THE RIGHT TIME, THE RIGHT PLACE
In September 1957, shortly after Ned Nickles’ team had completed the first full-size clay models of the rear-engine “Holden,” Ed Cole finally revealed the full-size clay model to GM president Harlow Curtice and explained the entire project. Curtice was extremely skeptical, but Cole had prepared answers for every question, including logistical issues like production facilities and raw materials.
By then, the U.S. economy was skidding into recession, sending buyers in search of more economical cars. Volkswagen was rapidly emerging as a serious threat, with a growing, well-organized service and sales operation (even before the advent of the brilliant and now legendary marketing campaign later devised by Doyle Dane Bernbach). The time was ripe for a Big Three compact and Cole argued that Ford and Chrysler were sure to jump on the opportunity whether Chevrolet did or not. (At that point, he was probably not specifically aware of Ford and Chrysler’s own compact car projects, which were then in a very early stage of development, but it was a logical supposition and, as things turned out, wholly correct.)
With Curtice’s tentative support, Cole made his formal pitch to the corporate Engineering Policy Committee about three months later, not long after the first prototype flat sixes started dyno testing. GM’s 1958 models had debuted some weeks earlier to generally dismal response and the 1958 model year was shaping up to be the corporation’s worst in recent memory. In that uncomfortable climate, Cole won approval for his compact, rear engine and all.
The first running prototype, still badged as a Holden, was ready by the summer of 1958. It was still theoretically secret, although that September, Motor Life published a detailed preview of the new car, allegedly based on studying Chevrolet’s parts and tooling orders. Chevrolet officially announced the new car in May 1959. It took its name from a 1954 show car: Chevrolet Corvair.
CHEAP, BUT NOT CHEERFUL
By mid-1958, it was clear that the domestic compact market, which had looked rather vacant when the Corvair’s development began, was about to become very crowded indeed. As Cole had anticipated, that spring, Ford had approved the Falcon, and Chrysler the compact Valiant. Studebaker was busily preparing its compact Lark for 1959, beating the Corvair by a full year. The Rambler Six and Rambler American, meanwhile, were posting record sales.
As the Corvair moved closer to production, the project engineers began to clash with the sales organization over production costs. With so much competition, the Corvair’s starting price was going to be crucial. The result was a last-minute de-contenting program. The trim of the base model was downgraded significantly and features that were intended to be standard were moved to the options list or deleted entirely. Some of those omissions would turn out to have unintended consequences.
The Corvair went on sale on Friday, October 2, 1959, about a week before the Falcon and nearly a month before the Valiant. The Corvair was initially available only as a four-door sedan with a base price of $2,038. That was $137 less than the cheapest full-size Chevy Biscayne, but over $120 more than the cheapest Falcon.
The Corvair’s performance was much better than that of most European or Japanese imports of its era. It was capable of 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in a bit under 18 seconds and a top speed of around 85 mph (137 km/h) — not outstanding, but adequate for American traffic and not far behind most six-cylinder full-size cars. Fuel economy averaged about 20 mpg (11.8 L/100 km) in urban driving, reaching perhaps 25 mpg (9.4 L/100 km) on the road. Most of the imports could do better, but the Corvair could seat six adults in only moderate discomfort, something few contemporary European sedans could boast. The Corvair rode well and its steering, although rather slow, was light enough that power assistance was neither necessary nor available.
All that was commendable, but the other domestic compacts offered similar performance and accommodations despite their comparatively mundane engineering. Despite the low-slung roof, the Corvair’s flat floor provided somewhat better passenger space than did the Falcon or Valiant, but the Corvair had less than half their luggage space. The cost-cutting had also left the basic Corvair 500 with a rather downmarket interior. Not only was it missing some essential features, like windshield washers, some popular extra-cost accessories weren’t widely available until months after launch.
The Corvair was well received by the motoring press, which had long bemoaned the oppressive sameness of Detroit engineering. The air-cooled Chevrolet also made a strong impression on manufacturers overseas. Its styling directly influenced at least half a dozen later European cars. American buyers, however, were less easily convinced. For shoppers looking for straightforward basic transportation, a Rambler or a Falcon seemed like a safer bet.
To Chevrolet’s undoubted dismay, the Falcon quickly emerged as the best-selling domestic compact, followed by the Rambler Six. The Corvair did outsell the peculiarly styled Valiant, but for a Chevrolet to fail to beat its direct Ford rival was a reversal of the usual order of things. In December 1959, barely two months after the Corvair’s debut, Ed Cole ordered a crash program to develop a conventionally engineered Falcon-fighter, the 1962 Chevy II.
