The Chevrolet Corvair is a compact car manufactured by Chevrolet for model years 1960–1969 in two generations. It is still the only American-designed, mass-produced passenger car with a rear-mounted, air-cooled engine.

The Corvair was manufactured and marketed in 4-door sedan, 2-door coupe, convertible, 4-door station wagon, passenger van, commercial van, and pickup truck body styles in its first generation (1960–1964) as well as 2-door coupe, convertible and 4-door sedan in its second (1965–1969).

The name "Corvair" is a portmanteau of Corvette and Bel Air,[2] a name first applied in 1954 to a Corvette-based concept with a hardtop fastback-styled roof, part of the Motorama traveling exhibition.[3]

Competitors included the Volkswagen Beetle, Ford Falcon, Plymouth Valiant, Studebaker Lark, and the Rambler American.


History


In 1952, Ed Cole was promoted to chief engineer of the Chevrolet Motor Division. Four years later, in July 1956, he was named General Manager of Chevrolet (GM's largest automotive division) and became a vice president of General Motors. At Chevrolet, Cole pushed for many of the major engineering and design advancements introduced in the Chevrolet car and truck lines between 1955 and 1962. He was completely involved in the development and production of the air-cooled rear-engine Corvair. The Corvair was a ground-breaking car in its day. As chief engineer, Cole was also heavily involved in the development of the Corvette sports car. He is also known as the "father" of the small-block Chevy V8, one of the most celebrated engines in American automotive history.[4]

Until 1960, the Big Three American domestic auto manufacturers (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) produced only one size of passenger car. A successful modern "compact car" market segment was established in the U.S. by the 1950 Nash Rambler.[5][6][7][8] Growing sales of imports from Europe, such as Volkswagen, Renault, Fiat and others, showed that demand existed in the U.S. market for small cars, often as a second car or an alternative for budget-minded consumers. While the "Big Three" continued to introduce ever-larger cars during the 1950s, the new American Motors Corporation (AMC) focused its business strategy on smaller-sized and fuel-efficient automobiles, years before a real need for them existed.[9] AMC, a far smaller company than the "Big Three", positioned itself as a "dinosaur-fighter" (underdog); its compact Rambler models helped push AMC to third place in domestic automobile sales.[10][11] American Motors also reincarnated its predecessor company's smallest Nash model as the "new" 1958 Rambler American for a second model run, an almost unheard-of phenomenon in automobile history.[12] In 1959, Studebaker followed AMC's formula by restyling its mainstream economy-model sedan, calling it the Lark and billing it as a compact. The Lark success helped give Studebaker a respite for several years before the company ceased automobile production in 1966.

 

During 1959 and 1960, the Big Three automakers planned to introduce their own "compact" cars. Ford and Chrysler's designs were scaled-down versions of the conventional American car, using four- or six-cylinder engines instead of V8s, and with bodies about 20% smaller than their standard cars.

An exception to this strategy was the Chevrolet Corvair. Led by General Manager Cole, Chevrolet designed a new car that deviated from traditional American norms of design. The car was powered by an air-cooled, horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine constructed with many major components made from aluminum. The engine was mounted in the rear of the car, driving the rear wheels through a compact transaxle. Suspension was independent at all four wheels. No conventional chassis was used, being the first unibody built by Fisher Body. The tires were a new wider, low-profile design mounted on wider wheels. The styling was unconventional for Detroit: subtle and elegant, with no tail-fins or chrome grille. Its engineering earned numerous patents, while Time magazine put Ed Cole and the Corvair on the cover, and Motor Trend named the Corvair as the 1960 "Car of the Year".

Overview
Corvairs proved to be quite successful with more than 200,000 sold in each of its first six model years. Chevrolet claimed that the rear-engine design offered packaging and economy advantages, providing the car with a lower silhouette, flat passenger compartment floor, no need for power-assisted steering or brakes and improvements in ride quality, traction, and braking balance. The design also attracted customers of other makes, primarily imports. The Corvair stood out, with engineering different from other American offerings. It used GM's Z-body, with design and engineering that advanced the rear-engine, rear-wheel drive layout most recently brought back into the market by cars including the Tatra 77, Tucker Torpedo, Fiat 500, Porsche 356, Volkswagen Beetle, Renault Dauphine, Subaru 360, and NSU Prinz—and employed by the concurrent and short-lived Hino Contessa.

