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Since doing the “Meet the Makers of the Chevrolet Corvair” event on May 14, 2015, I have received quite a few inquiries about Corvairs on the Facebook page entitled by the same name. Some of them concern Corvairs made in 1969 - the last year of Corvair production. This article serves to answer some of the questions I have received. Most of us long-time Corvair owners know some or all of the history and rumors about those last-made cars. We tend to think these tales are passed down by word of mouth around a bonfire somewhere from one Corvair owner to another, or assume that anyone who owns a Corvair should have a history packet in their glove box. But there is a new generation of Corvair owners who do not know the stories.
To begin, let it be known that all the 1969 Corvairs were built at the Willow Run Assembly Plant in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan. They were introduced on September 26, 1968, only to be discontinued eight months later on May 14, 1969.
The Last 6,000. We'll begin with a few questions that have been asked about those last-made cars. Here's our first two-part question: Why were there only 6,000 1969 Corvairs made, and why was it the last year they made them? Some theorized 6,000 was about equal to the number of Chevrolet dealerships in the U.S. at that time, so each would get one last Corvair to sell. More likely, Chevrolet limited Corvair production to 6,000 to make sure none would be leftover at the end of the model year. It would have been a nightmare for dealers to be stuck with large stocks of unsold Corvairs in this, their last year of production. Some sources have relayed that, from GM's point of view, the Corvair was now a liability. They were getting lawsuits, they spent a lot of money making them but lost money selling them, sales were dropping, and some dealers detested them and wouldn't sell them. Also, in terms of manufacturing cost, the Corvair's air-cooled engine was reputed to be more expensive to make than any other engine in Chevrolet's line-up except for the limited-production aluminum block 427 V8. And according to Joe Casey, Supervisor of the Corvair Room at the Willow Run Assembly Plant, they only had enough parts to make 6,000 Corvairs in 1969.
It is perhaps amazing that Chevrolet produced any Corvairs in 1969. In April 1965, General Motors decided to stop development of the Corvair and to do only what was necessary to keep it legal to sell. That decision was made due to the strong sales of the Mustang, and the Corvair was not considered capable of competing with it without a major redesign. They had experimented with mid engines, V8's, fuel injection, rear engine V8's on test mules, and all their experimentation was to no avail. The development dollars were then shifted to make the Camaro because they wanted to create a car that could directly compete with the Mustang.
The Mustang shared many engine and chassis components with the compact Ford Falcon and mid-size Ford Fairlane. Those economies of scale, in combination with its exceptional market appeal, made the Mustang a roaring success for Ford. In contrast, the Corvair shared practically nothing with other GM cars and this, in combination with the expensive air-cooled engine, made Corvairs costly to produce. Chevy would not make this mistake again. Mechanically, the Camaro has much in common with the Chevy Nova and other Chevy models even though it's styling borrows cues from the second-series Corvair.
Ralph Nader's book Unsafe at Any Speed came out in November, 1965. Many insiders believe that, in order to save face, GM continued to produce Corvairs for three more years so the public wouldn't think that Nader had killed the car. So, in a weird way, we have Ralph Nader to thank for the 1967, 1968, and 1969 Corvairs.
There's another story to add as to what kind of reputation the Corvair had at the time. In May of 1966, the Dealer Preview Show revealed the 1967 models including the new Camaro which at the time was code named XP836 or “Panther.” It was presented as the next generation of Corvair. The sales force demanded a different identity because of the bad publicity around the Corvair name.
The Last Corvairs Were Hand-Built. Why did the last 1969 Corvairs have to be hand assembled? Initially, the 1969 Corvairs were built on the main production line until mid November 1968, and then went to assembly in what was dubbed “The Corvair Room”. At the time, the Chevy Nova was the predominate car being run on the line with demands for more production, and there were only three Corvairs made per hour among 57 Novas. Joe Strayhorn, former Senior Reliability Engineer, recounts how they occasionally had a problem with a Corvair powertrain trying to marry a Nova body, and it didn't work. They would have to stop the line (something that cost a lot of money when that happened), and Joe said he got into trouble along with his Production Superintendent when these events took place. They eventually found their way out of the problem with the engineers' help.
Joe Casey, Supervisor of the Corvair Room, tells the story of how they made the decision to take the Corvair off the main line and how the Corvair Room was constructed for hand assembly of the car. The following transcribed excerpts were taken from Joe Casey's own account as he spoke at the Meet the Makers program:
“When we started this Corvair Room, we decided we'd build a little spot in back of the plant and take the Corvair off the main line because, at three an hour, you hated to see the Corvair coming because you learned all of your job on the Nova and then you had to do just about the reverse when the Corvair came. And so, it was a nightmare from an assembly standpoint, material standpoint, and so on. We set up about nine bays which were 50' by 50' of an area and put a wall around it, and that was the Corvair Room at the end of production. We built 1-1/3 cars an hour which was the opposite of the problem of building something every minute because you had to learn what to do in 45 minutes, and to do everything that was required in 45 minutes took a lot of training. If that person was missing one day, we were really in trouble in the Corvair Room. We learned a lot about building on small volumes.
