1965 Corvair Convertible
1965 Corvair convertible/Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

GM’s import fighter

The most unusual and technically interesting car to come out of Detroit in the 1960s was the Chevrolet Corvair. When the domestic industry staple was a large, front-engine, rear-drive, usually V-8 powered sedan with a solid rear axle, Chevrolet general manager, Edward Cole, who would later rise to become a General Motors president, took a daringly innovative approach with the Corvair.

The Corvair’s engine was an aluminum, horizontally-opposed (flat), air-cooled six-cylinder located in the rear. Unit construction was used for the body/chassis, and suspension was independent all around via coil springs.

If these features sound amazingly similar to a certain German economy car, they were. It was the Volkswagen that inspired the Corvair; the Corvair was in fact to be an “American Volkswagen.”

In the late 1950s the Big Three, GM, Ford and Chrysler, had become increasingly alarmed over the rising penetration of small foreign cars, particularly the Volkswagen, into the North American market. They also noted the strong sales of the 100-inch wheelbase American Motors Rambler American model.

Chevrolet’s Cole was convinced that he could build a bigger and better VW. Thus, although the Corvair had the same general layout as the VW, the Corvair’s 2743 mm (108 in.) wheelbase was 342 mm (13.5 in.) longer, and at 1111 kg (2450 lb), it weighed 363 kg (800 lb) more. And the Corvair’s 2.3 litre (140 cu in.) six developed 80 horsepower, versus just 36 from the VW’s 1.2 litre 72.7 four.

The Big Three’s answer to this small-car challenge took distinctly different approaches. While Chevrolet unabashedly copied the Volkswagen’s layout, Ford and Chrysler chose a conventional route for their import fighter. The Ford Falcon and Chrysler (soon to be Plymouth) Valiant had water-cooled, six-cylinder engines mounted in the front driving the rear wheels. Neither had independent rear suspension.

The Chevrolet Corvair, in spite of its technical novelty, or perhaps because of it, didn’t sell as well as its main rival, the Ford Falcon. Buyers of domestic economy cars apparently weren’t as technically daring as import buyers. The Corvair did, however, appeal to the sporty car set, and when the Monza version appeared in mid-1960, it sent Corvair off in a whole new market direction.

The Monza was nothing more than a Corvair Deluxe 700 coupe fitted with such items as bucket seats, special wheel covers, chrome rocker mouldings and vinyl upholstery. But these seemingly minor styling changes were enough to alter the Corvair’s personality. The Monza stood apart from mundane workaday Corvairs, and sales took off.

Chevrolet knew it was on to something, and set out to really exploit the sporty car segment. For 1961 it introduced a four-speed manual transmission, and then for 1962 it became even more exotic with the debut of the Corvair Monza Spyder. It came in coupe or convertible form, and its most outstanding feature was an exhaust-driven supercharger known as a turbocharger.

Chevrolet, therefore, along with Oldsmobile, which had introduced its turbocharged F-85 “Jetfire” model just a month earlier, made General Motors the world’s first manufacturer to offer turbocharging on production cars.

Along with the Monza for 1961, Chevrolet also introduced a Corvair station wagon, and a slick Greenbrier minivan and pickup based on the Corvair’s rear engine layout; they looked amazingly like their VW counterparts.

In 1965 the Corvair underwent a big change. It got a beautiful new body and an improved rear suspension in which the swing axles were replaced by a fully articulated system much like the Corvette’s. This corrected a major design criticism of the Corvair.

Along with the new styling and better suspension for 1965 came something else: a nasty surprise in the form of a book entitled Unsafe At Any Speed. In it a Washington, D.C., consumer advocate lawyer by the name of Ralph Nader excoriated the auto industry with the allegation that it was building unsafe cars.

He singled out the Corvair for a particularly scathing attack, saying, among other things, that its swing-axle suspension (used on ’60 to ’64 models, although the ’64 had a lateral leaf spring “camber compensator”) caused the rear wheels to “tuck under.” Nader alleged that this caused the Corvair to flip over during even relatively low-speed cornering.

Nader’s book brought a rash of lawsuits against General Motors from Corvair owners injured in accidents. General Motors would compound the problem by getting caught investigating Nader in an unsuccessful attempt to find something derogatory in his background. When this reached the media GM had to make a humiliating public apology to Nader.

Unsafe also intensified government interest in automobile safety, resulting in far-reaching safety legislation. The industry would never be the same. The book, plus stiff competition from Ford’s sporty new Mustang introduced in 1964, sent Corvair production into rapid decline. From 235,000 sales in 1965, it slid to only 15,400 in 1968.

When sales declined to only 6,000 in 1969, General Motors discontinued the Corvair. The Corvair’s handling would later be exonerated, but the damage had been done. Although one of America’s boldest technical experiments slid quietly into history, it left behind a legislative legacy.

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