The Chevrolet Corvair was one of the company’s best-known compact cars between 1960 and 1969. While its legacy was tarnished by a number of issues surrounding its handling, the Corvair became quite popular, and today, many collectors and classic car aficionados still love the Chevy Corvair. The history behind this car unveils why it is so popular and why its lifespan was cut short.
History of the Corvair
When the major U.S. automakers were introducing scaled down versions of some of their conventional cars in 1959 and 1960, Edward “Ed” Cole had a different plan. Originally, the Chevrolet Motor Division’s chief engineer, Cole rose through the ranks to become Chevy’s General Manger and one of General Motors’ vice presidents. Under his leadership, he designed and pushed for the Corvair to be one of Chevy’s flagship models in the battle for dominance in the compact car market that had begun following the introduction of the Nash Rambler and other small cars imported from Europe.
Unlike many of the other small cars hitting the market, the Corvair was built from the ground up and featured many innovative ideas. With its different frame, rear-mounted engine, and tires with a low-profile design, the Corvair was elegant and very different. It was so visually striking and new that Motor Trend named it the Car of the Year for 1960.
With so much excitement surrounding the Corvair, it is no surprise that it sold more than 200,000 units during its first year and each of the following five years. The first model of the Corvair was sold from 1960 to 1964 before the second was introduced. With a few key differences, the second Corvair was just as popular at first. However, with more competition coming from Ford’s Mustang, and with Chevy’s Camaro gaining more popularity, the Corvair’s third generation was put on hold, and production ended in 1969.
The numerous handling and safety issues that had plagued the Corvair for its entire life didn’t help any. The first version of the Corvair had issues with oversteering due to its rear axle design, leading to a number of changes in the car’s suspension to correct the issue. Following the introduction of the second generation, this became a non-issue to the complete resident of the car’s rear suspension.
The damage was already done, however. Ralph Nader, who at the time had published consumer safety articles in the Harvard Law Record and would later go on to become a known independent presidential candidate, published his book Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965. The first chapter of his book focused on the Corvair, calling it “the one-car accident.” At the time, General Motors had over 100 lawsuits pending in relation to accidents involving the Corvair, and car insurance companies were understandably nervous about the vehicle. The sales of the car stood at 220,000 in 1965 but dropped by 110,000 in 1966. By 1969, Chevy produced only 6,000 Corvairs before ending the line.
The History of the Corvair – a look at the car’s history from corvair.org.
The Corvair’s Rise and Fall – how this car changed the automotive industry.
The Chevrolet Corvair – the model’s entry at Wikicars.
The Corvair at Wikipedia – contains a good amount of information on the development of the Corvair.
The Life and Death of the Corvair – a look at this controversial car.
Features of the Corvair
As one of the most innovative vehicles of the time, the Corvair had a number of unique features that were not available on any other car and granted GM/Chevy a number of patents.
The first generation of the Corvair was especially unique:
- Fisher Body built their first Unibody frame for the 1960 Corvair.
- The engine was mounted in the rear instead of the front, like most vehicles. It powered the rear wheels via a compact transaxle.
- The rear suspension was a swing axle, which led to a number of steering issues. This axle did make the ride more comfortable, however.
- There was no chrome grille or tailfins.
- The 80 hpengine, an air-cooled horizontal six-cylinder, was made almost completely from aluminum.
During the second generation, the swing axle rear suspension was completely replaced by an independent suspension. Each wheel had its own coil springs. The second generation also boosted more powerful engine options, better brakes, and a better heating system.
25 Things you Didn’t Know about the Corvair – some fun trivia from the Chicago Tribune.
The 1966 Chevy Corvair Monza – a look at one of the rarer versions of the Corvair.
The 1965 Corvair – the features of the second generation.
How the Corvair Started a Design Revolution – its features impacted more than just Chevy.
One-Upping Ralph Nader – how the Corvair overcame its safety issues.
Different Models of the Corvair and its Evolution over the Years
The first generation of the Corvair was released in 1960 and built through 1964. During this time, Chevy produced a variety of different Corvairs: 2-door coupes and convertibles, 4-door sedans and station wagons, 6-door and 8-door vans, and even a 2-door truck. The first Corvairs were considered to be thrift cars with very few amenities. They were priced under $2,000. However, it later became clear that rather than being a winner in the economy market, consumers saw the Corvair as a specialty vehicle. The design was modified slightly in 1962 to better fit that niche.
In 1964, Chevy did something of an overhaul on the line and introduced the second generation of the Corvair in 1965. They removed a number of options, releasing only four body styles: the 2-door hardtop and convertible, the 4-door hardtop (up until 1967) and the 6-door van (only sold in 1965). Chevy had initially planned on ending production of the Corvair in 1966 but continued producing limited numbers until 1969.
With the more powerful engine introduced in the 1964 model plus a number of other features and changes, the new design did win support from critics, at first, but the publication of Nader’s book plus the numerous safety lawsuits spelled doom for the Corvair. Despite addressing the safety concerns, the popularity of the model waned, and the third generation was canceled.
In Defense of the Corvair – why the Corvair didn’t deserve its bad reputation.
The 50 Worst Cars of All Time: The Corvair – Time Magazine lists the car as one of the worst.
The Corvair – a look at the model and its evolution.
The Advanced Technology of the Corvair – how this car was one of the most advanced.
Evolution of the Corvair – information about the different models of the Corvair.
Popularity of the Corvair
The first generation of the Corvair influenced the design of vehicles around the world, and traces of it can be seen in the designs of cars such as the BWM 1602 and the Fiat 1300. But it is the fact that this car was so revolutionary that many still seek it out. Innovation is inherently a part of the American Dream, as is risk-taking. The Corvair is certainly both innovative and risky, and while it is true that the first generation had safety problems, those problems were also addressed and removed.
While some classic cars didn’t seem to be appreciated until they were gone, the Corvair was famous during its run. There were a number of Corvair clubs created while it was in production, and the Corvair Society of America was formed shortly after the vehicle went out of production. Today, many still want to get their hands on a Corvair because of its uniqueness.
The Corvair Museum – the official museum for the Corvair.
The Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum – the Corvair Museum is located here.
The Corvair Preservation Foundation – a foundation dedicated to preserving as many Corvairs as possible.
The Collectability of the Corvair – a look at why this vintage car is so popular.
Collectible Classics: The Corvair – Automobile Magazine points out some more reasons why the Corvair is so popular.