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How Chevrolet Corvair Works

1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 Chevrolet Corvair

Bad press hurt sales for the 1966 Chevrolet Corviar 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.

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