Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The car that started it all (at least for me). History of the Chevrolet Corvair

Finally—a story that my mom can appreciate!

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article on the history of the Volkswagen Beetle. What you may not realize is that Chevrolet built a car to compete head-to-head with the popular German compact. And while you might not think about it in the same way as the Beetle, Chevrolet’s Corvair was one of the most innovative, advanced cars of its time.

The name Corvair first debuted on a Corvette coupe Motorama show car in 1954, but the rear-engine sedan we’ve all come to know and love first hit showrooms in 1960. The Motor Trend Car of the Year was a very radical departure from what most people came to expect from a mainstream manufacturer, but General Motors wasn’t known to go this far out on a limb unless they knew it was worth the risk.

Compared to other frumpy little compacts, including the Beetle, the Corvair was like something out of the future. The 80-hp, 140-c.i., air-cooled flat-six mounted in the trunk provided adequate power, but it was interior space, fuel mileage, ride, and handling that attracted the buyers.

Part of what made the Corvair fun to drive was its swing axle rear suspension. Since the engine was mounted in the rear, two driveshafts jointed in the middle would swing up and down with the motion of the rear wheels. This was a pretty typical design with other rear-engine cars, including the aforementioned Beetle and the vaunted Porsche 911.

When the Corvair first came out, it was only available as a four-door sedan or coupe. In 1961, a wagon, called the Lakewood, was added. Surprisingly, the rear-mounted engine was low and flat enough that it didn’t intrude much on cargo space. The wagon didn’t last long, however, because the assembly plant that built it converted its lines to produce the new convertible in 1962.

Taking another page from the VW playbook, 1961 also saw the introduction of the Corvair 95 van and pickup. The panel van was known as the Corvan 95, the passenger van was called the Greenbrier Sportvan, and the pickups were called the Loadside or Rampside, depending on whether or not they had the big fold-down side ramp. Yeah, they were a little strange and underpowered, but they had a tremendous amount of room in the back, and continue to have sort of a cult following to this day.

In the following few years, the Corvair continued to improve. The styling, which wasn’t bad in the beginning, got much swoopier and more modern in 1965. Engines got more power, culminating in a 164-c.i., 180-hp version with Chevy’s first turbocharger in ’65. And playing on the car’s popularity, more options and amenities continued to be added.

One of the areas on which Chevrolet concentrated their improvements was the suspension. That swing-axle in the back was proven technology, but it required a driving technique that most people weren’t accustomed to in panic situations. It could also get a little dicey if the tires were underinflated. But like anything else, if it was well-maintained and driven properly, it was no better or worse than anything else.

But just after Chevrolet completely redesigned the rear suspension to be almost Corvette-like in 1964, disaster struck the Corvair line. Activist Ralph Nader published his infamous book Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965, claiming that the 1960-1963 Corvair was the most dangerous car on the road due to the handling characteristics brought about by the swing axle rear suspension. The book wasn’t based on his own experiences, as he was not a licensed driver. A safety commission report conducted by Texas A&M University in 1972 concluded that the first-generation Corvair possessed no more loss of control than other cars of the time, but that was obviously too late to reverse the damage that had already been done to the Corvair’s reputation. Sales plummeted, and the Corvair soldiered on with minimal changes until it was discontinued in 1969.

Cars like the Ford Mustang and Chevy’s own Camaro probably didn’t help the Corvair’s fate either. Consumer preferences were changing, and those who wanted something smaller than an Impala or Galaxie were gravitating toward these hot, new Pony Cars.

Ironically, as an environmentalist, Nader’s attack on the Corvair may have set progress back on another issue that he holds dear. The Corvair was a compact car, and it was a good one. It featured out-of-the-box thinking by a company that was at its core fairly conservative. And for their efforts, General Motors was burned badly. This kind of negative publicity didn’t hover over traditional, full-sized cars. Who knows where U.S. small car efforts may have gone if it hadn’t been for the Corvair debacle. The current Chevrolet Volt may well be the most radical departure from standard practices since the Corvair left the scene, and it took 42 years to get there.

