Depending on your point of view, the Chevrolet Corvair was either one of the most creative or most foolhardy steps in the history of the U.S. auto industry. It was designed to combat the Volkswagen Beetle and adapted the air-cooled, rear-engine concept to American scale and style.
Its handling was no worse than the Beetle, but ambitious politician Ralph Nader exploited it for his own ends. In 1971 the National Highway Safety Transportation Board declared the Corvair as safe as any car in the early 1960s, but it was too late to matter.
Still, with 1,839,439 sold over 10 years, including 130,362 trucks, the Corvair was hardly a failure. It’s among the least expensive ways into the U.S. collector car world and the best convertibles seldom surpass $25,000. Corvairs are relatively easy to fix, with a reliable parts supply. Survivors are common outside the Rust Belt.
So why aren’t they worth more?
First a compact history: Chief engineer Ed Cole aimed the Corvair (combining Corvette and Bel Air) at the Beetle in 1956. During development, the sedan was camouflaged as a 15-foot, six-passenger Australian Holden, with a rear-mounted, 140-cubic-inch, air-cooled flat-six-cylinder engine, and GM’s first fully independent suspension. Corvair production began on July 7, 1959 and it was Motor Trend’s 1960 Car Of The Year.
Initial models were 500 and 700 4-door sedans, followed by a Monza coupe in April 1960, a four-speed option for 1961, and turbocharging in 1962. Target price was $2,000, but heater, radio and a Powerglide transmission added up to $2258 plus shipping—only $341 less than a full-size Impala coupe. Claimed mileage was 26 mph highway, but a gas-powered heater reduced that, and a forced air heater was offered in 1961.
A Corvan, Greenbrier passenger van, Lakewood station wagon and Rampside pickup arrived in 1961; convertible and Spyder packages in April 1962. Turbocharging bumped horsepower to 150 and opened up a sporty market in 1962, but the April 1964 Mustang launch rendered that short-lived. Even a 1965 Corvette-influenced redesign with improved rear suspension couldn’t halt the pony cars, and sales dwindled until the final year of 1969.
The Corvair lost its driving force in 1961 when Ed Cole was “kicked upstairs” to head the GM car and truck group. Despite Corvair-based concept cars like the Sebring Spyder, Monza GT, Astro 1, and John Fitch’s Phoenix, resources were redirected to conventional models.
Larry Claypool is a lifelong Corvair aficionado and technical editor for the national club magazine for 25 years. He ran a Corvair repair shop in Frankfort, Illinois for 42 years, and points out that a several factors conspired against the Corvair’s acceptance.
“It’s still a niche vehicle, not a mainstream Chevy,” he said. “There were lots of them, but it’s unconventional, with an air-cooled rear engine and limited performance potential. Even turbocharged, the hottest stock Corvair performed like a base V-8 of the day.”
Claypool noted that once Cole was gone, the Corvair was an orphan. “Most dealers might have one junior mechanic who worked on them. If he was off, they’d tell you to schedule an appointment later. ” As an economy car, many were not well-maintained, he said. Spares were common through the 1980s—even at dealers—but body parts have dried up. Door, trunks and hoods can be found, but everything else is welded together, making replacement pretty expensive.
While mechanical parts are available, a Corvair owner needs to know “the guy” nearby who can work on his/her car—or be handy themselves. “There are a lot of hands-on owners, but probably only a dozen Corvair specialists in the country.” With prices low there’s little incentive to specialize. “In most places it’s easier to get a Ferrari correctly repaired,” he said.
Partly due to low values, numerous barn finds survive, and are easy to revive in rust-free zones. Running coupes and sedans can be found under $1,500, but don’t expect any investment appreciation. Convertibles can be found for $12,000-$15,000, but rusty projects may be uneconomical to fix.
Claypool believes the 1965-66 Corsa coupe and convertible have the brightest future. They offered 140 hp with four carburetors (tricky to set up), while turbocharging delivered 180 hp, but the engine is happiest over 3000 rpm. Bill Mitchell’s redesign was Corvette-like, and only 27,621 hardtops and 11,495 convertibles were built.
1965 Chevrolet Corvair
“A lot of major collectors now have a Corvair, and in the last five years people have been looking for these,” he said. “You’re much better off paying $25,000 for a good, fully sorted one, than buying a project for $2,000 and putting $50,000 into it.”