The First Made Corvairs

by: Eva “Corvair Lady” McGuire

first corvairs on conveyorThe photo of a 1960 Corvair coming down the assembly line with four workers underneath it in July 1959 was taken off of a promotional brochure made for visitors and employees of the new Chevrolet Corvair Assembly Plant at Willow Run, Ypsilanti, MI. The four men pictured in the photo are as follows:

Left side of photo under right headlight is Larry Gilbert. Larry was an hourly employee and never held a salary position. He became President of the Local UAW and was very involved with the union. Larry died in 1970.

Left side of photo under driver headlight is Jones “Woody” Woods. Jones was an hourly employee who worked his way to being Foreman and then General Foreman of the motor line. Jones is the only survivor who is still with us of these four gentlemen in this photo.

Right side of photo under rear passenger side of Corvair is Bob Mulready. Bob was always an hourly employee. Shortly after this picture was taken, Bob became the head guy in Heavy Repair (engines, major components). He was known to be able to take everything apart on a car.

Right side of photo under rear driver side of car is John Mitchell. John was a utility man in this photo. A utility man had to know every job and aspect of the assembly process in order to be able to give workers on the line a break. John became a millwright and continued his career at Willow Run until the closing of the plant in 1993.  

first corvairs long assembly lineDue to the uniqueness of the vehicle having a rear mounted engine and uni-body construction, instead of the conventional floor mounted conveyor belts, plant designers decided on an overhead assembly conveyor made by a company owned by Mr. Jervis Webb.  They even went a step further and varied the height of the conveyor at each work station to make operations easier for the employees.   Return to top.

first corvairs process flow diagramThe assembly process was divided into sections which became known as “passes” through the plant.  The brochure photo of the Corvair on the line was taken during the fourth pass of the assembly operations where the front and rear suspension in addition to the engine mounting to the body shell occurred.  Prior to the fourth pass, the vehicle would have had some of the following items already installed including the instrument cluster assembly, mast jacket, accelerator, brake and clutch pedals, headlights, front bumper, voltage regulator, dimmer switch, gas tank, radio, windshield washer and wiper motor, ash tray, heater, brake lines, and gas lines, just to name a few.  Return to top.

To make the installation of the engine and suspension possible at fourth pass, two green colored Towveyor machines were used for lifting the front suspension and drive train assembly/rear suspension to the body frame.  These would go in simultaneously as depicted in the photo and the process was affectionately known as the “marriage”.  As you look closer at the picture, you will notice two orange colored locator alignment pins with silver points which aided the workers in lining up the mounting holes where the bolts were fastened.  These locator alignment pins would have to line up perfectly for both front and rear.  Other details occurring at fourth pass included brake fluid being added to the master cylinder, energizing the brake system (bleeding brakes), installation of shifter tube assembly, and clutch cable or shift cable for Powerglide.  Return to top.

first corvairs coming down from conveyorAt the front of the vehicle, you will notice a piece of paper attached below the bumper and on the windshield.  This was called the Broadcast sheet for the Corvair being built . It would indicate what the vehicle content was and tell the individual work stations what parts were needed to build this particular car.  These sheets would show the model number of the car and the Vehicle Identification number (VIN).  However, the Broadcast Sheet would have its own internal number called a Plant Sequence Number which indicated the order in which the car was to be assembled within the Chevrolet side of the plant. This was also posted at each sub-assembly work station to ensure proper assembly.

After fourth pass, the vehicle would continue through fifth and sixth pass (known as the final line) where it would complete assembly and be inspected for electrical and mechanical functions. Return to top.

first corvairs dominick orlando speaksThe gentleman who had the privilege to drive the first production Corvair once it came off the assembly line at Willow Run was Dominick Orlando.  However, there was a bit of a problem when that occurred...the car didn't start!  There he was with the top management in attendance to see this monumental occasion of the launching of GM's first mass produced rear engine compact car and it wouldn't start!  The following is Dominick's own account of what occurred during that attempted start up of that first Corvair taken from my interviews and his speech at the Meet the Makers of the Chevrolet Corvair event on May 14, 2015. 

Dominick had stated that there were some top people in attendance to witness that first Corvair coming off the line and when he tried to start the car, he heard a lot of “What the Hell?!”, because it wouldn't start.  The problem they discovered was that there was a terminal block connector from the main body harness to the engine wiring harness which could be, by design, installed incorrectly.  The original design of this wiring connector allowed improper connection of 180 degrees off.  When Dominick discovered the error, he had fun tricking new employees by turning the harness connection so that the car wouldn't start.  At this point, to allow continued assembly at Chevrolet, they physically marked the connectors with a white spot to ensure proper assembly.  The design of the connector was later changed by Packard Electric by adding keyed connectors to prevent improper assembly. Return to top. 