The bodies had come over from Fisher; we'd stage them outside (usually five to six at a time were available to us), and then we'd select what order we were going to build them depending on what options and so on, and what material was available. And as was mentioned briefly, that last year of material availability really became difficult because, as you can imagine as a supplier, there was a custom at the beginning to building 250,000 a year of these pieces that had to come down to building 50 a month. So they were having to pull out tools and run a whole bunch and then warehouse them; and, hopefully, they ran the right amount before they put it back into production. So, as we got down to the last few days, it got really tough. We were told there was going to be a big show; the press was coming on the last day and top management was coming on the last day, and so that last Corvair better run!”
The Mysterious Fate of #6,000. What happened to the very last 1969 Corvair made, car 6,000? It was built on the last day of Corvair production, May 14, 1969, and rolled out of the plant at 1:30pm with the press and top management in attendance. It was an Olympic Gold coupe, Powerglide, 95 HP, and had the following options: AM pushbutton radio, full tinted glass, whitewall tires, door edge guards, full set of four individual factory floor mats, custom deluxe seat belts, and operating convenience group consisting of electric clock, remote control rear view mirror, and rear window defogger. MSRP cost of this vehicle in 1969 was $2,868.30. What we understand about car 6000 is that it was taken by a closed covered truck from the Willow Run plant on May 14th to the GM garage in downtown Detroit, MI, and it was never seen again.
Number 6000 did receive a little damage on the exterior of the body by the cradle when it was set down on the ground. Auto worker, Dave Polmounter, relays how he had to spray paint the inside door panels to match the interior. The panels that were installed were the wrong color because there were no more parts left. As Joe Casey relayed at the Meet the Makers event, “We saved all the parts necessary for that number 6000 so it looked good when it came off the line.”
There were a couple of photos taken of car 6000 on the last day of production. However, Joe Strayhorn, Superintendent for the last 6,000 cars built, is known to be the last person photographed inside of car #6,000. When Mr. Strayhorn spoke at my Meet the Makers event, I walked up to him on the stage. I told the audience that, while I was at his house interviewing him, Corvair mechanic Mike McKeel phoned us to ask “Take a look in his garage and see if it's there,” implying that Joe had the car all this time. Everyone laughed.
Joe then told the audience, “I've got that last Corvair.”
“Oh yeah,” I replied, playing along.
He continued, “I've got a stainless steel canopy over it like this (he gestured). The canopy's bolted to the floor, and I will show it...for a price. Now let me just say this: If you believe that story, I've got a bridge that crosses Lake Superior and I'll sell it to ya for a buck.” The audience roared with more laughter.
While I was at his house interviewing him, Joe showed that he has the “original” photograph of himself in car 6000 which he intends to pass on to his son for safe keeping. I took a photo of Joe holding the original photo. The only facts we know about car 6000 is that the Manufacturer's Statement of Origin (MSO) was never issued, and it was never titled nor registered so, technically, the car didn't exist. The rumors that still swirl around to this day are that the car is secretly being hidden somewhere, or that it was scrapped due to the infighting among the GM Executives who wanted to own the last Corvair made (that is more likely). I have been told by confidential sources of former workers and management that the car was scrapped, however, no proof was given.
Here is the story of the two people who ordered that last made Corvair but never took delivery of it and why: 1969 Corvair 6000 was originally a made to order car for Bill Harrah, renown casino owner and car collector. At the time, Mr. Harrah was considered to have the largest private car collection in the world, up to 2,500 automobiles. Mr. Harold Boyer, former VP and retired General Manager of the Defense Systems Division of General Motors, found out that the Corvair was being discontinued and went to his friends on the 14th floor at GM and asked if he could have that last Corvair. Mr. Boyer then made arrangements through the dealer to order out car number 6000. However, after all the paper work was completed and the ink barely dry, GM checked through their Marketing Division and found out that Mr. Harrah had ordered car 6000. GM didn't want any more negative publicity problems, especially between the world's largest private car collector and a retired GM executive. They decided to tell Mr. Harrah and the dealership that GM was keeping the last Corvair and asked if the customer would be satisfied with an earlier made car. They told Mr. Harrah that he would get a different Corvair, and told the dealership they would get an additional car as part of the deal: one was a 500, the other a Monza. Mr. Harrah chose to take the 500, and it now sits in the National Heritage Museum in Reno, Nevada. The Monza that the dealer got was first displayed at the CORSA Convention in 1983, in Seattle, Washington. To the best of our knowledge, Mr. Bill Borland purchased that 1969 Monza. Harold Boyer was allowed to get the next to the last Corvair made, car 5999. He also watched that car being made at Willow Run. So, in essence, Mr. Boyer got his wish for the officially last known Corvair.
