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.
The Revolutionary Corvair. 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.
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.
The Sporty Corvair. 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 some of its competitors. These were major weaknesses for an economy car. But its destiny was discovered when the Monza show car, a sporty Corvair with bucket seats and a floor shifter, was introduced to the public in the Spring of 1960. It was so popular on the show circuit that Chevrolet immediately put the Monza into production. Then, in 1962, Chevrolet introduced the Chevy II as a conventional compact car and directed the Corvair line toward sport and versatility. The most 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.
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.
Ford Mustang and Ralph Nader. 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 Decade Draws to a Close. 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. The Corvair Decade, which lasted from October 1959 to May 1969, was over.
Corvair Society of America. Although production ceased many years ago, enthusiasm for Corvairs remains high among collectors. There were independent Corvair clubs while the car was still being sold, and soon they banded together to form the Corvair Society of America. Concurrently, 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.