In 1952, Ed Cole was promoted to chief engineer of the Chevrolet Motor Division. Four years later, in July 1956, he was named general manager of Chevrolet—GM's largest automotive division—and a vice president of General Motors. At Chevrolet, Cole pushed for many of the major engineering and design advancements introduced in the Chevrolet car and truck lines between 1955 and 1962. He was the moving force behind the development and production of the air-cooled rear-engine Corvair. Despite its infamous history, the Corvair was a ground-breaking car in its day. As chief engineer, Cole was heavily involved in the development of the Corvette sports car. He is also known as the "father" of the small-block Chevy V8, one of the most celebrated engines in American automotive history.
Until 1960, the Big Three American domestic auto manufacturers (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) produced only one basic size of passenger car: large. However, a successful modern "compact car" market segment was established in the U.S. by the 1950 Nash Rambler. Moreover, imports from Europe, such as Volkswagen, Renault, and Fiat, showed that demand existed in the U.S. for small cars, often as a second car or an alternative for budget-minded consumers. While the Big Three continued to introduce ever-larger cars during the 1950s, the newly formed American Motors Corporation (AMC) focused its business strategy on smaller-sized and fuel-efficient automobiles, years before a real need for them existed. Because it was a small company compared to the Big Three U.S. automakers, AMC positioned itself as a "dinosaur-fighter" and its compact-sized Rambler models rose to third place in domestic automobile sales. American Motors also reincarnated its predecessor company's smallest Nash model as the "new" 1958 Rambler American for a second model run, an almost unheard of phenomenon in automobile history. In 1959, Studebaker followed AMC's formula by restyling its bread-and-butter sedan, calling it the Lark and billing it as a compact. The Lark granted Studebaker a respite for several years before the company ceased automobile production in 1966.
During 1959 and 1960, the Big Three automakers planned to introduce their own "compact" cars. Ford and Chrysler's designs were scaled-down versions of the conventional American car, using four- or six-cylinder engines instead of V8s, and with bodies about 20% smaller than their standard cars.
An exception to this strategy was the Chevrolet Corvair. Led by General Manager Cole, Chevrolet designed a new car deviating from the traditional American norms of design. The car was powered by an air-cooled horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine constructed with many major components made from aluminum. The engine was mounted in the rear of the car, driving the rear wheels through a compact transaxle. Suspension was independent at all four wheels. No conventional chassis was used, being the first unibody built by Fisher Body. The tires were an entirely new wide, low-profile design. The styling was unconventional for Detroit: subtle and elegant, with no tailfins or chrome grille. Its engineering earned numerous patents, while Time magazine put Ed Cole and the Corvair on the cover, and Motor Trend named the Corvair as the 1960 "Car of the Year".
The Corvair's sales exceeded 200,000 for each of its first six model years. The rear-engine design offered packaging and economy advantages, providing the car with a lower silhouette, flat passenger compartment floor, no need for power assists, and improvements in ride quality, traction, and braking balance. The design also attracted customers of other makes, primarily imports. The Corvair stood out, with engineering significantly different from other American offerings. It used GM's Z-body, with design and engineering that advanced the rear-engine, rear-wheel drive layout pioneered by cars including the Tatra 77, Tucker Torpedo, Fiat 500, Porsche 356, Volkswagen Beetle, Renault Dauphine, Subaru 360, and NSU Prinz—and employed by the concurrent and short-lived Hino Contessa.
The Corvair's powerplant was an overhead-valve aluminum, air-cooled 140 cu in (2.3 L) flat-six (later enlarged, first to 145 and then to 164 cubic inches). The first Corvair engine produced 80 hp (60 kW; 81 PS). Power peaked with the 1965–66 turbocharged 180 hp (134 kW; 182 PS) Corsa engine option. The first generation model's swing axle rear suspension, invented and patented by engineer Edmund Rumpler, offered a comfortable ride, but raised safety concerns associated with the car's handling stability, and was replaced in 1965 with a fully independent rear suspension similar to the Corvette Sting Ray.
The Corvair represented several breakthroughs in design for mass-produced Detroit vehicles, with 1,786,243 cars produced between 1960 and 1969.
