking up the car and pulling out the entire assembly on a rented piano dolly. The rebuild went without a hitch and on recommission, I added a set of Stebro exhausts. These exited the rear of the vehicle with dual chrome tips on each assembly, adding a sinister and nicely complementing look to the 4 round tail lights. And the sound! There was NOTHING on the road that compared to the full roar of the ‘Vair’s pancake 6 through those Stebros when accelerating at full throttle. With the 4 carbs, I found that you had to hold off engaging the 2 secondaries until reaching about 3000 RPM, otherwise it would bog, but boy oh boy, when you floored it to get all 4 barrels, the front end literally lifted (no, not quite off the road, but the upward tip of the hood was unmistakable) with the extra kick of the secondaries. I recall throwing the ‘Vair into sweeping left-right-left curves under speed and being amazed at the sensation of steering right-left-right in the process….

    I see your CC has an aftermarket tach mounted on the steering column. I found that a contemporary Smith’s tach fit perfectly into the blank middle dash bezel reserved for the optional clock, so I mounted mine there in place of the clock blank and it looked factory-perfect. The great thing about the interior of the coupe was that the rear seatback folded down, giving a look like a two-seater with a large package shelf, and once all side windows were rolled down, the exquisitely fine lines of the c-pillar and large front and rear glass gave the closest feel to being in an open car of any on the road, before or since.

    All in all, a true American classic, one of the best of the 60′s and a fitting tribute to Ed Cole, father of both the Corvair and the Chevy small-block.

  • avatar
    George in Georgia

    My first car was a used ’65 Monza convertible, 110 hp, 4 speed, white with red interior. What a sweet ride on a spring day or a summer’s night. I had driven a friend’s Porsche Speedster but the ‘vair was affordable. It was a revelation after my folk’s ’60 Plymouth, the “White Whale.” I couldn’t afford the Stebros that Islander800 added, but a set of El Cheapo duals was great fun. Occasional smoke rings when warming up, and the echo in an underpass was fun! I enjoyed sucking Mustangs into a little run down a boulevarded avenue with intermittent roundabouts, and seeing their expression as I passed them on the roundabout’s inside lane!

    The Monza was totaled by a Cadillac and was succeeded a little later by a 140 hp ’65 Corsa coupe, also white and red. Even more fun! Several buds were also ‘vair fans, we worked on them together. Three of once did a clutch R&R in 45 minutes, we were a symphony in motion. Clutches were easy; drop the transaxle and engine, using an old phone book to cushion the jack. The transaxle unbolted, the output shaft was enlisted as a clutch pilot, replace the pilot bushing – fill the recess with grease and the output shaft tapped in gently forced the bushing out via “hydraulic” pressure.

    We learned that it was best to buy fan belts from the dealer. Breakage at speed was unpleasant, although with a spare – I always carried one and a few carefully chosen tools – a roadside repair was quick.

    A friend had a 140 ‘vair with an aftermarket adaptor for a 4 bbl carb, I forget which one. A nice setup, no fuss with synching 4 carbs, and it was fast.

    Word was that the brakes were lifted off the Chevelle, so they were oversized by contemporary standards. Whatever the story, they were excellent, with weight transfer for once your friend. It was also said that the ’66 and later 4 speed internals were identical to those of V8 Chevys.

    The heater stench – oil dropping on the exhaust – could be fixed with Viton seals. There were other things that GM should have fixed. But that seems to have been their pattern – build an interesting car, such as the Fiero, and fail to follow through.

    The Corvair was and is a true curbside classic. The ’65 and later were perhaps the best handling American cars of their time, and their timeless styling still looks good, which is more than can be said for most iron of the ’60s.

  • avatar
    mda185

    Rarely have I enjoyed an online article as much as this CC and the comments that followed. I owned several Corvairs from 1974-1980 ranging from a low end 1963 model to my favorite, a 1966 Corsa convertible with the 140 HP engine. While all of my high school motorhead friends were buying used 60′s muscle cars, I spent a year restoring my 66 Corsa and enjoyed driving it all through college. I had the help of a good friend that still owns a 64 Spyder convertible, 65 Corsa convertible, and 66 Corvair coupe – all turbos. This was a great car for a kid to learn how to work on automobiles because the challenges required innovative puzzle solving at times. They were never as straightforward to work on as the common front engine, rear wheel drive American cars of that time. They were wonderful enthusiast cars for their time and I often fantasized about what could have been if GM had been a different kind of car company.

    This lack of soul from American cars and the executives that run the companies is why I turned to imports long ago. Unfortunately, most of the automotive world is headed in the same direction. Witness what has happened to the company that built the 2002tii and the E30 M3. Now, they make more money selling vehicles that are more like up-market Buicks than the lean, mean drivers machines they built their reputation with. Toyota produced the All Trac Turbo, the MR2 Turbo, and the Supra Turbo in the 90′s and won the WRC multiple times. What are they known for now? Defective throttle controls on boring family cars. Honda used to have a philosophy of training their best young engineers in the racing world before tasking them with designing passenger cars and it showed in their product line. It seems that once these auto companies reach a certain level of size and profitability, they become much less willing to take risks with innovative designs. They also seem to stifle creativity in their designers and management executives. Then, those executives and engineers tend to promote clones of themselves and the creativity becomes further diluted and the downward trend feeds itself. This culture, is what I believe led to GM, Ford, and Chrysler deciding to focus on the transiently profitable pick up truck and SUV market for too long and completely lose touch with what the market and the country really needed.

