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Thread: 1960-1969 Chevy Corvair

  1. #1
    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    1960-1969 Chevy Corvair

    Memory lane: 1960-1969 Chevy Corvair
    By Eric Peters
    for immediate release

    The Chevy Corvair has something of a bad reputation -- among those who don't know much about it, anyhow. Arguably GM's most daring (and technologically advanced) car of the 1960s, it fell victim to a combination of bad press -- and bad timing.

    As a six-cylinder car in an era of big V-8s, it got lost in the horsepower shuffle of the original muscle car era. And as the target of consumer-advocate Ralph Nader, it wound up being tarred with an unfair reputation for evil-handling.

    But the real story of the Corvair is the story of of America's first all-unibody (integral body/frame), aluminum-engined/air-cooled mass production car -- a machine that earned industry-wide praise when it appeared in late 1959 as a 1960 model, but which was fated to retire just nine years later, in 1969 -- its passing almost unnoticed.

    The original 1960 model was conceived as an upmarket alternative to the rickety VW Beetle and other small economy cars of the time. Despite some design similarities (rear-engine/air cooled) it was a much more "finished" and better-executed car than the Beetle -- which by then was already pushing 30 years old. It was also remarkably different than anything on the road bearing a Ford or Chrysler badge.

    Work on what would eventually become the Corvair began in the latter half of the1950s under the supervision of Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole. Cole loved airplanes, so it's not surprising the Corvair's powerplant would be similar to engines used in light aircraft -- an air-cooled flat six, with individual cylinder barrels and a divided crankcase. Nothing like it had ever been considered for a U.S.-branded mass production vehicle -- by GM or any other major American automaker.

    Even more unconventional for an American auto was the engine's location in the rear of the car -- "where an engine belongs," as Corvair ads would later claim. A rear-mounted aluminum transaxle was fitted to the engine (manual three speed or two-speed Powerglide automatic), with drum brakes all around. Power steering was not deemed necessary -- because the front end of the car was so light.

    Since it was conceived as an economy car, the first-year Corvair's interior furnishings were basic -- and the options list minimal. However, the car was roomy and pleasant -- with a good-sized trunk up front and a very effective system of manually operated vents that kept the car comfortable in both warm and cold weather driving. Since there was no radiator up front, there was no need for a traditional grille; engine cooling was provided by louvers on the rear decklid -- and a belt-driven fan with a strange-looking 90-degree pulley system you'd swear couldn't possibly work -- but did. There were two single barrel carburetors -- one for each bank of cylinders -- fed by a single air cleaner with two "arms" that extended to each carb's throat. A cable ran from a lever on the transaxle to the front of the car, where it hooked up to the gas pedal. "Exhaust" air was expelled at the rear of the car, where a breeze of warm air cascaded out of a trim vent below the rear bumper.

    The standard 140 cubic inch flat six originally developed just 80 hp in the standard 500/700-series 'Vairs -- which wasn't much compared with the V-8s one could buy in more traditional cars. But it was significantly more impressive than the Beetle's feeble (40-hp) four -- and delivered sprightly acceleration in the 2,270-lb. car. The Corvair's heater worked, too -- another selling point over its German rival.

    Introductory year 1960 models bowed in base 500 and slightly spruced up 700 trim lines, in either coupe or sedan bodystyles -- with a base price just under $2,000 for the 500 coupe.

    A station wagon model would appear in '61 -- the Lakewood -- along with the "forward control" Greenbrier van (and a Rampside pick-up derivative).

    Toward the middle of the 1960 model year, Chevy brought forth a sporty version of the Corvair coupe called the Monza.

    The appearance of this model -- which featured a higher-horsepower version of the 140 CID flat six (tuned to 95-hp), low-back bucket seats, floor shifter (with four-speed transmission beginning in '61) and brushed aluminum trim accents -- quickly caught on among enthusiasts as the "poor man's Porsche." It helped boost Corvair's image relative to more stodgy domestic econo-boxes like Ford's Falcon.

    In '62, Chevy would raise the stakes even higher by offering a turbocharger (with single carb) as optional equipment for the Monza -- which became the Spyder when so equipped. The $317 option boosted the output of the little six to 150-hp and was part of a comprehensive performance package that also included such mandatory options as the 4-speed manual gearbox and HD brakes with sintered metallic linings -- bringing the total price for a '62 Spyder coupe to $2,600. Buyers also got a gauge package with tachometer, brushed metal trim and more aggressive final drive ratio. Wire wheels were a very popular dress up option. 1962 was also the year a convertible became available -- at a base price of $2,483.