First generation (1960–1964)
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The 1960 Corvair 569 and 769 series four-door sedans were conceived as economy cars offering few amenities to keep the price competitive, with the 500 (standard model) selling for under $2,000. Powered by the Chevrolet Turbo-Air 6 engine with 80 hp (60 kW; 81 PS) and mated to a three-speed manual or optional extra-cost two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission, the Corvair was designed to have comparable acceleration to the six-cylinder full-sized Chevrolet Biscayne. The Corvair's unique design included the "Quadri-Flex" independent suspension and "Unipack Power Team" of engine, transmission, and rear axle combined into a single unit. Similar to designs of European cars such as Porsche, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, and others, "Quadri-Flex" used coil springs at all four wheels with independent rear suspension arms incorporated at the rear. Specially designed 6.5 by 13 in. four-ply tires mounted on 13 in wheels with 5.5 in width were standard equipment. Available options included RPO 360, the Powerglide two-speed automatic transmission ($146), RPO 118, a gasoline heater ($74), RPO 119, an AM tube radio ($54), and by February 1960, the rear folding seat (formerly $32) was standard. Chevrolet produced 47,683 of the 569 model and 139,208 769 model deluxe sedans in 1960.
In January 1960, two two-door coupe models were introduced designated as the 527 and 727 models. Following the success of the upmarket "Mr. and Mrs. Monza" styling concept cars at the 1960 Chicago Auto Show, management approved the neatly appointed bucket-seat DeLuxe trim of the 900 series Monza as a two-door club coupe only. This model began arriving at showroom floors in April 1960. Despite their late January introduction of the coupe, these cars sold well; about 14,628 base model 527 coupes, 36,562 727 deluxe coupes, and 11,926 927 Monza club coupes, making the coupe one of the most popular Corvairs.
Sales figures revealed to Chevrolet management that the Corvair was more of a specialty car than a competitor to the conventionally designed Ford Falcon or Chrysler's Valiant. Corvair was not as competitive in the economy segment. Chevrolet began a design program that resulted in a compact car with a conventional layout, the Chevy II, for the 1962 model year.
An available option on the Corvair introduced in February 1960 was RPO 649, a more powerful engine, the "Super Turbo Air". Super Turbo Air was rated at 95 hp (71 kW; 96 PS) at 4,800 rpm and 125 lb⋅ft (169 N⋅m) of torque at 2,800 rpm due to a revised camshaft, revised cylinder heads with dual springs, and a lower restriction muffler with a 2" outlet. This option was available in any Corvair model. However, in 1960, RPO 649 was not available with RPO 360, the Powerglide automatic transmission.
The advertised February introduction of a fully synchronized, four-speed transmission RPO 651 was postponed until the 1961 model year. This was due to casting problems with the aluminum three-speed transmission case which resulted in technical service bulletins to dealers advising of the potential for differential failure due to external leaks at the front of the transmission's counter gear shaft. The revision of the four-speed transmission designated for 1961 introduction incorporated a cast-iron case and a redesign of the differential pinion shaft to interface with a longer transmission output shaft and a concentric pilot for the revised transmission case. These are among many of the course corrections undertaken by Chevrolet by the end of the 1960 model year.
The Corvair was Motor Trend magazine's Car of the Year for 1960.
In 1961, Chevrolet introduced the Monza upscale trim to the four-door sedans and the club coupe body styles. With its newly introduced four-speed floor-mounted transmission, DeLuxe vinyl bucket seats, and upscale trim, the Monza Club Coupe gained in sales, as nearly 110,000 were produced along with 33,745 Monza four-door sedans. The four-speed Monza caught the attention of the younger market and was sometimes referred to as "the poor man's Porsche" in various car magazines. The Monza series contributed to about half of the Corvair sales in 1961.
1964 Corvair Monza Interior
1961 Corvair 500 Lakewood station wagon
A station wagon, marketed as the Lakewood, joined the lineup in 1961 with its engine located under the cargo floor and offering 68 ft³ (1.9 m³) of cargo room; 58 ft³ in the main passenger compartment, and another 10 ft³ in the front trunk. The Corvair engine received its first size increase to 145 cu in (2.4 L) via a slight increase in bore size and was rated at 98 hp (73 kW; 99 PS). The base engine was still rated at 80 hp (60 kW; 81 PS) when paired with the manual transmissions and 84 hp (63 kW; 85 PS) when mated to the optional automatic transmission in Monza models. To increase luggage capacity in the front trunk, the spare tire was relocated to the engine compartment (in cars without air conditioning) and new "direct air" heater directed warmed air from the cylinders and heads to the passenger compartment. The gasoline heater remained available as an option through 1963. Factory air conditioning was offered as a mid-1961 option introduction. The condenser lay flat atop the horizontal engine fan. A large, green-painted reverse rotation version of the standard GM Frigidaire air-conditioning compressor was used, and an evaporator housing was added under the dash with integrated outlets surrounding the radio housing. Air conditioning was not available on wagons, Greenbrier/Corvair 95, or the turbocharged models introduced later, due to space constraints.
