The Chevy Corvair: Classic or Forgotten?

October 23rd, 2013

1964 Chevrolet Corvair

Who can name the Chevrolet from the 1960s that was, and is, the only American-designed, mass-produced passenger car to feature a rear-mounted air-cooled engine?

You might guess from the photo above that the answer is the Corvair.

I’m thinking about the Corvair because earlier this week I pulled into the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant with a special lady friend who noticed the car and said, “Wow, what car is that?”

It was dark out, and my first response was, “It looks like a mix between a Mustang and a Plymouth.”

It wasn’t until a close inspection of the car that we both said, in unison, “Ohhhh, a Corvair…”

As you can see, the car in question is a convertible, which sold in pretty huge numbers in the 1960s. In doing some research, I found that the Corvair was a darling for GM and spawned multiple versions including a pickup, a van, a coupe and a sedan. All was well in Corvair-land until one Ralph Nader came along and called it “Unsafe at Any Speed.”

Not cool, Ralph. Not cool.

While Nader’s book spawned a lifetime career for him, it virtually ended production of the Corvair. I’ll avoid that whole story here, but the Corvair has quickly been forgotten, which is a shame. It’s a great-looking little car, and I love that it has that unique rear-engine/rear-wheel-drive setup. With more than 200,000 cars sold per year in its few years of production, I wonder why we don’t see more Corvairs on the road today.

1964 Chevrolet Corvair convertible

Used Corvairs are relatively inexpensive, as I’ve found some nice examples between $3,000 and $7,000. It seems like a great little classic that would be fun to own, easy to maintain, a kick to drive and would turn some heads… even in the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant.

When was the last time you saw a Chevy Corvair on the road?

-tgriffith

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  1. Randy
    | #1

    GM’s idea was to produce something to compete with VW’s rear-drive vehicles like the Bug, Microbus and Karmen Ghia. Unlike the VW’s, Corvairs were made for the American market, so they had a lot more interior room and power. Given the cheap nature of the VW’s, the Corvairs were also built better.

    However, You’re not being fair to Nader. These cars really were unsafe in certain conditions. I’ve driven over the “Corvair hump” hundreds of times at Milford Proving Grounds. This offset simulated railroad crossing is part of the ride & handling track and was put in to test Nader’s contention that strong “whoopee” bumps could cause the rear suspension to overextend (on the up cycle) and collapse, leading to a high speed uncontrollable crash. In the earlier design, GM failed to put in a feature that would limit how far the rear suspension could drop, which caused the problem. I believe they fixed it with the “new” design in 1965, which was too late considering the brand was already on the way out. Americans wanted bigger and faster and economy cars were in general decline.

    That said, I’ve owned a few. I had a ’62 sedan that was a cheap and reliable work car, and a 64 Van, which I understand is the rarest and most valuable of the Corvairs. I really like the “pickup trucks” which have a nifty side door which lets down to make a built-in ramp.

  2. | #2

    Thanks Randy, I love hearing about your experiences with GM products, especially these older cars. Very cool!

  3. James
    | #3

    Shows what I know… I didn’t even realize the Corvair was rear engine. That’s cool!

  4. Randy
    | #4

    Yep, boxer-style like the Beetle but six cylinders instead of four. There was also the Spyder, which sported twin carbs and a turbo charger.

  5. gwydionjhr
    | #5

    You’re close. But you’ve passed along the commonly held misconception that Nader killed the Corvair. The truth is, Nader’s book, “Unsafe At Any Speed” (which only had 1 chapter dedicated to the Corvair) came out AFTER GM had already decided to end Corvair production with the ’66 model year. The Mustang was kickin’ the Corvair’s butt in sales. GM had their answer to the Mustang coming out for ’67, the Camaro.

    But then UAAS hit the shelves, and strangely, GM kept making the Corvair right through to ’69. In it’s final year a measly 6000 were made.

    Why did GM continue to make an unprofitable vehicle they had no need for?

    Because of Ralph Nader.

  6. marko
    | #6

    i had a corvair a decade ago as my lit’ old spinner. few things—things can go very wrong and its not a cheap vehicle to maintain, parts can be tough to find as can qualified folks who want to work on it–its no mustang. miss it in a strange way.

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