A lot of people today won’t remember this but there was a time when car companies were brave and would try new things - revolutionary things. One company, in particular, had such a stronghold on the market that they had an entire division dedicated to trying new engineering out on the public. They would also create cars with fiberglass bodies and even moved into the compact market with a revolutionary rear-engine air-cooled car. That company was GM and the car was the Corvair.
In the mid 1950s GM was an absolute powerhouse of design and manufacturing. There was a saying that “what is good for GM is good for the US.” With five divisions actually producing fairly distinct cars with unique engineering the company had the market and the money to try things others wouldn’t do. Then-president of Chevrolet, Ed Cole, saw that people were buying Volkswagens instead of big, bloated sedans and had the engineering and market share to decide to build a direct competitor.
The Corvair was designed to be a small car that Americans would prefer over the Volkswagen. While VWs of the day had puny 36-horsepower four-cylinder engines the Corvair would get an air cooled six-cylinder engine with over twice the horsepower of the VW engine. This would also mean that the slightly larger Corvair could be outfitted with an automatic transmission.
Instead of just offering a two-door, four-passenger car Chevrolet debuted the Corvair in 1959 with two- and four-door variants. The car was actually a big hit but it soon became apparent that it wasn’t selling to the market Chevrolet thought - the small, economy-minded buyer. Instead, the Corvair found love with people who wanted something sporty and fun. The larger six-cylinder engine was a fun partner in spirited driving and the four-wheel independent suspension was a welcome change from the dated suspensions of most domestic cars.
With young, sports-minded buyers being the principal market for the Corvair the wagon was almost doomed from the start by being 2” taller than the sedans and coupes and also bulkier overall. Coming in a year after the rest of the Corvair line’s introduction, the Lakewood was available in three trim levels and with the same options as the sportier coupes and sedans. But buyers basically weren’t impressed. Well, not Corvair buyers.
In days when there were over 5,000 Chevrolet dealers nationwide only about 12,800 Lakewood wagons were sold in 1961 which is just over two per dealer in a year of production. Consider that over 150,000 coupes were sold in various trim levels and you can see that Chevrolet had a decision to make.
The company did keep the model in production for half of 1962 as just the “Wagon,” which also sold dismally. That production capacity was then given to the convertible which was a huge hit.
Wagons today can be very hard to find and even more difficult to find in decent condition, but they can be found. After five years of looking my wife and I spotted our ’61 Lakewood 700 (mid-level trim) wagon driving into a pawn shop with a big “for sale” sign in the window.
We had seen the car about a year before with an absolutely horrible interior and all the rubber just completely shot. This owner had reupholstered the car and put in all new rubber. The car ran beautifully even with the infamous two-speed “PowerGlide” transmission.
Even today a Corvair has no trouble keeping up with traffic and being a competent and fun driver. The 2” of extra headroom and spacious interior of the Lakewood and Wagon models is nice. With a few exceptions, parts are really easy to find thanks to a few dedicated manufacturers whose reproduction pieces are of very high quality and are fair in price.
Like many vintage cars, the Corvair enjoys a significant fan base that appreciate this cars for their difference and practicality. You can still coax 30 miles per gallon from a Corvair and have a solid, running car that truly stands out at a car show.
In addition to the models already mentioned, Chevrolet also built pickups and vans using the Corvair platform, one of which will be covered next week on Curbside.
Usually at a car show when you mention the Corvair the first thing that comes up is Ralph Nader and how he killed the Corvair. That story is not true, the truth will be shared next week.
The other misnomer about the Corvair is that they are unsafe at any speed, which happened to be the title of the idiot Nader’s book. That’s not true either. This reputation comes from the fact that the Corvair is very tail-heavy thanks to the engine’s being in the back, just like a VW or Porsche of the same era. The Corvair also had a swing axle suspension out back so the car could get loose if you pushed it hard enough. However, in the 1960s you would go to a gas station and they would check the tire pressure as part of the fill-up service.
Unfortunately uneducated pump jockeys would see that the front tires on Corvairs were inflated to really low pressure and fill them to match the rear tires’ inflation. This causes the car’s handling to deteriorate significantly. If people had read and followed the owner’s manual’s instructions, the front tires would only be inflated to about 21psi (rear inflation pressure was suggested at 28psi). When the tires on a Corvair are properly inflated, the car is one of the better handling cars built in the USA in the 1960s as was proven in federal trials years after Corvair production ended.
There are two other things Corvairs are known for - oil leaks and throwing fan belts.
When the time comes to rebuild the engine the parts available today make it such that you can do so and have an engine that doesn’t leak oil. Our wagon doesn’t, for example. Not a drop.
As for throwing fan belts, Ed Cole demanded that the Corvair engine be as low in profile as possible and the fan that cools the engine sits on top of it with the fan belt making an odd 45° turn. 1960s-era rubber didn’t like this much and Corvairs regularly threw their fan belts. With advances in materials today’s Corvair fan belts don’t fly off like they used to. With two Corvairs I’ve never thrown a belt, for example.
Corvairs are a good value in the vintage car world and continue to be affordable, reliable cars to this day. You can pick up a nice example for under $10,000 and a rough example for sometimes under $1500. Not bad for a car you don’t see every day that can be a fun driver or a great conversation piece at a car show.