Tuesday, May 31, 2011

1966 Corvair Corsa Convertible

Chevrolet’s Exciting and Maligned Compact
TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID W. TEMPLE
This Madeira Maroon 1966 Corvair Corsa convertible is owned by Costa Kouzounis of Houston, Texas. His is one of just 3,142 built for the model year.
Clearly, one of the most distinctive automobiles of the 1960s is the Chevrolet Corvair, a compact model with four-wheel independent suspension and powered by a rear-mounted, horizontally opposed, air-cooled six cylinder engine. The name Corvair was a contraction of Bel Air and Corvette and it was first applied to a Corvette-based show car for the 1954 GM Motorama. That model never went into production, but the name returned about a half-decade later for what Chevrolet advertised with the simple themes “for economical transportation” and “a most unusual car for people who enjoy the unusual.”
The fuel filler is in front. Model identification appears on the fenders.
The name (which incidentally was chosen by Ed Cole, who guided the early development of the air-cooled, rear-engine car) was appropriate because the Corvair in some forms could be a competent performer and even appeared in some print advertising with a Corvette. It could be sporty and comfortable and offered seating for five or six (depending upon the presence of bucket seat or a bench seat) as did a full-sized Chevrolet. Furthermore, Chevy’s Corvair had excellent weight distribution, independent suspension, good traction in almost any situation, and a relatively quiet ride. It did tend to behave like any other rear-engine car with swing-axles when pushed too hard in a corner – it oversteered. For the ’64 model year, transverse springs (called camber compensators) were introduced to lessen this problem until a new suspension system replaced it the following model year.
This emblem is mounted on the front fenders.
This very affordable car (around $2,000 in 1960) represented Chevrolet’s response to the growing compact car market. Until the advent of the compact car, automakers with few exceptions offered one basic body design to serve for every model from the top-of-the-line to the bottom of the hierarchy. Foreign compact cars were beginning to find a market niche in the United States as the 1950s came to a close, however. Furthermore, Studebaker was getting a revival in sales thanks to its compact model dubbed Lark. Obviously, the major automakers needed to get a compact model on the market, thus the Big Three fielded compacts for 1960. However, work on the Corvair project actually began before a market clearly existed for an American compact car. More will be said on that point momentarily.
In its original form, the Corvair was a very basic car; luxury features were few. It was simply a car for those who could not afford an Impala, Bel Air, or Biscayne. It then became the basis for an American version of a European GT type of car, the Monza Spyder which was followed by the Corsa in ’65 and ’66 with its new Corvette-based suspension and standard 140hp engine. Transmission choices included the standard three-speed manual (seldom chosen), a four-speed manual (popular), and an automatic (except for high-output engines). Powering the first Corvairs in standard form was an 80hp engine; a 95hp version was optional for just $27 extra. Performance, obviously, was not the car’s strong point; 0-60mph required over 20 seconds. By 1964, output of the standard engine was 95hp with a 110hp version being optional; both improved performance noticeably. A 150hp turbo-charged six, however, was standard in the Monza Spyder model introduced two years earlier. For 1965 and 1966, a 180hp version was an option.
The Corsa came standard with the 140 horsepower engine (as shown) coupled to a manual shift (either three- or four-speed) or with the optional 180 turbo-charged engine with a manual transmission. Chevy’s Powerglide automatic was not offered for this model.
The platform of the Corvair even allowed for a van, called Greenbrier, to be built on it. Briefly, a station wagon version, the Lakewood (1961) and the Monza (1962), was produced, too.
