Ah, the Chevrolet Corvair. Easily the most controversial American car ever made, nearly two million examples were sold during the 1960 through 1969 model years. It remains one of the most common 1960s Detroit cars in Ewe Pullet-style car graveyards to this day. I found this sporty 1962 Monza Club Coupe in a Denver-area yard last month.
This Question of the Day has its origin in a song, one which exists as something of a guilty pleasure. Actually, screw that, I’m a modern man (not postmodern, mind you) — I can admit it was Tiny Dancer by Elton John, which just happened to pop up on a Spotify playlist 15 minutes before I sat down to write this.
We often associate songs with a certain time and place in our lives, and that particular song — one of two by that artist I’ll admit to liking (the other being an apt description of a certain North Korean dictator) — immediately brought to mind a dark red, first-generation Chevrolet Corvair. A number of years back, nearing the end of a long road trip to Georgia and back, I found myself driving under leaden March skies in chilly Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, surely the sexiest city on the lower Susquehanna. Tiny Dancer came on the local station, and as I thought about life and mistakes, a burgundy-colored car came into view.
Resting just off a parking lot, it was, a “For Sale” sign stuck hopefully in its windshield. You never saw a more honest-looking 1964 Chevrolet Corvair Monza.
The Chevrolet Corvair and Ford Pinto have long been derided as death traps — one for its tendency to crash into stuff backwards, and the other for roasting its occupants alive. They also share something else in common: you can see both at Ralph Nader’s museum (though, in the Pinto’s case, it will be in the form of a t-shirt).
Ralph Nader, who’s famously known as the guy who mercilessly destroyed the reputation of an innocent air-cooled Chevrolet or a hero who made big corporations think about their customers’ lives at least a little bit, is apparently a man with a sense of humor.
Fully three-quarters of you who took our “Ralph Nader, Angel or Demon” poll voted to give ol’ Ralph a halo instead of a pitchfork, so we don’t need to explain how his book wasn’t really the cause of the Corvair‘s plummeting sales after the initial burst of enthusiasm following the car’s release. No, most likely it was that more traditional Chevy II that did that, but the case can be made that The General kept on building Corvairs all the way into 1969 as a way of proving that Ralph Nader can’t push around (what was then) the Most Powerful Corporation In the World. In 1968, only about 15,000 Corvairs were sold, which makes this rusty Denver example fairly uncommon.
Other 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.
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.