    It was the spunky little Monza, more than any other permutation of the Corvair, that assured its place in history -- as well as helped seal its eventual doom. What had been conceived as a basic (but technologically advanced) economy car was fast becoming a sports car -- and being driven accordingly. The problem was that the rear-engined Corvair had a tendency to "throttle oversteer" if driven too fast into a corner -- a problem inherent to all early swing axle designs. If the driver lifted off the gas, the back end would sometimes snap around unexpectedly -- especially if the manufacturer's recommendations for tire pressure (15 psi up front, 26 for the back tires) was not adhered to scrupulously. The same handling quirk was a fact of life for early Porsche (and VW) drivers, too -- as these cars used a very similar swing axle suspension design. But in the Corvair, it became an issue as a result of a combination of mass production and inexperienced drivers -- neither of which were ever much of a concern for Porsche. (VW drivers, on the other hand, tended to drive conservatively -- and there was no "performance" version of the slow-pokey Beetle to tempt them anyhow.)

    In a decision GM would come to regret, early (1960-'63) Corvairs were not fitted with a simple $4 per car anti-roll bar in back -- which would have helped to "idiot proof" the Corvair's swing-axle design. In 1964 -- the same year the flat six was stroked to 164 cubic inches (with power in the base car jumping to 95 hp and 110 in the non-turbo Monza) -- Chevy belatedly added a single transverse rear leaf to tame the car's tendency to oversteer when pushed. The fix worked wonders -- but it was like trying to back up the Titanic after it hit the iceberg; the damage was already done. A series of high-profile wrecks -- including one involving comedian Lenny Bruce -- and the subsequent agitation of consumer advocate/trial lawyer Ralph Nader -- laid the foundation for Corvair's reputation as "defective" -- and dangerous.

    Chevy reacted with a complete revamping of the entire Corvair for 1965 -- including a sleek new body that was almost universally applauded for its attractive, clean lines. A new 140-hp Corsa coupe appeared (with turbo power optional and output up to 180, almost twice what the first Corvair mustered).

    Bill Mitchell -- the GM designer who helped create the '67 Camaro -- was very much involved in the exterior styling of the '65 Corvair. It was less ornate, less boxy than the original model -- and seemed to finally be coming into its own as an American sports car. Under the skin, the '65s also boasted a totally new suspension -- centered around a Corvette-style fully independent rear that should have put to rest any lingering public concern about the car's handling tendencies.

    Unfortunately, it was not to be. Despite the gorgeous new body and superb handling conferred by the 'Vette-based IRS suspension system -- Corvair sales began to droop alarmingly, especially after 1966. And it wasn't primarily due to Ralph Nader's evil little book, "Unsafe at Any Speed." (Litigation over the car would actually outlast Corvair production, with Congress finally holding hearings on the matter in '72 -- three years after Corvair production ceased in 1969.)

    More than anything else, what ultimately killed the Corvair was bad timing. Despite the turbo engine's jump to 180-hp in '65 (140 hp in the next-down model -- which featured a wild four-carburetor induction system) -- it couldn't compete with the explosion of high horsepower muscle cars that had erupted after the 1964 launch of Pontiac's Tempest-based GTO -- or the nuclear afterglow of Ford's luminously successful Mustang, which also bowed that year. Gas was cheap -- and most people wanted cubic inches and big burnouts -- not the Euro-style balanced performance the Corvair was trying to sell.

    Meanwhile, the car was being out-priced (and out-optioned) on the lower end by more conventionally designed small economy cars from Ford and Chrysler, including the Falcon, the Dodge Dart and others. GM had invested enormously in the unusual tooling and other things necessary to build the Corvair -- and it was becoming clear at the company's Detroit headquarters that the outlay wasn't going to be recouped. Internal memos later revealed to the public show GM management decided to cut its losses very shortly after the introduction of the all-new '65s. Changes would be minimal over the next four years -- and by the final year, production decreased to a trickle.

    Only 521 convertibles left the factory that final year -- down from more than 34,000 back in '64.

    The irony of it is that had the second-generation Corvair been launched just six or seven years later -- without the baggage of the first-generation Corvairs and right in the middle of the first OPEC "energy crunch" -- it almost certainly would have been a huge sales success. Nimble, attractive -- and great on gas. It would have been a no-brainer. And it might have helped GM beat back the devastating onslaught of import compacts from Japan that ate into its market share like Luciano Pavarotti digging into a stromboli.

    As it was, GM got burned so badly by the experience -- and by Nader's relentless hair-shirting -- that it shied away from producing anything remotely imaginative for many years after the Corvair's cancellation in 1969. Instead of trying new things, it would produce functionally competent but utterly devoid of personality future beer can fodder like the Chevette and Vega and Nova -- leaving it to the Japanese to produce interesting (and fun to drive) small cars.