Chevrolet’s chief engineer, Ed Cole, was one of the early researchers and supporters of the air-cooled engine project that came to fruition in the Corvair. Certainly he had the support of Harley Earl, the man in charge of GM Styling. Earl was always interested in new ideas and not just in terms of styling, but in mechanical systems, also. Involved in the project  with Cole were Harry Barr, Kai Hansen, Ned Nichols, Maurice Olley, Ellis Premo, and Carl Renner. Each had substantial experience in either styling or engineering. For instance, Barr, along with Cole, headed the development of Cadillac’s overhead valve V-8 which debuted for ’49. He moved up to chief engineer for Chevy in mid-1956 when Ed was promoted to division general manager. As touched upon earlier, the concept of a passenger car with an air-cooled engine began to take form around 1953 – well before foreign compact cars started to make a dent in the sales of American auto makers. Cole began investigating the idea of GM producing an air-cooled engine as early 1946 or 1947 when he was involved in the study of just such an engine for Cadillac. The conclusion reached from the project revealed the concept feasible, but not for a car as large as a Cadillac. This was followed in 1950 by a government contract to develop a facility to produce a light tank, the M-42, which was powered by a horizontally opposed, air-cooled engine with a supercharger. As a result, GM’s engineers got the chance to become more knowledgeable about this type of engine. Two years later, Cole moved over to Chevy as their chief engineer. Barr and Hansen joined him there. A few months later the group began serious consideration of a compact car powered by an air-cooled engine. As explained by Ed Cole in Karl Ludvigsen’s book, Corvair by Chevrolet, to them, this engine was essential to a successful lightweight car and they could see benefits from the improved technology which would be derived from the project.
The featured Corsa is equipped with the fawn colored interior, sports-styled steering wheel, bucket seats, and four-speed manual transmission with floor shifter.
Eventually, prototype hardware was completed and tested. Since Volkswagen and Porsche had successful rear-mounted, air-cooled engines they were thoroughly studied. In fact, a prototype Corvair engine was installed and tested in a Porsche 356. Two Corvair test cars with fake front grilles were tested as well. The script on these cars said Holden Special. (Holden was a foreign unit of GM.) Misdirection like this helped keep the project a secret until the time was right to reveal it.
Styling for the Corvair seems to have been influenced at least indirectly by that of another GM Motorama show car, the 1955 Chevrolet Biscayne. The 1961 Corvette appears to have inherited some of the Biscayne’s styling traits and the Corvair probably followed the look of the Vette, though mainly in the rear end styling. The Corvair project was one of the last in which Harley Earl was involved before he retired from General Motors at the end of 1958 at which point Bill Mitchell took over Earl’s position and he presided over the program until it was ready to go to Fisher Body.
Between model years 1960 and 1969, Chevrolet built over 1.6 million Corvairs but sales began to dwindle drastically after the 1965 model year. A book titled, Unsafe at Any Speed, written by consumer-advocate lawyer, Ralph Nader, in 1965 which was highly critical of this model (and others) did not help. Some within GM wanted to drop the Corvair because the economical Chevy II was doing well, Nader’s book put GM on the defensive, and there was more demand for increased performance by enthusiasts from the Corvair. Accomplishing the latter required so many modifications to the power train that it would not be cost effective to do so. The Corvair represented, to some degree, internal competition to the Chevy II and later the Camaro which debuted for the 1967 model year – cars which were less costly to produce. This problem resolved itself. Sales of the Corvair dropped by half from over 235,000 for the ’65 model year to under 104,000 the next. Ford’s inexpensive Mustang emerged months prior to the release of the redesigned ’65 Corvairs and was galloping away with sales to the point demand was exceeding production capacity; this represented another nail in Corvair’s coffin. Over the last three model years of production of the Corvair, sales fell to just over 27,250 units, then to 15,400 units for ‘68, and finally during the 1969 model year, those who wanted the Corvair discontinued got their way after a mere 6,000 copies were built. The Corvair began as a sensation – even earning Motor Trend magazine’s coveted Car of the Year award for 1960. But, in less than a decade it was no longer viable for the company which designed and built it. Seemingly, nothing could save the Corvair though ideas for a third generation design were on the drawing board prior to the termination of the model. More