The 1969 Corvair Group

 

Why 1969 Corvairs?

What’s Different About 1969’s?

On The Production Line

The Last Day

The 1969 Corvair Group

Contacts

Links and Resources

Why 1969 Corvairs?
Other than minor mechanical changes and new exterior colors, the 1969 Corvairs are basically the same as all second generation Corvairs introduced for the 1965 model year. What makes ‘69s so appealing is a special fascination or charisma surrounding the cars. It was the very last year of Corvair production with only 6000 made, the last 3800 on a very unusual assembly schedule. Ralph Nader was still making noises about unsafe cars as that controversy continued to swirl around with government investigations and lawsuits on going. Automotive "experts" were waiting to be the first to announce the death of the car while car collectors couldn’t wait to get their hands on one of the last. Loyal Corvair owners were deciding whether to get one before they were all gone or just write the car off and get a Camaro or Nova which is what General Motors wanted them to do. The whole scenario was almost too surrealistic to be true.

The 1969 Corvairs were officially introduced on Thursday, September 26, 1968 and finally discontinued eight months later, on May 14, 1969. Unfortunately, Mr. Nader had a role in the 1969 story as well. His irrational criticism of the Corvair in 1965-66, although directed toward the 1960-63 models, was a factor in Corvair sales going into an immediate tailspin. GM’s blundered attempts to discredit Nader and their apology to him before the U.S. Congress also increased awareness of the car, adding to the public’s doubts and decreasing sales. 1965 Corvair sales of 237,066 dropped to 103,743 for the ’66 models and further down to 27,253 for the ‘67s. 1968 sales were a meager 15,399 and 1969 an insignificant 6000. Over 2.1 million 1969 Chevrolets were sold, making those Corvair sales trivial indeed. Chevy plants were cranking out 30,000 cars each week. Why was this car still in production at all ?

A prudent manufacturer might have discontinued the car after 1967, especially in light of the upcoming new federal safety and emission standards mandated for the 1968 models. The Corvair had become GM’s orphan, its market share taken away and handed over to other Chevy products - Chevy II, Nova, Camaro, Malibu, etc... By its own actions, GM had boxed out the Corvair and it just had nowhere to go.

In January, 1967 the Chevrolet public relations department had in fact privately prepared a statement announcing the end of Corvair production that Spring. It would have made sense to drop the car, but GM management decided to go ahead with the 1968 ( and 1969 ) Corvairs. Considering the long lead-time necessary to get new models ready, many of the parts were surely already in the pipeline. GM of course knew in advance how insignificant Corvair sales were going to be as they set the production limits. Those sales really didn’t justify any production, but GM made the conscious decision not to drop the car.

Chevrolet management was concerned with more positive matters - soaring Impala sales, heavy demand for the Nova models and the hot selling Camaro - and apparently had little time for the orphan Corvair. The General Manager at Chevrolet, Pete Estes, was a hands-on engineer and he really liked the Corvair, but his casual management style allowed the car to linger on longer than it really should have. A new Chevy General Manager took over on January 1, 1969 and he was happy to see it gone as soon as possible. That was John DeLorean, moved up from his successes at Pontiac and still years away from leaving General Motors to form his own car company.

The 6300 United States Chevrolet dealers indicated their indifference to the Corvair by doing what their customers told them. Chevy shoppers weren’t asking for Corvairs so dealers had no reason to order any for their showrooms or sales lots. Not wanting to pass up a buck, they would be happy to special order one if a customer insisted or couldn’t be steered toward another model. In some parts of the country the traditional Corvair values continued to sell the car. In the cold, snow climates of the Northeast and Midwest, rear engine traction and air cooling ( no antifreeze ) were important selling features. In other parts of the country, the unchangeable Corvair design was a formidable block to sales. In the wide open spaces out West and the high heat areas down South, the lack of high speed performance and air conditioning were sales killers.

Some dealers were simply afraid of the car and its legal battles and felt it was negative selling to try to defend it. It was soooo much easier to sell Novas or Camaros. The service department didn’t like to work on them ( though they always seemed to have a " Corvair man " back there ! ) and the Used Car Department sales guys hated them on the lot.