I mentioned in the opening line that my mom might like this feature. One day, mom purchased a pea green ’60 Corvair sedan from my granddad’s used car lot. It was all of $75, and really wasn’t much of a car. It had several problems, for which she brought it back to get help. One time, the steering wheel came off in her hand while she was driving it to lunch!

Now, my dad doesn’t seem all that flirtatious. But the story goes that he started leaving notes on the Corvair when it was parked around town. They started dating, eventually were married, and a couple years a future car blogger was born.

Believe it or not, my mom still claims that Corvair was her favorite car of all time.

And so, I leave you with a slideshow of the car that brought my parents together, and ultimately, culminated in my very existence. The first part of the slideshow includes pictures of Corvairs that I shot at car shows all over town. And if you’re able to stick with it, you’ll also see some neat Corvair promotional photos and advertisements. I’m also including a geat Corvair promotional video after the slideshow.


  1. Great stuff!
    I had to laugh when I saw the one with the continental kit & the stubby wagon.

  2. Actually, the turbocharged 'Spyder' was available in the first bodystyle car pre 65...
    Corvairs are great imho - my dad had a 62 Monza coupe when I was a kid. Of course he traded up to a 66 Corvette which was even greater! But I still remember the Corvair fondly, and would like to have a 65-69 Corsa myself. Marina Blue please. A neighbour up the street had a Rampside, and a buddy had a van in the mid 70's that he used to haul motorcycles. Loved em all. The poor van met an untimely and gruesome demise unfortunately ; the friend and his racing buddy were coming back from Daytona, 75 or 76, can't remember, from racing their 250 Yamaha in the support race for the 200. Anyway, my friend was asleep in the back. Regrettably, his friend was asleep at the wheel. Next thing they know, theyre upside down in the ditch along side a highway in Georgia. Then on their side. No real damage at first. Then the cans of racing gas started leaking and all that high octane made its way into the engine room... Van , bike and tools up in flames.
    But it was a cool van while it lasted!

  3. "Actually, the turbocharged 'Spyder' was available in the first bodystyle car pre 65..."

    Yeah, I knew that. I guess I didn't word it very well. I meant '65 was when they brought about the highest horsepower, and the Corvair was the first with the turbo for Chevy. I should learn to get my thoughts together before I type sometimes!

  4. Understand - I hit send too often before proofing too. Just HAD to 'poke at ya' a bit... :)
    As always, thanks for posting. I check the site daily, often forwarding links to stories to friends , and always enjoy the photos. Really like the 'history' posts as well as those with personal anecdotal references.
    Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  5. Thank-you son, I really dd enjoythis artical.
    But most ofall I am proud to call you my son.
    Love, Mom

  6. Craig:
    This is fantastic, and my late Grandfather would agree 100%!

    He owned a 1967 2 dr gold Monza, and that car even had a Transmission "lever" on the dashboard, instead of a stalk on the column or floor....

    I remember it being a GREAT car to ride around in (that was before even I had a license).
    Huge trunk up front, and PUH-LENTY of room in the passenger cabin...and NO "hump"...LOL.

    With the engine BEHIND you, it was WAY quieter and still have lots of get up and go.
    It was nicely FRUGAL on gas (and that's when it wasn't even a buck a gallon)

    And it was the last car he owned before he passed away.

    If GM had ANY sense, they'd revamp it and bring THAT car back (same engineering setup, too) instead of the VOLT.

    EXCELLENT slide show and video...

    Roll safe and have a MERRY CHRISTMAS!

  7. My Dad, who always had good taste in cars and clothes, owned a 1964 Monza convertible, maroon with a black top. In retrospect, the Corvair looks to me a lot like a BMW 1600/2002 -- very handsome.