than one automotive publication tried to correct the record about the Corvair, but the damage done by bad publicity had taken root in the public’s collective mind. The September 1966 issue of Motorcade explained, “There are countless thousands of motorists who would enjoy owning and driving the Corvair Corsa – if they hadn’t been enticed away by the Mustang, or frightened away by the misunderstood pronouncements of so-called ‘safety experts’… It performs well, handles better than many highly-touted sports cars… From 1960 through 1963, the Corvair was built with swing axles at the rear, shafts that were U-jointed to the final drive assembly but were attached directly to the wheels they operated. Such a layout permitted the wheels to vary considerably in their angles, or camber, on the road surface. This, in turn, affected the slip angles of the tires, the prime factor in a car’s directional stability, and allowed the vehicle to oversteer... These characteristics were hardly unique to the Corvair. Several European cars – the Volkswagen and Renault Dauphine, for examples, and the earlier Porsche – have had swing axles and consequent oversteering tendencies. In fact, drivers who came to the Corvair from such imports felt right at home… Anyone with reasonable driving ability found the car’s behavior within predictable and controllable limits. Unfortunately, others with less experience and competence began getting into trouble… when they became involved in accidents, they wouldn’t take the blame… Last year, these malcontents found an articulate and persuasive champion, a young lawyer named Ralph Nader who published a book called Unsafe at Any Speed. In it, Nader denounces the original Corvair’s oversteering tendencies and suggests that drivers don’t have any obligation to understand the behavior of their cars… In 1965, the car was completely redesigned. The rear suspension became fully independent and articulated… The angles of the rear wheels could remain constant and, as a result, the slip angles of the rear tires provided more stable control. Oversteering tendencies were, for all practical purposes, eliminated… Nader concedes that the 1965 Corvair had excellent handling qualities. Unfortunately, the distinction seems to have been lost on the public.”
The Corvair has maintained a loyal following literally since its production ceased. In 1969, the Corvair Society of America (CORSA) was formed and remains in existence to this day. One of the club’s members, Costa Kouzounis of Houston, owns the pictured example shown here. He bought the car from the estate of Travis Jackson in Hempstead, Texas in 2004. Travis was a 20+ year member of the Corvair Houston chapter of CORSA and also served as their president for a while. He is believed to have purchased the feature car in the early 1970's from the original owner in Houston. When Costa bought the Corvair it was a complete unrestored car except for the replacement of one cylinder head and exhaust manifold. The previous owner bought the car to drive in area auto-cross races and chose a convertible body style because of the stiffness convertibles have due to extra bracing at the rocker panels. It also had quick ratio steering with quick ratio control arms.
Clearly, one of the most distinctive automobiles of the 1960s is the Chevrolet’s Corvair, a compact model with four-wheel independent suspension and powered by a rear-mounted, horizontally opposed, air-cooled six cylinder engine.
Our feature car was built at the Willow Run assembly plant and is one of 3,142 Corsa convertibles built for the 1966 model year. The Corsa came only with manually shifted transmissions coupled either to the standard issue 140hp version or the turbo-charged 180hp variant. Other options on this car other than the quick ratio steering box and arms include the simulated wood steering wheel, power convertible top, two-speed windshield wipers, four-speed transmission, 3:55:1 gear ratio, and the gauge package. When Costa bought this Corvair Corsa, it was a drivable and still unrestored car with minor surface rust and had an exceptionally good body which apparently had required only minor rear panel body work in the past.
Today, this 1966 Corvair Corsa convertible is an award winner that captures attention wherever it appears and serves as reminder of the potential power of the written word – whether right or wrong.

The author thanks the staff of the Houston Zoo for allowing me to photograph the featured Corvair at their scenic west gate entrance.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

1965 Oldsmobile Cutlass

Action Leader of the Low-Price Field
Text and Photography by David W. Temple

This Cutlass, painted Provincial White, was owned by Bob Lorenz, Sr. of Longview, Texas at the time it was photographed. The car is equipped with the 260hp 330 V-8, automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes, air conditioning, radio, console, wire wheel covers, light package, and tachometer.
