The Corvair's air-cooled rear-mounted flat-six engine
The Chevrolet Corvair is a compact car manufactured by Chevrolet for model years 1960–1969 across two generations. As the only American-designed, mass-produced passenger car with a rear-mounted, air-cooled engine, the Corvair was manufactured and marketed in two-door coupe, convertible, four-door sedan, four-door station wagon, passenger van, commercial van, and pickup truck body styles in its first generation (1960–1964) as well as two-door coupe, convertible and four-door sedan in its second generation (1965–1969).
The name "Corvair" is a portmanteau of Corvette and Bel Air, a name first applied in 1954 to a Corvette-based concept with a hardtop fastback-styled roof, part of the Motorama traveling exhibition.
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 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.
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-sizedChevrolet 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.
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.
1960 Chevrolet Corvair
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).
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.
"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.[check quotation syntax]
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. 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 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.
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.
1960–63 swing axle suspension
Swing axle suspension characteristics: camber change on bumps, jacking on rebound
The first-generation Corvair featured a rear engine + swing axle design similar to that of the Renault Dauphine and Volkswagen Beetle – a design which eliminates universal joints at the wheels and keeps the rear wheels perpendicular to the half-shafts, rather than the road surface. The design can allow rear tires to undergo large camber angle changes during fast cornering due to side g-forces causing "rebound" camber and decreasing the tread contact with the road surface, leading to a loss of rear wheel grip and oversteer—a dynamically unstable condition where a driver can lose control and spin. The problem is most severe with rear-engine swing axle combinations because of the greater inertial mass over the rear wheels and the higher center of gravity during rebound camber conditions. The additional high weight of a station wagon body also exacerbates the tendency. Oversteer is exacerbated by deceleration during cornering due to increased side g-force and lightened load on rear tires (lift-off oversteer). Understeer is common in front-engine cars, due to more weight, and inertia, on the front tires. Both conditions are dangerous when a car is driven at its cornering limits.
Design options to ameliorate swing axle handling:
Anti-roll bar: As a production option, engineers had advocated but management rejected the inclusion of a front anti-roll bar on the original 1960 Corvair, which would have ameliorated the car's handling – shifting weight transfer to the front outboard tire, considerably reducing rear slip angles—thereby avoiding potential oversteer.
Tire pressure differential: As with the Renault Dauphine and pre-1968 Volkswagen Beetle, Corvair engineers relied on a cost-free tire pressure differential to eliminate oversteer characteristics – low front and high rear tire pressure–a strategy which induced understeer (increasing front slip angles faster than the rear). Nonetheless, the strategy offered a significant disadvantage: owners and mechanics could inadvertently but easily re-introduce oversteer characteristics by over-inflating the front tires (e.g., to typical pressures for other cars with other, more prevalent suspension systems). The recommended low front tire pressure also compromised the tire load capacity.
While the Corvair sedan offered competent handling, "the average buyer more accustomed to front-engined cars, did not take [into] account the car's different handling characteristics." Chevrolet made a succession of improvements to the first-generation Corvair suspension. For the 1962 model year, the front anti–roll bar became available as an option. For the 1964 model year, the front anti-roll bar became standard equipment and the rear suspension was modified to include a camber compensating, transverse-mounted leaf spring extending between the rear wheels to limit rear wheel camber change, and carrying much of the rear weight combined with softer coil springs.
For the 1965 model year, the Corvair received a fully independent rear suspension closely resembling that of the contemporary Corvette. The redesigned suspension reduced the rear roll center to half its previous height, using fully articulated half-axles that offered constant camber on the rear tires in all driving situations. This virtually eliminated the handling problems of the first-generation models.
Consumer protection activist Ralph Nader addressed the handling issues of the first-generation (1960–1963) Corvair in his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed. GM had over 100 lawsuits pending in connection with crashes involving the Corvair, which subsequently became the initial material for Nader's investigations. The book highlighted crashes related to the Corvair's suspension and identified the Chevrolet suspension engineer who had fought management's decision to remove—for cost reasons—the front anti-sway bar installed on later models. Nader said during subsequent Congressional hearings, the Corvair is "the leading candidate for the un-safest-car title". Subsequently, Corvair sales fell from 220,000 in 1965 to 109,880 in 1966. By 1968, production fell to 14,800. Public response to the book played a role in the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966.
