The following is largely my understanding of how the Chevrolet Corvair came into existence. There are larger more scholarly works documenting the history of the little car. This is the story as I understand it.
In post World War II America it was pretty unlikely that many American drivers would be purchasing foreign vehicles in the foreseeable future. American pride was at an all time high. The might of the Detroit manufacturing machines had provided our armed forces with the military advantage necessary to win the war. And finally, they desperately needed Americans to buy their cars in order to get back on track.
What they didn’t count on was the Post-War Recession. Money was tight and as the German-made VW Beetle began to creep into the country, along with the Italian Fiat, and the French Renault, not to mention a host of cars from England, including the Morris Minor, Jaguar and Austin Mini. It was just a matter of time before Americans would embrace some of these smaller, more fuel friendly automobiles. I clearly remember that day in 1961 or 62 when our neighbor brought home an early VW Beetle. I was too young at the time to notice or remember what model year it was, but we were fascinated by this curious little car with the engine in the rear.
By the late 50’s, the big three, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler had all decided that in order to compete, they would need to enter into the “economical” car chase. Of course, these would still be cars made for Americans and would need to be a bit larger than the Fiats, Minis and Beetles. All three embarked on a quest to find a car to fill the niche. Ford introduced the Falcon. Chrysler Corporation introduced the Plymouth Valiant joined later by the Dodge Dart. Both of these offerings were essentially scaled down versions of larger cars that were already in production. Look at an early Falcon alongside a full size Fairlane and you will see a lot of similarities.
At the time, Ed Cole was chief engineer at Chevrolet. Earlier, while working at Cadillac, he and a team of engineers had experimented with an air-cooled engine similar to those used in WWII aircraft. Cadillac didn’t appear too interested. Now that Mr. Cole had a little more weight to exert, it appeared the timing was right to re-introduce the idea. The car he had in mind would target the VW Beetle. It would employ an air-cooled engine similar to the VW Beetle and a self contained rear mounted transmission and differential, known as a trans-axle. But in typical US fashion, it would be “bigger and better.” It was definitely bigger with the original 1960 model being introduced as a six passenger vehicle. Well, to be honest, it had space for six, but they really had to like each other. Whether or not it was any better, that debate continues to this day.
The Corvair did have certain things going for it that the Beetle did not. It could be purchased with an automatic transmission, something the Beetle wouldn’t get until the late 60’s. All Corvairs ever built employed 6 cylinder engines. The least powerful was rated at 80 HP, over twice what the Beetle touted at the time. The original models were 4-doors allowing easier access to the back seat. It did have a bit more luggage space than the Beetle, but not as much as its American competition. Very quickly, while still in its first full year of production, the car was upgraded from an “econobox” to a sporty compact with the introduction of the Monza line. Late in the production year Chevrolet was already working on a 4-speed transmission to enhance the sportiness of the car. The 61 model year saw the introduction of the ‘95’ series which included the Rampside Pickup, The Greenbrier Sport Van and the Corvan utility vehicle. It was also the year the Corvair powered station wagon arrived. 1962 would be the first year for the convertible models. In 1962, the turbo powered Corvair was introduced to the public. Originally it was the Spyder option but by 1964 it was a stand-alone model. Air conditioning was available as early as 1962.
The car was never the marketing success that Chevrolet hoped for, although it did sell well through the 1965 model year which was also the first year of the totally redesigned Corvair. Gone were the station wagons having already been supplanted by the Chevy II wagons. Gone were the Rampside pickups, replaced by the C-10 pickups and the vans would make one more run in 1965 before Chevrolet replaced them with their new van in 1966. From 1966 until 1969, the Corvair would be offered only in 2-door and 4-door trim along with a convertible model. In 1968, the 4-door model was discontinued and finally in May of 1969 after producing only 6000 vehicles, for that model year, the Corvair run officially came to an end.
As noted from the beginning, the preceding is largely my understanding and recollection of the Corvair History. To be sure LARGE chunks have been left out or glossed over. There are several books available that are devoted to the Corvair. A couple of good ones are The Corvair Decade by Tony Fiore and Corvair Basics by Bob Helt, both available through the CORSA website. www.corvair.org