Chevrolet also introduced the Corvair 95 line of light-duty trucks and vans, using the Corvair Powerpack with forward-control, or "cab over", with the driver sitting over the front wheels, as in the Volkswagen Type 2.
The Greenbrier Sportswagon used the same body as the "Corvan 95" panel van with the side windows option, but was marketed as a station wagon and was available with trim and paint options similar to the passenger cars. The "Corvan 95" model was also built in pickup versions; the Loadside was a fairly typical pickup of the era, except for the rear engine, forward controls, and a pit in the middle of the bed. The more popular Rampside had a unique, large, fold-down ramp on the side of the bed for ease of loading wheeled items.
In 1962, Chevrolet introduced the Corvairs with few changes at the beginning of the year. The bottom line 500 series station wagon was dropped and the 700 became the base station wagon. The "Lakewood" name was dropped. The ever-popular Monza line then took on a wagon model to round out the top of the line.
In spring of 1962, Chevrolet committed itself to the sporty image they had created for the Corvair by introducing a convertible version, then offering a high-performance 150 hp (112 kW; 152 PS) turbocharged "Spyder" option for Monza coupes and convertibles, making the Corvair the second production automobile supplied with a turbocharger as a factory option, with the Oldsmobile F-85 Turbo Jetfire having been released earlier in 1962. Corvair station wagons were discontinued at that point in favor the new Corvair Convertible and Chevy II (built at the same assembly plant). The slow-selling Loadside pickup was discontinued at the end of the model year. The rest of the Corvair 95 line of Forward Control vehicles continued.
Optional equipment on all passenger cars (except wagons) included metallic brake linings and a heavy-duty suspension consisting of a front anti-roll bar, rear-axle limit straps, revised spring rates, and recalibrated shock absorbers. These provided a major handling improvement by reducing the potentially violent camber change of the rear wheels when making sharp turns at high speeds. The Turbocharged Spyder equipment group featured a multigauge instrument cluster which included a tachometer, cylinder head temperature, and intake manifold pressure gauges, Spyder fender script, and Turbo logo deck emblems, in addition to the high-performance engine.
The Monza Coupe was the most popular model with 151,738 produced out of 292,531 total Corvair passenger car production for 1962. The Corvair was fast becoming the darling of the sporty car crowd. Aftermarket companies offered an array of accessories for the Corvair, from imitation front grilles to serious performance upgrades such as additional carburetors, superchargers, and performance exhaust and suspension upgrades. One of America's most successful race drivers,John Fitch, chose the Corvair as the basis for his "Sprint" models. They were created at his shop in Connecticut by adding various performance improvements along with unique styling touches. Individual components were also available through his mail-order business. Several Chevrolet dealers became authorized Sprint dealers able to install his conversions.
The 1963 model year had the optional availability of a long 3.08 gear for improved fuel economy, but the Corvair otherwise remained largely carryover with minor trim and engineering changes. Self-adjusting brakes were new for 1963. Of all the Corvairs sold in 1963, fully 80% were Monzas. The convertible model accounted for over 20% of all the Monzas sold.
For 1964, significant engineering changes occurred, while the model lineup and styling remained relatively unchanged. The engine displacement was increased from 145 to 164 cu in (2.4 to 2.7 L) by an increase in stroke. The base engine power increased from 80 to 95 hp (60 to 71 kW; 81 to 96 PS), and the high-performance engine increased from 95 to 110 hp (71 to 82 kW; 96 to 112 PS). The Spyder engine rating remained at 150 hp (112 kW; 152 PS) despite the displacement increase of the engine. In 1964, an improvement in the car's swing axle rear suspension occurred with the addition of a transverse leaf spring along with softer rear coil springs designed to diminish rear roll stiffness and foster more neutral handling. Spring rates could now be softer at both ends of the car compared to previous models. The heavy-duty suspension was no longer optional, although all models now had a front anti-roll bar as standard. Brakes were improved with finned rear drums. The remaining pickup, the Rampside, was discontinued at the end of the model year.
Despite a vastly improved 1964 model, Corvair sales declined by close to 80,000 units that year. This was attributed to a number of factors, including the basic styling being 5 years old, the lack of a pillarless hardtop (which virtually all competing compact models had), the lack of a V8 engine, and the introduction of the Ford Mustang on 17 April, which broke all records for sales of a new model (and ate into Corvair sales).
Second generation (1965–1969)
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1966 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Sport Sedan
1968 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Front
1968 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Rear
The Corvair second generation arrived for model year 1965, noted for its lack of a "B" pillar and a new fully independent suspension replacing the original swing axle rear suspension. The Corvair used coil springs at each wheel.