A 1972 safety commission report conducted by Texas A&M University concluded that the 1960–1963 Corvair possessed no greater potential for loss of control than its contemporary competitors in extreme situations. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a press release in 1972 describing the findings of NHTSA testing from the previous year. NHTSA had conducted a series of comparative tests in 1971 studying the handling of the 1963 Corvair and four contemporary cars—a Ford Falcon, Plymouth Valiant, Volkswagen Beetle, and Renault Dauphine—along with a second-generation Corvair (with its completely redesigned, independent rear suspension). The 143-page report reviewed NHTSA's extreme-condition handling tests, national crash-involvement data for the cars in the test as well as General Motors' internal documentation regarding the Corvair's handling. NHTSA went on to contract an independent advisory panel of engineers to review the tests. This review panel concluded that "the 1960–63 Corvair compares favorably with contemporary vehicles used in the tests [...] the handling and stability performance of the 1960–63 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover, and it is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles both foreign and domestic." Former GM executive and automotive engineer John DeLorean asserted in his book On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors that Nader's criticisms were valid.
Journalist David E. Davis, in a 2009 article in Automobile Magazine, noted that despite Nader's claim that swing-axle rear suspension were dangerous, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, Tatra, and Volkswagen all used similar swing-axle concepts during that era. (The handling of other rear-engine swing-axle cars, particularly the Volkswagen Type I and II, has been criticized as well.) Some contend that Nader's lack of an automotive engineering degree or a driver's license at the time he wrote Unsafe at Any Speed disqualifies him as a critic of automotive safety. In response to Nader's book, Mechanix Illustrated reviewer Tom McCahill tried to get a 1963 Corvair to flip, at one point sliding sideways into a street curb, but could not turn over the vehicle.
Time featured Ed Cole and the 1960 Corvair on its cover for the Corvair introduction in 1959 and said: "its fresh engineering is hailed as the forerunner of a new age of innovation in Detroit."Time reported in 1960: Chevrolet sold 26,000 Corvairs its first two days on the market, taking over 35% of Chevy's two-day total of 75,000. Chevrolet had intended to sell one Corvair for every five Chevrolets. By March 1960, the Corvair comprised 13% of Chevrolet's sales.
Shortly after its introduction, the Corvair faced competition from the Ford Falcon and Mercury Comet and was plagued by problems—though according to a 1960 Time report, "many were the minor bugs that often afflict a completely new car." Problems included an engine cooling fan belt that tended to pop off its 2-axis pulleys (unless the fan ran constantly, the air-cooled engine would overheat and seize), carburetor icing and poor fuel mileage "which sometimes runs well under 20 m.p.g." The 1960 model gasoline heater was cited as a problem, which itself could consume up to a quart of gas an hour—with Chevrolet engineers quickly modifying the Corvair's carburetors to improve economy.
In addition to its other body styles, Chevrolet marketed the Corvair also in van and pickup body styles, in rear-load or side-load configurations, as the Corvair Greenbrier.
500 and 700 four-door sedans were the only models available at introduction; 500 and 700 club coupes become available January 1960, Monza club coupe introduced spring 1960 with 95 hp (71 kW) "Super Turbo Air" high performance engine option, and four-speed transmission, gas heater optional, spare tire mounted in luggage compartment, and central automatic choke. Sales impeded by U.S. Steel strike shortly after introduction, causing a shortage of new 1960 models. Monza is the first Chevrolet model with 'narrow' 1 in (25 mm) stripe whitewall tires.
Lakewood station wagon, Greenbrier, Corvan, and Loadside and Rampside pickups added; 145 in³ engine and optional three-speed manual; spare tire now rear-mounted on models not equipped with mid-1961 all weather air conditioning option. Manual choke. First full year of Monza production demonstrates its sales success, pushes Ford to develop the Falcon Sprint and, eventually, Mustang, to exploit the small sporty car market uncovered by the Monza.
Monza Convertible and turbocharged Monza spyder added mid-1962, heavy duty suspension optional with front anti roll bar, rear axle limit straps, positraction differential, new Monza full wheel covers, Kelsey Hayes knock-off wire wheels added to options, Monza wagon becomes available, 500 wagon dropped- wagons lose "Lakewood" designation. Station wagons discontinued mid-1962 to provide capacity for other Corvair and Chevy II models.
Self-adjusting brakes and small engine improvements (belt guides, improved oil cooler), new Monza rocker moldings, loadside pickup discontinued.
Larger, 164 CID, engine, improved rear suspension with added transverse leaf springs and revised coil springs, front stabilizer bar added as standard, finned rear brake drums, new optional full wheel covers standard for Monza with specific centers, new Monza chrome rocker and wheel-opening moldings, last year for rampside pickup.
