Chevrolet Corvair

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Chevrolet Corvair
Chevrolet Corvair

Chevrolet Corvair

1959 - 1969
Aircooled Flat 6
2377/2684 cc
80-180 bhp
3/4 spd. man 2 spd. auto
Top Speed:
139-169 km/h
Number Built:
3 star
Chev Corvair
Chevrolet Corvair
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 3


Launched in 1959 this car was perceived as GM's answer to the influx of lower priced European economy cars into America during the late 1950's and early 1960's. In terms of engineering and style it was seen as refreshingly different from the usual American conservative cars although public opinion at the time said different.

Controversy surrounded early Corvairs culminating in Ralph Nader to publish a book entitled "Unsafe at any Speed" which resulted in a change in government regulations and safety that continues even today. Its engine was a rear-mounted, air-cooled flat six that housed fully independent suspension. Car enthusiasts enjoyed the European flavour of this car but this did little to influence the ordinary buyer causing its more conventional rivals to outsell it.

It took the Monza with its punchier motor, to find its niche as a compact sportscar. Its fortunes improved further in 1962 when a convertible version was released with some being turbocharged, a first for production cars. Unfortunately when Ford produced the Mustang in 1964 the Corvair did not stand a chance. Consumers were drawn to the Mustang's safer engineering and sporty image.

GM tried a rescue bid in 1969 with a Corvair restyle, but sales never really recovered but today is seen as an important car in US motoring history.

The Halcyon Days

Although the Corvair would eventually fall from grace, there was a time when the car enjoyed fierce owner loyalty, enthusiasm, and popularity. By 1962 the Corvair Monza had stirred the imagination of motoring enthusiasts like nothing since the early days of the boxy MG roadster. At the time, the USA Corvair Owners Club boasted a membership of around 10,000. There were members and chapters in all 50 states and even in a dozen or so export countries, making it, at the time, the largest active owners' club in the world.

And if you needed more proof of the cars popularity, you needed to only look at the number and range of accessories then being manufactured and sold for the Corvair - which was far greater than for any other single car. The range of after-market accessories included mag wheels (from at least four different makes) and a plethora of engine tune and performance add-ons for the lively Flat Six engine. Bell Auto Parts was even marketing an Airheart disc brake conversion that gave the Monza braking equal to anything. Sales charts showed that, since 1960 when the Big Three compacts were introduced, the Monza's sales curve remained relatively flat: right in the neighborhood of 275,000 to 300,000 units sold each year. These were the halcyon years - and perhaps part of the reason was the low cost of entry into the Monza club. The basic car was devoid of most creature comforts when compared to others, which helped GM keep the cost down.

Behind the Wheel of the Monza Turbo

Because of the inherent lag in a turbo-driven supercharger, there was very little difference in acceleration over the standard Monza 102-hp engine until you hit second gear. This was where the boost started building, and from there on you knew the turbocharger was worth the price. Road testers were able to clock 0-30, 0-45, and 0-60 mph in 4.5, 7.4, and 11.1 seconds. The standing quarter-mile averaged out to 17.9 seconds, with a trap speed of 80.5 mph. This was a good 10 mph faster quarter-mile time than a well-tuned 102-hp Monza could make. It was also about two full seconds or more quicker.

The road-testers at Motor Trend magazine had considerable problems with the fan belt on their test car. Apaprently it had been set up too loose and as a result had worn badly. The belt came off once just as they left the line, and they didn't notice the warning light come on. Without the constraints of the belt, they were able to clock 0-30, 0-45, and 0-60 mph in 4.2, 6.8, and 10.2 seconds, which was quite a bit faster than with the belt on. The test crew summized that performance could be affected by how tight you set up the belt. They determined that about half-an-inch deflection gave good results - not tight enough to seriously affect performance.

On the highway the Monza Turbo would return the very good figures of 21+ mpg, and this would only dip to just under 17 in normal traffic - but for the record, we are talking about 1963 traffic conditions, not 2013. Again, quoting the guys from Motor Trend, they achieved a low figure was 14.97 mpg, while high-speed cruising on the open road (65 to 85 mph) delivered a high average of 19.2 mpg. In the early 1960's the Corvair was one of the few cars around that put more of the braking effort on the rear than the front, and the brakes, while not large, did a good job of bringing it to a halt. We figure the bias towards the back brakes was due in part to the location of the engine.

On the Road

The brakes were prone to cook a little under heavy use (read abuse), so fade was inevitable. Fortunately, however, they only required a short cool-down period to return to normal efficiency, giving quick, straight-line stops. With 54 per cent of the brakes' effectiveness situated at the rear, plus the anti-dive geometry built into the front suspension, the Corvair stopped almost dead level even during panic braking. Driven hard and fast over narrow, twisty mountain roads (and working the brakes to ensure best performance), the Spyder did have a fair degree of brake fade. For those intending to give thier car the occasional high speed squirt, it was a good idea to option the sintered metallic linings (RPO 686) or else investigate the Bell Auto (Airheart) disc brake conversion kit.

Despite the bad publicity the Corvair received in the handling department, when properly set up, it car actually had unbeatable handling characteristics. The best part of this was that it didn't take a lot of work or money to get the desired results. Motor Trend found the best combination to be the heavy-duty suspension option (RPO 696) offered by the factory. This consisted of shock absorbers, stiffer springs (shorter at the rear to give more negative camber), an anti-roll bar at the front, and limiting straps at the rear that restricted rebound travel and also imposed a limit on how far the outside rear wheel could turn under should the car be spun out. The cost was under US$30 for the package if you ordered it on a new car, making it one of the cheapest performance options then going.

Several accessory firms made a variety of suspension mods of equal value. The EMPI Camber Compensator was one such aid that owners swore by. Another accessory worthy of consideration were special steering arms that cut down the lock-to-lock steering wheel turns from 4.6 to less than three. But stock off the factory floor, the Corvair did have some issues. Quoting Motor Trend from their 1963 report, ... "rear-end sway was very pronounced at all speeds, and above 50 mph it was intolerable if not downright dangerous".

The answer, they quickly discovered, was to boost the recommended tyre pressures up from 15 psi front and 26 psi rear to 22 front and 34 rear. This apparently "completely cured the problem", which begs the question as to why GM did not change their specifications. With the altered tyre pressures, the Monza felt more like a Monza should feel. Other road testers came to the same conclusion, noting that the front-to-rear ratio on tyre pressures was critical and needed to be kept for best results.

Behind the Wheel

The Monza's bucket seats were the standard GM offering and were comfortable enough, although they would have given better support if they had been dished just a bit more. Fore and aft adjustment was enough to allow long-legged, long-armed drivers the room they needed to operate. Rear-seat passengers didn't have enough room for their legs if the front seats were all the way back, but then if you were buying a car for the convenience of the passengers Corvair Monza woulldn't have been on your shopping list anyway.

Exterior and interior detailing and finish showed a high degree of quality control. Carpeting and upholstery materials were top grade. Originally conceived as a bare, economical, basic transportation car, by the early 1960's the Corvair had evolved into a real enthusiast's machine. It needed a few tweaks to make it ideal (and some would say safe), but when these were made, the car had few that could match it in the bang-for-your-buck stakes. If you see one at a car show, don't dismiss it too quickly - they really were a well sorted car - and it comes as little suprise to those that have researched the car a little more in detail that they have today become highly prized by collectors.
1965 Chev Corvair
1965 Chev Corvair

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