The Truth About Cars » corvair The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Tue, 29 Jul 2014 13:53:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » corvair Junkyard Find: 1962 Chevrolet Corvair 700 Station Wagon Thu, 06 Feb 2014 14:00:45 +0000 07 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinOther than the many Corvairs in the Brain Melting Colorado Junkyard, we haven’t seen any examples of GM’s rear-engined compact so far in this series. As recently as ten years ago, Corvairs were not uncommon sights in self-serve wrecking yards, and trashed ones are worth little more than scrap value today, but it took until a couple of weeks ago and a trip to California for me to find one.
14 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinThis ’62 was parked in the import section of a huge Los Angeles yard, and my first glance at the engine-cooling vents gave me the impression that I was looking at a Volkswagen Type 3 Squareback. Nope!
04 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinThis one has been picked over pretty well, so we can assume that some Corvairs that remain among the living have benefited from its organ donation.
05 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinIt doesn’t have rust in the usual places that Maine or Michigan residents might expect— the rear quarters are solid, for example— but the floors have suffered from decades of leaky weatherstripping. You’ll get weeks of constant rain during Southern California winters, the carpets stay wet, and this happens.
03 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinNice minimalist instrument cluster, which reminds me a lot of the ones in French cars of the same era.
10 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinThis car still has a few bits to offer up, including the wagon-only glass. Let’s hope that stuff gets rescued before The Crusher goes squish.

01 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 02 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 03 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 04 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 05 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 06 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 07 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 08 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 09 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 10 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 11 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 12 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 13 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 14 - 1962 Corvair 700 Station Wagon Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin ]]> 33
The Most Influential Corvair Never Built : Giugiaro’s Chevrolet Testudo Sat, 09 Nov 2013 13:36:08 +0000 Photos: RM Auctions

Back in 2011, as part of its reorganization, Italian design house Bertone auctioned off some of its collection of concept cars in conjunction with the Villa d’Este concours that year. Marcello Gandini’s Lamborghini Marzal, with it’s glass gullwing doors, and its $2,170,369.10 USD sale price, got the lion’s share of the attention in that sale, but one of Giorgetto Giugiaro’s creations also on sale that day, the 1963 Chevrolet Testudo, may have been a more influential design in the long run than the Marzal. Testudo is Italian for turtle, an allusion to the sharp beltline separating top and bottom halves of the car. Though I can see the testudine influence, I’ve never seen a tortoise or turtle look this sleek and fast.

Like Chrysler did more than a decade earlier with Pininfarina and Ghia (leading to the great Exner-Ghia Chrysler concepts), Bill Mitchell at GM styling decided to have a competition of sorts, sending two Corvair chassis to Italy with an idea towards selling a European styled Corvair on the continent. One went to Pininfarina and the other to Bertone, where a young Giugiaro was working.

The man that went on to found Italdesign and have a great and prolific design career said that designing the Testudo opened his own eyes to a new way of designing cars as a whole, rather than as separate side and plan views. Also Ferruccio Lamborghini’s very successful relationship with Bertone may very well have been sparked by this car. More importantly, Bill Mitchell’s idea of a localized Euro Corvair never saw fruition but that idea led to one of the most influential concept cars ever.

Based on a shortened Chevy Corvair chassis, the Testudo not only opened up a new way of designing cars for Giugiaro, it influenced a number of very successful designs that came after it.  I can see some Ferrari Daytona (and the cars it influenced itself), C3 Corvette (though there may have been some two way influence there because Giugiaro was in contact with the GM stylists in Detroit that were then working on the Corvair Monza concept, which itself influenced the C3 Vette), Lamborghini Miura and Montreal, and possibly a couple of others including the AMC Pacer. The late Tony Lapine said that it directly influenced his design of the Porsche 928.

What do you see in it? Well, besides this Corvair engine.

You can read the car’s auction catalog description here at the RM Auction site (note how the press release’s description of Bertone’s history discretely avoided mentioning just why the car was on sale).

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If you think 3D is a plot to get you to buy yet another new TV set, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Into the Gap: Three Cars Enter, Two Cars Leave Tue, 27 Aug 2013 14:10:58 +0000 1960corvairc

The Earth has been made small by air travel. Despite the barriers thrown up by airport security, it is easy to step aboard a jet aircraft and, just hours later, emerge a full 12 time zones away, quite literally on the other side of the planet. Ground travel is nowhere near as fast or efficient. You can count the few, truly great, distance-spanning routes on one hand and have two fingers left over. They are: The Trans Siberian Railway, traversable by train, the Silk Road, traversable by camel, and the Pan American Highway which is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest “motorable roadway” on Earth.