Major redesign of the Corvair- all new Fisher Z body, hardtop styling for all models, 700 series discontinued, Corsa series replaces Monza spyder series; Greenbrier discontinued mid-year after 1,528 built; revised front and redesigned fully independent rear suspension, improved heater and air conditioning systems, numerous small engine and chassis refinements. Mid-year introduction of Z17 "steering and suspension" option includes special springs with rates increased approximately 25%, special shock absorbers, a 16:1 steering box and special steering arms. New options include 140 hp (100 kW) engine, telescopic steering column, AM/FM, FM stereo, heavy duty oil bath air cleaner precleaner system with engine shrouding for dust control. Front Chevy emblem painted red.
Improved three- and four-speed synchromesh manual transmissions; last year of Corsa model, Last year of Canadian production at Oshawa. Late 1965 modification to steering shaft adds a U-joint and floor reinforcement to reduce risks of column intrusion in collisions. Tire size upgraded to 7.00–13 from 6.50–13, with narrower .625 in (15.9 mm) whitewall. New "spoke"-style wheel covers for all models with specific model centers. Front Chevy emblem now blue (remaining this color until the end of production). New optional equipment includes headrests, shoulder harnesses, four-speaker Delco FM stereo multiplex, power rear antenna, mag-style (N96) wheelcovers. New, larger taillight lenses. New, smaller condenser mounted behind the engine for air-conditioned cars. Four lap belts (two front, two rear), padded instrument panel, larger taillight lenses, day-night rearview mirror, now standard on all models. Monzas and Corsas feature black crinkle finish on instrument panels. New rear deck emblem designs for 110-hp and 140-hp cars.
Last year for the four-door hardtop sedan, energy absorbing steering column, dual circuit brake system, stronger door hinges introduced. New safety three-spoke steering wheel standard. Four-way hazard flashers, lane-change turn signal control, additional padding on instrument panel cover, safety control knobs introduced. 110 hp (82 kW) engine is only optional engine at introduction; eventually 140 hp (100 kW) becomes available as central office production order in limited production as COPO 9551 "B". New "safety" Powerglide shift knob, shoulder belt mount points added. New style standard hub caps for 500. Chrome ring inside taillight lenses widened. New options included speed warning, Delco stereo tape system. New thin-shell "Astro-bucket" front seats with new vinyl pattern standard on Monzas.
Air injection reactor standard in all markets, 140 hp (100 kW) engine reintroduced as a regular production option, optional all-weather air conditioning discontinued, multiplex stereo option discontinued; fuel vapor return line and ignition key warning buzzer new standard features. Front shoulder harnesses become standard after 1 January 1968, rear shoulder harnesses are optional all models. Side marker lights (clear in front with amber bulbs, red in rear) added to fenders on all models. New padding around central section of dash; thicker padding on top of dash, steering wheel spokes on Monzas now brushed aluminum (instead of chrome).
Last year – production through May 1969; 521 Monza convertibles of 6,000 Corvairs produced; minor changes; improved clutch cable design on manual transmission cars, wider bucket seats with new head restraints, wider interior mirror, refined front brake hose design, Front side markers now feature amber lenses and clear bulbs (opposite from 1968). 140 hp (100 kW) engine, F41 special purpose suspension, N44 quick ratio steering box positraction and telescopic steering column remain available. Interior window handles featured clear-colored knobs. Deluxe steering wheel option discontinued. New style ignition, door and trunk keys introduced. The last few months of production cars were hand-built on a special off-line area of the Willow Run plant.
Rampside – Corvair pickup with a ramp on one side that was available 1961–1964
500 – base model Corvair with lowest trim level. Always came with rubber mats, bench seats, and very little trim.
700 – next trim level up from the 500 model. These models also came with rubber mats and bench seats but had a little bit more trim (this model was discontinued after 1964).
Lakewood – Corvair station wagon (1961–62) available as a 500 or 700. The Monza wagon was available in 1962 and is not really a Lakewood. All window glass was specific to this model due to its taller roofline.
Monza (900) – the top of the trim line for 1960–1963 only. In 1964, it was below the Monza spyder, which was now its own model. For the 1965–66 model year, the Monza ranked below the Corsa in trim level. After the Corsa model was dropped, the Monza was once again the top of the Corvair line for 1967–1969. Monzas usually came with bucket seats (although special bench seats were available in some years). Monzas had carpeting and special trim packages.
Spyder – the Monza spyder was an option package during the 1962–63 model year, and in 1964 became a full-fledged model. It was equipped with a 150 hp (112 kW; 152 PS) turbocharged engine, "full instrumentation", special emblems, and all the "Monza" trim items.
