Until the 1950s, most American auto manufacturers made one size of car: large. Imports from Europe such as Volkswagen, Renault, and Fiat showed that there was a market in the U.S. for smaller cars, mostly as a second car or an alternative for the budget-minded. In 1959-1960, all the major makers planned to introduce a "compact" brand.
Most of these designs were scaled-down versions of the conventional American car, using four- or six-cylinder engines instead of V-8s with bodies about 20% smaller than standard cars. An exception to this was the Chevrolet Corvair. Led by General Manager Edward N. Cole, Chevrolet designed a revolutionary new car. It was powered by an air-cooled horizontal six-cylinder engine made almost entirely out of aluminum. The engine was mounted in the rear of the car, driving the rear wheels through a compact automatic transaxle. Suspension was independent at all four wheels. There was no conventional frame, it was the first Unibody built by Fisher Body. The tires were an entirely new wide low-profile design. The styling was unconventional for Detroit, subtle and elegant, with no tailfins or chrome grille. Its engineering earned a flurry of patents, its styling was copied by many European makers, Time magazine put it on the cover, and Motor Trend named it the Car of the Year for 1960.
Despite its critical acclaim, the Corvair did not dominate the marketplace. It was expensive to produce because of its unusual design, and it was not as economical to operate as its competitors. These were major weaknesses for an economy car. It was designed first as a sedan and a coupe, with modest engine power and a Spartan level of trim. But its destiny was discovered when the Monza show car, a sporty Corvair with bucket seats and a floor shifter, was so popular that it was immediately put into production.
For 1961 the Corvair product line expanded, with the addition of a Monza sedan, station wagons, more engine horsepower, and a four-speed manual transmission. Also new was the Forward Control series, Corvair-based family vans and commercial panel vans and pickup trucks. These offered an inexpensive choice in the truck market. But the Ford Falcon and the other conventional compacts continued to outsell the Corvair due to their economical simplicity.
For 1962, Chevrolet introduced the Chevy II as a conventional compact car and directed the Corvair line toward sport and versatility. The exciting new Corvairs were the Monza convertible and the sporty Spyder with a turbocharged engine. This was the peak of Corvair development and sales, with a dozen different models of cars and trucks, and almost one-third of a million units sold. But General Motors could see that the market was moving in a new direction, with bigger, faster cars using powerful V-8 engines.
For 1963 Corvair held its course although the station wagons were discontinued. Corvair owners were loyal and enthusiastic, and Chevrolet promoted the sporty theme with clubs and driving events.
In 1964 the Corvair rear suspension was improved, and the engine was made slightly larger and more powerful. But in 1964 Ford introduced its own sporty compact, the Mustang, and sold one and a half million cars in the first two years. Chevrolet responded by introducing the 1965 Corvair, a second generation design. The new body style was again outstanding, and the rear suspension was completely redesigned to make the car more sure-footed. Corvair sales improved, but not nearly enough to compete with Mustang.
Also in 1965, Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed, a criticism of the U.S. auto industry's safety record. Only the first chapter was about the Corvair, but that is all that the reviewers and critics read. Nader's complaint was about the 1960-63 rear suspension design that was already discontinued, but the damage to Corvair's reputation was done. GM's mishandling of its response to Nader only made things worse.
Corvair sales for 1966 were down by more than 50% and Chevrolet decided to cease any further development. Production and sales continued for three more years, perhaps to display corporate confidence in the Corvair. By 1967, Chevrolet was selling the Camaro (its own Mustang-fighter), as well as the compact Nova and mid-size Chevelle.
Corvair sales fell dramatically in the last years, as advertising ceased and the model line was reduced to just two coupes and a convertible. After ten years of production throughout the decade of the 1960s, the last Corvair was built on May 14, 1969.
There were independent Corvair clubs while the car was still being sold, and the Corvair Society of America was organized immediately afterward. A network of independent parts suppliers and repair shops took over as Chevrolet phased out its support. Corvair owners have been a dedicated and enthusiastic group from the time of its introduction to the present day. Many Corvairs have been preserved, parts and services remain available, and there is a busy calendar of shows, races, and convention events celebrating this unique automobile. The Corvair Preservation Foundation and its Corvair Museum keep the history alive. For more information please explore the other pages on this site.