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.
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.
This week on the TTAC forum, we’ve had a few interesting rides on the Classic and Collector subsection. Not just the stuff I’ve posted, either, as our own Ronnie Schreiber posted a very cool vintage truck he had photographed.
This weekly feature isn’t just for TTAC writers, either. I’d love nothing more than to wake up on Friday and not write about a single car that I’d posted. Please, post links to cars you’ve found as you search the web, and I’ll give a shoutout to the best.
This week, we have Ronnie’s Corvair, a Jeep, a K-Car, an Eighties-vintage Alfa, a cheap Ferrari, and a Lotus.
With the number of people collecting “mid-century” artifacts, the stuff of middle class American life in the 1950s and early 1960s, it shouldn’t come as a surprise there are folks who collect vintage travel trailers. Actually, if you’ve gone to enough car shows, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all as owners of cars of that vintage sometimes bring along period trailers and make their show displays more eye-catching (though I suspect some of those trailers are indeed trailer queens and are trailered, not towed, recursively, to car shows). In the corner of Cobo Hall’s basement at this year’s Detroit Autorama, someone set up their ’50s car with a period correct travel trailer. Two years ago, the Packard Proving Grounds’ annual summer car show had vintage trailers and RVs as a featured class.
What it used to look like. Gallery of 2011 Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum photos here.
This past weekend, the big annual Orphan Car Show in Ypsilanti was augmented by the grand opening of the National Hudson Motor Car Museum, also in Ypsilanti. While I’m usually excited about the opening of new car museums, though the region is gaining what appears to be a fine, professionally run museum, the development means that you can no longer see a unique display of automotive history.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
[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.