    This is the true legacy of Ralph Nader. Anyone who owned a Corvair (especially the '64s -- and the second generation '65-'69models) knows the car deserved better.

    And could have been so much more.

    END

  2. #2
    Senior Member Kwozzie1's Avatar
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    Re: 1960-1969 Chevy Corvair

    Gee I must have a strange taste in cars....there used to be a couple of them around Christchurch NZ was was a light green metallic.....Rob will probably say I am colour blind. I liked the engine sound...guess I expected to hear the VW engine beat, but the Corvair just sounded smooth...
    Rex
    On the Sunshine Coast, in the Sunshine State Queensland (QLD), Australia

  3. #3
    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Re: 1960-1969 Chevy Corvair

    You and me both!

    The '65-'69 cars were very elegant; some of Bill Mitchell's best work, in my opinion. I have some pics of my '64 that I've been trying to post but the resolution is too high and I don't know how to lower it .. but I'm working on it...

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    Re: 1960-1969 Chevy Corvair

    Quote Originally Posted by Eric
    but the resolution is too high and I don't know how to lower it .. but I'm working on it...
    Any photo editing software will do it - just look for 'resize', 'edit image size' or some such command. Don't forget to save your low-res picture under a new filename, or you'll lose the high-res version!

  5. #5
    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Re: 1960-1969 Chevy Corvair



    "Any photo editing software will do it - just look for 'resize', 'edit image size' or some such command. Don't forget to save your low-res picture under a new filename, or you'll lose the high-res version! "

    This may be the problem - as I don't think I have any photo software on my Mac!

  6. #6
    D_E_Davis
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    Re: 1960-1969 Chevy Corvair

    Despite your obvious liking of the later models the initial release was a very satisfactory vehicle. Easy riding, easy steering, it was a decent road car. Ignoring the factory tire pressure settings gave much improved handling and (for anyone accustomed to driving sports cars) the oversteer wasn't a problem but a feature. Chevy had some initial problems - the crankshaft pulley rattle, short-lived shocks, the only heater an extra cost add-on - but they were being worked out.


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    Re: 1960-1969 Chevy Corvair

    Quote Originally Posted by Eric
    This may be the problem - as I don't think I have any photo software on my Mac!
    If you're really stuck, email it to me & I'll do the deed! :-*

  8. #8
    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Re: 1960-1969 Chevy Corvair

    I know - remember, I owned (and restored) a '64 Monza coupe! You're preaching to the choir here...!

  9. #9
    CARRYON
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    Re: 1960-1969 Chevy Corvair

    IF YOU ARE TALLER THAN 6', AS I AM, HAVE A FRIEND TAKE UR PICTURE IN A CORVAIR CONVT BEFORE BUYING OR LEAVE THE TOP UP. TOO MUCH DRIVER SHOWS. DROVE A 64 MONZA CPE W/4 SPEED FOR A SHORT TIME (THE REPO FOLKS SHOWED UP); GREAT RIDE.

  10. #10
    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Re: 1960-1969 Chevy Corvair

    Quote Originally Posted by CARRYON
    IF YOU ARE TALLER THAN 6', AS I AM, HAVE A FRIEND TAKE UR PICTURE IN A CORVAIR CONVT BEFORE BUYING OR LEAVE THE TOP UP. TOO MUCH DRIVER SHOWS. DROVE A 64 MONZA CPE W/4 SPEED FOR A SHORT TIME (THE REPO FOLKS SHOWED UP); GREAT RIDE.
    Yup!

    I'm 6ft 3 - so I know whereof Ye Speak... and I owned a '64 Monza coupe for several years... great litle car; shoulda kept the thing....but we all have one of those stories, right?

  11. #11
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    Re: 1960-1969 Chevy Corvair

    The Corvair wasn't perfect, by any means. For the 1960s, it was a reasonable experiment in a different type of car, however. I think that technology passed it by, however, and, of course, the terrible publicity of 1963-1964 eventually did it in.

    I married, in 1960, a lady who had a Corvair sedan which she had actually bought the first day they went on saile in late 1959. It served as the family car until 1964, about 80,000 miles.

    The 1960 had a few problems which were fixed almost immediately in a "no charge" running refit--one was the original parking brake, which had to be pulled two or three times to set, and was released by a pull-knob. It was replaced with a more conventional one-pull ratcheted with a release trigger on the handle. The first time I took the car in for service, they replaced it.

    I discovered later some other changes which I had to pay for: it needed new tie rod ends after a couple of years, and the only replacement also required a replacement to the idler arm (although nothing was wrong with the one in the car, it wouldn't fit the new tie rod ends).