Dominick Orlando began his employment at the Chevrolet Willow Run Plant in 1959.  His specialty was in electrical but due to no positions being available in that field, he began working in traffic control by parking cars for shipping by rail and truck.  He then went to assembly, then to salvage and Quality Control.  Some of Dominick's duties included installing the Corvair windshield wipers, mounting motors to the body, installing front wheels, and front ed bumpers.  The only problem he ever saw with the Corvair was that the oil cooler would leak (because of the seals).

first corvairs willow aerial viewDominick also shared another story about those first assembled Corvairs.  At one point, there was no room to store the first several thousand cars at the plant before the October 2, 1959 launch so they transported them to be stored at the GM Milford Proving Grounds until they could be shipped out to the dealerships.  One day at work, Dominick was approached by Bob Hatfield, the Assistant Superintendent of the Willow Run plant.  Dominick was in the Department of Traffic at the time.  Bob and Dominick both had a love of fishing and had previous talks about their favorite pastime. 

On this particular day, Bob asked Dominick if he still owned his fishing waders because he wanted to take him out to Milford without giving Dominick any details of what was happening.  Dominick told Bob that he did, indeed, still have his waders and got excited thinking that Bob was going to take him fishing because Cass Lake was near Milford...  but that wasn't the reason.  When Dominick and Bob arrived at the GM Proving Grounds, Dominick saw something that he said he'll never forget: approximately 250-300 Corvairs drowning in a lake!  Apparently, some of the Corvairs that were parked were stored in a dry lake bed that hadn't seen water in many years.  It had a fish bowl shape to it so the middle was the deepest section.  There had been a terrible rain storm that came the previous night.  When Dominick saw these cars, Bob then asked him, “Do you know what these waders are for now?”  Dominick responded with an affirmative deflated mutter, “Uh huh.”

According to Dominick, they had guys pulling these cars out and at one point, they even tried using snorkels on the exhaust pipes in attempts to start some of the cars.  Dominick stated, “You're trying to start a Corvair using a snorkel?!  Come on guys!!”  Dominick was not amused. Return to top.

Another former Willow Run worker, Dave Polmounter, was also sent to the Proving Grounds with other workers to help fix and restore these drowned Corvairs.  After putting in a regular shift at the plant, they would take workers from different departments of Fisher Body by bus out to the Proving Grounds and work under a tent.  Dave stated that some of the cars started and some didn't . His department had to change all the trim including floor mats, seats, door panels, and even some of the headliners had to be replaced because of water damage.  They did manage to fix all the Corvairs and they all got sold.

Here are some other interesting factoids about those first Corvairs:  Cecil Cole was the employee who hand assembled the first Corvair in a special area known as the Pilot Line without the use of power tools before it was ready to be put to the assembly line . I've written about this story entitled “Pilot Line Memories” which is available for reading on this web site.  Return to top.

first corvairs underneath assembly lineThe first initial Corvairs made were 500 and 700 four door sedans.  Dominick Orlando stated that to the best of his recollection there were approximately 500+ first made Corvairs that had the horn slots in the front and that most of those horns usually didn't work.  

In January 1960, they added the coupes to the model mix and then the Monza coupe followed in the Spring of 1960 after the success of the 1960 Super Monza made its debut at the 1960 New York Auto Show.  It was such a big hit that GM decided to put a version of it into production.  The Super Monza was a special car with customized features created under the direction of Bill Mitchell as a birthday present for his daughter Lynne.  The Super Monza is currently owned by the Corvair Preservation Foundation. Return to top.

A side note from the Fisher Body Plant at Willow Run:  There were two framed photographs that hung in the Fisher Body Plant Manager's office at Willow Run from day one of Corvair production in 1959 until they switched to GMAD in 1972.  One photograph is of a 1960 Corvair as it looked when assembled on the Fisher side and the companion photograph is of the famous Fisher Body Coach.  A note card on the back of these photographs gives a list of each manager's name during those years it hung in the office.  These photographs are currently owned by a former Willow Run salary worker who wishes to remain anonymous but allowed me to take photos of them to share with others.

On a sad note, Dominick Orlando passed away in October 2018, but he will always be remembered as the guy who drove that first production made Corvair off the assembly line, and as my personal friend.  His family recently gave me a personal gift of the keys he had to the Willow Run Assembly Plant.  These keys were issued by Plant Protection (what the Security Dept. was known as back in those days).  Once the employee left the plant, they had to be returned. I'm grateful to have a unique piece of Corvair/Willow Run history with these keys.

Copyright 2019

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