Car and Driver magazine's David E. Davis Jr. showed enthusiasm for the 1965 Corvair in their October 1964 issue:
- "And it is here too, that we have to go on record and say that the Corvair is in our opinion—the most important new car of the entire crop of '65 models, and the most beautiful car to appear in this country since before World War II." "When the pictures of the '65 Corvair arrived in our offices, the man who opened the envelope actually let out a great shout of delight and amazement on first seeing the car, and in thirty seconds the whole staff was charging around, each wanting to be the first to show somebody else, each wanting the vicarious kick of hearing that characteristic war-whoop from the first-time viewer." "Our ardor had cooled a little by the time we got to drive the cars—then we went nuts all over again. The new rear suspension, the new softer spring rates in front, the bigger brakes, the addition of some more power, all these factors had us driving around like idiots—zooming around the handling loop dragging with each other, standing on the brakes—until we had to reluctantly turn the car over to some other impatient journalist ... The '65 Corvair is an outstanding car. It doesn't go fast enough, but we love it."
The standard 95 hp (71 kW; 96 PS) and optional 110 hp (82 kW; 112 PS) engines were carried forward from 1964. The previous 150 hp (112 kW; 152 PS) Spyder engine was replaced by the normally aspirated 140 hp (104 kW; 142 PS) for the new Corsa. The engine was unusual in offering four single-throat carburetors, to which were added larger valves and a dual exhaust system. A 180 hp (134 kW; 182 PS) turbocharged engine was optional on the Corsa, which offered either standard three-speed or optional (US$92) four-speed manual transmissions. The 140 hp (104 kW; 142 PS) engine was optional on 500 and Monza models with manual or Powerglide transmissions. All engines got some of the heavy-duty internal parts from the Turbocharged engine for better durability.
New refinements appeared on the 1965 redesign. The Corsa came standard with an instrument panel featuring a 140 mph (230 km/h) speedometer with resettable trip odometer, a 6,000 rpm tachometer, cylinder head temperature gauge, analog clock with a sweeping second hand, a manifold vacuum/pressure gauge and fuel gauge. A much better heater system, larger brakes borrowed from the Chevelle, a stronger differential ring gear, a Delcotron alternator (replacing the generator), and significant chassis refinements were made. Out back, a new fully articulated rear suspension virtually eliminated the danger of the previous generation's swing axles, and was based on the contemporary Corvette Sting Ray (Corvair used coil springs while the Sting Ray uses a transverse leaf). AM/FM stereo radio, in-dash All Weather Air Conditioning, telescopically adjustable steering column, and a Special Purpose Chassis Equipment ("Z17") handling package, consisting of a special performance suspension and quick ratio steering box, were significant new options for 1965. The Monza and Corvair 500 Sport Sedans were the only compact cars ever available in the U.S. as pillarless four door hardtops.
By this time, the station wagon, panel van, and pickup body styles had all been dropped and 1965 was the last year for the Greenbrier window van, which was retained mainly for fleet orders, with 1,528 being built. In all, 235,528 Corvairs were built in 1965, an increase of 30,000 units over 1964. Chevrolet replaced the Corvair-based vans with the Chevrolet Sportvan/GMC Handi-Van, which used a traditional front-engine/rear-drive axle borrowed from the Chevy II.
1968 Corvair Monza coupe with 110-hp engine. Note clear front side marker light, used for 1968 only.
The 1966 lineup remained essentially unchanged from 1965. One change of note was a new four-speed synchromesh transmission using the standard Saginaw gear set with 3.11:1 first gear ratio used by other GM 6-cylinder vehicles. The steering column was changed to a two-piece design with universal joint, lessening the danger of intrusion during a front-end collision (actually a mid-1965 running change). A plastic air dam was installed below the front valence panel to conceal the front suspension and underbody, and lessen crosswind sensitivity. In front, The "lock door" emblem (covering the lockset for the trunk lock) was changed from red to blue and featured a shorter bar. At the rear, new larger taillight lenses were used featuring a thin chrome ring around the center of the light. Air conditioned cars received a new condenser that was mounted in front of the engine, eliminating the previous efficient but huge, awkward condenser that was mounted atop the engine, requiring its removal out of the way for most underhood servicing. The Corvair script nameplate was moved from atop the trunk lid to a position next to the driver's side headlight bezel. Sales began a decline as a result of Nader's book and the new Mustang that offered V8s up to 271 hp (202 kW; 275 PS) compared to the Corvair's 180 hp (134 kW; 182 PS) top powertrain. and rumors of the upcoming "Panther'—the code name for the forthcoming Camaro, slated as a direct competitor for the Mustang. A decision was made to discontinue further development of the Corvair. Production for the model year was down to 103,743.