    Ours was an automatic transmission. Two speeds. with 80 hp, Performance as you might guess. The only manual was available at the time was a 3-speed, and it was characterized as feeling like 1st, 2nd, and 5th of a 5-speed.

    The gas tank was 11 gallons. This was enlarged in 1961, as the car only had about a 200 mile range (maybe 250 on the highway). They also moved the spare tire out of the (front) trunk in 1961, something they should have thought of originally.

    I carried a spare fan belt in the trunk. I was lucky; I never had to put a new one on myself--but it was replaced several times while we owned the car.

    During the time I owned it, it blew a valve twice (once on each bank).

    It leaked oil This was finally partially fixed with a new oil pan, early in 1964.

    The heater burned gasoline, at 1.1 gallons per hour when on high. While it was nice to have it blasting heat from the start, it needed to be cleaned out every year, and its effect on gas mileage is obvious (doing 65 at 25 mpg means you are using 2.6 gallons an hour; if that goes up to 3.7 gallons, your mileage just went down to 17.5 or so).

    You sat very, very low in the car. I like to have my shoulders above the bottom of the side window.

    Handling (with recommended tire pressures of 20 front, 32 rear, as I remember) was adequate, with a bit of typical American understeer, until you reached the limit of adhesion, at which time you were going to swap ends, at best. I did that twice; luckily that's all that happened; I didn't hit anything.

  12. #12
    D_E_Davis
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    Re: 1960-1969 Chevy Corvair

    Quote Originally Posted by pgranzeau
    The Corvair wasn't perfect, by any means. For the 1960s, it was a reasonable experiment in a different type of car, however. I think that technology passed it by, however, and, of course, the terrible publicity of 1953-1954 eventually did it in.
    Agreed - mine I bought new, and was well satisfied.

    The 1960 had a few problems which were fixed almost immediately in a "no charge" running refit--one was the original parking brake...
    On mine the only one was a fan pulley rattle, which GM fixed.

    It leaked oil
    Although this was a common complaint, mine never did leak.

    Handling (with recommended tire pressures of 20 front, 32 rear, as I remember) was adequate, with a bit of typical American understeer, until you reached the limit of adhesion, at which time you were going to swap ends, at best. I did that twice; luckily that's all that happened; I didn't hit anything.
    One of the first things I did upon buying the car was to jack up the front pressure so as to get rid of the understeer.


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    Re: 1960-1969 Chevy Corvair

    Jacking up the front tire pressure meant that the tires were no longer putting an adequate contact patch on the ground. Only 40% of the car's weight was on the front wheels, and the 20 lbs pressure in the front was designed into the car, intentionally. You would actually exacerbate understeer with less contact in the steering wheels, and the 80 hp engine didn't have enough oomph to create oversteer unless you were already going too fast for the turn. Of course, you could do violent things with alternate hard braking and acceleration, while whipping the steering from lock to lock--what's what Nader's people did to "prove" that the car was unsafe.

  14. #14
    D_E_Davis
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    Re: 1960-1969 Chevy Corvair

    Quote Originally Posted by pgranzeau
    Jacking up the front tire pressure meant that the tires were no longer putting an adequate contact patch on the ground. Only 40% of the car's weight was on the front wheels, and the 20 lbs pressure in the front was designed into the car, intentionally.
    You may very well be correct - all I know at this time is that, for me, I liked the handling much better with more pressure in the front. I wanted it to feel like a VW Beatle and, after some tinkering, it did.

    what's what Nader's people did to "prove" that the car was unsafe.
    I recall with pleasure the testimony of Sterling Moss, at a suit against GM, where he quite patently disproved all the slurs slung by Nader.


  15. #15
    mrblanche
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    Re: 1960-1969 Chevy Corvair

    Quote Originally Posted by D_E_Davis

    You may very well be correct - all I know at this time is that, for me, I liked the handling much better with more pressure in the front. I wanted it to feel like a VW Beatle and, after some tinkering, it did.
    Many researchers since the demise of the Corvair have shown that ignoring the pressure recommendations were the cause of much of the handling woes, not a cure. No one believed those numbers, any more than people use the recommended pressures in their SUV's, and many people paid the price of their willing disobedience.

  16. #16
    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Re: 1960-1969 Chevy Corvair

    I often find myself wishing I had not sold my '64... I really enjoyed it. I only sold it because I was feeling overwhelmed with "stuff" and the garage at our old house was so jam-packed one could hardly walk in there without bumping into things. Now, of course, we have plenty of space.... but the Corvair is long gone.

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