Corvair #5999 - Alive and Well! Car 5999, which was the next-to-last Corvair ever built, is still with us and currently owned by the Corvair Preservation Foundation and on display at the Chevrolet Hall of Fame in Decatur, Illinois. It is a Lemans Blue coupe, 140 HP Powerglide. Options for this car included full tinted glass, door edge guards, remote control rear view mirror, visor vanity mirror, whitewalls, clock, AM pushbutton radio, auxiliary lighting package. MSRP for this car in 1969 was $2,941.70.
On the last day of Corvair production, car 5999 initially didn't start and had to be pushed aside and go back to repair. A photo was taken of this event. The original engine scheduled for this car was a 140 automatic (engine #T0122AH). A 140 replacement engine was installed to complete the assembly process, however, the car didn't run because the workers put the distributor 180 degrees off resulting in a backfire condition which was witnessed by the press. The car had to be pushed out of the way to make room for the final car.
This creates a new mystery: What was wrong with the original engine and where did the engine go afterwards? I was told by the former auto workers that the original engine was scrapped on site but it is still unknown what the original problem was. After it was repaired at the factory, 5999 was shipped out on a car carrier to the Ted Ewald Chevrolet Dealership in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. The factory told the dealership ahead of time that the car was coming, and gave specific instructions not to tell anyone about it or who was buying it. Secrecy was top concern. On May 21, 1969, Milt Hancheruk, head salesman, was made personally responsible to drive and deliver car 5999 to Mr. Boyer's home in Grosse Pointe. Mr. Boyer took it up to his estate in northern lower Michigan to his car collection. During this time the family, knowing what the car was, drove it even in winter and put 7,000 miles on it.
After Harold Boyer died, the family decided in 1988 to sell off his car collection. The son of one of Boyer's business associates as well as being one of the family friends, Hal Smith IV, was looking for a collector car but the Corvair was the only one he could afford at the time. He bought car 5999 for $2,500.00. Hal didn't know (and wasn't told by Boyer's family) that it was the last surviving Corvair , he just liked it. He put another 7,000 miles while owning it for three years.
Hal happened to see an article about a Detroit Area Corvair Club Homecoming and decided to bring his Corvair to it. When he pulled into the parking lot, people gathered and looked at the VIN of this new arrival Corvair, and they were shocked to see this historic car in their midst. That's when Hal found out what it was. In November 1988, DACC member Jim Westervelt appraised the car for $5,800.00. At the Friends of Corvair Christmas party in 1988, Jim sat down beside longtime friend and CORSA member, Mark Corbin, and told him about this car knowing that Mark was “into the last made Corvairs”. Jim said Hal would sell the car sooner or later, and suggested that Mark let Hal know of his interest. Mark went to look at the car but later it was in an accident. The insurance company wanted to total out the car because the damages exceeded the typical value of a Corvair. However, due to the historical significance of the car, the insurance company repaired it. Before the repairs, Hal asked Mark Corbin how much of the car should be repainted, and Mark recommended only what was needed to preserve its historic value. Instead, Hal had the entire car repainted and had its chassis and engine compartment sprayed with undercoating material.
In 1991, the car was put up for sale thru the Communique and later also in Hemmings for $12,000.00. The highest bid came from a Chicago pony car collector for $8,000.00. Hal gave Mark the opportunity to outbid this collector, and Mark bid $8,500.00 and bought the car. The odometer reading at the time was 14,397 miles, and it was titled on August 27, 1991. Mark put just 537 more miles on it before donating it to CPF at the 1994 Convention in Williamsburg, Virginia. There was one condition Mark placed on the donation of this car: “That it never see private hands again.”
Corvair #5997 - The Last Convertible. The only convertible made on the last day of Corvair production was car 5997, a Frost Green car with a white top. 5997 was the last car completed before they stopped work to set up for the press meeting and ceremony to present the last car #6000 off the line.
Car 5997 has a green interior with some of the interior plastic bracket parts painted green over black because they did not have enough of the right color parts at the end of production. It has the 110 HP engine as well as the optional 2-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. Additional options include AM/FM radio, telescopic steering column and driver's side remote rear view mirror. The car shows very nicely with it's original interior and folding top. One re-spray was performed several years ago in correct Frost Green lacquer. After leaving Willow Run, car 5997 was shipped to Maggini Chevrolet in Berkeley, California. The Service Manager purchased the car for his personal use and kept it for many years. The next owner was a young lady, also in California, who drove the car for several years and is responsible for most of the 70k+ miles that the car now has. After that, several collectors/enthusiasts owned the car. It went from California to North Carolina to Virginia until Detroit Area Corvair Club past President, Pete Koehler, purchased the car and brought it home to Michigan. Car 5997 is currently on display at the Chevrolet Hall of Fame Museum in Decatur, Illinois, along with several other examples in the Corvair Preservation Foundation exhibit. Alongside the car is a display of the optional 140 horsepower 4-carb Corvair engine that was optional through the end of production. As a matter of fact, the last convertible (#5997) and the last known surviving coupe (#5999) are currently reunited at the Hall of Fame, however, we have the proud claim to say that these two cars made their first reunion at the Meet the Makers event on May 14, 2015, at the Yankee Air Museum (near Willow Run) after 46 years of not seeing each other since the last day of Corvair production.