Oldsmobile’s first use of the Cutlass label occurred when they applied it to a sporty two-seater Motorama show car in 1954; inspiration for the monogram came from a Navy fighter plane of the day. In 1962, the designation was used again on a six-passenger compact coupe and convertible in the F-85 series which itself had debuted the previous year in response to the growing foreign import compact car market. Standard equipment for the new Cutlass included the 185hp“Rockette” aluminum block V-8 which represented the second most potent engine available in the F-85 series. The top-of-the-line in the F-85 series, the Jetfire, had an exclusive turbocharged version generating 215hp. Olds’ larger displacement 394 was reserved for their full-size cars. Also offered for the F-85 Standard and Deluxe models was an overhead valve, cast-iron V-6 displacing 225 cubic inches. After the 1963 model year the aluminum V-8 (as well as the turbo) was replaced by a more conventional cast iron small block, but the V-6 remained in use through 1966.
A 250hp 330 V-8 was standard in the Cutlass, but this one is powered by the optional 260hp version.
Not only did Oldsmobile replace their aluminum engine they also trotted out a new body design for their F-85 series. No longer was it a compact. Instead, management opted for an intermediate size body in response to Ford Motor Company’s great success selling their intermediate 1962 and 1963 Fairlane series. Base prices for the F-85 lineup in ’65 ranged from a low of $2,344 (two-door Standard Club Coupe with V-6) to $2,983 (Cutlass convertible) making them very competitive within the price range of the Fairlane 500.
Bucket seats were standard issue on the V-6 powered F-85 Deluxe Sports Coupe and the F-85 Cutlass. Vinyl upholstery was also standard for these models.
Competition of another matter was on the minds of auto manufacturers during this time – professional racing. During the late ‘40s and ‘50s, racing became a popular sport and auto manufacturers backed racecar drivers because winning was good advertising. In mid-1957, however, the Automobile Manufacturers Association passed a ban on factory-backed racing activities. The move was intended to alleviate the undesirable attention of politicians in the federal government who were beginning to blame the way cars were made and advertised for the rising highway death toll. Many manufactures simply ignored the ban and hid their support. The Pontiac Division remained especially active in racing. Some GM executives did not like what was happening. Early in the ’63 model year, the edicts of no more clandestine support for racing and of placing smaller engines in small cars and larger engines in full-size cars became the official policy at General Motors. Specifically, no engine displacing more than 330 cubic inches was to be installed in the intermediate cars and that was exactly the displacement of the new Olds small block V-8. That presented a problem for those in charge at Pontiac. In order to maintain their racing image with the younger buyers, someone had to determine a way to get around the corporate policy. Pontiac ad executive Jim Wangers and Pontiac engineer John DeLorean did just that by creating the GTO option package for the intermediate-sized Tempest which included among other things a 389 V-8 – the same displacement engine reserved for the full-sized cars like the Bonneville. Corporate policy was not violated because the GTO was not a cataloged model – a nice loophole then and a nice one for musclecar enthusiasts today! The success of the arrangement kept the fuddy-duddy executives from being too unhappy over the sly maneuver. Olds was then free to offer an option package they dubbed 4-4-2 for their intermediate F-85 lineup; the name meant four-barrel carburetor, four-speed manual transmission, and dual exhausts. Even the four-door models could get the option though only ten were ordered with it. The 4-4-2 became available late in the 1964 model year as a “police pursuit” package (option code B-09) consisting of a high-output engine and a heavy-duty suspension. Though smaller in displacement than the Pontiac 389, the 4-4-2’s engine was certainly no lightweight. The 330 that came with the option provided a 310 horsepower punch and 0-60mph acceleration in just 7.5 seconds. Its basic design would be used for the later 425 and continue in 350 and 403 cubic-inch displacements into the ‘80s.
Styling and mechanical revisions naturally emerged for the 1965 model year. Minor styling updates for the F-85 series included a modified grille and a 4-4-2 exclusive simulated air scoop ahead of the rear wheels. Furthermore, Olds limited the 4-4-2 option to the F-85 two-door V-8 models composed of the Standard, Deluxe, and of course, the Cutlass versions. The exciting 4-4-2 package of course received the spotlight in the motoring press thanks in part to a new 400cid rated at 345hp. (The new engine, incidentally, now meant 4-4-2 stood for 400 cubic inches, four-barrel carb, and dual exhausts.) However, for those wanting a sporty and luxurious car, but did not care to indulge in stop light-to-stop light grand prixs there was an alternative – the Cutlass powered with a more tame 330 rated at 250hp. Its mild performance came via a single two-barrel carburetor and 9.0:1 compression. Also, in between the base 330 V-8 and the 4-4-2’s 345hp engine was an optional 260hp 330 with a Rochester Quadrajet and 10.25:1 compression.
