1964 Chevrolet Corvair Greenbrier van
1964 Chevrolet Corvair Greenbrier van. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

DaimlerChrysler often claims that Chrysler invented the minivan when it brought out its “Magic Wagons”, the 1984 Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager. Such was not the case, however, as this was at least the third coming of the minivan.

The original concept came from Volkswagen in 1950 when it installed its Beetle powertrain in what was essentially a metal box on wheels. To give their Transporter, as they called it, commercial-use pulling power, the little rear-mounted, four-cylinder, air-cooled, horizontally opposed engine sent its power to the rear wheels through hub-mounted reduction gears that had been developed for the Second World War VW Kubelwagen, Germany’s “Jeep.”

The Transporter was an immediate success with businesses looking for an economical light duty hauler. And in addition to spinning off a clever pickup truck version, Volkswagen used the commercial van as the basis for a very roomy passenger carrier called the Bus, or Combi.

The second coming of the minivan was in 1961 when both Chevrolet and Ford decided to give Volkswagen some competition by introducing small buses using components from their import-fighting compact cars. Ford’s was the Econoline, based on Falcon components, and Chevrolet’s was the Greenbrier, using the Corvair powertrain.

Just as the Corvair car’s layout was an unabashed knock-off of the Volkswagen Beetle, the Greenbrier closely followed the VW Transporter’s theme. The Corvair Greenbriar used a horizontally opposed, six-cylinder engine mounted behind the rear axle, a la the Beetle (although the Beetle had a four). Also like the VW, it was air-cooled, the second use of air cooling by Chevrolet. The first was the disastrous “Copper-Cooled” Chevrolet of 1923, every one of which had to be recalled.

While the Greenbrier followed the VW theme, General Motors gave it more a stylish and “Americanized” persona than its German competitor, with a more luxurious interior.

In spite of the rear engine, it sported a little grille in the front, which was used as a fresh-air inlet. It also had quad headlamps and an attractive, belt-level painted accent band that almost completely surrounded the body.

Tiny cooling slots on the rear flanks were the only clue to engine location. And with a height of 1,740 mm (68.5 in.), the Greenbrier was 201 mm (7.9 in.) lower than the VW. It was a garageable van long before Chrysler popularized the term.

With an 80 horsepower, 2.4 litre six compared with the VW’s 36 horsepower 1.2 litre four, it also had considerably better performance than the VW, although it could still hardly be called spirited. The standard Greenbrier transmission was a three-speed manual, with a four-speed manual or a two-speed automatic optional. The VW came with a four-speed manual only.

The Greenbrier’s suspension was independent all around, like the Volkswagen, although using coil springs instead of the VW’s torsion bars.

The performance of the Greenbrier was compared with the Volkswagen bus by Car Life magazine (9/61). Alas, the standard zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration test was too much for the VW’s tiny engine labouring against those barn door aerodynamics. With a top speed of between 95 and 97 km/h (59 and 60 mph), the VW’s zero to 96 (60) acceleration time was somewhere off in infinity.

The Greenbrier was hardly a hot rod either, especially the test vehicle fitted with its two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. But it was able to climb to 96 (60) in 32.2 seconds. Car Life’s testers estimated the Greenbrier’s top speed at 113 km/h (70 mph), even though they only got 107 (66.6) in their test.

As with the VW, Chevrolet made other versions of the Corvair 95, named for its 2,413 mm (95 in.) wheelbase. There was a true van called the Corvan, and two pickup trucks, the Loadside and Rampside. The Loadside had a conventional rear tailgate, but the Rampside, in addition to the rear tailgate, had a clever side gate that folded down to ground level to form a handy loading ramp. But the pickup’s two-level floor, necessitated by the rear engine, kept it from becoming popular.

The Greenbrier was introduced as a 1961 model and was the most popular of the Corvair 95 model line that year, selling 18,489, compared with 15,806 Corvans. It would continue to be the best seller every year except 1964, when the Corvan outsold it 8,147 to 6,201.

For 1963, a more powerful 95 horsepower engine was made available, and the vague cable-operated transmission control was replaced by a more positive rod type. Then in 1964 the Greenbrier got a 2.7 litre (164 cu in.) engine that had a standard 95 horsepower, or an optional 110.

The Greenbrier was discontinued in December, 1964, part way into the 1965 model year. In all, a total of 57,986 had been produced. It had been an unusual foray into exotic technology for Chevrolet, whose heart was really still in conventional front engine, rear-wheel drive vehicles. The Corvair had always been a bit of a maverick in the Chevy lineup. The Greenbrier, like the VW van, was many years ahead of its time.

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