What About #5998? We do have a mystery that surrounds car 5998. For all these years, 5998 has not been accounted for and no one in the Corvair community (including the former auto workers) know what color this car was. We do know one thing for sure, it was not a convertible. I spoke to Joe Casey, Supervisor of the Corvair Room, who stated that due to the last Corvairs being hand assembled and especially towards the last day of production, they only made one convertible per day because as he put it, “They were a pain in the ass to build so we could only make one a day.” The only convertible made on May 14th was car 5997. So, keep checking those VIN's out there and let us know if you find car 5998.
One final little story that bears telling: I filmed a former Willow Run employee who sought me out just to tell me that when they saw that last Corvair on the last day of production, he and all his fellow workers took their hats off and placed them over their hearts to pay tribute to the end of an era of a wonderful car they were proud to build. That brought tears to my eyes, and it still does. For those who want more detailed information about 1969 Corvairs, I recommend two books, 1969 Corvair Finger Tip Facts by Mark Ellis and Dave Newell, and The Corvair Decade by Tony Fiore.
Body Shell #6001! Although there were only 6,000 complete 1969 Corvair cars produced, there were 6,001 Corvair body shells made at Fisher Body. This last shell of almost-car Monza coupe, Garnet Red in color, is owned by the Corvair Preservation Foundation (CPF) and currently on display at the Chevrolet Hall of Fame Museum in Decatur, Illinois. The sign on display with this Corvair body reads “Both the Chevrolet and Fisher Body plants had set aside enough parts to build one more Corvair after the scheduled last car (#6000), if one was needed. Fisher went ahead and built the Corvair Monza coupe body but was never sent over to the Chevrolet plant for assembly into a complete car so no powertrain, suspension, brakes, wiring, etc., were ever installed. Since a finished car was never built, it was never given a VIN (Vehicle Identification Number). The Fisher Body tag which normally have the body sequence number simply reads XXXXXX. Corvair body shell #6001 is the only example of a complete Fisher Body as it would have been delivered to a GM Division that is known to exist.”
There is speculation that the Corvair was selected to be the example car shell of what Fisher Body could produce because Edward N. Cole (Father of the Corvair) was President of GM at the time, and it was shipped to the Pate Museum in Dallas, Texas where Ed’s wife, Dollie, came from. After being on display for a time, the shell was eventually moved into storage. Later, Mr. Harold Layher bought the shell because he was going to use it to finish a 1969 Corvair project, but it didn't happen. He did display it at the 1995 CORSA Convention in Dallas, TX. Eventually, Harold sold it to CPF in 2013. It was on display at the Gilmore Car Museum at the 2013 CORSA Convention held in Kalamazoo, MI.
While interviewing retired Willow Run Corvair auto workers, I met a former employee who shared a secret about our Corvairs. Conley Phillips, commonly known as “Alabama”, worked at the Willow Run Assembly Plant from September 1959 until 1990. He started at the Fisher Body side of the plant in the Body Shop as a spot welder and moved on to various jobs including hi-lo driver, tow motor driver, and maintenance oiler. He is proud of the fact that he is the one who welded up the underbody of the first made Corvair convertible.
During my interview, Conley revealed a secret known only among the workers at Willow Run which I asked him to reveal at the “Meet the Makers of the Chevrolet Corvair” event held on May 14, 2015. The secret applies only to Corvairs that were built at Willow Run. For those who have such an air-cooled wonder, open the trunk lid and rub your fingertips over the wheel housing surface area on the driver or passenger side . You may be able to feel one or two small “dimples”. A few have reported no dimples being found, however, most Willow Run Corvairs have them. Corvair mechanic Mike McKeel reports most of the dimples he has found on customer cars are on the driver's side. Mike often wondered what the meaning of those mysterious little bumps were for the last 40+ years he's worked on these little gems.
Conley explained that these dimples were placed on the car body shells with a dinging hammer by the buy-out man at the end of the Fisher Body line before the car went over to the Chevrolet side of the plant for final assembly. One small dimple indicates that your Corvair body shell was a first shift made car, while two dimples signifies a second shift made car. While relaying these facts to the audience, Conley didn't share the “rest of the story” which I did on stage and am doing here with more details. The purpose of the dimples was to ensure that should someone come back and claim there was a screw-up on the car, they would know which shift was responsible.