Corsa – top of the line sport model for 1965–66. It was the only model available with the optional 180 hp (134 kW; 182 PS) turbocharged flat-six. The base engine was the new four-carburetor 140 hp (104 kW; 142 PS) "big valve" engine. Corsas had "full instrumentation", special emblems, and trim with a special "argent" silver painted rear cove area and pinstriping on the 1965 models. The optional 180 hp engine delivered an increase in power over the 1964 150 hp engine of the same displacement by slightly enlarging the carburetor, and increasing the size of the internal impeller and turbine blades.
Corvan (95) – Corvair panel van that was available 1961–1964
Greenbrier – windowed van that was available 1961–1965
Loadside – Corvair pickup without the ramp which was available 1961–62
Deluxe – option package of upgraded interior and trim available on some of the "van" models
F.C. (forward control) – a Chevy term that applied to all Corvair 95 van models indicating that the driver and controls were forward of the front wheels
The Corvair spawned a number of innovative concept vehicles including the Corvair SS, Monza GT, Monza SS, Astro I. In Europe, Italian coachbuilder Bertone designed a very advanced one-off prototype for the 1963 Geneva Motor Show; the "Chevrolet Testudo". This was among the first designs of Giorgetto Giugiaro, the chief designer at Bertone at the time. The Testudo later suffered a collision with another Bertone concept car, the Alfa Romeo Canguro, while on track at the Monza circuit. There was also a Pininfarina built concept called the "Corvair Speciale", and two other Pininfarina concepts known as "Coupe I" and "Coupe II".
The Chevrolet Corvair Monza GT coupe toured together with the Monza SS (Spyder) in early 1963, making a public appearance at the New York International Auto Show. Although both cars were based on the Corvair drivetrain, each represented a futuristic development of the Corvair design. In the SS convertible, the engine (with a four-carburetor setup) was left in its stock location behind the transaxle, allowing for a shorter (88 in (2,200 mm)) wheelbase. The Monza GT is housed at the GM's Heritage Center in Detroit.
A 1966 concept vehicle, the Electrovair II was a 1966 Monza 4-door hardtop modified with a 532 volt, 115 hp (86 kW) electric motor replacing the gasoline engine—following a 1964 version known as Electrovair I. With the 1966 model, silver-zinc batteries were used and placed in the trunk and engine compartment, and the body was slightly modified to accept the conversion. The car was handicapped by the high cost of the batteries ($160,000), a limited driving range (40–80 mi (64–129 km)), and short battery life.
Don Yenko, who had been racing Corvettes, could not compete successfully against the Carroll Shelby Mustangs after they arrived on the scene; he therefore decided to race modified Corvairs, beginning with the 1966 model. As the stock Corvair did not fit into any of the SCCA categories, Yenko had to modify four-carburetor Corsas into "sports cars" by removing the back seat; in the process he introduced various performance improvements. As the SCCA required 100 cars to be manufactured to homologate the model for production racing, Yenko completed 100 Stingers in one month in 1965. Although all were white, as the SCCA required for American cars at the time, [the normal competition trim for U.S.-built cars was white with 2 blue stripes] there was a great deal of variety between individual cars; some had exterior modifications including fiberglass engine covers with spoilers, some did not; some received engine upgrades developing 160, 190, 220, or 240 hp (119, 142, 164, or 179 kW). All were equipped by the Chevrolet factory with heavy duty suspension, four speed transmission, quicker steering ratio, "positraction" limited-slip differentials (50 with 3.89 gears, and 50 with 3.55 when Chevrolet dropped the 3.89) and dual brake master cylinders (the first application of this by Chevrolet, to become stock equipment the next year). Because most of the engine cooling in air-cooled engines is done by circulating oil, an oil cooler was necessary for competition use, this was mounted externally on the rear body section above the left wheel.
The Stingers competed in Class D Production, which was dominated by the Triumph TR4, which was very quick in racing trim; however in its first race in January 1966, the Stinger was able to come in second by only one second. By the end of the 1966 season, Jerry Thompson had won the Central Division Championship and placed fifth in the 1966 Nationals, Dick Thompson, a highly successful Corvette race driver, had won the Northeast Division Championship, and Jim Spencer had won the Central Division Championship, with Dino Milani taking second place. The next year, however, Chevrolet dropped the Corsa line, and the Monza line was not initially available stock with the four carburetor engine; the engine was eventually offered as a special performance option, however, along with the 3.89 differential. The Monza instrumentation did not have a tachometer or head temperature gauges, which had to be separately installed. The SCCA, on the other hand, had relaxed its ruling regarding color, and the cars were available in red or blue. It is believed that only fourteen 1967 Stingers were built, but Dana Chevrolet, who distributed Stingers on the U.S. West Coast, ordered an additional three similar cars to be built to Stinger specifications, but with the AIR injection system to meet California emissions laws, with Yenko's permission. A total of 185 Stingers are believed to have been built, the last being YS-9700 built for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company as a tire test vehicle in 1969–1970. Comedian, television star, and car enthusiast Tim Allen owned and raced Yenko Stinger #YS-043 until he sold it around June, 2009.