At almost 30,000 miles in length, the Pan American Highway links two of the Earth’s four corners. It traverses 18 countries as it wends its way from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska on the extreme Northern edge of the North American Continent to the city of Ushuaia on the very tip of South America’s Isla Grand de Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina. In some places, the road is gravel, in others hard cement, and in still others it is a simple dirt path. In one place, it’s even imaginary. Yes I said imaginary, because, you see, the truth is that the Pan American Highway is a fraud. Thanks to 57 mile stretch of swampy, dense jungle that forms the border between Colombia and Panama, an area known as the Darien Gap, the Northern and Southern portions of the Highway are not joined together. That fact, however, mattered little when, in 1961, Chevrolet decided that their recently introduced Corvair would make the trip, road or not.

In 1960, Chevrolet was anxious to prove that its new Corvair which, with its air cooled, rear mounted engine, was a radical departure from the cars the brand traditionally sold to middle America. As the Germans had demonstrated to great effect, air cooling had some real advantages in cold climates so Chevrolet, in order to make a promotional film, sent three Corvairs to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in the Arctic Circle, and set them on the southward course to the southern end of the Northern half of the Pan American Highway. The cars performed well and they, along with their team of support vehicles, reached the Northern end of the Darien Gap in Panama without trouble. At the end of the trip, they turned around and came home.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The next year, Chevrolet decided that the remainder of the trip would make another excellent promotional film so they sent the same three cars, from where they were being kept at a dealership in Chicago, back to Panama. The cars were filmed zooming around Panama City prior to beginning the passage and then, with the initial scenes of the movie completed, they headed south on a gravel road to the muddy banks of the Yaviza river. After being floated across on wooden boats, the cars and their drivers pushed their way through the underbrush at the water’s edge and off into history.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Day by day, inch by inch, the adventurers cut their way through the thick growth on the floor of the great rainforest with machetes, driving the cars through the gaps wherever possible or pulling them through with ropes, muscle and the winches of their support trucks when they could not move forward on their own. In the twilight beneath the high jungle canopy, obstacles loomed up and were overcome with American know-how. When the cars broke down, the men repaired them. When a river or gully threatened to stop them cold, the men felled trees and used the logs to make rickety bridges, a reported 180 in all, to allow the cars to cross. It took months, but eventually the men and two of the Corvairs emerged from the southern edge of the gap. With the worst firmly behind them, the remaining cars began the long run to Argentina where they were eventually filmed zooming triumphantly about Buenos Aires. The trip completed, the men packed up their cameras and film and left the cars there. What became of them, no one knows.

While the two cars that finished the trip have vanished into history, the other Corvair remains to this day in the jungle of the Darien Gap. It is, they say, near a place called the Palo de Letras, the “tree of letters,” an immense, ancient mahogany upon which the few travelers who have managed to reach it have, over the years, carved their initials to memorialize their passage. The car sits there, alone amid the trees in perpetual twilight, its red paint mottled by fungus and its body hidden beneath the voracious jungle vines that overrun everything in their quest to for light and life, an odd remnant of modern man where we would expect only the sights and sounds of nature. Is it a tribute to man’s desire to conquer nature and to link the far corners of the Earth or just a stupid stunt? You decide.

Special thanks to The City Paper, Bogota. Check out their wonderfully written article, here.


Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Curbside Classic: 1963 Tempest LeMans- Pontiac Tries To Build A BMW Before BMW Built Theirs And Almost Succeeds Tue, 14 Dec 2010 17:25:19 +0000

In the thirties and forties, GM pioneered and brought to market some of the most innovative, successful and lasting new technologies: diesel-electric locomotives, the modern diesel bus, automatic transmissions, refrigeration and air conditioning systems, high compression engines, independent front suspension, and many more. But GM’s technology prowess was just one facet of its endlessly warring multiple personalities. Planned obsolescence, chrome, fins and financial rationalization were the real moneymakers, especially during the technically conservative fifties. But in the period from 1960 to 1966, GM built three production cars that tried to upend the traditional format: the rear engined 1960 Corvair, the front-wheel drive 1966 Toronado, and the 1961 Tempest. And although the Corvair and Toronado tend to get the bulk of the attention, the Tempest’s format was by far the most enduring one: it was a BMW before BMW built theirs. If only they had stuck with it.

