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.

4 comments:

  1. Vairy nice article, David. The photographs are great, too!
    Some time and research obviously preceded the writing phase. I'm a long time Corvair enthusiast and owner, so it's enjoyable to read an accurate and well written account of the Corvairs history.
    I have to say that I think the paint on Costa's Corsa is Aztec Bronze instead of Madeira Maroon! It's a beauty regardless!
    Dan

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    1. Thanks for the comments. You may be right about the color. Checking the paint chip chart seems to show it is a closer match to the bronze color than the maroon one. However, the owner of the car has seen the story and did not note any inaccuracies.

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  2. Sometimes, when i read your articles, i wish i existed during the 1960's or better still time can be rewound. The 1966 Corvair Corsa Convertible is absolutely beautiful. Simple but extremely comfortable and amazing. Thanks for the article and photos David.

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  3. Wicked cool car. Completely under rated in style and engineering. I would love to see a contest where a nice convertible 66 Corvair was parked next to 10 2013 cars, and let a group of 16 year olds pick any car they wanted. I am pretty sure the Corvair would win that contest. Love your Corvair. It's a perfect example of a stock Corvair. How they were sold, and driven.

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