In 1967, the Corvair line was trimmed to the 500 and Monza Hardtop Coupes and Hardtop Sedans, and the Monza Convertible. This model year was the first with a collapsible steering column. A dual circuit master cylinder with warning light, nylon reinforced brake hoses, stronger steel (instead of aluminum) door hinges, "mushroomed" instrument panel knobs and a vinyl-edged day/night mirror were all made standard equipment. Bucket seats in Monza models were now of the same "Astro" style as those on the new-for-1967 Camaro, featuring a new-thin-shell design. Chevrolet introduced a 50,000 mi (80,000 km) engine warranty on all Chevrolet models including the Corvair. Chevrolet was still actively marketing the Corvair in 1967, including color print ads and an "I Love My Corvair" bumper sticker campaign by dealers, but production and sales continued to fall off drastically. Only 27,253 copies were built. The chrome rings around the center of the taillights got thicker.
In 1968, the four-door hardtop was discontinued, leaving three models—the 500 and Monza Hardtop Coupes and the Monza Convertible. Air conditioning was dropped as an option, due to concerns about thermal loading added by the now-standard Air Injection Reactor ("smog pump") which probably hurt sales as factory air became more popular generally in automobiles. The GM multiplex stereo system was also discontinued when new units changed wiring adapters; the Corvair's 9-pin connector would no longer fit the new units. Additional safety features, including side marker lights, and shoulder belts for closed models, were fitted per the federal government's requirements. Steering wheel for 500s was the same as the base Nova's, while Monzas got the same wheel as the Camaro. An Impala-style "Deluxe" steering wheel was optional. All advertising was virtually stopped and sales were down to 15,400.
The final model-year 1969 Corvairs were assembled with the Nova in Willow Run, Michigan, the same facility Corvairs had been built from the beginning. A total of 6,000 Corvairs were produced of which only 521 were Monza Convertibles. The Corvair was the only GM car in 1969 that did not get a locking steering column. Demand for Novas was high and a decision was made in November 1968 to move Corvair assembly to a special off-line area in the plant, dubbed the "Corvair Room", making Corvairs produced between that time and 14 May 1969 essentially hand-built by a dedicated Corvair team. Assembled bodies arrived from Fisher Body and awaited assembly in the off-line area.
End of production
While the 1965 Corvair was received as a well-engineered high performance driver's car, that accomplishment was overshadowed by the phenomenal market success of the Ford Mustang. GM saw advantages to the route adopted by Ford with the Mustang, a four-seat semi-coupe body on a standard compact (Falcon) chassis with a small-block V8 motor and four-on-the-floor offered as power options. The Corvair was not cheap to produce; developing and marketing a Mustang-style model based on the Nova platform had cost advantages. Unlike the Corvair, a derivative model could evolve within GM's standard lines of manufacturing technology. The 1965 publication of Unsafe at Any Speed sullied the reputation of the Corvair line, although the issues had nothing to do with the current model. Under competition from the Mustang and the publicity hit of Unsafe, Corvair sales plummeted by over half in 1966. GM saw the advantages of developing the Camaro, not the Corvair.
According to GM historian Dave Newell, Chevrolet had planned on ending Corvair production after the 1966 model year.John DeLorean, and a complete absence of Corvair advertising after 1967 reflected the company's priorities, including promotion of three redesigned models for 1968—the Corvette, Chevelle, and Chevy II Nova. The Corvair was referred to as "the phantom" by Car Life magazine in their 1968 Monza road test, and by 1969 Chevrolet's Corvair four-page brochure was "by request only". During its final year of production, 6,000 cars were produced.
Development and engineering changes were halted in 1966 on the year-old, redesigned second-generation cars with mainly federally mandated emissions and safety changes made thereafter. An increasing lack of interest from the company, especially from Chevrolet's General Manager
Chevrolet had proposed a third generation (1970-on) Corvair, essentially a re-skin of the 1965–69 model resembling the 1973 GM A Body intermediates, particularly the 1973 Pontiac Grand Am, retaining Corvair proportions. Having passed the point of full scale clay models, Chevrolet stopped developing the model in early 1968. Unlike the Turbo Hydramatic 400, the Turbo Hydramatic 350 transmission, introduced in the 1968 Camaro and later adopted by most Chevrolet models had been configured for use in the third generation Corvair.