With the decision to develop the Chevy II, the question became what to do with the Corvair. Although it had fallen short of Chevrolet’s optimistic projections, it was hardly a sales disaster. Furthermore, its development and tooling costs had been substantial and a host of minor revisions had already been made for the ’61 models. There would be no dumping unsold cars in the lake this time. What the Corvair needed was a new direction.
Chevrolet found its answer in a new model called Monza. Introduced at the Chicago Auto Show in February 1960, the Monza was a sleek pillared coupe with a sporty trim package that included bucket seats, wire wheels, and a sunroof. The Monza was originally just an auto show confection, created to promote interest in the new coupe body style, but public response was so strong that Chevrolet hastened to develop a production version, which bowed in May.
The Monza, which cost $189 more than a Corvair 700, was basically a trim package, but to bolster its sporty pretensions, Chevrolet added an optional “Super Turbo-Air” engine with a hotter cam and 95 gross horsepower (71 kW). A Monza with the Super Turbo-Air engine was less tractable than the base car, with a noticeably lumpier idle, but was capable of reaching 60 mph (97 km/h) almost 4 seconds quicker than the standard car with very little sacrifice in fuel economy. A four-speed manual gearbox, cleverly engineered from the existing three-speed, was announced around the same time, but didn’t actually become available on production cars until the introduction of the 1961 models later that year.
Despite its late introduction, the Monza sold almost 12,000 units in the last five months of the model year. In 1961, the Monza became the best-selling Corvair model by a margin of nearly two to one. The Monza line was expanded to include a four-door sedan in March 1961, followed in 1962 by a convertible and even a wagon. Thanks to the Monza, Corvair sales climbed from about 250,000 units in 1960 to almost 330,000 in both 1961 and 1962.
The Monza soon emerged as one of the most influential American cars of this era, revealing a healthy market for inexpensive, reasonably practical cars with a sporty flair. Aside from its direct imitators, which included the Falcon Futura, Lark Daytona, and Valiant Signet, the Monza’s success led to the emergence of the Ford Mustang, Plymouth Barracuda, and other “pony cars.” It also spawned a thriving aftermarket accessory business, offering everything from sport wheels to complete tuned cars like racing driver John Fitch’s Corvair Sprint.
In April 1962, the Corvair achieved a new distinction: it became the world’s first gasoline-powered, turbocharged production car, narrowly beating Oldsmobile’s turbocharged F-85 Jetfire.
The popularity of the Corvair’s uprated Super Turbo-Air engine suggested that there would be a market for something even hotter. Bob Benzinger, who had become the Corvair’s chief engine designer in 1959, was no doubt aware that aftermarket suppliers were selling at least three different supercharger kits for the Corvair, so he assigned engineers James Brafford and Robert Thoreson to develop a production version.
Packaging and cost considerations quickly led Brafford and Thoreson to abandon belt-driven mechanical superchargers in favor of turbocharging, which also imposed less of a fuel economy penalty. Although the Corvair engine and clutch had to be beefed up considerably to survive the higher temperatures and pressures of forced induction, the turbo installation was very simple. It used a small TRW turbocharger with a maximum of 10 psi (0.69 bars) of boost, breathing through a single side-draft Carter carburetor. A crossover tube fed the pressurized mixture into intake ports on both sides of the engine. The turbocharger had neither an intercooler nor a wastegate; detonation was controlled by a lower compression ratio and a revised ignition curve that retarded the spark timing at mid-range engine speeds.
The turbocharged Monza, dubbed Spyder, was rated at 150 gross horsepower (112 kW) and 210 lb-ft (284 N-m) of torque. A four-speed Monza Spyder was capable of reaching 60 mph (97 km/h) in 11 seconds or less and had a top speed of well over 100 mph (161 km/h), although extracting that performance in the real world could be frustrating. There was considerable turbo lag below 2,800 rpm, boost faded well short of the 5,300-rpm tachometer redline, and the four-speed’s ratios weren’t well matched to the turbo’s power curve. Nonetheless, the Spyder package made for a very sporty Corvair. In fact, its performance was similar to that of a Porsche 356 Super 90 at about half the price.
Even without the turbocharger, the Corvair was an attractively styled, reasonably priced car with sensible exterior dimensions and an appealing blend of performance and fuel economy. Like a classical Greek hero, however, those virtues would ultimately be overshadowed by a single tragic flaw.