Longtime roadracer John Fitch was particularly interested in the Corvair as the basis for a spirited road and track oriented car, due to its handling. The basic Sprint received only minor modifications to the engine, bringing it to 155 hp (116 kW; 157 PS), but upgrades to the shock absorbers and springs, adjustments to the wheel alignment, quicker steering ratio, alloy wheels, metallic brake linings, the obligatory wood-rimmed steering wheel (leather available for an additional $9.95) and other such minor alterations made it extremely competitive with European sports cars costing much more. Body options such as spoilers were available, but the most visually remarkable option was the "Ventop", a fiberglass overlay for the C-pillars and rear of the roof that gave the car a "flying buttress" profile.
Fitch went on to design and build a prototype of the Fitch Phoenix, a Corvair-based two-seat sports car, superficially resembling a smaller version of the Mako Shark based Corvette. With a total weight of 1,950 lb (885 kg), even with a steel body, and with the Corvair engine modified with Weber carburetors to deliver 175 hp (130 kW; 177 PS), the car delivered spirited performance for $8,760. The ability to produce automobiles on a small scale, along with Chevrolet's decision to terminate production of the Corvair, meant the end of Fitch's plan. He still retained the prototype, and occasionally exhibited it at car shows until his death. One 1 June 2014, the Fitch Phoenix went to auction at Bonhams in the Greenwich Concours and sold for 230,000 US dollars. The car is still in Connecticut with the new owner.
In the early 1970s, Fitch sold his inventory to Art Hershberger of Princeton, Wisconsin. Hershberger made minor styling modifications to several Corvairs and sold them as Solar Sprints and Solar Cavaliers. The main distinguishing feature of the Solar was its Camaro taillights.
Winfield's cars: Reactor & Piranha
Gene Winfield, the automotive customizer. built two models in the mid 1960s that used the unique qualities of the lightweight and low Corvair engine.
A sports racing car—The Piranha—was developed around the same time, to demonstrate the use of a new plastic for the structural parts of the automobile—Cyclic ABS. This lightweight (1,400 lb) vehicle was developed in several generations, using a rear-mounted Corvair engine. Model car company Aluminum Model Toys began small scale production of actual cars through their division run by Gene Winfield. Winfield was able to obtain feature placement of this car on television as The U.N.C.L.E. Car in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Custom, dune buggies and aircraft
Corvair flat-six engines were a popular alternative to Volkswagen engines in dune buggy applications, and off-road racing. Some Corvair engines have also been used to power light and experimental aircraft such as Pietenpol's, Zenith's, and Sonex's. Much development work on the conversion of Corvair engines into flight-worthy powerplants has been carried out by William Wynne, who among others has been refining the process since the 1980s.
The First-generation Corvair (1960–1964) has been credited with influencing car design worldwide. Styled in GM's advanced styling studio in 1957, under the leadership of then director Ned Nickels, the compact design was made using cues from earlier Oldsmobile and Chevrolet models. The most notable design feature, its high wrap-around beltline, was "borrowed" by other carmakers not long after the Corvair's release. These cars included the BMW 1602/2002, NSU Prinz, Hillman Imp, Fiat 1300/00, Volkswagen Type 34 Karmann Ghia, and the Mazda 800.
The Corvair's combination of power and light weight introduced European manufacturers to an American market niche for small popular-priced sedans with more power and driveability than the contemporary European economy sedans and a more versatile and practical design than European sports cars. That overall concept was exemplified by Volkswagen's Type 34 Karmann Ghia and Type 3 "notchback" in 1961 and BMW's "New Class" sedans in 1962. BMW developed the concept further by mass-marketing higher performance high quality sedans, setting the trend of the "sport sedan" category that would soon include offerings from a variety of European, and eventually Japanese, manufacturers. Unfortunately for the Corvair, its features, details, build quality and reliability failed to keep pace with the expectations of the new generation of sport sedan enthusiasts and it became shut out of the market in which it was a seminal influence.