There was also a competition that existed between the first and second shift workers (which I will not go into details here as to all the whys). It was common knowledge within the plant that second shift workers made better Corvairs than first shift. I was told by confidential sources that there were occasions when, if there was a screw-up on a first shift Fisher Body car shell, an extra dimple was purposely added to blame the second shift. This competition also extended over to the Chevrolet side of the plant where it was also known that second shift cars were better made than first shift cars.
The Chevrolet side did not assemble the Fisher made bodies immediately, and not necessarily in order. So don't assume if you have one dimple on your Corvair that you have a first shift completed car. You could have a one dimple/first shift body shell made by Fisher with a second shift completed car made by Chevrolet; or, you could have a two dimple/second shift body shell by Fisher with a first shift completed car by Chevrolet; or, a same shift car for both sides. This is due to the banking of hundreds of car shells on the Fisher Body side of the plant waiting to go over to the Chevrolet side for final assembly.
After Conley left the stage and I had explained the rest of the story, I jokingly told the audience that, “Conley must be a first shift worker,” implying that he might be one of those who added an extra dimple to blame the second shift. This was due to all the previous antics and tomfoolery he confessed to during his speech as a former employee at Willow Run. Conley, who is now affectionately known as “The Dimple Guy” among Corvair owners, delighted some of the audience members by demonstrating which shift a Willow Run Corvair body shell was made on some of the cars brought to the show. Detroit Area Corvair Club members Kerry and Jan Borgne brought their 1963 Spyder convertible to the event. They were grateful that they didn't remove the dimple when they restored their car because they initially thought it was a small dent inside the trunk that needed to be repaired.
Now that you've learned this secret, anyone who currently owns a Willow Run built Corvair, or buys one in the future, might consider keeping the dimples in place knowing the history and story behind them.
Meet Mr. Ken Genest, former General Motors Senior Designer who worked at GM Styling from 1951 to 1998. He worked on the first and second generation of Corvairs and contributed to the Corvair truck design. Mr. Genest happened to be the one who coined the phrase “Corvan” and the name stuck. What you are about to read is a speech given by Mr. Genest at my “Meet the Makers of the Chevrolet Corvair” event held at the Yankee Air Museum in Belleville, Michigan, on May 14, 2015. He spoke about his employment at General Motors and his work on the Corvair project. Since the event, Ken and his wife have become very good friends of mine. I'm privileged to say that Ken autographed my Corvan, the first Corvair truck he ever signed.
Ken Genest: “After I was honorably discharged from the army in February of 1957, I resumed the career that I had already started at General Motors Styling in 1954. I was assigned to Advanced Design Studio Number One this time, along with Russ Russinoff. We were a couple of rookies with tons of design training and no experience at that time. At least I was.
Ned Nickles was the Chief Designer in charge of our studio. He was the guy famous for designing the portholes and bombsight hood ornaments on the Buicks of the 1950's.
We also had a technical stylist there who had previously worked directly for Henry Ford senior. His name was Bill Block. He told us about Mr. Ford pulling a soybean cookie out of his pocket, lint and all, and handing it to somebody, saying, “Here, eat this, it's good for ya!” That was Mr. Ford.
Shortly after we started out in that studio, the Corvair design project was given to us with the statement that it was a “Holden” for General Motors of Australia. I was even commissioned to do a 20 foot long illustration of our so-called Holden, which was a Corvair, parked in an Australian gas station with road signs pointing to Adaminaby and Wollongong...no kangaroos or koala bears. GM didn't want it leaked out that they were working on a compact car at that time.
I can't point to any particular thing on the Corvair and say “I designed that”. But I surely worked on plenty of designs for it during the months it was in our studio. All the sketches have been trashed.
I didn't work on anything else during that time period, but how much influence on the Corvair design that I had is hard to say. It's certainly not the kind of a car you can hang things on, clean and simple as that design is. The front end is pretty much from the same people who did the front end of the 1959 Oldsmobile that dipped down between the headlights. Probably Mr. Earl brought that into our studio. The rest of it was, I think, pretty much directed by Design management.
At one point, the full size clay model split into two complete full size clay models because Mr. Earl, our Design Vice President, wanted a rounded bullet-shaped design that I think Russinoff referred to. But Mr. Ed Cole, GM Vice President and head of Chevrolet Division, wanted a crisper and more stylish look. So we modeled both of them, two full size clay models, side by side. We called one the “Cole” car and the other the “Earl” car. Those of you that are my age get it. The final Corvair looked more like Mr. Cole's version.
At one point, we were asked to contribute ideas for a Corvair van. I made a sketch in a front three-quarter view showing a protruding peak beneath the windshield that went across the front, over the headlights, dipped down and wrapped around the headlights, and then went straight back to the rear of the vehicle. It was related to the Corvair car front end, but different. That sketch disappeared one day, and three years later the van came out with that design on the front end.
Design management would pick ideas, usually at night, from whatever studios they found them in, probably going through the studios after work hours and bringing them into the grist mill where they were applied.
