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Chevrolet Corvair 1960-64
What Might Have Been
At the close of the 1950's, American car buyers were faced with an
increasing number of compact car options. At the head of the pack was a
German built World War II veteran, the little Volkswagen Beetle.
For the 1960 model year the Big-Three automakers brought out their versions of economical transportation: the Plymouth Valiant, the Ford Falcon, and from Chevrolet, the unique Corvair. The first two were rather conventional, with unit body construction being their most "exotic" engineering. Both featured conventional water cooled in-line six-cylinder power up front driving the rear wheels mounted on a solid axle.
The Corvair was another matter entirely. Like the Volkswagen, it featured a rear-mounted air-cooled engine and four wheel independent suspension. Unlike the little car from West Germany, it had six cylinders. Like the basic Beetle platform, soon it would spawn a wide variety of body styles and trim series. At first, the Corvair was an austere four-door sedan that could be so cheaply appointed as to make a penny-pincher smile. Sales were slow at the start compared to Ford’s conventional Falcon (which set a 1st year sales record) but were ahead of the more flamboyant Exner-designed Valiant. As the model year progressed, Corvair added a two-door coupe with an upscale trim package called Monza 900.
Corvairs were powered by a horizontally opposed air-cooled six that was an engineering achievement equal in many ways to the small-block V-8 introduced in 1955. The man behind both engines was Chevy’s senior engineer, Ed Cole. It sported aluminum cylinder heads and crankcase with cast iron cylinders. In base form this engine displaced just under 140 cubic inches and was rated at 80 horsepower, just five under the Falcon’s 144ci in-line six. However, it wasn’t long before improvements were made.
Within a few months, the word spread about the handling and fun involved in owning a Corvair, and sales started to pick up leading into the second season. For the 1961 model year even more models were added. A four-door station wagon, a van, a unique rampside pickup and the family oriented Greenbrier Club Wagon. Flashier trim packages were available, too.
With the 1962 models, improvements were made in the handling department, which helped usher in two more models. Corvair convertibles were released for the first time, and to help the performance of these cars, a special Monza Spyder edition hit the streets. Through the use of Turbocharging, the flat-six was bumped to 145ci, and its horsepower output was advertised at an amazing 150 horses.
But not all was bright and sunny for the Corvair; the darkest of storms was brewing on the horizon. A self-appointed
Chevrolet tried to counter with claims of their own, offering proof that the Corvair was a stable and very road-worthy automobile. In well publicized tests where the press was invited to attend, GM attempted to roll over all models of the Corvair at normal driving speeds, but couldn’t duplicate the results that Nader claimed. Several independent organizations funded by insurance companies also tried to re-create Nader's claims, all to no avail.
But the damage was done. Sales for 1962 fell substantially, despite GM’s strong public relations blitz. 1963 saw declining sales and production totals continued to go down. As part of the goal of improving the overall performance of the car, changes were made in the suspension for 1964 models (see this excellent article at Corvair corsa), but that served to generate more criticism, i.e. GM had known about the Corvair’s problems and were only now fixing them. 1964 sales sagged again, falling for the first time below the 200,000 mark. Through it all, GM had tried countering, It increased trim levels, options, and performance (increased stroke brought the engine to 164ci and 95hp), but to no avail. In the end, GM had to count on the sleek new redesign it had ready for 1965.
The first generation Corvair withstood five seasons, which for the early 1960's was quite a long time. From the start, Corvair fans were dedicated to their car, and endured the taunts of the unwashed public that asked what it was like driving a glorified lawn-mower. But those that owned these little Chevy compacts usually had the last laugh when it came to performance, economy, and finding a place to park.
On the plus side for collectors, Chevrolet made a lot of Corvairs, and despite it’s technological uniqueness it trades at surprisingly low prices. Most popular among collectors are the convertibles, especially with the Turbo Spyder packages. Low mileage sedans and coupe have limited appeal, as do the limited production Lakewood station wagons. But as a novelty collector they’re tough to beat. Ditto for the pickups and vans.
Values of decent sedans and even coupes can often be found in the under $1,000 range (2015 update: $3,000), with prime examples rarely
CCTM projections are that the coupes and convertibles, and perhaps the sort of cool wagon, should keep pace with the overall collector car market. We don’t see the sedans moving much at all off their current levels. Corvairs have forever been touted as a sleeper in the market. After all, where else can you buy an advanced (for its day) spirited convertible with a turbocharged flat-six engine, four-wheel independent suspension, bucket seats, full instrumentation and a measure of exclusivity? It makes sense, but unfortunately doesn’t seem to pan out for the little Corvair. We don’t expect things to change, so don’t go adding one to your IRA portfolio.
STRONG CLUB SUPPORT
The show field at Corvair gatherings are filled with cars that owners have put far more money into than they can hope to get back. But that’s not the point of owning a Corvair. As a fellow collector of odd and unusual vehicles, this writer has found that Corvair owners are a little friendlier than others and an enthusiastic welcoming of new owners is the norm. There’s quite a camaraderie among owners. The premier Corvair club, Corvair Society of America (CORSA), can be reached at CORSA, P.O. Box 607 Lemont, IL 60438, PH: 630/403-5010. Or visit their website at www.corvair.org. It is an extensive and well run club and a must if you own or are looking to own a Corvair.
While not competition vehicles, intra-club and marque groups do have fun in performance trials, and many owners tweak the performance of their ‘Vairs with upgrades and bolt-ons. We know of several people who own over 100 Corvairs, yet have never restored any of them and in some cases do not even have a running example! In these collections are often rare and desired models or models outfitted with rare and/or special equipment.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Corvairs have a number of quirks. First, restoration materials are tougher to find than a contemporary Impala, though
With the unique engine arrangement, it takes time to learn all the techniques in keeping the Corvair running, especially with multi-carb and turbo setups. One big headache is doing simple tune-up maintenance on cars equipped with air conditioning, as the engine is virtually concealed under the working parts.
Unibody construction and rust do not mix, and Corvairs are not exempt from this problem. West coast and dry climates are just about a must here. Although with some high value cars you can make a case for starting from an example with rust problems, Corvairs are so cheap it's smarter to find a rust free platform and have it shipped to you. And you’re in luck if you don’t want to restore one – prices are cheap enough where you can purchase a nicely restored example for pennies on the dollar.
Mechanics can be a challenge, but a number of parts cars do exist in private individual’s collections, and this is where being a member of a collector organization is very important. Several companies are starting to produce soft trim replacements to bring cars to factory specifications, of which few originals survive.
These are interesting cars, and due to lower prices than many other collector vehicles, make very inviting entry-level vehicles for the novice collector.
Current Values: 1960 1961 1962 1963 1964 or Main Chevrolet Menu
P. Skinner and the editors at Collector Car Market Review
This profile first appeared in the September 2001 issue of Collector Car & Truck Market Guide. (C) Copyright 2001- VMR International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.