The decline and death of the 1962 and 1963 Chevrolet Corvair concept cars is one of the sadder ironies in automotive history. Though these lively yet economical compacts would be perfect even in today's world, they were disparaged by consumer advocates -- the very people who might have been expected to welcome it.
But Ralph Nader was not responsible for killing the Corvair. The ax had actually fallen some six months before the release of his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed.
General Motors's decision to continue the car beyond 1965, but only until development and tooling costs were amortized, reflected the success of Ford's Mustang "ponycar," which overwhelmed Corvair in the sporty-car market the way Ford's Falcon had swamped it in the economy field.
It was Mustang and not Nader that forced GM to rethink its ideas about bucket-seat sportsters, which eventually led to the Chevy Camaro as its proper Mustang-fighter. Of course, Corvair was more technically advanced than either Mustang or Camaro, which partly explains why it still inspires enthusiasm.
The Corvair also inspired designers and engineers to use it as the starting point for several fascinating experiments. Some came surprisingly close to reaching showrooms.
GM's first Corvair special was the 1961 Sebring Spyder, a jazzy, short-wheelbase preview of the 1962 Corvair convertible. Though basically stock below the beltline, it boasted low racing windscreens and fixed door windows, a two-seat cockpit with "backbone" divider bar, and long dual headrests faired into the rear deck.
A year later came the 1962 Super Spyder, a wilder evolution of this basic design on the same 93-inch wheelbase (15 inches less than stock). Race-car design cues are obvious, and a stock 150-horsepower turbocharged Corvair six delivered performance to match.
Like its predecessor, the Super Spyder wore a tonneau behind its cockpit but with a single driver's headrest in a tapering pod a la Jaguar's famed late-1950s D-type and SS sports/racing cars. A trio of vertical louvers rode ahead of each rear-wheel opening as dummy air scoops (the Sebring had a pair of functional slots in that spot).
Triple chrome exhaust pipes exited from behind each rear wheel, which prompted thoughts of the late Hudson Italia. The drivetrain comprised a 150-horsepower turbocharged six and four-speed manual transmission from the production Monza Spyder.
All told, the Super Spyder was a good-looker, more dramatic than the Sebring, and the most advanced Corvair special built up to that point. But GM never even hinted that it might be built.
See the next section for details on other Chevrolet Corvair concept cars.
For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out:
1962 and 1963 Chevrolet Corvair Monza GT and SS Concept Cars
Though they bore a hint of Mako-shark-era Corvette styling, the 1962 and 1963 Chevrolet Corvair Monza GT and SS concept cars looked like nothing else: smooth, well-formed, and ultra-clean. Shape and detailing were vintage period GM, yet also somewhat Italian.
GM designer L. W. Johnson got a look at Bertone's two-seat, Corvair-based Testudo as it was nearing completion in 1962-1963 and happily informed the Italians about his own company's latest Corvair special.
Though built in 1962 and tested informally that year at Elkhart Lake and Watkins Glen, the new Monza GT fastback wasn't publicly unveiled until April 1963, when it handily stole the limelight at the New York Auto Show along with a racy open sibling called the Chevrolet Monza SS.
Both these experiments were fiberglass-bodied two-seaters with four-wheel disc brakes, magnesium-alloy wheels, hydraulic clutches, stock four-speed-manual Corvair transaxles, fixed seats and adjustable pedals.
Both were also cleanly styled in the billowy idiom then favored by General Motors, with bumperless fronts and oblong headlights concealed behind large "clamshell" lids.
Yet for all their similarities, the Chevrolet Monza GT and SS differed markedly in some ways. The GT coupe, for instance, carried its engine ahead of the rear axleline; the SS roadster put it behind, as in production Corvairs.
Wheelbase was 88 inches on the Monza SS, 20 inches shorter than stock, but 92 inches on the more visually aerodynamic Monza GT.
Like production Chevrolet Corvairs, the roadster offered a small front luggage compartment but the coupe did not. Inside, the Monza SS dash was stark but highly informative, with a large tach and speedometer, plus five auxiliary gauges.
Had a production version materialized, the low, racing windshield and fixed side windows would have been replaced by a conventional screen and roll-up glass.
The Chevrolet Monza SS also had normal doors where the GT used a Testudo-style lift-up cockpit canopy, again front-hinged at the cowl and extending back to the B-pillar region.
Also echoing Bertone's work was the rear-hinged hatch that swung up to reveal the engine, which was a two-carburetor version for quiet, smooth running. The SS used a four-carburetor setup.
Though often credited solely to GM design chief Bill Mitchell, Corvair Monza GT and SS styling was actually the work of Larry Shinoda, now celebrated for his work on various Corvettes and early-1970s Mustangs, and Anatole "Tony" Lapine, who would go on to design Porsche's 928. Both the GT and SS were created under project code XP-797.
The Chevrolet Monza SS at least came fairly close to actual production -- as close as any Corvair special. Remember that when these Monzas first appeared, Ford hadn't released the Mustang, and Corvair was still GM's only low-cost sporty car.
Had the redesigned 1965 Corvair sold better against the Mustang, it's not inconceivable that a street SS or GT could have appeared by 1967 or 1968 -- which means GM might not have needed to create the Camaro, with all the expense that entailed.
But the Mustang sold like nickel hamburgers from day one, and GM quit working on future Corvairs entirely. Which was a shame, because the Mustang wasn't half the sports car these Monzas might have been.
As Road & Track said at the time: "The enthusiast market sorely needs a boost, and these are two cars that could do it." Come to think of it, they still could.