The Corvair's power plant was an overhead-valve aluminum, air-cooled 140 cu in (2.3 L) flat-six (later enlarged, first to 145 and then to 164 cubic inches). The first Corvair engine produced 80 hp (60 kW; 81 PS). Power peaked with the 1965–66 turbocharged 180 hp (134 kW; 182 PS) Corsa engine option. The first generation model's swing axle rear suspension, invented and patented by engineer Edmund Rumpler in 1903, offered a comfortable ride. The design was replaced in 1965 model year with a fully independent trailing arm rear suspension similar to the Corvette Sting Ray.

The Corvair represented several breakthroughs in design for mass-produced Detroit vehicles, with 1,786,243 cars produced between 1960 and 1969.[13][14]

The 1960 Corvair and designers William L. “Bill” Mitchell and styling staff received an Industrial Designers Institute (IDI of NY) award.


The success of the Monza model showed Chevrolet management that the Corvair was more of a specialty car than a competitor to the conventionally designed Ford Falcon or Chrysler's Valiant. Corvair was not as competitive in the economy segment. Chevrolet began a design program that resulted in a compact car with a conventional layout, the Chevy II, for the 1962 model year.[16]

An available option on the Corvair introduced in February 1960 was RPO 649, a more powerful engine, the "Super Turbo Air". Super Turbo Air was rated at 95 hp (71 kW; 96 PS) at 4,800 rpm and 125 lb⋅ft (169 N⋅m) of torque at 2,800 rpm due to a revised camshaft, revised cylinder heads with dual springs, and a lower restriction muffler with a 2" outlet. This option was available in any Corvair model, except in 1960, the RPO 649 was not available with RPO 360, the Powerglide automatic transmission.

The advertised February introduction of a fully synchronized, four-speed transmission (RPO 651) was postponed until the 1961 model year. This was due to casting problems with the aluminum three-speed transmission case which resulted in technical service bulletins to dealers advising of the potential for differential failure due to external leaks at the front of the transmission's counter gear shaft. The revision of the four-speed transmission designated for 1961 introduction incorporated a cast-iron case and a redesign of the differential pinion shaft to interface with a longer transmission output shaft and a concentric pilot for the revised transmission case. These are among many of the improvements undertaken by Chevrolet by the end of the 1960 model year.


In 1961, Chevrolet introduced the Monza upscale trim to the four-door sedans and the club coupe body styles. With its newly introduced four-speed floor-mounted transmission, DeLuxe vinyl bucket seats, and upscale trim, the Monza Club Coupe gained in sales, as nearly 110,000 were produced along with 33,745 Monza four-door sedans. The four-speed Monza caught the attention of the younger market and was sometimes referred to as "the poor man's Porsche" in various car magazines. The Monza series contributed to about half of the Corvair sales in 1961.

1961 Corvair 500 Lakewood station wagon

A station wagon, marketed as the Lakewood, joined the lineup in 1961 with its engine located under the cargo floor and offering 68 ft³ (1.9 m³) of cargo room; 58 ft³ in the main passenger compartment, and another 10 ft³ in the front trunk. The Corvair engine received its first size increase to 145 cu in (2.4 L) via a slight increase in bore size and was rated at 98 hp (73 kW; 99 PS). The base engine was still rated at 80 hp (60 kW; 81 PS) when paired with the manual transmissions and 84 hp (63 kW; 85 PS) when mated to the optional automatic transmission in Monza models. To increase luggage capacity in the front trunk, the spare tire was relocated to the engine compartment (in cars without air conditioning) and new "direct air" heater directed warmed air from the cylinders and heads to the passenger compartment. The gasoline heater remained available as an option through 1963. Factory air conditioning was offered as a mid-1961 option introduction. The condenser lay flat atop the horizontal engine fan. A large, green-painted reverse rotation version of the standard GM Frigidaire air-conditioning compressor was used, and an evaporator housing was added under the dash with integrated outlets surrounding the radio housing. Air conditioning was not available on wagons, Greenbrier/Corvair 95, or the turbocharged models introduced later, due to space constraints. Chevrolet also introduced the Corvair 95 line of light-duty trucks and vans, using the Corvair Powerpack with forward-control, or "cab over", with the driver sitting over the front wheels, as in the Volkswagen Type 2.