That Corvair 95, in its Corvan and Greenbrier versions, was developed in a full size clay model somewhere else in the Design building, I don't know where, probably Truck Studio. I never saw the clay model.
That wraps up my involvement with the design of the first Corvair. Thank you for listening.”
Cecil Cole is the Chevrolet worker who hand-assembled the very first Corvair in 1959 in what was dubbed the “Green Room” or "Pilot Line". This was just before Corvairs went into mass production at the Willow Run Plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Cecil had a special Pilot Line name badge which gave him access to this secret area. He was led by guards to a room and was locked inside with armed guards posted outside the door due to the confidentiality of the project. Cecil was given blueprints for the Corvair and instructed to hand assemble the vehicle without the use of any power tools. He said he was in there by himself, and for several days worked on hand assembling the car. He did put the car together by himself and told me that he didn't even need to look at the blueprints stating that, being a southern boy, he knew how to tinker with cars.
Once finished, he was praised for completing the job and was then told to take the car apart and put it back together again. This was repeated several times until they figured out when the vehicle was ready to be put to the assembly line. Afterwards, other workers were brought in the Pilot Line to work with Cecil on the Corvair. He also helped set up the assembly line and assisted with selecting and training the workers.
Mr. Cole was scheduled to appear at my “Meet the Makers of the Chevrolet Corvair” event on May 14, 2015, however, illness prevented him from attending. Instead, his daughter, Pam Cole, spoke about her dad's Corvair hand assembly stories at the event. I wanted Cecil to be a part of the celebration so I had the idea to call and put him on speaker phone while his daughter was on stage. We had everyone in the audience give him big get well cheers.
Prior to the event, I had interviewed Cecil by phone and he had mentioned that he still had his Pilot Line name badge, which I believe is the only one in existence at this time. I asked him if he could try and locate it and take a photo of it. Cecil didn't know where the name badge was and had his wife looking for it. This became a running joke between us about him finding the elusive Pilot Line name badge.
After the Meet the Makers event, Cecil's wife eventually found his name badge, and I asked her to take photos of it with Cecil holding it. The badge was issued on May 20, 1959. In one of the photos, and to my delight, Cecil is wearing it which is the first time he put it on since hand assembling that first Corvair in 1959! Cecil had his daughter travel down south from Michigan in order to hand-deliver the badge to me because he was too afraid of trusting it in the mail. The badge is currently in my possession. I will be donating it to the Corvair Preservation Foundation.
Cecil began his employment at Willow Run in 1955 at the Truck Plant. Prior to that, he worked on the very first Corvettes being made in Ohio as a finisher of the bodies. He relayed a funny story about how they tested the Corvette doors. They would drop the doors on the floor, and if they didn't separate, splinter, or break...they were fine.
I had also interviewed Cecil's wife, Pat, who was asked what it was like to have her husband come home from his job in 1959 with him being sworn to secrecy about the Corvair project. She said he never said a word about what he was doing at the plant and kept the well guarded secrets about this air-cooled rear engine compact car being made at Willow Run. I found Cecil to be a man of strong faith and high integrity about how he worked on the Corvair. The workers who worked for and with him also spoke very highly about him with respect.
This has been my experience with a lot of the Corvair workers, engineers, and GM designers I've interviewed. They are truly a wonderful group of people who built a very special and unique vehicle.
A Historical Preservation Project by: “Corvair Lady” Eva McGuire
In 2014, I created the “Meet the Makers of the Chevrolet Corvair” historical preservation project which involves documenting (by film and audio interviews) first hand stories of former GM designers, engineers, and auto workers who helped make this air-cooled automobile that I love so much. Due to the fact that I drive a Corvair every day (including my winter cars) and live in the town where they made most of them (Ypsilanti Township, Michigan), I've been approached throughout the years by former auto workers who would tell me what they did at the Willow Run Assembly Plant in helping to make that car. That prompted me to get the idea to capture these stories in order to share them with others for future generations of Corvair enthusiasts to enjoy.
Since then, I have interviewed over 135 former Corvair makers. On May 14, 2015, a special tribute event was held at the Yankee Air Museum which included having 16 guest speakers and presentations to pay homage to these fine folks. Edward N. Cole's eldest son, Dave Cole, was my special guest of honor. We had a big audience turnout, and everyone was treated to a “meet and greet” with these former makers along with a Corvair car show which included a historical reunion of the last made Corvair convertible (car #5997) and last surviving coupe (car #5999). These two cars hadn't seen each other since the last day of Corvair production at Willow Run on May 14, 1969. I also wrote a proclamation which the Governor signed declaring May 14, 2015, “Chevrolet Corvair Appreciation Day” for the entire state of Michigan.
What you are going to see on this web page are some of the stories and photographs I've captured from this on-going project. I am honored and privileged to say that, as an outsider, I was voted in to become a member of the several groups of former GM designers, Willow Run salary employees, and hourly auto workers. This enables me to attend their private meetings and continue with my interviews.
