The cars we loved.
Growing up, I developed a firm bias against most American made cars. I thought of them as big and unwieldy. As a smaller than average kid, I could never picture myself as growing into an adult with one of Detroit’s bigger cars. Sure there were more petite choices like Vegas, Pintos and Chevettes, but my perception of those cars was low also. Only the few European inspired offerings like the early Mercury Capri inspired me.
It seemed that as I went back in time the cars got bigger, until I came across the Chevrolet Corvair. There was movement towards smaller intermediates like the Dodge Dart and Ford Falcon in the 60’s, but these cars were just smaller versions of bigger cars. Nash had been building small cars since the 50’s, but they looked odd and boutiquish. The Corvair represented true progress in the development of the American small car. It was a family of cars that included a sedan, coupe, convertible and even a small van and pickup truck.
Looking back, I’d have to say Corvairs were homely for the first 5 years, if not downright ugly. It’s looks aside, it had become a popular seller with annual sales over 200,000 units in its first 6 years of production. As an American product, it seemed out-of-place in the marketplace that still preferred big cars. For most Americans, a small car was either the Nash Rambler or something like the VW Beatle. GM must have studied the small car choices and was not impressed with what it saw, save for what the Germans were doing with air-cooled Porsches and Volkswagens. Interestingly, the Corvair had no counterpart at any of GM’s other divisions, like the Corvette, it was a Chevrolet only property. It was further distinguished by its unusual aluminum flat six air-cooled engine.
The Corvair was truly innovative, not just as an American car, but in global sense of the word. Very few cars in the world at that time shared its configuration. The unibodied frame car took the rear engine, rear wheel drive concept a bit further than Porsche had with its 911. The Corvair not only had a light and compact engine, but it had turbocharging to make it a technical tour de force.
There were other small subtle innovations like “Flush and Dry”rocker panels designed to clean themselves off via air flow. Thanks to the rear engine placement, the car was light enough up front to not need power steering. The shape matured when the redesign of 1966 happened. It was also the last year that the Covair would be built in GM’s Oshawa Ontario (Canada) plant. After the 66′ model year, all Corvairs were made in America.
Nationalistic pride aside, it was easy to see why any nation might want to claim the Corvair for its own. The Corvair was essentially Chevy’s first import fighter, as it attracted a buyer that did not exist for GM otherwise. Oddly enough, Corvair sales were limited to North America. Chevrolet actually had a car that could beat the Europeans on their own terms but did not take advantage of it. The pride of the Corvair line was the Monza Spyder initially. In 1962 it was offered with a 150 hp turbocharged engine. This kind of compact car sportiness was at offered at least two years ahead of the Ford Mustang, making it essentially the first Pony Car. Later, the Corsa model would replace it but could be had with the 3.4 l flat six engine that produced an unheard of 180 hp in turbocharged form (140 hp normally aspirated). That was considerable power from a relatively small displacement engine by 60’s standards. Unlike any Pony Car, the engine was placed in back behind the passenger cabin. While this arrangement produced some positive traits like better traction, more interior room, it was responsible for unflattering handling traits in earlier models (combined with the odd rear suspension). These issues were straightened out by a long list of improvements in the second generation design of 1965.
The Corvair had an advanced independent suspension that aided in handling. The new suspension, similar to that in the Corvette, replaced a troublesome swing-axel system in pre-65′ models. Weight balance was still biased towards the rear, but Chevy engineers had come a long way in improving handling. You could order your Corvair in three trims (500, Monza and Corsa). The options list was simple also with three engine choices, and three transmission options that included a 3 and 4-speed manual or Powerglide 3-speed automatic.
The interior was against the grain also. Subdued and business like, the simple dash design featured minimal chrome. Only the rings highlighting the gauges and controls for the radio and HVAC system featured any bright work. It certainly looked out-of-place in the late 60’s, but today has aged well.
Unfortunately the reputation for unstable handling and poor brakes from earlier cars were the source of a notorious allegation by Ralph Nader that the Corvair was unsafe. His book “Unsafe at Any Speed” was a lengthy indictment of the Corvair, just as it was gaining popularity. To GM’s credit it had corrected the problems before the book was published, but the damage was done. Chevrolet had planned to end Corvair production in 1966, but decided to continue production for a few years longer as to save face in the light of Nader’s allegations.
The Camaro was intended to replace it outright, although the Corvair was a different type of car altogether and could have thrived even with the Camaro as indirect competition. That was unfortunate because the Corvair led the way in the modernization of all of GM products. The lessons learned from the Corvair would not be completely utilized in future GM products for years to come. There would not be another small rear engined car until the Fiero in 1984, 23 years later.
Many see the Corvair as the direct precursor to the Camaro. Its design has some of the cues seen its bigger pony car brother like its subtle Coke bottle shape. Had Chevrolet continued to market the Corvair through the Seventies, my bias against American cars may not have been so much of a bias at all. Imagine if cars like the Monza, Cavalier and even the Fiero could have benefited directly from the engineering that went into making the Monza such a special car. Chevy’ would do well to have its new Code 130R concept coupe mimic the lines of the Monza when and if it reaches production. Just as the current Camaro recalls the 67-69 cars, a new retro inspired Monza would fill a big void in the performance market. We will just have to wait and see.