Classic American Cars: Corvair
The Corvair joined an emerging group of compact cars for the 1960 model year. There were only a few other cars in this class including the Plymouth Valiant, Ford Falcon, Studebaker Lark and the Nash Rambler. Most of these cars were merely scaled-down versions of bigger cars. Not the Chevrolet Corvair, which had the most radical design in this group. The 6-cylinder engine, made completely of aluminum, was placed in the rear of the car, “where the engine belongs”, according to Chevy’s advertising. The luggage storage was in the front of the car, like in the VW Beetle, except that the Corvair had more storage space. It had 4-wheel independent suspension and was built on the first Unibody frame. The styling was elegant and understated, without tailfins or a chrome grille. It was named Car of the Year by “Motor Trend” magazine for 1960. Coupe and sedan models were available starting at only $1984, which made it the affordable car people were looking for.
The Monza, introduced for 1961, was a big hit with the public with its mix of American styling and European small car handling. It was a sporty car with bucket seats, a manual 4-speed transmission with a floor shift and an upscale vinyl interior. The 1961 Corvair lineup was greatly expanded and the car was available as a coupe, sedan, van, truck or a station wagon. Corvair was the first compact car to offer air-conditioning as an option in 1961. The Monza was the bestselling model of Corvair.
The 1962 year model was the first available as a convertible. A turbocharged engine was offered with the Spyder model. There was only one other production car offering a turbocharger the same year and that was the Oldsmobile F-85 Turbo Jetfire. The former great sales for the Corvair began to drop off as the other two major American car manufacturers began to compete with the Corvair with their own sporty models. In the 1963 model year Corvair managed to hold its own, but the station wagons were discontinued.
The rear suspension was improved and the engine was made bigger for the 1964 Corvair. But that was the same year Ford introduced their Mustang. Chevrolet’s response to the competition was a second-generation redesign of the Corvair for 1965 with modifications to the body styling, engine and suspension. Sales improved, but the Corvair was unable to compete with the brisk sales of the Ford Mustang.
The “death knoll” for the Corvair came with the release of Ralph Nader’s book, “Unsafe at Any Speed” in 1965. The book was generally addressing the auto industry’s poor safety record as a whole. Only the first chapter discussed the Corvair and his criticism was directed only at the discontinued rear suspension design of Corvairs made for 1960 to 1963, but that was enough to turn public opinion against the car. Corvair sales fell in 1966 and continued to drop during the next three years. Chevrolet released the Camaro to compete with the Ford Mustang in 1967, as well as the compact Nova and mid-size Chevelle. Sales of the Corvair just continued to fall in the last couple of years. After ten years of production, on May 14, 1969 the last Corvair was built.
My father had a 1963 Corvair 700, a 2-door hardtop in black with a red-and-white interior. It was an awesome car, and as kids, we loved to ride in it. Unfortunately, my mother became concerned after Nader’s book came out and wouldn’t let us ride in it after a while. My father continued to use the car into the 1970s and added a bumper sticker to the Corvair that read, “Ralph Nader was wrong”. The Chevrolet Corvair was a truly innovative American small car. It still enjoys a loyal following by many proclaimed “Covair Lovers” today.