1960-69 Chevrolet Corvair

The 1960-69 Chevrolet Corvair has been the last radical mass-produced car from troubled General Motors, although 1,710,018 units of the rear-engine auto were sold. The Corvair was a little costly for its initial economy-car market and too "foreign" for many Americans. It was replaced by conventional Chevy small cars.

There were two Corvair design generations: 1960-64 and 1965-69. The first Corvairs were very basic four-door sedans in "500" and slightly more deluxe "700" trim levels with a three-speed floorshift manual transmission standard and a two-speed Powerglide automatic optional.

Two-door 500 and 700 models soon arrived, along with the attention-grabbing new "900" Monza coupe, which had a sportier interior. Ironically, the Monza, with such items as bucket seats and a four-speed manual transmission with a floor shifter, opened up the market for small, affordable U.S. sporty cars--including the blockbuster 1965 Ford Mustang.

Major American automakers disliked economy cars because they produced little, if any, profits. So they largely ignored such autos until the late 1950s, when foreign autos from Volkswagen and Renault were getting fairly high sales.

Also, small American Motors' Rambler American and struggling Studebaker's Lark economy cars were doing well because there was a serious recession and many Americans were tiring of large, glitzy fuel-guzzling autos.

Detroit's Big Three thus developed small economy cars for 1960. Ford introduced its Falcon and Chrysler its Plymouth Valiant, which were just scaled-down large cars. But General Motors' large Chevrolet division took everyone by surprise by coming up with the Corvair.

The Corvair was highly unusual for a domestic car, with its air-cooled, rear-mounted engine featuring the compact horizontally opposed piston layout of Porsche and VW Beetle engines. It also had an all-independent suspension and unit construction. Some called the Corvair the "poor man's Porsche."

A power-boosting turbocharger--a device used years later for production Porsches--was first offered for the Corvair in 1962 and was also unusual for a U.S. auto.

The Corvair's six-cylinder engine generated 80-95 horsepower, which was sufficient for the fairly light car. It generated 150 in turbocharged form.

The 1960-63 Corvairs had a swing-axle rear suspension, when the Falcon and Valiant had conventional, liquid-cooled engines up front and an old-fashioned rear suspension. Porsche's popular 356 sports car, Volkswagen Beetles, early Triumph Spitfire sports cars and Renault models had a rear suspension design similar to that of the Corvair's.

The 1962 Corvair had optional stiffer springs, shorter rear-axle limit straps and a front sway bar for better handling. A major suspension improvement came with a transverse rear camber-compensator spring for 1964 models.

Some Corvair owners encountered oversteer (tail-wag) handling problems when they drove the car too hard and had incorrect tire pressures, which were specified to be lower up front, higher in the rear where most of the car's weight was concentrated.. Gas station attendants, who routinely filled what they considered underinflated tires in the 1960s, put the same pressure in all Corvair tires, which adversely affected handling.

The Corvair had a Chevy-Corvette-style independent rear suspension from 1965-69, and it provided nearly sports car handling. By then, though, safety crusader Ralph Nader was criticizing early 1960s Corvair handling, which generated bad publicity for the car. (A 1972 congressional investigation cleared the 1960-63 Corvair models, but the car was long gone by then.)

Corvair sales really didn't take off until it was sold in sporty Monza form for 1961, with the buckets seats and floor shifter. Here was an affordable, fuel-thrifty compact car that was a kick to drive. It suddenly seemed that every college kid wanted a Corvair Monza.

A Corvair station wagon, van and even a pickup truck arrived for 1961, but the Monza coupe generated the most sales. Ford took note and used the Monza as the inspiration for its first Mustang that, ironically, indirectly caused the Corvair's demise.

A Monza convertible was added for 1962, and the sexiest first-generation Monza was the mid-1962 turbocharged Monza Spyder coupe or convertible. The $317 Spyder option package for Monzas had the 150-horsepower "turbo" engine, chrome dress-up under-hood items, shorter final drive for faster acceleration, heavy duty suspension and a race-style multi-gauge instrument panel with a tachometer and brushed-metal trim. The four-speed manual and more-effective sintered-metallic brake linings were "mandatory" options.

