How Chevrolet Corvair Works

Despite questions about its safety, the Corvair enjoyed a ten-year run. The 1960 Chevrolet Corvair 700 sedan is shown here.

Corvair was the most-controversial Chevrolet since the abortive "Copper-Cooled" model of 1923. Of course, neither was supposed to stir up trouble. Each was merely a response to a particular market situation in its day.

The problem with Corvair was a radical design that made it too costly for its original economy-car mission and too "foreign" for its target audience. Had it not opened up an entirely new market -- and almost by accident at that -- Corvair wouldn't have lasted even half of the 10 years it did hang on.


And there's the irony, for it was Corvair's success as a sporty compact that spawned the car that ultimately helped do it in: the Ford Mustang. A young lawyer-on-the-make named Ralph Nader did the rest.

Chevrolet's interest in a smaller companion car was evident as early as the late '40s, when it contemplated the Cadet, a proto­type 2200-pound four-door sedan of conventional design begun right after World War II.

Powered by a short-stroke 133-cid version of the division's famous "Stovebolt Six," this 108-inch-wheelbase compact was intended to sell at rock-bottom prices in anticipation of a postwar recession. Instead, the market boomed, rendering the Cadet unnecessary. What's more, it would have cost as much to build as a regular Chevy, and so was deemed unprofitable at the targeted $1000 retail price. The project was thus canceled in mid-1947.

Things were far different by the late '50s. Led by Volkswagen and Renault, sales of economy imports were becoming too large to ignore, particularly once a national recession hit in mid-1957. American Motors responded with its compact 1958 American, a warmed-over '55 Nash Rambler. Studebaker chimed in with the '59 Lark, a full-size car cut down to compact size. So successful was the Lark that it temporarily halted Studebaker's ultimate slide to oblivion.

Both these independent efforts would soon have Big Three rivals. Ford was readying its Falcon and Chrysler its Valiant for model-year 1960. General Motors had peddled its so-called "captive imports," British Vauxhalls and German Opels, in 1958-59. For 1960, GM would rely on Corvair.

Initiated in 1956, the Corvair was largely the brainchild of Chevy chief engineer (and future GM president) Edward N. Cole, who became division general manager in July of that year. It was predictably a technician's car, by far the most-radical of the new Big Three compacts.

Perhaps inspired by Cole's interest in airplanes -- but more likely by the popular VW Beetle -- it was planned around a 140-cid air-cooled flat six developing 80 or 95 horsepower in initial form and -- just as uncommon -- mounted at the rear ("where an engine belongs," as Corvair ads would claim). It was a relatively complicated engine, with six separate cylinder barrels and a divided crankcase.

Yet despite a lightweight aluminum block, it ended up at 366 pounds, some 78 pounds above the target weight, a miscalculation that would have negative consequences for handling.

All-independent suspension and unit construction were equally unusual for a U.S. car. Corvair's trim 108-inch-wheelbase Y-body platform was all new, but its all-coil suspension was perhaps too basic: conventional wishbones in front, VW Beetle-style semitrailing swing axles in back. Antiroll bars were omitted to keep retail price as low as possible, but this saved only $4 a car, and GM was well aware they were needed to achieve acceptable handling with rear swing axles and the tail-heavy weight distribution.

This decision, as well as management's desire to standardize assembly, precluded more-sophisticated suspension geometry until 1962, when a Regular Production Option including stiffer springs, shorter rear-axle limit straps, and a front sway bar became available. A major suspension improvement occurred for 1964: a transverse rear camber-compensating spring.

Nevertheless, the initial Corvair suspension of 1960-63 did not create a "dangerous, ill-handling car" as later lawsuits claimed. It did oversteer to be sure, but the tail-wag tendency wasn't severe -- provided that recommended tire pressures were observed (15 psi front, 26 rear). The problem was that most owners didn't pay attention to that, and some got into trouble.

When Ralph Nader found out and wrote Unsafe at Any Speed, Corvair handling became a cause celebre that wasn't put to rest until a 1972 congressional investigation cleared the 1960-63 models. Of course, this came far too late. Corvair was already three years gone.


1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964 Chevrolet Corvair

The 1961 Chevrolet Corvair Lakewood station wagon boasted a surprising amount of cargo space.

Corvair's decade-long model run divides into two design generations: 1960-64 and 1965-69. Initial offerings comprised quite spartan four-door sedans in "500" and more-deluxe "700" trim selling at $2000-$2100. Three-speed floorshift manual transaxle was standard; Chevy's two-speed Powerglide was optional.

Two-door 500 and 700 coupes arrived at midseason, but the real attention-getter was the new "900" Monza coupe, which boasted an even spiffier interior with bucket seats.


Bolstered by a newly optional four-speed gearbox for 1961, the Monza caught fire, uncovering a huge latent demand for sporty, fun-to-drive compacts. This was fortunate, because Ford's much simpler and cheaper Falcon was handily outselling other Corvairs in the economy market. From here on, the rear-engine Chevy would aim increasingly at enthusiast drivers.

But it was too late to change some plans, so a brace of Corvair Lakewood station wagons arrived for '61 as scheduled, as did a Monza sedan. The Lakewood offered a surprising amount of cargo space -- 58 cubic feet behind the front seat, 10 more under the front "hood" -- more than other compact wagons and even some larger models. It didn't sell well, though, with first-year production barely topping 25,000.

Chevy also issued the interesting Corvair-based Greenbrier window van, Corvan panel, and Rampside pickup, all "forward control" models inspired by VW's Type 2 Microbus and forerunners of today's popular minivans. Finally, the flat six was bored out to 145 cid. Standard power remained at 80, but a $27 "Turbo Air" option lifted that to 98.