1300 1969 Corvairs were left unsold when the car was discontinued in May, necessitating a $ 150 rebate program. Not quite one quarter of the entire ’69 Corvair production run, it indicated how tough those Corvair sales had become. Chevy sold over two million ’69 models, but it had a difficult time clearing out a measly 6000 Corvairs.

What’s Different About 1969’s?
Not much ! Only some minor revisions

  • Amber front side marker lights with clear bulbs, just the reverse of the 1968 models
  • A new, extra large square head key for the ignition and door locks. A large oval head key was used for the trunk & glove compartment
  • Wider bucket seats on Monza models
  • Interior colors changed somewhat. Black continued, gold was dropped and replaced by medium green. The ’68 blue color was replaced by a darker blue for 1969
  • Clear window crank knobs were standard with all interior colors
  • A new 10" wide inside rear view mirror replaced the 8" width used on 1968 models
  • Redesigned clutch cable for manual transmission cars
  • Revised front brake wheel cylinder assemblies

Thirteen new exterior colors were introduced for the entire Chevrolet range, including the Corvair. A total of fifteen were available. Tuxedo Black and Butternut Yellow were carried over unchanged. Ermine White, used since 1960, became Dover White, a much brighter shade.

A new feature introduced by General Motors for its 1969 passenger cars did not appear on the Corvair - the steering column mounted ignition switch & lock. An anti-theft measure required by federal law starting January 1, 1970, it was further indication that the Corvair would soon be discontinued. All ’69 GM cars used the larger key which was necessary with the new switch design. The Corvair got the large key too, though it really didn’t need it.

Basic models - 500 Coupe, Monza Coupe & Monza Convertible continued with the same features introduced in 1965. Engine & transmission were also the same, with the addition (introduced for the ’68 models ) of an air injection pump setup to reduce engine exhaust emissions. Minor revisions to carburetors & distributors were also done for emission standards.

On The Production Line
Chevrolet’s Willow Run,
Michigan assembly plant was the sole production facility for all 1969 Corvairs. It was one of 24 General Motors assembly plants operating nationwide in 1969, including 17 building various models of Chevrolet division cars. The plant is in Ypsilanti, a small town of 25,000 in southeastern Michigan, just twenty-five miles west of downtown Detroit and now part of the Detroit to Ann Arbor metropolitan sprawl.

The vast majority of all 1960-1969 Corvairs were built at the Chevrolet and Fisher Body assembly facilities in Willow Run. In the sixties, Corvairs were also built in California (Oakland & Van Nuys), Kansas City, Missouri and in Canada at Oshawa, Ontario. Willow Run was always considered to be the "home" plant.

Exactly 6000 1969 Corvairs were assembled - 2,762 500 coupes, 2,717 Monza coupes and 521 Monza convertibles.

The Willow Run plant began building the Chevy II Nova for the 1962 model year running them on the same production line as the Corvair. As the Corvair’s production volume dropped each year after 1965, it became harder and harder to build it on the same line with Nova. By 1969, only three Corvairs per hour were coming down the line amid all the Novas and it became a serious problem to train new assembly workers on the Corvair intricacies. Add to that the basic layout differences of the two cars. The job that a worker did at a given station on a Nova may not have been the same job as needed on a Corvair. The Corvair required more work than the Nova before the powertrain and suspension were married to the body, and the Nova needed more work afterwards. This meant the Corvair was getting a free ride for a while on the line, a very inefficient arrangement.

Something had to give and the most logical choice was to get the Corvair off the main line. On October 28th, 1969 Corvair production stopped, resuming on November 15th in a special area in the northeast corner of the plant. This Corvair only assembly line was 400 feet long, manned by 43 of Willow Run’s very best workers, supervisors and utility men. Each man was specially chosen because he showed a personal interest in the project, and the Corvair.

There were five assembly stations on the line. Numbers one, three and five had hoists. Station one lowered the carrier cradle, picked up the body and returned the body truck to Fisher. Then, with the body raised, workers began installing gas & brake lines, linkages, heater, and so forth.

