Carbureted or Turbocharged: Which Corvair is right for you?
If you’re a car enthusiast or merely of a certain age, you’ve heard of the Chevrolet Corvair. The car’s safety at any speed is a well-trodden conversation, as are the design differences between the model’s two generations. Among Corvair collectors, though, conversations about the car’s merits are more nuanced, and rightfully so: The Corvair could be had in a swath of flavors throughout its life.
Perhaps chief among the influencing factors of your Corvair experience is what engine you pick. As with the rest of the car, there were several options. Which air-cooled six-cylinder engine is best? Coming from a Corvair owner, the answer is simple: It depends.
Chevrolet gave buyers a surprising amount of variation for the rear-engined Corvair, but those in the know seek out two configurations more than any others: The turbocharged engines, making 150 or 180 horsepower; or the naturally aspirated versions, cranking out 140.
The 150-hp turbo was introduced in the 1962 model year as the new “Spyder” option. It was the first time Chevrolet put a turbocharger on a production car, and it was an admittedly rudimentary system by today’s standards. The Carter YH carburetor was placed before the turbocharger as a draw-through arrangement. This limited boost only to what air could be pulled through the relatively small Carter carb and then compressed into the long intake runner that spanned the aluminum cylinder heads on opposite sides of the flat-six engine.
As such, a turbo car is known for not being able to take advantage of its boost until third or fourth gear, even when it’s perfectly tuned and set up. This can make these Corvairs a little lackluster in stop-and-go traffic, but they come on strong once rolling and spooled up.
On the other side of the coin is the 140-hp engine that came out in 1965. The turbo cars may have been literally breathing through a straw, but the 140-hp engine had to drink from a fire hose. A quartet of Rochester carbs—HV-model primaries and H-model secondaries—are operated with a progressive linkage that gives a second kick in the pants as the driver presses the throttle to the floor, opening up all four throttle blades.
Each Rochester is capable of roughly 100cfm airflow, which is a whole lot of carburetor—400cfm total—on a relatively small 164-cubic inch engine. It’s a tried-and-true system, though, and the theory that an engine will only pull what it needs comes from situations like this. Just like the turbocharged engines, the 140-hp models have their weak points. The 140-hp engines had the largest valves of any Corvair engine and thus the valve seats pressed into the head have a tendency to drop out and cause chaos in the combustion chamber.
Both have similar power and some compromise on performance and reliability. So why choose one over the other?
Having spent over 16 years in the Corvair community myself, and owning the white, naturally aspirated ’65 Corsa you see here for six of them, I think the answer comes down to two factors: drivability and history.
Buyers of “driver” cars often shop for the 140-hp cars due to their motor’s flatter torque curve and easier tuning compared to the mills of the turbo cars. This leaves the boosted engines for those who want to own a milestone of unique tech that was cutting-edge for its time. Even if they are choosing the comparatively boring engine, like I did, the Corvair is still a great driving car with character and history to spare.
Fortunately, cost is not a significant factor for those weighing their Corvair engine choices. In order to be as apples-to-apples as possible, we took a look at values for 1966 Corvairs in the same Corsa trim, with the engines being the only major difference. An Excellent, #2-condition, 180-hp turbo car only carries a $1200 premium over its same-condition, carbed sibling, while the delta shrinks to only $500 between #3 (Good) condition, driver-quality cars.
Corvairs have long been the affordable little brother to the heavy-hitter big-body cars of the 1960s, though that doesn’t seem to have endeared them to younger generations looking for an entry point into American cars from the ‘60s. The lion’s share of quotes sought from Hagerty for Corvairs comes from boomers, and that percentage outstrips their overall position in the market. Gen-X’s interest is about evenly spread across both generations of the car, but interestingly, millennial and Gen-Z generations have shown more love for the first-gen Corvair.
Those who count themselves among the Corvair faithful are drawn to its history and misunderstood nature. Their die-hard enthusiasm and taste for intricate and unique details is a big part of what’s kept the community for this outcast Chevrolet thriving. The choice between turbocharging or carburetion merely adds another layer to how the Corvair is appreciated.