In the late 1950s, Detroit’s Big Three auto manufacturers finally woke up to the fact that Americans wanted small cars. Years of watching after Volkswagen’s steadily increasing sales had made an impression. When it came time to design their new compact models for 1960, Ford and Chrysler stuck to the tried and true with their Falcons and Valiants. But Ed Cole, manager of General Motors’ Chevrolet division, was an engineer who liked to push things forward.
While the Falcon and Valiant boasted conventional front engine, rear wheel drive set-ups, the Corvair aped VW and Porsche’s rear-mounted horizontally opposed, "boxer" engines. Its air-cooled rear engine layout gave the Corvair improved traction with its engine weight over the driving wheels. Other benefits included flat floors; easy handling that negated the need for power steering, and a radiator-free layout, while allowing a lower silhouette.
During the Corvair's development, GM’s engineers warned executives about the dangers of its swing-axle rear suspension in sudden, panic maneuvers. The engineers proposed the economical fix of a front roll bar that would add a mere $6 to each car’s cost, but the bean counters nixed it as a drag on profits. The engineers’ “quick and dirty” workaround was to specify radically different air pressures for the front and rear tires--a detail that nearly all drivers ignored to their peril.
The Corvair line soon expanded to offer a wide range of configurations: four-door sedan, two-door coupe, station wagon, pick-up truck (Rampside and Loadside), panel van (Corvan), passenger van (Greenbrier), and convertible, along with later turbo-charged Spyder and Corsa models.
The Corvair sold decently, but sales lagged well behind those of the Falcon. Chevrolet set to work developing a clone of Ford’s compact. Their Chevy II was introduced in 1962. Meanwhile, the Corvair became a design icon that was blatantly copied by European manufacturers BMW (1600 & 2002) and NSU (Prinz).
Corvair sales remained sluggish until Chevy introduced a sporty, floor-shift equipped, bucket-seated Monza model in the spring of 1960. Quickly dubbed “the poor man's Porsche,” Americans fell in love with the affordable, fun-to-drive coupe. The Monza’s surprisingly healthy sales forced Ford and Chrysler to introduce gussied-up versions of their own staid little compacts, but they offered little real competition.
Then came Ralph Nader’s 1965 book, “Unsafe at Any Speed.” It caused a sensation by pointing out that the Corvair’s swing axles were dangerous in sudden emergency moves, just as Chevrolet’s engineers had warned. General Motors’ executives made the scandal worse by hiring private detectives to tail Nader, looking to dig up some dirt.
Then came the Mustang. Envying the fat sales curve of Corvair’s Monza coupe, Ford executives saw an opportunity for a separate make aimed squarely at this new market. As the red hot 1964 1/2 Mustang hit the bull’s eye and rocketed up the sales charts, Corvair sales slumped. GM soldiered on with their radical compact for a few years, introducing a fresh new look and revised suspension for 1965 before finally discontinuing the car after its 1969 model year. As a design so right, it appears timeless; the second generation Corvair has been called one of America’s most beautiful cars of its era, but times were changing fast.
Today, though many consider the Corvair a flop, history teaches us that’s inaccurate. The Corvair lasted just one year less than Ford’s solidly successful Falcon, invented a whole new category of cars, and influenced styling internationally.
Today the Corvair enjoys by far the most active, healthy fan base of the Big Three’s original compacts. While the Falcon and Valiant are still treasured by small cults, the Corvair is actively raced and rallied in vintage events nationwide. It was always the most sporting of the three cars, with arguably the best styling. Classic design, sporty handling, and easy affordability have stood the much maligned Corvair well as time has had its say.
Written by Jim Cherry
Our thanks to Greg Goyo Vargas for several of the images used in this article.