At station two the carrier stayed in the air and the body was prepared for marriage with the front & rear suspensions and engine-transaxle assembly. At station three, the carrier was lowered by hoist and electrical, wiring, steering column, dash and interior parts were installed. At station four, the carrier was raised up again where the engine and chassis components were brought from their own miniature line and raised up into the car from underneath. Gas tank, bumpers and tires were installed here as well. At station five, the car was lowered to the floor for fluids, headlamps, aiming, bezels, wipers, etc.

Most workers there felt they were privileged to work in the area, feeling it was the best place to work at Willow Run. And they all liked the Corvair. The line ran smoothly. Despite continual parts shortages, those who were there feel the best built 1969 Corvairs were those completed between November 15th and April 21st when all hell broke loose. Production during this period totaled about 2600 cars.

The original schedule for the Corvair room assembly was to build out through July, but orders for Novas had backed up and dealers were screaming for more. This could only be done if Corvair production was finished, adding that manpower to the Nova line. On April 21st, Corvair production was doubled to 51 cars a day, making the last day of production May 14th. The goals were met and the weekly rates did indeed double to over 300 Corvairs each week. In the first week of the new program, 318 were built, up from 145 the week before. It accelerated for two more weeks, hitting 341 and then 364 cars. The very last work week of Corvair production was only two and one half days long, but they still cranked out 141 Corvairs. How did they do it?

Three ways. The first was to put the entire Willow Run work force on a six day, overtime week, as union rules prevented the Corvair workers from being the only ones to get Saturday overtime. Second, the number of workers doubled. The third and most important change that allowed the rapid build out of ’69 Corvairs was the violation of GM’s steadfast rule against stockpiling cars. A car was never built unless there was a dealer order on hand, and cars were never built ahead of orders. Leave it to the Corvair to be the exception, and all those unsold Corvairs began to pile up outside the plant. They just couldn’t be sold as fast as the speeded up line was churning them out. The rush complicated an already critical parts shortage problem and many of these very last Corvairs were let go to dealers short of parts.

After the dust settled, 6000 Corvairs had indeed been built by May 14th - 2194 on the main line with the Novas and 3806 in the Corvair room. Of those 3806, 1164 were built during the last three and one half weeks. Novas total 1969 model year production was a whopping 283,000. In retrospect, it seems incredible that so much effort went into assembling such a small handful of Corvairs. It once again proved that the Corvair was always the exception rather than the norm.

The Last Day
When Chevy PR issued its press release announcing the end of the Corvair production on May 14th they were well prepared for the flood of calls from the media. The news was on the wire service tickers by
10:30 AM, signaling an explosion of newspaper reports, television & radio spots and magazine articles. Phone calls from reporters all over the country started coming in almost immediately to the Chevy PR staff. Their questions were numerous. They wanted to know the real reasons why, needed more information on the car’s history, and even appealed for statements about Mr. Nader. That would never happen from anybody at GM !

The Associated Press, United Press International, and local TV stations were requesting to photograph the last Corvair as it actually came off the assembly line that Wednesday. No plans had been made to have the press at Willow Run and even the ever-present GM Photographic Department wasn’t going to be there. All GM needed was smug, gleeful reports in the media that the Corvair was finally dead.

With all the requests to see the last Corvair being built, GM relented. A small ceremony would be allowed, which probably assured better treatment by the press than if they’d been shut out. The Corvair room was a high security area at Willow Run and very few outsiders had ever been in it. So it must have seemed strange when newsmen began arriving after lunch on Wednesday, May 14th. The line had been running all morning so the very last cars could be ready for them.

The tone of the day was very informal, with no speeches or statements by anyone from GM. It was a sad day for the assembly workers, foremen and their supervisors who had grown fond of the Corvair and their little team. It surely was no day of celebration for them. Instead, it was a funeral and they were the pallbearers.

The last Corvair, an Olympic Gold Monza Coupe (# 6000), was in its overhead carrier and was pushed closer to the waiting newsmen The car in front (# 5999) was lowered to the floor, on its wheels for the first time. After receiving its ration of gasoline, this Lemans Blue Monza coupe quickly became as famous as # 6000 itself. 5999 wouldn’t start. A loud backfire, and then silence. Some sentimental workers and reporters felt the Corvair was stubbornly holding up the line, refusing to die.