I hope you enjoy reading these stories as much as I've enjoyed meeting and getting to know these wonderful makers, and hearing what took place during that golden era of car making which included our one of a kind air-cooled friend called “Corvair”.
Are Corvairs "unsafe at any speed"? Ralph Nader said YES in 1965. In 1972, after reviewing Nader's evidence and conducting it's own tests on Corvairs, the United States government said NO.
Many people are aware of Nader's contention that Corvairs are unsafe, but few are aware that, after an exhaustive investigation, the government arrived at a different conclusion. Naturally, the Corvair Society of America (CORSA) welcomed the results of the government study as soon as it came out. The following is an editorial that appeared in the October 1972 issue of CORSA's "Windmill" magazine.
Corvair Exonerated! On Friday, July 21, 1972, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) - a branch of the federal government - issued a report on its two year investigation of the 1960-1963 Corvair. The report concludes: "The handling and stability performance of the 1960-1963 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover and it is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles, both foreign and domestic."
The NHTSA investigation proceeded along four fronts: (1) a comprehensive search and review of all related General Motors/Chevrolet internal letters, memos, tests, reports, etc. regarding the Corvair’s handling, (2) a similar search and review of all related public technical literature, (3) a review of all national accident data compiled by insurance companies and traffic authorities for Corvairs and four other brands compact cars, both foreign and domestic, and (4) most importantly, a series of actual driving and handling tests designed to evaluate the handling and stability of Corvairs and the other cars under extreme maneuvering conditions. The driving and handling tests were conducted for NHTSA by the Texas Institute of Transportation at Texas A&M University. Click HERE for a pdf copy of NHTSA's "Evaluation of the 1960-1963 Corvair Handling and Stability".
Whitewash? A day before this report was released, Ralph Nader released to the press a copy of a letter he wrote to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. In it he called the government investigation a "whitewash" and urged a congressional investigation. He said the testing procedures had "numerous defects" and was "rigged" in General Motors'favor. Nader further complained the government conclusions were contrary to the evidence he had previously shown on Corvair rollovers, statistical highway data or Corvair accidents, and cash settlements paid to Corvair victims by GM.
A statement from General Motors said only that the NHTSA report "confirms our position concerning the handling and stability characteristics of the 1960-1963 Corvair."
GM and the Feds. Your Windmill editor has purposely avoided the Nader/Corvair controversy. My feeling has been that CORSA members want to enjoy their Corvairs without constant reminders through news clippings in The Windmill of the car's supposed defects. Now that an unbiased government report has been published, the time has come to speak out.
Mr. Nader may call this report a whitewash if he wishes, but does he actually expect us to believe that the government would bias it in favor of GM? After more than five years of ever tougher federal safety and pollution laws, does Mr. Nader expect us to believe the government has suddenly done an about-face just to please GM?
During the seven years since Nader's Unsafe At Any Speed was published, we've been subjected to a continual barrage of anti-Corvair material. In this period, not one court case has been decided against GM. Now we have a government report declaring the stability of the car "at least as good" as its contemporaries. If Mr. Nader is the hard-hitting, factual consumer advocate he claims, he would retract his whitewash charge and openly admit he is wrong in his Corvair stability findings.
About the Corvair Direct Air Heater. In related actions this past winter, the NHTSA issued a bulletin on "potential health and safety hazards" of the 1961-1969 Corvair heaters, citing preliminary findings of carbon monoxide concentrations in some Corvairs. This was merely a bulletin "inviting current consumer experience" and was in no way a final report.
Concurrently with the NHTSA bulletin, Chevrolet mailed certified letters to all registered Corvair owners notifying them of the NHTSA findings (Of 292 Corvairs tested, six were found to have sufficient amounts of carbon monoxide in the passenger compartment to cause a loss of driver alertness over a period of eight hours or more). The letter urged that owners have their Corvairs inspected by a Chevrolet dealer. It further stated "Chevrolet does not agree with the initial determination of a defect which was made by the NHTSA. It is Chevrolet's position that there is no such risk if the Corvair has been regularly inspected and properly maintained and is in good working order." Click HERE for the text of Chevrolet's certified letter.
Although an automobile heater is usually not considered a regular maintenance item, the system used in the Corvair necessitates periodic inspections. Your editor supports Chevrolet's position on this subject.
The Ford Film. CORSA members attending the '72 convention in Maryland may well remember seeing a film supplied by Dr. Charles Nash. Dr. Nash, representing Mr. Nader, spoke briefly at the business meeting and presented this film as conclusive proof that the 1960 Ford Falcon was superior to the 1960 Corvair in handling tests. The film, entitled "1960 Falcon- Corvair Handling Comparison", was an official Ford Motor Company project, and was made in the summer of 1959. The tests were conducted on a circular track with a center radius of 150 feet. Tire pressures on both vehicles were varied for different phases of the tests; in all phases the Corvair followed the Falcon. The Corvair continually spun-out.
