Chevy Corvair 1960-1964
Article by Mark Trotta
America had been going through an economic recession in the late 1950s. As an answer to the growing interest in smaller cars, Chevrolet introduced the Corvair for the 1960 model year. It would compete head-to-head with the Rambler American, Ford Falcon, and Chrysler's new Valiant. However, unlike it's competitors, the Corvair sported a rear-mounted, air-cooled, six-cylinder alloy motor.
History of the Chevy Corvair starts in the early fifties, as a fastback show car in 1954. Design for the production car began in 1956 and was spearheaded by Ed Cole, Chevrolet's chief engineer at the time. Wheelbase was set at 108", with an overall length of 180". Vehicle weight was 2,300 pounds. The first models rolled off the assembly line in late 1959.
The Corvair was powered by a unique air-cooled engine. It was referred to as a "flat-six" as the two banks of three cylinders were horizontally opposed. The engine was mounted in the rear of the car, like Volkswagen Beetles and Porsches. In order to use an existing transmission from other Chevy passenger cars, engine rotation was reversed.
Air-cooled engines do not have water pumps, thermostats, hoses, or a radiator. Water-cooled engines can have trouble with air pockets in the cooling system as well as leaks. The dry weight of an air-cooled engine is lighter than a comparable water-cooled engine.
Less powerful than other cars in its class, the Corvair's engine generated 80 to 95 horsepower, which was sufficient for the weight of the car. All Corvair engines had forged cranks and connecting rods, torsional vibration dampeners, hydraulic lifters and oil coolers, and had aluminum heads and engine cases. All of these components made for a very durable motor.
With the engine in the rear, the interior floor was flat, offering more room for passengers. The front trunk housed the spare tire. All Corvair models had all-wheel independent suspension, GM's first. Unibody construction with welded front fenders was another first for GM.
Arriving in the fall of 1959 was the four-door sedan in the 500 series and the higher trim level 700 series. A floor shift (unsynchronized) three-speed manual transmission was standard, with a two-speed Powerglide automatic optional. Two-door 500 and 700 coupes followed in January 1960, with fold-down rear seating adding storage capacity. The Monza 900 coupe with 4-speed on the floor debuted several months later.
Despite the relatively expensive and unique power train, the car sold for around $1,500 for a base model 500. Total production for first-year Corvairs was 250,007 units. The Chevy Corvair was awarded Motor Trend magazine's Car of the Year for 1960.
The passenger compartment was heated by a gasoline-powered heater, which was mounted in the front trunk. While it offered immediate hot air, customers complained of decreased gas mileage on cold days and long winters.
Corvair gas mileage could be as high at 26 mpg, but when the gas heater was fired up, it often dropped to under 10 mpg. Chevrolet redesigned the heating system for the 1961 model year, but left it up to customers to choose the gas heater until the end of the 1964 model year.
Second-year Corvair's were offered in eight body styles. Along with your choice of the 80-horsepower or 98-horsepower engine, you could have a three-speed or four-speed manual transmission, or a two-speed Powerglide automatic.
Corvair Station Wagon
Joining the coupe and sedan for 1961 was the Corvair Lakewood wagon. Offered in the either the entry-level 500 series or the upscale 700 series, engine and transmission choices were the same as other models.
Total production for the model year was 329,632. The sporty Monza coupe was the best-selling model.
In an effort to increase engine power and enhance its sporty image, Chevrolet offered a turbocharged engine starting in 1962. Differences from other Corvair engines included lower compression heads, more durable valves and guides, and chrome engine accents.
Second And Last Year Of Wagon
The Lakewood name was dropped, and the 500 series was replaced with the Monza wagon. Built only for the model years 1961-1962, production total for all Corvair wagons was 33,271 units.
The top-of-the-line Monza coupe, (900 series) included a 120 speedometer and tachometer, offered with a three-barrel carbureted motor, or the optional turbocharger producing 150 horsepower. The entry-level 500 was discontinued. A new convertible model was offered, and the slow-selling station wagon models were dropped.
Advertised as "America's budget sports car, total Corvair production for 1962 was 328,500.
There were minor changes in trim and interior but for the most part the car was identical to the 1962. The station wagon was discontinued. Total production was 281,539.
Tire Pressure Critical
The 1960-63 Corvair's had a swing-axle independent rear suspension, where the Falcon, Valiant, and American had conventional, solid-axle rear suspensions. Some Corvair owners encountered oversteer (tail-wag) when they drove the car too hard and had incorrect tire pressures, which were specified to be lower up front, higher in the rear where most of the car's weight was concentrated.
The Corvair relied on an unusually high front to rear pressure differential (15psi front, 26psi rear when cold, 18 psi and 30psi when hot). If the tires were inflated equally, as was standard practice for all other cars at the time, the result was a dangerous oversteer. Gas station attendants, who routinely filled what they considered under-inflated tires in the 1960s, put the same pressure in all Corvair tires, which adversely affected handling.
Earlier handling problems were solved with a redesigned rear suspension. A single, transverse leaf rear spring was added, attached at the left rear lower suspension, right rear lower suspension, and the bottom of the differential in the middle.
Engines received an increased displacement from 145ci to 164ci. Horsepower was increased as well, with three options; 95 horsepower, 110 horsepower, and turbocharged 150 horsepower.
The model lineup was now down to three body styles; coupe, sedan, and convertible, with the Monza Spyder becoming an actual model instead of an option. Total 1964 Corvair production was 207,114 units.
Read: Corvair History 1965-69
Read: Who Killed The Corvair?