A Corvair Monza Spyder coupe cost $2,636, while the convertible was $2,846. A regular Monza coupe cost $2,273, with a convertible at $2,483. But a Monza Spyder was the next best thing to a costlier, limited-production Porsche, which had a tighter interior and couldn't be fixed or tuned at your local Chevy dealer.

There were only minor styling changes until the 1965 model year, when the second-generation Corvari got the styling of an exotic Italian car and was partly responsible for Corvair sales to top the 200,000-unit mark that year.

Car and Driver magazine said the new Corvair was "undoubtedly the sexiest-looking American car of the new crop and possibly one of the most handsome cars in the world." A veteran auto photographer said, "It's simply impossible to photograph this car from an angle that makes it look (bad.) I don't know any other mass-production car from its period that you could say that about."

The entry 500 and Monza nameplates continued. But the 1965 version that really stood out was the special new Corsa model with an optional ($158) turbocharged version of the Corvair's six-cylinder engine that produced 180 horsepower. The standard Corsa engine had 140 horsepower with four one-barrel carburetors and was optional for all Corvairs, which had standard 95- or 110-horsepower engines.

The Corsa came as a $2,519 coupe or $2,665 convertible and had the Monza Spyder's sporty brushed aluminum dashboard with sports car instrumentation, upscale interior and special exterior accents. It also featured a sports suspension, larger brakes and quicker steering. The turbo engine was only an extra $158.

But the first highly publicized Ford Mustang arrived in mi-1964 and took the country by storm. It was essentially just an economy Falcon with a sporty body and gobs of options. But it caused Corvair sales to drop by more than half in 1966.

Most Americans could more easily relate to the Mustang, with its front-mounted V-8 or conventional six-cylinder liquid-cooled engines and traditionally sporty long hood/short-rear design.

GM actually sealed the Corvair's fate in April, 1965, with an internal memo that prohibited further significant development work on the car. It wanted a conventional auto to fight the Mustang--the 1967 Chevy Camaro.

The Corsa was discontinued in 1967, but the Corvair soldiered on through 1969 as the 500 and higher-line Monza coupe and convertible. GM wanted to sell the car long enough to amortize its tooling. It also likely kept the Corvair around a few more years simply because of its pride.

By 1969, though, in its final year, only 6,000 Corvaris were produced. The figure included 2,717 Monza coupes and a mere 521 Monza convertibles.

Corvair national expert Larry Claypool, of the 'Vair Shop in Frankfort, Illinois, says interest in the Corvair continues building, judging by the number brought to his facility to be worked on.

Claypool says many Chevy mechanics disliked working on Corvairs in the 1960s "not because the car was that difficult, it was just different from other Chevrolets."

Just between you and me, if you don't want to spend lots of money for a neat collector car, the Corvair is one of the last really affordable ones left. Moreover, the national Corvair club is quite active, and it's no hassle getting parts.

Corvair prices are rising, but the car still is very underpriced. For instance, a 1962-64 Monza Spyder coupe in good condition is valued at $4,500, with the convertible version at $6,950, says the Cars of Particular Interest value guide.. A 1965-66 Corsa coupe in good shape is worth $5,000, while the convertible is $7,350.

You can even get a hot competition non-factory, but professionally done, 1966-68 Yenko Stinger Corvair coupe. It came from a well-known East Coast Chevy dealer that specialized in high-performance Chevrolets and won a national racing championship. It's valued at $20,000 in good condition and at $42,000 in excellent shape, which are still very low prices in today's collector car market. However, it can be hard to find a good Yenko Stinger, and the car is happiest tearing up race tracks.

My choice would be a 1962-64 Monza Spyder or 1965-66 Corsa with the high-torque four-carburetor engine. They're economical to buy and operate, easy to drive in all sorts of weather and just loads of fun.