    I don’t want to end on such a depressing note. I enjoyed the retrospective on the Corvair Monza tremendously and it brought back a lot of good memories.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    I figure the never-ending push for corporate growth means car companies have to aim their product style at the appliance drivers rather than vehicle enthusiasts. It’s probably easier to make an appliance than a well tuned or well styled enthusiast vehicle. Had an extended debate with my 65 year old father this weekend about why the current Buick barges aren’t interesting cars. They might be good but to me they are blah. Anxiously awaiting the Regal which somehow GM won’t be able to sell in large quantities here in American while it is a best seller in other markets.

  • avatar
    vurtok

    I sat in a brand new 1965 Monza coupe in Hudiburg Chevy’s showroom in Midwest City, Oklahoma in October of 1964. That was the best I could do since I was only 10 at the time. It was Evening Orchid metallic with a black interior, and it had a 4spd stick on the floor. I worked that stick over good until a salesman made me get out. I remember that car as beautiful beyond reason, and I always bring its image to mind when I think of Corvairs. I hated Ralph Nader for his stupid book and the ruination of that wonderful automobile. I still can’t believe that “Unsafe At Any Speed” was able to turn the tide of public opinion against the Corvair so quickly and thoroughly. I didn’t buy the smear campaign then and I don’t now. If I had been able to find a Monza coupe in decent shape in the summer of 1972, it would have been my first car; but I got a ’67 Nova SS instead. I think the Nova and Corvair kind of resemble each other, especially the rooflines. Anyway, a beautifully styled automobile, sanitary is the word that comes to mind. Knife edged lines and just the right amount of brightwork. The world has certainly been diminished with the passing of Bill Mitchell and his influence on automotive design.

  • avatar

    The Northeast Corvair Council (“NECC”) conducts high-speed track events for sports car enthusiasts. Our history goes back to 1974, when we conducted time trials for Corvairs at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut. Corvairs? On a race track? You bet! We’ve been doing it more than thirty years! Last week, on May 3rd, we ran at Summit Point. Here is a link to a video clip.

    http://corvair.tv/content/2010-summit-point-necc-morning-run-groups

  • avatar
    CORVAIRWILD

    Boy, lotsa of reading here!!! I just returned from a 400 mile rountrip journey to the Hopkinton NH spring Corvair Dustoff in my ’62 Spyder convertible. Heavily turbocharged, Crown components and staight exhaust!
    Personally, I think the late (LM) 4 door Sport Sedan has GREAT lines. I was looking to buy one when I stumbled across a ’66 Fitch Sprint Corsa…
    I also have a ’62 Rampside pickup waiting for some TLC in Arizona, (pictured).
    There’s a big roundup of Corvairs in Cedar Rapids Iowa in June, the yearly National Convention, June 21st. I’ll be there! Will you???

    Here’s the link to my trip and walkaround at Hopkinton

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3EPfYYU9JU

  • avatar
    treedom

    God, what a beautiful car. And call me crazy but I LIKE the modern wheels under there, they give it a meaty presence. (I loved the little Corvair Greenbriar vans, too… would love to see a piece on them.)

    No wonder GM was so reluctant to meet the imports head-on for years after. Here they stole VW’s best ideas, added more power and style, and hey presto, Americans stayed away from the dealer in droves.

    Too bad about those wretched swing axles the first time around, Nader was hyperbolic but not wrong.

  • avatar
    EuroAmerican

    Brother-in-law had a beautiful 2nd gen (’65) Corvair “by Fitch.” A fast and beautiful white convertible with red interior, it was a special version that had been modified, blueprinted and blessed by the famous driver. I remember riding shotgun on a particularly fast drive to the top of Mt. Palomar in California. Brother-in-law was a former racer for Jaguar, so he knew how to drive. I was a young teen, but I got to drive the car around town.

    Author’s take on what happened to American cars is correct. Corvair history really does tell much of the disappointing story. I guess, as hinted, it says a lot about our culture too.

  • avatar

    “F” the experts,naysayers and critics. L-O-V-E this.

  • avatar

    Paul,
    Thanks for the article on this car. Lucky me I just recently bought this exact car you did the article on. I have had many Corvairs over the years and have loved them all.
    It truly was a car just a little too far ahead of its time.

  • avatar
    Lgbpop

    I know this is necromancy, but I just found this thread and the car in the photos is talking to me. It’s asking me, “what am I?” The taillight lenses and front valance badge placement down low say it’s a 1966 or ’67…the three-nacelle instrument panel and front-fender ID badges are Monza, but the silver rear cove and dual-exhaust 140 say Corsa as does the lack of aluminum wheel opening trim…but the fancier door panels say Monza as well. It COULD be a de-trimmed 1966 Monza with a silver panel for camouflage, I suppose. No way it’s a 1965 of either flavor.