A high performance four cylinder engine with four-venturi carburetion, four-wheel independent suspension; four speed stick shift; perfect 50-50 weight distribution; a light, compact yet fairly roomy body; decent manual steering; and neutral to over-steering handling qualities: sounds just like the specs for the all-new 1962 BMW 1500/1800. Or a Mercedes, or a Rover 2000 perhaps? But none of them had this: a rear transaxle and a totally revolutionary flexible drive shaft.  When GM gave its engineering talent the freedom to innovate, the results were often extraordinary. But in true GM fashion, penny-pinching resulted in the 1961 Tempest arriving flawed, like the Corvair. But unlike the Corvair, The Tempest never got a second chance to sort out its readily fixable blemishes. If so, the result would have been even more remarkable than the 1965 Corvair.

John DeLorean may be more famous for the ’59 Wide-Tracks, the GTO, the Pontiac OHC six, and the ’69 Grand Prix during his tenure at Pontiac, but in my opinion, the 1961 Tempest is his most ambitious and creative engineering effort. He was aware as anyone of the limitations of the Detroit big car formula: too big, thirsty, front-heavy and dull-handling. With the 1960 Corvair in the wings, DeLorean’s lingering plans to build a truly advanced and practical car finally came to (not quite ripe) fruition.

DeLorean was particularly interested in the benefits of independent rear suspension that so many European cars like the VW, Porsche and Mercedes had been using since the thirties. In the mid fifties, his engineering team developed an even more radical evolution of the Mercedes approach for the 1959 full-sized Pontiacs: a rear transaxle to balance weight distribution, and connected to the engine with a flexible shaft drive inside a rigid torque tube. That innovation was his alone, and he received a patent on it. And please don’t call it “rope drive;” good luck trying to send power through anything resembling a rope. It was a single flexible piece of steel, more akin to a torsion bar or a speedometer drive shaft.

The big 1959 Pontiacs arrived with their ad-friendly wide tracks, but were otherwise utterly conventional. But GM wanted to foist the new rear-engine Corvair on Pontiac, in order to spread its high development and production costs. The prototype Pontiac Polaris (above) was classic badge-engineering: a ’59 Pontiac-ish front end grafted on an otherwise unaltered Corvair. But the Pontiac brass Bill Knudsen, Pete Estes and DeLorean weren’t buying it, in part because DeLorean was already familiar with the Corvair’s tricky handling and nasty habit of spinning or even flipping when it got pushed too far.

DeLorean’s initial plan was to use the Corvair body, but turn it into a front-engined car while leaving the whole Corvair rear suspension and its transaxle in place, not even turning it around to face the motor. By using a hollow shaft, the Corvair transmission would actually be “driven” from the rear of the car, resulting in the torque converter hanging off the back of the differential, where it would normally have mated up to the Corvair’s rear engine.

Very creative indeed, and rather bizarre to see the torque converter just sitting there in the open like an appendage (above).  The drive shaft had three inches of deflection (curvature), and that curvature was strictly induced by applying the appropriate stresses on each end; there were no intermediate bearings necessary to locate it within the torque tube.

The rigid torque tube’s benefits went well beyond resulting in an almost-flat floor. It was a key component to adapt the four cylinder engine and help tame its vibrations. A four cylinder theoretically has perfect primary balance. But because it has only two power impulses per crankshaft rotation, second order and torsional vibrations can be quite significant, especially in a larger displacement motor. Traditionally, Europeans kept fours to two liters or less for that reason. Mitsubishi reintroduced the balance shaft with its 2.6 liter four in 1975, and it is highly effective and now very common in smoothing large fours.

This is why Detroit shunned fours like the plague; in order to provide American-style torque and power, American fours had almost always been large. At low engine speeds, like in the Ford Model T and A, this was not too bothersome. A suitable six might have been perfect, but Pontiac had little choice but create a compact and low-cost four by building it the quick and dirty way: eliminating one of the banks of its 389 CID V8. This was very cost effective, because it used a high percentage of the V8′s parts, and could be machined on the same lines as the V8.

Rigidly mounting the four to the front end of the torque tube eliminated the need for the engine mounts to control its front-to-back movements, so it was possible to isolate it and its vibrations from the body to a much greater degree than if had been mounted in the usual fashion. The mounts on the four only had to control its vertical movements, so they could be very soft. That does result in an impressive display of vertical “jumping” when the throttle is opened from idle.

That’s not to say that the 195 cubic inch (3.2 L) four’s noise, vibration and harshness issues were all miraculously solved by DeLorean’s innovative mounting solutions. It’s a very big four, for better or for worse. It does have a fatter torque curve than a comparable six or eight for its displacement, and therefore is very responsive. And thanks to Pontiac’s high performance experience, it could be quite powerful; output started at 110 hp, and went up to 165 hp with the optional four barrel carburetor. That overshadows the 1961 Corvair’s 98 hp optional engine.

