The Tumultuous Ride of the Chevy Corvair

Ironically, Corvair’s popularization of the sporty compact is what led—in part—to its own demise when Ford unveiled its answer to Chevy’s adventurism: the Mustang. Chevrolet first began contemplating a sporty compact to complement its line of full-size cars back in the 40s when it drew up plans for a prototype called the Cadet; a 2,200 lbs. four-door sedan.

The idea was to have the cadet ready to roll of the assembly line when the anticipated post WWII recession hit. Unfortunately, the recession never materialized and the project had to be shelved. However, a recession the hit in the 50s and slender purse strings made foreign economy cars hugely popular. Caught off guard by the new market, American auto makers were forced to play catchup. Until then, GM had to settle for bringing in its own economy imports: the British Vauxhalls and the German Opel, while Ford rushed to get its Falcon ready. GM wouldn’t have its own economy compact ready until 1960 when the first Corvair rolled off the assembly line.

The Corvair was the brainchild of Chevy engineer Edward N. Cole. Some say it was Cole’s love of airplanes that inspired the Corvair’s radical design; others attributed Volkswagen Beetle’s rear-engine design as the source. In an effort to keep production costs—as well as weight—down, GM cut corners on some design features, like suspension and roll bars, which led to performance and handling problems; problems that a young lawyer by the name of Ralph Nader was quick to point out.

Corrections to the suspension weren’t made until 1964. Ironically, a congressional investigation found that Corvair’s original suspension system would’ve worked just fine had operators paid attention to the owner’s manual and maintained the correct tire pressure. The automaker was exonerated in 1972; three years after GM had already pulled the plug on Corvair.

Initially, the Corvair was about as basic as a car could get, with the option to add “luxuries” if the buyer wanted to. Customers could order things like the 2-speed Powerglide transmission, if they were willing to shell out a few extra bucks.

In 1961, GM introduced a spiffy new 2-door coupe called the Monza, Corvair sales skyrocketed, showing America’s enthusiasm for sporty cars; one that cheaper and simpler Ford Falcon had already been exploiting. Henceforth, GM would gear the Corvair toward this market. However, models like the Lakewood station wagon and the Monza sedan were already in the works, so the company had to follow through with their release. However, reception was cool and sales barely reached 25000. Another sign that Corvair was being heavily influenced by Volkswagen was the introduction of the Corvan and its various versions; clearly a reaction the German automaker’s type-2 Micro-bus., the grandfather of today’s mini-vans.

1962 saw GM do an about-face and begin to reduce the number of Corvair variations to the 500 coupe and the Monza wagon, only to see it later disappear altogether to make room for the Chevy-II, a Falcon look alike touted to be the vehicle that would finally live up to Corvair’s original expectations. At the midway point of 62 GM introduced the supercharged Monza spider, which became one of the most sought after versions in the Corvair line. It featured a 150 hp engine and heavy duty suspension, along with an impressive display panel and tons of chrome. Corvair’s body styling didn’t change that much initially, but in 1964 the Spider did see the introduction a new power plant. The new 164 cid engine pushed the Spider’s top speed up to 110 mph.

In 1965, design chief William L. Mitchell revolutionized Corvair’s appearance, giving it a sleeker look that was more appealing. ’65 also saw the return of four doors for the 500 model and a reduction in the amount of chrome. There had been improvements in Corvair’s power plant also: a new turbo six produced 180 hp, and a non-turbo 140 hp version that came standard in Spyder’s replacement, the Corsa coupe and convertible. Newly-designed cylinder heads were responsible for the uptick in power.

The Corsa may very well have enjoyed the same impact as the Spyder before it had it not been for the smashing success of Ford’s new entry into the sporty compact market: the Mustang. However, the Corsa tried to rebound the next year but was dealt its death knell, both by Nader’s new book, and the revelation of a damaging internal memo.

In 1967, Chevy introduce the Camaro to counter the highly-popular Mustang. Afterwards, the Corvair line was cut to just the 500 sedan and coupe, and Monza sedan, coupe, and convertible. The 68-69 model year was even worse, as only the 500 and Monza hardtops and Monza convertibles were produced. Only about 1386 and 521 were built, making them highly sought collector’s items. Many people feel that Corvair was responsible for its own death, as revolutionary concepts like the Spyder inspired its competitors to produce cars like the incomparable Ford Mustang—and, GM’s own, Camaro.



If you need any Corvair Performance Parts please go to Monza Auto Parts.

Anthony Johnson Nascar   

About the author:

Anthony Johnson is the owner and President of Monza Motion, LLC which owns and operates two companies out of Hamilton, Ohio. Monza Auto Parts which is the retail side of the business and Monza Energy is the powerplant research and development division. Anthony is an avid motorsports fan and classic car collector. He has a passion for the Chevrolet Corvair, which is a car that has forever changed America. He has a degree in Computer Forensics and Network Security from SWFC and is considered an Information Security expert. Anthony has worked with the DoD and major financial institutions across the United States.


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