With an influx of low-priced European economy cars into North America in the late 1950s and early 1960s General Motors launched the Chevrolet Corvair in 1959 as a 1960 model in an attempt to regain lost market. In style and engineering it was quite different from the typical conservative American car which lacked technical innovation.
Whilst it might have been seen by GM as an adventurous answer to the Volkswagen Beetle, this attractive rear-engined car was a victim of GM cost cutting. By omitting an inexpensive stabilizing bar, the Corvair soon became the victim of safety hysteria. The controversy surrounding the handling of early Corvairs inspired consumer rights and safety campaigner Ralph Nader to write his book Unsafe at Any Speed’. It proved to be a best seller and began a new era of government regulations and safety legislation that continues to this day.
The suspension was redesigned in 1965 but it was too late. By 1969 it was all over for the Corvair – GM’s attempt at downsizing had been a disaster.
With its rear-mounted alloy air-cooled, flat-six 2377 cc engine and fully independent suspension, the Corvair was far removed from the general run of American cars. Rivals produced by Ford and Chrysler were really only scaled down large cars. By European standards the Corvair was not compact, being of similar size to the Ford Zephyr. The power output of the first Corvairs delivered through a three/four-speed manual or two-speed automatic transmission was just 60 kW for a top speed of 139 km/h. Whilst both front and rear suspension comprised coil springs, drum brakes all round were standard.
Enthusiasts liked the Corvair’s European flavour, but ordinary buyers weren’t so sure and the car’s conventional rivals comfortably outsold it. To increase consumer desire GM introduced the Monza coupe with a more powerful 2684 cc engine which helped increase sales, but the release of the Corvair Monza convertible in 1962 really helped the sales figures. There was even a turbocharged version, one of the first on a production car. Unfortunately for GM the honeymoon didn’t last for long.
When Ford introduced the Mustang in 1964 the Corvair was completely outclassed. The new longer, wider and lower Corvair initially sold well but soon, in spite of a new body design in 1965 with a strong Italian influence, buyers switched in their thousands to the Mustang’s more conventional safe engineering and equally sporty image. Whilst the Corvair is almost unheard of in Europe, it has a thriving owner’s club in North America. For reasons Chevrolet would probably rather forget, this marque is an important car in US motoring history.