As it turned out, Pontiac didn’t have to use the actual 108″ wheelbase Corvair body after all; GM relented and let them share the Corvair-based but slightly larger 112″ wheelbase Y Body that Buick and Oldsmobile were preparing for their 1961 compacts. But Pontiac was given a very tiny budget to adapt it, so the 1961 Tempest (above) used most of the Olds F85 sheetmetal with a ’59 Pontiac-derived front end and a new rear end grafted on. But the four cylinder, flex-drive and Corvair transaxle and its rear suspension were retained, for better or for worse.

The worst was that it was a simple swing axle: rigid half-axles jointed only at each side of the rigidly mounted differential. This was the hot new thing in Europe back in the thirties, but its tendency to jack up in fast corners and create snap oversteer and flipping had become all-too well known.

That’s why Mercedes developed its innovative single low-pivot rear axle (above) with an anti-jacking compensating spring in the early fifties, a temporary step before it adopted a double-jointed irs in 1968. BMW’s “Neue Klasse” 1500/1800/2000 sedans first arrived in 1962 with a double-jointed rear suspension. As did the Jaguar S sedan. Europe was moving on, and GM would quickly learn this painful lesson in penny-pinching. The 1963 Corvette Sting Ray had a new double-jointed rear axle, which the 1965 Corvair also adopted to great effect.

I showed you the odd Tempest automatic transaxle earlier, but here’s the (leaky) four speed in the featured convertible. That round bolted cover on the end is where the Corvair bellhousing would have attached.

And here’s the front of the same unit, showing the shift linkage which the Tempest conveniently shared with Corvair too. It wasn’t a model of precision and quickness, but Porsche had to have something left to improve when it adopted a highly similar torque tube rear transaxle for their 928 and 924/944/968. The 968′s three liter four was only slightly smaller than the Tempest 3.2, and its ferocious torque showed to best advantage the benefits of a large displacement four with balance shafts. If John Z. had remembered about the 1904 Lanchester’s patented balance shafts and adapted them, the Tempest would really have been a milestone car.

Speaking of Porsche’s claims about their pioneering:

a minor error in the text

The ’61 and ’62 Tempests did also offer a version of the aluminum Buick 215 CID V8 optionally, but only 1-2% of them were built with it, and only a tiny handful with a stick. Theoretically, the combination of the light and smooth V8 with a four speed and the Tempest’s independent suspension and perfect weight balance would have potentially made a very appealing package. But the V8 was troublesome from the beginning, and Pontiac had to “buy” it from Buick, so the four was pushed heavily. And the hi-po four did make almost as much horsepower as the V8.

The Tempest was widely (and rightfully) hailed when it arrived. It won Motor Trend’s COTY, and accolades from the press: “a breakthrough for Detroit”…”a wonderfully refreshing automobile”…”a significant coup of major import”…”may be the forerunner of a new generation”…”unquestionably a prototype American car for the sixties”. Testers praised its 50-50 front-rear balance, which resulted in lighter steering, less understeer, better traction and braking, and a good ride. But its ability to create the dreaded snap oversteer in the wet or on quickly driven curves was not left behind with the Corvair’s rear engine. The Tempest’s handling could also be tricky, and its agricultural sounding four could not be fully tamed, even if some of its shaking was mitigated. Consumer Reports was not so enthralled.

1962 Tempest LeMans

The Tempest met its sales expectations, selling 100k in 1961, 140k in ’62, and 130k in ’63. That helped Pontiac clinch third place in the sales stats. But it suffered the same problem as the Corvair: profitability was not up to snuff. The extra costs in converting the Olds body and the drive shaft and rear transaxle bit into the already slim margins on compact cars. The whole ambitious Corvair/Tempest/Olds F85/Buick Special Y-body experiments left GM with a bad aftertaste, especially since Ford was doing so well with its utterly conventional Falcon and Comet. The dull 1962 Chevy II was the effective replacement for the Corvair, and the B-O-P compacts became highly conventional mid-sized cars in 1964.

Our next door neighbor in Iowa City, a Russian professor, drove a white ’62 LeMans convertible like the one above. I vividly remember the throb of the big four as I rode with her to Sears to get her lawnmower fixed. But the open top was even more effective than DeLorean’s other efforts to drown out its agricultural sounds, at least above thirty or so. And I once briefly drove a co-worker’s base ’61 sedan in LA: despite being elderly, its intrinsic balance (which could be all-too easily upset for amusing purposes) and decent steering for an American car was downright un-American. If only its engine ran sweetly like my Peugeot 404′s. But the trade-off was the torque: very American indeed.