For 1962, the 500 series was trimmed to a lone coupe, and the Monza line expanded to include a wagon (no longer called Lakewood) and a new convertible. The Monza wagon was plush, but only about 6000 were built before the body style was dropped entirely to make assembly-line room for the Chevy II, the resolutely orthodox Falcon-style compact rushed out to do what Corvair had failed to in the economy market.

Mid-1962 brought what has become the most highly prized first-generation Corvair: the turbocharged Monza Spyder. Initially, this was a $317 option package for Monza two-doors comprising a 150-bhp engine with lots of chrome dressup, a shorter final drive for sprightlier acceleration, heavy-duty suspension, and a multigauge instrument panel with tachometer and brushed-metal trim. The four-speed and sintered-metallic brake linings were "mandatory" options.

The Spyder wasn't cheap -- a minimum price of $2600 -- but it was the next best thing to a Porsche. Total production ran about 40,000 units through 1964.

First-generation Corvair styling saw only minor year-to-year changes, mostly at the front. The original winged Chevy bowtie gave way to a smaller emblem on a slim full-width chrome bar for '61. The '62s substituted dummy air slots. A wide single chevron replaced those for '63. Then came a double-bar version of the '61 treatment.

Aside from the aforementioned rear camber compensator, the big news for '64 was a stroked 164-cid engine with 95 or 110 bhp in normally aspirated form. Spyder power was unchanged.


1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 Chevrolet Corvair

Chevrolet Corvair Monza
Bad press hurt sales for the 1966 Chevrolet Corvair Monza.

With 1965 came a design revolution. The sleek, second-generation Corvair looked good even from normally unflattering angles, a tribute to the work of GM Design under chief William L. Mitchell.

It was something an Italian coachbuilder might do -- as Pininfarina did with a specially bodied '64 Corvair of generally similar lines. Not only was the 1965 Corvair nicely shaped, it had just the right amount of chrome trim. Closed models were now pillarless hardtops, and a four-door returned to the 500 series.


The '65s were equally new under their handsome bodies. The turbo six was up to 180 bhp, but the best all-around engine was the new 140-bhp nonturbo version that was standard for the top-line Corsa coupe and convertible, replacing Monza Spyder. Its extra power came from new cylinder heads, redesigned manifolds, and four progressively linked carburetors. The "140" was an option for lesser Corvairs, which continued with 95 standard and 110 optional bhp.

The 1960 Corvair had been the first mass-produced American car with swing-axle rear suspension. The '65 was the first with fully independent suspension, not counting the '63 Corvette. The sole difference was that where Corvette linked rear wheels with a single transverse leaf spring, Corvair used individual coils.

Both systems employed upper and lower control arms at each rear wheel. The uppers were actually the axle halfshafts; the lowers were unequal-length nonparallel trailing arms (two per side). Together, these controlled all wheel motion. Small rubber-mounted rods extended from each lower arm to the main rear crossmember to absorb longitudinal movement at the pivot points.

No question now about tricky behavior "at the limit": Corvair handling was near-neutral with mild initial understeer. With rear wheels nearly vertical at all times, the car could be pushed around corners with fine stability. Attention was also paid to the front suspension, which was tuned to complement the new rear end and provide additional roll stiffness.

Like the Monza Spyder before it, the 1965-66 Corsa was the most-desirable second-generation Corvair -- as it still is among collectors. Base-priced at $2519 for the coupe and $2665 as a convertible, it came with full instrumentation, special exterior accents (including a bright rear-panel appliqué for instant recog­nition), deluxe all-vinyl bucket-seat interior, and the 140-bhp engine.

With the $158 turbo-six option, Corsa was squarely in the performance league: less than 11 seconds 0-60 mph, 18 seconds at 80 mph for the standing quarter-mile. Given enough room, a blown Corsa could hit 115 mph.

Unfortunately, Corsa didn't sell well against Ford's instant smash-hit Mustang, which had bowed about six months before and could also better the Chevy's on-road performance. More critical was the decline in Monza sales then setting in.

Though the most-popular Corvair rallied slightly for '65, production plunged by some two-thirds the following year. Sales were definitely being affected by Nader's book -- and GM's embarrassing admission that it had put Nader under surveillance. But damning charges and damaging publicity were beside the point. GM had already sealed Corvair's fate in April 1965 with an internal memo that said, in effect, "No more development work. Do only enough to meet federal requirements."

When Chevy's true Mustang-fighter, the Camaro, arrived for 1967, Corvair was trimmed to just 500 sedan and coupe and Monza sedan, coupe, and convertible. The turbo engine was also dropped, and hardtop sedans were in their final year.

The 1968-69 models were the rarest Corvairs. Comprising just 500 and Monza hardtops and Monza convertibles, they're readily spotted by federally mandated front side-marker lights -- clear on the '68s, amber for '69. Monza convertibles were scarcest of all: respectively, just 1386 and 521 built.

With so little change in light of fast-falling sales, Corvair was looking terminal by 1968, so many were surprised that Chevy even bothered with the '69 models. Some dealers wouldn't sell them and others refused to service them, so the division offered what few buyers remained a $150 credit on the purchase of another Chevy through 1974. With that, the Corvair was dead.

In retrospect, Corvair was a victim of its own success. Had it not been for the Monza, we might not have had the Mustang -- and ultimately, the Camaro.

Left stillborn by the no-more-development edict was a project dubbed XP-849, which went at least as far as a pair of clay mockups: one apparently a rear-engine design, the other with front-wheel drive. Intriguingly, both were badged "Corvair 2." A possible prelude to Chevy's unfortunate 1971 Vega, though likely for overseas consumption, XP-849 would never materialize. But it showed that at least some GMers still remembered the adventuresome spirit of the original Corvair despite years of corporate miscues and public controversy.