Chevrolet Corvair History

In the mid 1950s, the automobile market was introduced to several economy imports.  The sales of these machines, including makes from Volkswagen and Renault, were too great to be ignored by the American car manufacturers.  General Motors looked to the Corvair to be its entry into that market.

The Corvair project was initiated in 1956 and was lead by Chevy's chief engineer Edward N. Cole.  The car was planned around a 140-c.i.d. air cooled flat six engine mounted at the rear of the car - most likely inspired by the VW Beetle.  Early ads would claim that the rear of the car is "where an engine belongs."  The engine ended up weighing 366 pounds, over 75 pounds above design specs.  This error would lead to problems with Corvair's handling.

The Corvair's suspension was very unusual for an American car.  It had a 108-inch wheelbase, Y-body platform and an all coil suspension front with semi-trailing swing axles in the rear.  GM wanted to keep costs low, so they omitted anti-sway bars.  Although this decision did lead to diminished handling, it did not create a "dangerous, ill-handling car" as later lawsuits claimed.

The controversy surrounding this handling issue inspired Ralph Nader to write the book Unsafe at Any Speed, a book that ushered in the area of zealous government regulation that continues today.

Early Corvairs did oversteer, but if recommended tire pressures were maintained, the oversteer problem was minimized.

Chevy produced the Corvair from 1960 to 1969.  Early models included 4-door sedans, 2-door sedans and a Monza coupe.  The early Corvairs stickered for around $2000.

In 1961, the Monza style sold very well and opened a new segment of the market place GM did not anticipate, the sporty, fun to drive compact.  The Monza convertible debuted in 1962 and Chevy introduced the Chevy II to compete where the Corvair had failed - the economy car market.

Chevy redesigned the Corvair in 1965 to be a more sleeker design to better position itself in the market niche it created.  The problem for Chevrolet was that in 1964, Ford introduced the car that quickly took over the "Monza market" that Chevy created.  That car was the Mustang.

The bad publicity from Nader's book and the public's preference for the Ford Mustang lead to the downfall of the Corvair.  Chevy introduced the Camaro in 1967 to compete with the Mustang and the Corvair quickly became an afterthought at GM.  One could almost postulate that the Mustang and Camaro owe their existence to the "unsafe at any speed" Corvair.

The last Corvair built, a gold Monza, rolled off the Willow Run assembly line on May 14, 1969.

Return to Scott and Tracey's Corvair Page

Consumer Guide: Cars of the 60s. Ricard Cotta, Editor

Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946 - 1975. Tony Hossain