Our featured car is a 1963 LeMans, which was the sporty/upscale variant analogous to the Corvair’s Monza with the same bucket seats and higher trim. The ’63s were restyled to make them appear bigger, wider and longer. This convertible has all the right options, at least for those that have a soft spot for the four. I found it in front of this shop where it had just been converted to the factory 165 hp four barrel setup. And it also has the four-speed stick. Not surprisingly, its owner turns out to be a ’63 Tempest junkie; it was the car he always wanted in high school.

Norman has over half a dozen ’63s in and a round his shop and back yard, including this sedan still on the trailer that he just picked up. And he has another convertible (below) with the optional 326 V8 that replaced the aluminum V8 for 1963. This was a prescient move by DeLorean, and foreshadowed the 1964 GTO.

The 326 is a 389 with smaller bores (and actually displaced 336 cubic inches), and although no lightweight, it still results in a quite decent 54/46 weight distribution because of the rear transaxle. With a two barrel carb, the 326 made a fairly modest 260 hp, but the Tempest was light (2800-3000lbs) so with the V8 it scoots right along.  Because of limited funds, the four speed was not upgraded to handle the V8′s torque, so as far as is known, all the 326s came with the three speed stick or the two-speed Powerglide/aka: TempesTorque automatic. Norman says his fours get 18 – 20 mpg, and the 326 around 16 – 18 mpg.

To mitigate its handling rep, the 1963 Tempest’s rear suspension was revised with a modified control arm geometry and other tricks. But it was still a swing axle, and the Tempest’s end was already in sight, to be replaced by live-axle conformity.

But in my imagination, I see a 1965 Tempest coupe based on the stunningly beautiful ’65 Corvair body, with the 230 hp Sprint OHC six under a lengthened front end and sharing that Corvair’s new Corvette-based rear suspension. What a genuine American BMW that would have been, right down to the dash (the BMW’s Tempest look-alike dash appeared on the ’66 1602). In my oft-repeated GM coulda-shoulda dreams.

A scan of an in-depth SIA article on the Tempest is here

Over two hundred other Curbside Classics are here

]]> 67 Curbside Classic: Ultra Van – Cross An Airplane With A Corvair For The Most Radical RV Ever Sat, 27 Nov 2010 18:38:54 +0000

In 1959, David Peterson, a professional aircraft designer, had a dilemma: he owned a travel trailer and a boat, but couldn’t tow them both at the same time. He dreamed of putting an engine under the floor of the trailer, and towing his boat with it. When the Corvair appeared that year, he decided to act on it. He rented a large garage, tossed out the trailer, started from scratch, and four months later out rolled the first Ultra Van, weighing a mere 3,000 pounds. It was way ahead of its time then, and it still is today. Which probably explains why it was a commercial flop.

To help put the UV into perspective, here are a few basic stats: it’s a “full size” RV, 22 feet long, 8 feet wide with full 6’2″ stand-up headroom, yet it’s only 8′ tall overall. It has all the usual amenities of a Class A RV, including a large bedroom in the back, full galley, bathroom, etc. The production versions weigh about 3,400 lbs (dry), about the same as a new Camry. And it can get up to twenty mpg on the road.

It’s a brilliant marvel of space and weight efficiency; if Colin Chapman, Buckminster Fuller, Ferdinand Porsche or Gordon Murray had been asked to design an RV, this is what they would have come up with. David Peterson deserves to join their ranks.

If you’re getting the drift that I rather like the UV, you’re right.  And finding this one in a church parking lot the other day is my biggest CC find to date: I love stumbling unto cars like the Packard and Caddy, but I wasn’t really looking for them. I’ve had an eagle eye out for an UV for years. As much as I can wax eloquently about big Detroit iron, fundamentally I’m a Chapman/Fuller/Porsche/Murray sort at heart. And as an RVer, the UV is my dream rig. Here’s the history and the details of my heart throb:

Peterson didn’t just transplant a Corvair engine under his travel trailer. He started from scratch, and designed the only RV (to my knowledge) that was built just like an airplane, where light weight is paramount. The UV is a true monococque (self supporting) structure of aluminum ribs with an aluminum skin riveted to it. The aerodynamic front and rear caps are fiberglass, and those bumpers are made of foam.There are four aluminum tanks for gasoline, water, gray water and sewage carefully integrated under the floor, and the bottom of the coach is fully sheathed in aluminum skin as well.