The Greenbrier Sportswagon used the same body as the "Corvan 95" panel van with the side windows option, but was marketed as a station wagon and was available with trim and paint options similar to the passenger cars. The "Corvan 95" model was also built in pickup versions; the Loadside was a fairly typical pickup of the era, except for the rear engine, forward controls, and a pit in the middle of the bed. The more popular Rampside had a unique, large, fold-down ramp on the side of the bed for ease of loading wheeled items.


The Corvair Spyder turbocharged engine

In 1962, Chevrolet introduced the Corvairs with few changes at the beginning of the year. The bottom line 500 series station wagon was dropped and the 700 became the base station wagon. The "Lakewood" name was dropped. The ever-popular Monza line then took on a wagon model to round out the top of the line. In spring of 1962, Chevrolet committed itself to the sporty image they had created for the Corvair by introducing a convertible version, then offering a high-performance 150 hp (112 kW; 152 PS) turbocharged "Spyder"[18] option for Monza coupes and convertibles, making the Corvair the second production automobile supplied with a turbocharger as a factory option, with the Oldsmobile F-85 Turbo Jetfire having been released earlier in 1962.[19] Corvair station wagons were discontinued at that point in favor the new Corvair Convertible and Chevy II (built at the same assembly plant). The slow-selling Loadside pickup was discontinued at the end of the model year. The rest of the Corvair 95 line of Forward Control vehicles continued. Optional equipment on all passenger cars (except wagons) included metallic brake linings and a heavy-duty suspension consisting of a front anti-roll bar, rear-axle limit straps, revised spring rates, and recalibrated shock absorbers. These provided a major handling improvement by reducing the potentially violent camber change of the rear wheels when making sharp turns at high speeds. The Turbocharged Spyder equipment group featured a multigauge instrument cluster which included a tachometer, cylinder head temperature, and intake manifold pressure gauges, Spyder fender script, and Turbo logo deck emblems, in addition to the high-performance engine.

The Monza Coupe was the most popular model with 151,738 produced out of 292,531 total Corvair passenger car production for 1962. John Fitch, chose the Corvair as the basis for "Sprint" models. These included various performance improvements along with appearance modifications. Individual components were available to customers and several Chevrolet dealers became authorized to install the "Sprint" conversions.

The 1963 model year had the optional availability of a long 3.08 gear for improved fuel economy, but the Corvair otherwise remained largely carryover with minor trim and engineering changes. Self-adjusting brakes were new for 1963. Of all the Corvairs sold in 1963, fully 80% were Monzas. The convertible model accounted for over 20% of all the Monzas sold.

Significant engineering changes were introduced for 1964, while the model lineup and styling remained relatively unchanged. The engine displacement was increased from 145 to 164 cu in (2.4 to 2.7 L) by an increase in stroke. The base engine power increased from 80 to 95 hp (60 to 71 kW; 81 to 96 PS), and the high-performance engine increased from 95 to 110 hp (71 to 82 kW; 96 to 112 PS). The Spyder engine rating remained at 150 hp (112 kW; 152 PS) despite the displacement increase of the engine. In 1964, an improvement in the car's swing axle rear suspension occurred with the addition of a transverse leaf spring along with softer rear coil springs designed to diminish rear roll stiffness and foster more neutral handling. Spring rates could now be softer at both ends of the car compared to previous models. The heavy-duty suspension was no longer optional, although all models now had a front anti-roll bar as standard. Brakes were improved with finned rear drums. The remaining pickup, the Rampside, was discontinued at the end of the model year.

Despite a vastly improved 1964 model, Corvair sales declined by close to 80,000 units that year. This was attributed to a number of factors, including the basic styling being 5 years old, the lack of a pillarless hardtop (which virtually all competing compact models had), the lack of a V8 engine, and the introduction of the Ford Mustang on 17 April, which broke all records for sales of a new model (and ate into Corvair sales).

 

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