By: “Corvair Lady” Eva McGuire.
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.
Copyright 2016 Eva McGuire