It’s important to understand that Peterson wasn’t just trying to build the world’s lightest RV. His goal was that the UV could also be used as a second car too, unlike the large and unwieldy RVs that were (and still are) being built on truck chassis. The UV was not that much longer than the big land yachts at the time, and its steering allowed a 50 degree inside wheel angle so that it was also very maneuverable.  And of course, its fuel efficiency played into that too. Even if it wasn’t exactly going to be used daily,  in any case, there certainly was no need to have a dingy car towed along behind.

In my obvious enthusiasm, I’ve jumped ahead of the story a bit, because originally Peterson had no plans to build his invention for others. But he got pestered about it enough that he found some technical school apprentices, and built fifteen of them. They were priced at $7,000 ($50k adjusted). And those early ones had all of 80 hp, which feeding through the two-speed Powerglide meant a leisurely ride, especially with a boat in tow.

In 1964, a Wichita Kansas company bought rights to build the UV, in an attempt to properly commercialize it. But only some 330 Corvair powered UVs were ever built before production ended in 1969, for several reasons. One of them was that the Corvair was known to be ending its production, meaning no new engines. But the biggest reason by far was Winnebago.

In 1966, Winnebago revolutionized the RV industry by offering Americans the equivalent of the Big Mac Value Meal, an family-sized RV for half the price of the going rate. They did it the Henry Ford way: it was the first mass-produced production-line RV. And it was the polar opposite of the UV in every way: a cheaply framed box sitting on a cheap truck chassis; heavy, gas-sucking, ill-handling; and Americans snapped them up as fast as Winnebago could make them. Cheap, big and inefficient: the American mantra for success whether it’s with cars, houses, or a cross between the two.

The UV’s brilliance was also its downfall. Its airplane construction was intrinsically more expensive.  If gasoline had always been at European levels here, there would likely be an UV dealer down the road today.

After 1964, Ultra Vans came with the bigger 164 CID Corvair engine, in both 110 and 140 hp tune. Since a shift linkage was out of question, they still pumped through the Powerglide. For those more leisurely times, the Corvair engine did the trick, cruising happily up to 65 mph (on flat terrain). But by the late sixties Americans were getting power-hungry, and even with their RVs.

So after the Corvair engine went bye-bye, Ultra engineers tested several alternatives. The Olds Toronado FWD power train was promising, and versions with it in the front and back (not both at the same time) were tried. These experiments led to an offshoot, the Toro-powered fwd Tiara, which if there are any left in the world today, would be quite a find. But the Ultra experimental department kept at it, and finally hit on a solution to replace the weak chested Corvair: “Corvette” power!

But not in the Corvair-like configuration. As best as I can make out from the iffy descriptions, the small block Chevy sits in the back under a bed, and then sends its power to the rear through a Powerglide, then a marine V-drive sends it back forward to a Corvette independent rear suspension with disc brakes.

These so-called “Corvette” Ultra Vans have sparkling performance wit their very un-RV like power-to-weight ratio. Mileage dropped to a still respectable 12 -15 mpg. Only 47 of these were made, of which some are still prowling the roads of America looking for stoplight drags with Chrysler 440 powered Winnebagos in order to settle an old score.

It was all in vain; the UV was getting even more ultra-expensive, and Ultra shut its doors in 1970. Peterson tried to revive it with another fwd Toronado version, saying that if the Toronado had been available in 1960, there never would have been a Corvair UV. His ideas were picked up by others, including the second-most radical RV ever built, the GMC Motor Coach (above).

Ultra Vans have an enthusiastic and loyal following, and some 200 of the 370 ever built are still on the road, or hoping to be soon. Obviously, there are challenges and limitations to Ultra Vanning: one has to travel lightly, since its total wight capacity is limited, especially with those little 14″ tires (early ones had 13 inchers!). This UV has obviously and wisely had its rim widened. There’s no air conditioner. The brakes are little unassisted drums. The tanks and complex sewage system can become problematic. At least there’s no power steering to get leaky. You get the drift: this is for minimalistic RVers, which would suits me fine.

When I was young, I shared Peterson’s dream: whenever I saw an Airstream trailer, I imagined turning into a self propelled sleek and low RV. I became aware of the UV in the early seventies, and have played out many re-powering scenarios: a Porsche air-cooled six with a TipTronic with 911 suspension and brake upgrades was a long favorite.