Wire wheel covers with the two-bar spinner were added by the owner during the partial restoration of the Cutlass. They definitely add some spiffiness to the appearance of the car.
Any two-door F-85 Cutlass with the right optional equipment was visually as sporty as the 4-4-2; only the enthusiast and the Olds dealer would notice the difference which was limited to the 4-4-2 badges mounted on the grille, fenders, tail light panel, and dash as well as the fake air scoop ahead of the rear wheels and a console between the bucket seats. However, bucket seats were standard on the Cutlass and a console with or without a tachometer could be specified for extra dollars. Options offered on the more powerful and more expensive 4-4-2 equipped Cutlass such as wire wheel covers with a two-bar spinner and a four-speed manual transmission were also available on cars without the 4-4-2 package. Such was why Olds advertised the F-85 as the “Action Leader of the Low-Price Field.” Of the 85,207 Oldsmobiles wearing the Cutlass name for the 1965 model year, 46,138 were two-door hardtops like the one shown here; barely over 25,000 F-85s were equipped with the 4-4-2 package.
The tilt steering wheel, console and tachometer on our featured F-85 Cutlass Holiday Hardtop were extra cost items.
The optional 6,000rpm tachometer is console mounted.
An AM radio is one of several options on this 1965 Cutlass.
Standard equipment for the Cutlass other than the 250hp 330 V-8 was comprised of a three-speed manual-shift transmission, deluxe steering wheel, padded dash, carpeting, heater/defroster, front seat belts, bucket seats, vinyl upholstery, and 7.35x14 tires. Extra-cost options and accessories included air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, power steering, power windows, radio, power antenna, automatic transmission, cruise control, and a positive traction rear end.
The 1965 Olds F-85 Cutlass Holiday Hardtop shown on these pages was owned by Bob Lorenz, Sr. of Longview, Texas at the time it was photographed. It has changed ownership at least twice since then. Bob first spotted the Cutlass while driving from Longview to Shreveport, Louisiana. While nearing Shreveport along I-20 he noticed the car sitting in a garage at a house along the access road. Coincidentally, two weeks later an attorney settling an estate called Bob at his auto restoration shop, R&R Restoration. The attorney was seeking an approximate valuation and a lead on a potential buyer for a 1965 Cutlass. In little time, Bob realized the attorney was asking about the very car he saw near the Texas-Louisiana border! He then proceeded to arrange for an appointment to inspect the Cutlass. Bob learned it had come from a private collection in Gonzales, Texas in the 1980s and had just recently been nicely repainted in its original shade of Provincial White. The black vinyl interior needed little to return it to factory fresh. Additionally, the Olds was well equipped in having the 260hp 330 V-8, automatic transmission, air conditioning, remote control outside rear view mirror, tilt steering wheel, power brakes, power steering, radio, console, and 6,000rpm tachometer. A deal was soon made which transferred ownership to Bob.
During a span of roughly one year, Bob and his son Bobby, color sanded and buffed the paint, buffed the stainless trim, detailed the engine compartment, dyed the headliner, and replaced the carpeting, package shelf, and arm rest bases. In addition, the drivetrain got new seals and the undercarriage was cleaned. 
Though over 46,000 Cutlass two-door hardtops were built for ’65, few like this one exist today. Those that did survive over the decades have often served as parts cars for the more collectible and rare 4-4-2 equipped examples or have become 4-4-2 clones. The allure of the 4-4-2 is clearly understandable, but the opportunity to present this car to the reader was viewed by us as a chance to show something much more typical of the ‘60s. Valuations of musclecars today tend to obscure the fact that the majority of buyers of the era simply could not afford the higher price of such models and the insurance premiums that went with them or simply were not interested in drag racing from stop light to stop light. Some just wanted a good looking, sporty, comfortable car such as the Cutlass to get them from point A to point B.