The NHTSA investigated this film and their findings appear in their Corvair investigation report. They conclude "that the film......is not a valid evaluation of the handling characteristics of a 1960 Corvair." NHTSA observed, "As the vehicles come to the end of the second curve with no apparent problems the driver of the Corvair can clearly be seen turning the steering wheel to the inside of the radius of the curve, for no logical reason, just as the vehicle passes the camera. At this point in time the vehicle starts to skid." Their analysis further states: "The test was conducted so that the Falcon was always the lead car when the two cars were driven in the same scene. It was the conclusion of the analysis that this gave the Falcon a distinct advantage. The drivers could not be monitored in their steering, throttle, or brake activities. The drivers did not use any visible crash helmets or other safety equipment; apparently rollovers or accidents of this nature were not anticipated. There were skid marks and dirt on the track at several points, where the driver ultimately left the road, which were there prior to the filming. This indicated that some practice runs may have been performed before the filming. It was interesting to note that the driver generally got the car to skid in about the same location, at a point where he was in front of the camera. The driver also got the Corvair to go straight off the circular test track both forward and backward in the same spot." Clearly the tests were rigged to make the Corvair look bad. No surprise - the film was produced by Ford Motor Company.
Regarding the scope of the NHTSA investigation: Due to Nader’s charges about the Corvair and the national concerns for automobile safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was authorized to run a series of comparative tests during the Spring and Summer of 1971 to demonstrate the handling of the 1963 Corvair against four contemporary competitive automobiles. Involved in the tests were the Ford Falcon, Plymouth Valiant, Volkswagen Beetle, Renault Dauphine, the 1963 Corvair, and a 1967 Corvair for reference.
Hello Chapter Members & fellow Corvair Enthusiasts,
I want to pass along some important information for anyone who uses Amazon for their online shopping. Did you know that Amazon offers a charitable program that donates money from every sale back to designated 501c3 charity groups? It's true, it's easy to use, and it's no cost to you! It's called Amazon Smile, and it works just like Amazon, but uses a different access link and only requires users to designate their select charity.
The link is https://smile.amazon.com/ if you want to take a look and/or pre-load your designated charity...may I suggest Corvair's own 501c3 non-profit arm, the CORVAIR PRESERVATION FOUNDATION?!
To be fair, Amazon Smile's donation of .5% for every sale may seem small, but every penny adds up, and the greater the level of participation, the greater the value to the CPF!
So far, this opportunity to help raise a few much-needed dollars for the CPF has been only lightly-promoted but I don't expect that to last. I encourage chapter officers, webmasters, and newsletter editors to actively promote Amazon Smile within your respective groups. And be sure to share with your family and friends. Again, every penny adds up, and this is an opportunity to do some good for the Corvair Preservation Foundation.
Chapter Benefits. CORSA provides several benefits to its Chapters and Special Interest Groups, such as:
Free advertising of Chapter events via the CORSA Communique, CORSA website and CORSA social media.
Free liability insurance for meetings and events conducted by Chapters based in the United States. (Excludes racing events).
Free server space for Chapter websites.
Discounts on Chapter purchases of CORSA merchandise in quantity.
Administrative guidance in the organization and running of the Chapter.
Sanction and support for certain regional events sponsored by Chapters.
Standards for conducting, judging and scoring of competitive events.
Availability of lists of CORSA members with contact information residing in the Chapter's area, for membership recruitment and event announcement purposes only.
Information packets for recruiting new members.
Special Interest Groups receive priority in scheduling meeting space and time at CORSA’s annual convention.
Establishing a New Chapter. Are you interested in establishing a new CORSA Chapter or Special Interest Group? You can do it! There are some requirements, of course. You have to apply to the CORSA national office. Your application needs to include:
The names and addresses of all the members of the proposed Chapter. The membership list must include at least ten CORSA members and the CORSA members must account for at least half of the total members of the proposed chapter. In Alaska, Hawaii, and foreign countries other than Canada, this minimum requirement is three.
The names of club officers for the proposed Chapter. A majority of the proposed Chapter's executive officers (president, vice-president, et al.) must be CORSA members.
A copy of a constitution, or articles of incorporation and by-laws for the proposed Chapter.
A name for your Chapter.
There are some additional administrative requirements, too.
Once your group has been awarded Chapter or Special Interest Group status by CORSA, you'll need to do certain things every year to maintain your group's status. Among other things, your officers will need to submit an annual report providing names of its officers, members, and a basic description of its activities for the year. There is a small annual processing fee, too.
Full details for establishing and maintaining CORSA Chapters and Special Interest Groups is provided by CORSA's Chapter Plan Procedure, which is available to CORSA members on this website. Log on, click on Documents, and click on CORSA Governance (or similar). And if you need help, feel free to contact the national office or any of your local Division Directors.