All the evidence points to a "service" or replacement engine, one that would normally be ordered for customers’ cars. Due to the extreme shortage of parts at Willow Run for the last Corvairs, a service 140 was probably ordered. This was then installed in # 5999 as its original engine. Engines shipped directly to Willow Run from the Tonawanda, New York engine plant have the distributors installed; service engines are delivered without distributors. Engine line workers, unfamiliar with distributor installation and in a hurry, must have put it in 180 degrees off. BANG !

With # 5999 now pushed out of the way, at 1:30 PM #6000 was easily started and driven a few feet ahead where the Olympic Gold Monza coupe stopped for photographs by the press. At 2:00 PM, # 6000 was driven out of the building, followed by the newsmen, and down a ramp onto the loading dock area. Nearby was a long string of tri-level railroad cars filled mostly with Novas and a few Corvairs. More photos were taken here by the press and plant personnel. And that was that, the Corvair production decade was over.

The above information is reprinted from 1969 Corvair Finger Tip Facts by Mark Ellis and Dave Newell, available exclusively from Clark’s Corvair Parts, Shelburne Falls, MA 01370. All rights reserved. No parts of this publication may be reproduced without the prior written consent of the authors and publisher.

The 1969 Corvair Group
For those interested in 1969 Corvairs, a special interest chapter of the Corvair Society of America (CORSA) was formed in the summer of 2002. The Group publishes a quarterly newsletter, The Sixty-Niner, an annual vehicle roster and meets yearly at the CORSA National Convention each summer. Currently, the group lists specifications on more than 1000 ‘69s.

The 1969 Corvair Registry
Since specifications on individual Corvairs are not available from Chevrolet, the Group’s founders focused on obtaining information on additional 1969 vehicles. This mission lives on and the Registry continues to grow as more ‘69s and their detailed specs are discovered and recorded.

 

CONTACTS

 

The 1969 Corvair Group

916 Winding Lane

Wallingford, PA 19063

 

President - Steve Brown 1969@sashimi.org

 

Vice President – Craig Griffin griffincj@aol.com

 

Secretary – Dave Leonard dave@arborlea.com

 

Treasurer – John Wingle jcwingle@comcast.net

 

Newsletter Editor – Jim Bartasevich corvair@frontiernet.net

 

 

The 1969 Corvair Registry

c/o Eve Ellis
P.O. Box 91121
Raleigh, NC 27675

corvair69@earthlink.net

 

Links and Resources

Discussion Group - The 1969 Corvair Discussion Group is an email list based forum. This forum also serves as the primary means of communication for 1969 Corvair Group announcements. To subscribe or view the archives, visit http://www.vv.corvair.org/mailman/listinfo/1969

Vehicle Roster
– A roster listing the VIN and Body Tag information of all known 1969 Corvairs is a focal point of The 1969 Corvair Group. The roster now lists more than 1,200 vehicles and is available exclusively to group members. To find out more about the vehicle roster, contact the group Secretary.

Member Roster – A roster listing contact information for all 1969 Group members is available exclusively to group members. To find out more about the member roster, contact the group Secretary.

CORSA – The 1969 Corvair Group is a special interest group (SIG) within CORSA, The Corvair Society of America. CORSA is an international organization with 126 chapters and special interest groups worldwide. Founded in 1969, it is one of the best single marque clubs in the world. To learn more, visit http://www.corvair.org/csaindex.php

The 1969 Corvair Group on Facebook - The 1969 Corvair Group on Facebook was created as a place for members to chat and share photos of their 1969 Corvairs. The 1969 Corvair Group on Facebook has more 1969 Corvair photos than any other website. Visit us at  http://www.facebook.com/groups/the69group/

Dues - Membership renewals are due annually in January for all members. Dues are $5 and may be paid via paypal to vairguy64@yahoo.com .  To pay by mail, contact the group Treasurer.


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