Now I lean more to maximum mileage: a Subaru turbo-diesel boxer (sold in Europe) is the current candidate. But how to change the rotation, after flipping the drivetrain 180 degrees? I’m convinced an UV would hit 30 mpg with a modern tubo-diesel. Its low clearance and lack of off-road capability, as well as the huge amount of time and energy it would take has so far kept me from Ultra-insanity.

I’m rather intrigued with the idea of whether a modernized update on the UV would be able to find a market today. Perhaps one using the Prius’ hybrid drivetrain, or even an all-EV version, since every campground has electric hookups. No more fuel cost whatsoever! With a 100 mile range, one would be forced into leisurely excursions, but isn’t that the point? Solar panels on the roof and on a pull-out awning for charging batteries in undeveloped sites. My imagination runs rampant, like David Peterson’s. The trick is knowing whether to act on them, or not.

For more info. head to the Ultra Van section at

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Curbside Classic: The Best European Car Ever Made In America: 1965 Corvair Monza Thu, 22 Apr 2010 17:26:51 +0000

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.

More New Curbside Classics Here

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An Illustrated History Of Automotive Aerodynamics – Part 3: Finale Wed, 17 Feb 2010 21:25:50 +0000

[Note: A significantly expanded and updated version of this article is here]

For most of the fifties, sixties and into the early seventies, automotive aerodynamicists were mostly non-existent, or hiding in their wind tunnels. The original promise and enthusiasm of aerodynamics was discarded as just another style fad, and gave way to less functional styling gimmicks tacked unto ever larger bricks. But the energy crisis of 1974 suddenly put the lost science in the spotlight again. And although historic low oil prices temporarily put them on the back burner, as boxy SUVs crashed through the air, it appears safe to say that the slippery science has finally found its place in the forefront of automotive design.

During the ornate and boxy fifties and sixties, with the exception of Citroen, Saab and a few other minor adherents, aerodynamic progress was relegated mostly to the racing world. The value of reducing forward aerodynamic drag on race cars was understood from the earliest LSR days. But what was not at all so well understood was the role of vertical aerodynamic forces, the tendency of most streamlined shapes to start acting like a wing, and want to take flight with increasing speed. This not only makes high-speed racers unstable, but also contributes to reduced cornering ability.

In 1957, British researcher G.E. Lind-Walker published the results of studies that opened the door to understanding the importance of generating downforce, particularly in racing cars. His work began a revolution in racing car design as down force played such a critical role in improving acceleration, cornering and braking, the three essential components of racing.

By the early sixties, front air dams and rear spoilers were appearing on racing cars, and no one exploited the possibilities more than Jim Hall with his highly successful Chaparral racers. The 2B above shows the first fully functional use of front and rear spoilers and fender vents, all specifically to generate down force. They made the Chaparral essentially unbeatable in 1964 and 1965.

Two years later, Hall introduced the startling Chaparral 2E, which was the paradigm-shaping race car in terms of aerodynamics. In the the 2B, the aero aids were tacked on to a relatively typical sports racer of the time; the 2E was organically designed to maximize down force, including the adjustable rear wing. The 2E profoundly influenced the whole racing world, including NASCAR. The Plymouth Superbird (and Charger Daytona) shows the extreme lengths taken by Chrysler to incorporate these on a production car for their aerodynamic benefits, although the actual racers did better when they had a much larger lip spoiler added like this one.

We’re not going to pursue the evolution of racing aerodynamics further in this limited survey, but the Chaparrals’ influence would also quickly spill over into passenger cars. GM hired an aerodynamicist back in 1953 to assist with wind tunnel tests on its turbine concept cars, although he was grossly underutilized for years. But GM’s technical assistance to the Chaparral team was a well-known fact. How much of that was aerodynamics is not clear, but the first mass production car to sport a chin spoiler like the  2B above was the 1966 Corvair. It was added in the second year of the Corvair’s 1965 re-style to reduce drag and improve down force and cross-wind stability.

In Europe, Porsche also put its racing experience to good use, and its 1972 911 Carrera RS sported a full complement of spoilers to dramatically increase high speed stability and handling.

In Europe, Citroen was mostly the keeper of the aero flame for production cars. But one outstanding example in Germany was the rotary engine-powered NSU Ro 80 from 1967.

It’s Cd of .355 set a low-air mark for sedans that would stand for some years. Other than its rotary engine, the NSU was a remarkably influential car, defining the modern idiom almost perfectly. Citroen’s SM Coupe of 1970 (below) lowered the bar for coupes, with its .26 Cd, thanks in part to its adjustable suspension height setting.

