Above all, the Corvair will always be remembered as being different; very different.
General Motors could have taken the path of least resistance and built its first small family sedan as a junior-sized version of the Chevrolet Biscayne/Bel-Air/Impala. Instead, the company charted a more radical design course that ultimately proved fatal for this most controversial of all automotive brands.
Back in the 1950s, North American cars were mostly road-hog huge, equipped with equally large petroleum-swallowing engines and acres of chrome. Gas was dirt-cheap, and the majority of drivers neither knew nor cared about such a mundane issue as fuel economy. Smog was viewed simply as a necessary, if unfortunate evil, and vehicle emission controls had yet to be invented.
But there was concern in Detroit. Those pesky imports -
Volkswagen, in particular, lead the charge - were invading North America in ever-increasing numbers. With one eye on a shrinking market share and the other eye firmly fixed on the bottom line, GM, Ford and Chrysler executives set about to develop cars intended to blunt this infestation.
By the fall of 1959, the Big Three rolled out their respective new compact offerings. The Ford Falcon and Plymouth Valiant were traditional sedans powered by comparably thrifty six-cylinder engines.
But the public starred slack-jawed at what GM had wrought. The Corvair featured an 80-horsepower air cooled horizontally opposed "flat" six-cylinder aluminum engine positioned where the trunk traditionally would be. Clearly, this car was taking direct aim at its VW nemesis by imitating that car's layout.
By early 1960, the sensible-shoes Ford Falcon with its superior gas mileage held a commanding sales edge over the Corvair.
To counter Ford's lead, Chevrolet rushed the two-door Corvair Monza coupe into production. The Monza was equipped with bucket seats, fancy wheel covers and narrow-band whitewall tires. It also came with a four-speed manual gearbox instead of the more traditional "three-on-the-tree" manual used by Ford and Chrysler. (A two-speed powerglide automatic with a dash-mounted shifter was optional.)
The sporty Monza was an immediate hit with buyers and quickly became the best-selling Corvair in a rapidly expanding lineup that soon included a Monza convertible, Lakewood station wagon and Greenbriar van that could be equipped for commercial or passenger use.
In 1962, an even more robust Monza Spyder was introduced. This version, although considerably more expensive than plain-Jane Corvairs, featured a turbocharged engine that produced 150 horsepower.
By 1964, the Corvair seemed firmly entrenched as a popular import alternative while a new, second-generation car was already in the production pipeline.
The Corvair, however, was not without its problems. Aside from delivering poor fuel economy when stacked up against its rivals, the engine had an annoying tendency to discard its fanbelt. The car's Achilles' heel, though, was its swing-axle rear suspension that caused the wheels to tuck inward during sharp turns, providing some unintended thrills for its surprised pilots.
In his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader, a young Washington, D.C. lawyer and consumer advocate at the time, provided a damning indictment of the automobile industry in general and the Corvair in particular. Nader's view was that the car's original rear suspension was downright lethal.
At first, General Motors tried to fight back. The 1965 Corvair, with its gorgeous Bill Mitchell-designed sheetmetal, had an all-new and very effective independent rear suspension setup that was far superior to that of most other cars on the road. They even employed Car and Driver editor David E. Davis Jr., a former Chevy ad agency copywriter, who extolled the virtues of the Corvair in TV commercials .
But, with the negative fallout from Nader's book, the damage had been done. The Corvair gradually disappeared from view, receiving very little in the way of corporate advertising or marketing support. Predictably, Corvair sales went into freefall and in May, 1969, after a total production run of a healthy 1.7 million vehicles, General Motors announced the end of production for its rear-engined problem child.
Sadly, by the end of its brief, troubled existence, the Corvair had matured into an attractive, decent-handling and performance-oriented alternative to those mainstream compacts of the day. Most fervent loyalists of this much-maligned marque still believe that the Corvair could have evolved into a truly great car - a sort of poor man's Porsche - had GM stuck it out and promoted the car on its numerous virtues.
The Corvair, a swim-against-the-current car if ever there was one, deserved a better fate.
Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Media. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/media by clicking the contact link.