    Nit-picking aside, nice write-up. Someday I will own another ’65 Corsa turbo, but for now this will have to suffice.

  • avatar
    140HP

    The Corvair was a mistake of biblical proportion for GM..Matthew 7:6 “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” Where I grew up a car’s worth was measured strictly by the length of the burn out patch….with it’s superior traction Corvair was not an easy sell…

  • avatar
    sunvair64

    I realize that this is way too late, but…
    Y’all know too many myths about Nader and the Corvair:

    FACT: Nader’s book didn’t kill the Corvair.
    Ralph, a lawyer who has never practiced law, co-wrote a book with several automotive engineers who examined the design but not the vehicle itself in order to invent/create their opinions about that design. Most of the criticisms were based on studies of European makes with similar suspension designs.

    #1) The book actually extended the sales life of the Corvair.
    GM executives had already decided in 1965 that 1967 would be the last sales year. After the book was published, the final year was extended to 1969 so production/sales cessation wouldn’t appear to verify the criticisms in the book (and possibly generate more lawsuits).

    #2) Corvair’s best sales year was 1962, 3 years before the book came out.
    In 1959, before the first Corvair was sold, GM executives had already decided that the car would not compete well against the other new compacts from Ford and Chrysler, and so ordered engineers to design a more conventional compact car. It was eventually called Chevy II, and debuted in the 1963 model year. It cost less to make than Corvair which meant that Chevy dealers made more money on its sale. Guess which car they promoted almost exclusively starting in 1963?

    #3) The book’s suspension criticisms were completely refuted in 1972.
    After Corvair production ceased, the immediate forerunner of NHTSA began a 3-year study of the 1st gen suspension, using vehicles 9-14 years old as test mules. After cross-checking their studies with others of the time, the report in ’72 stated that the 1st generation Corvair suspension was no more likely to contribute to an accident than other more conventionally-suspended contemporaries and that the apparent difference in accident rates were more likely attributable to driver error(and/or overly enthusiastic driving?=my guess).

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Thanks for chiming in with this information!

    • 0 avatar
      probert

      Your last contention raises some red flags.

      GM was well aware of the issues – camber jacking – presented by the swing arm design and that they had designed the suspension to compensate for this. What Nader showed – and what infuriated him – was that, to save 5 cents/car they REMOVED this suspension part knowing this would result stability issues in certain situations. They did a cost benefit analysis based on lives lost versus part cost – and it paid off.

      Regarding the NHSTA study: After the book was published GM started a smear campaign and an harassment campaign – spying on Nader, going through his garbage etc.. – they could find nothing to impugn him. They were taken to court and found guilty. If there was any evidence that the Corvair was as safe as any other car, it strikes me they would have gone to court with that evidence and been done with it.

      That study also included the VW and Renault Dauphine -not paradigms of stability. Another variable was probably eliminate: instead of an anti roll bar (which they removed prior to selling the car) the engineers determined that if the tire pressures were carefully calibrated the car handled OK. When is the last time you checked your car’s tire pressure? When is the last time you thought your life depended on it? My guess is that the study was done with carefully calibrated tire pressures on perfectly maintained vehicles.

      Further – The phrase “over enthusiastic driving” is a solipsism – if your car flips during maneuvers – by definition that’s “over enthusiastic. And they did flip – and people died.

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        “When is the last time you checked your car’s tire pressure? When is the last time you thought your life depended on it?”

        About a week ago and you don’t think your life depends on your tire pressures? The rules of physics haven’t been repealed, no matter what you’ve been conditioned to believe.

      • 0 avatar
        Kenmore

        “When is the last time you checked your car’s tire pressure?”

        Holy crap….now that’s scary.

        I’m the least thing like a “car guy” here and I never enter a vehicle without at least eyeballing the tires. And for my own, if something looks iffy there are always a couple of gauges inside. Also routinely check and top-up my wife’s tires.

        Front tires always look a little flat on FWD cars and rear tires can lose a surprising amount of pressure while still showing a normal profile. Gauge check at least monthly no matter what.

  • avatar
    bullnuke

    A few of us nukes at Nuclear Power School in Vallejo, Ca., owned Gen II’s in 1970. My roommate and I owned Cosrsa’s – he had a ’65 and I owned a ’66. He made the 4-barrel mod and it was monster quick. I stuck with the 4-single-barrels and put a Mallory dual-point and a set of low-restriction exhaust manifolds – mine was just as quick. RPM limited to around 115 to 118mph. I could flog it all day and still return 25-26mpg. Made a couple of cross-country runs to Ohio with it; lost the bolt on the belt return idler opposite the alternator which was replaced with a suitable bolt at a gas station in Iowa. That was the only tortured belt problem I ever had. Fun times of my youth.


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