After NSU was bought by VW, Audi took up the work that had begun with the Ro 80. This resulted in an aerodynamic breakthrough and one of the most influential design of the modern era, the Audi 100/5000 of 1982. With flush mounted windows and a modified wedge shape that paid tribute to the NSU, the Audi became the first mass-production sedan to achieve a Cd of .30.

In the USA, the energy crisis of 1974 suddenly thrust aerodynamics into the mainstream, and the long-neglected aerodynamicists were now finally embraced and integrated into the design process. GM’s downsized sedans of 1977 were the first to benefit from their knowledge, although its quite obvious that these cars like the Caprice below were relatively slow learners of the art. Although well behind Europe’s state of the art, even fine detailing for aerodynamic efficiency made an effective difference.

While GM was dipping their toes, Ford suddenly plunged wholly into the aerodynamic ether. Determined to jettison their boxy image after their near-death experience in 1979, Ford’s new management made a bold commitment to a complete embrace, and was determined to be the leader in the field. The 1983 Thunderbird was the first volley, but the really bold gamble was the 1986 Taurus, and its Sable sibling.

The Taurus and Sable were among the first US cars to use composite headlights, allowing for a smoother front end. The Sable was slightly more aerodynamically optimized, and beat the Audi with a .29 Cd. The race was on, and within a few years, GM would also be fielding dramatically more aerodynamic cars.

Mercedes had been utilizing aerodynamics to fine tune their cars for decades but the W126 began a more aggressive push to stay on the leading edge. The highly influential W124 (above) achieved a Cd of .28 in its most slippery variant. From this point forward, there were continual improvements from the major global manufacturers, although total aero drag often rose because cars were generally getting wider and taller too.

Needless to say, the SUV phase set aerodynamic influence in that segment back to the horse and buggy era. The ultimate wind-offender was the Hummer H2, which not only sported a .57 Cd, but its total aero drag of 26.5 sq. ft. is the highest on record for any modern vehicle listed. Wikipedia has nice charts of both Cd and total drag here.

To give GM credit, the 1989 Opel Calibra coupe set a new record for its class, with a superb Cd of .26. Fine detailing, now including the vehicle under-belly, paid off without having to resort to extreme or stylistically unpalatable measures. It led the way into the mainstreaming of super-low Cd vehicles. Incidentally, that .026 is the same value that the 2011 Chevy Volt finally attained after its extensive date with the wind tunnel.

GM’s experience with the Calibra and long hours in the wind tunnel paid off dramatically with the EV1. Electric vehicles’ limited energy storage density necessitates optimized aerodynamics if the vehicle is to run at highway speeds. Thanks to its phenomenal Cd of .195, the EV1 had a semi-respectable range of 60-100 miles, despite its old-tech lead acid batteries.

The Cd .25 barrier for mass production cars was broken by the 1999 gen 1 Honda Insight, a remarkable accomplishment considering what small car it is. Given that the Coefficient of Drag (Cd) is relative, its generally easier to attain a high number in a larger vehicle without having to resort to more drastic measures. The Insight shows plenty of those, including its rear wheel spats.

A more practical solution that also achieved a .25 Cd (in the specially optimized 3L version)was the advanced Audi A2 from 2001 (above). A lightweight four seater with aluminum construction, the TDI three-cylinder diesel powered A2 was the first four/five door car sold in Europe to be rated at less than 3 liters per 100 kilometers (78.4 US mpg). Surprisingly fun to drive too, it was not a sales success, likely due to its rather odd styling. It may well have suffered from Airflow syndrome, being just a tad too far ahead of mainstream styling acceptance.

With a Cd of .25, the 2010 Toyota Prius brings our survey of production cars to an end. It represents the current state-of-the-art for a production sedan without any compromises or additional tweaks. Undoubtedly, we’ve arrived in the full flowering of the aerodynamic age, even without the teardrop pointed tails and dorsal fins. That the aerodynamic frontier will continue to be cleft with ever less resistant vehicles is now an absolute given. We’re well beyond the point of no return, although the same sentiments were also widely held in the late thirties.

While continued refinement of the traditional automotive package will undoubtedly yield further reductions in the aerodynamic coefficient, to make a more dramatic jump requires extreme measures, like the Aptera. Its Cd of .15 is stellar, but substantial compromises are involved. It’s highly unlikely that this represents the shape of mass-production cars in the foreseeable future. But if the available energy resources for a rapidly expanding base of of global energy consumers and auto buyers happens to runs into a collision course, cars like the Aptera may well represent a possible solution to maintain personal mobility.

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