The post-war years in America popularized a certain type of car: large family sedans and wagons like the Chevrolet Bel Air, Studebaker or the Ford Custom. During the industrial growth afforded by the victory overseas, imported vehicles began to cross the pond — and we began to see smaller, more-efficient European cars on America’s roads. Realizing there was a market for smaller, more-affordable cars, Ed Cole, vice president of engineering at Chevrolet got on board and birthed the Corvair in 1959.
Ed Cole’s concept was simple. Building on the success of the air-cooled, rear-engined Volkswagen Beetle, the goal was simplicity and ease of use, which they created with the paired-down aerodynamic form, unit body chassis and a newly introduced 4-wheel independent suspension. While the Beetle used a flat-four engine, Corvairs were equipped with a trunk-mounted flat-six starting with 95 horsepower. They were offered in nearly every body configuration, from convertible to van.
I’ve always been interested in the Corvair — largely because, at the time of its introduction, it was the antithesis of what the American car represented. It ushered out the bulbous style of the 1940s, and it introduced a thoughtful logic to domestic automotive design. Many cars were influenced by the Corvair’s design: For example, Chevrolet’s clean look, simple curves and waistline are easily spotted in BMW’s Neue Klasse vehicles, such as the BMW 2002. The Hillman Imp, a tiny British sedan from the early 1960s, also wears a front end that’s clearly influenced by the Corvair. The influences even go as far as the first-generation Ford Taurus — a very sharp yet rounded design from the late 1980s.
The Corvair is also historically significant, as it was infamously marred with controversy. It was eviscerated by up-and-coming lawyer-turned-politician Ralph Nader in his 1965 best-selling book “Unsafe at Any Speed.” While his book was responsible for introducing necessary regulation into the rapidly growing automotive industry, his criticism of the Corvair effectively brought its demise, and it was discontinued just over three years later.
I really wanted to see a Corvair in person, so I met up with my friend, Brooklyn-based artist Taylor McKimens, who owns a beautiful first-generation 1963 Corvair Monza. Of the many different body styles offered, he owns a Monza 900 Coupe — which, with its sporty appearance, is the most attractive of the models.
We popped the trunk (engine cover?) and inspected the rear-mounted flat-six. He fired up the motor in its very clean engine bay, and it rumbled to life. It made a nice healthy-sounding gurgle as it spun a single belt powering the alternator and cooling fan. This model was equipped with dual carburetors, although later models came equipped with four carburetors and the first ever factory-equipped turbocharger. Another interesting feature of the ample rear engine bay was the location of the spare tire, which was placed directly over the engine to the right. Because the engine is air-cooled, the fan draws air into the engine bay at such a rapid rate that the space above the engine remains cool enough to store the spare tire.
Entering the cabin, I was immediately struck by simplicity of design and ample interior space afforded. Due to the rear-mounted engine and transmission, the amount of legroom was unprecedented. With the exception of the carpeting, door panels and seat upholstery, much of the interior was painted metal. There were no aging plastics, and the dashboard shape was a sleek piano-black metal with the gauges and glove box mimicking the exterior shape of the headlights and hood.
Graciously accepting an offer to get behind the wheel and drive it, I climbed into the comfortable driver’s seat. Although the car was sold without seatbelts, Taylor had opted to add lap belts to his Monza, although I didn’t use them. This Corvair was equipped with a 2-speed “Powerglide” transmission. The gear selector is a tiny cable-operated switch to the right of the ignition with an R N D L format. The transmission lacks a “park” feature; therefore, parking requires the transmission to be left in neutral and a pistol-grip-style handbrake pulled from under the left side of the dash.
As I started to feel comfortable behind the wheel, I noticed how smoothly the car drove. Cars from this era predate power steering, and I was anticipating the extra muscle required to turn at low speeds, but I was pleasantly surprised. Because the Corvair’s weight is biased to the rear, the steering was light in the front, and the car was very simple and easy to drive. The car was a success for GM, as it sold 1.8 million units during its decade-long production run. Its smaller size and ease of use were strengths — and, sticking to its economical roots, fuel economy was in the upper 20s to 30 miles per gallon.
For a classic car, Corvairs have remained affordable. Only $6,000 to $8,000 is needed to get a nice, running model, and there’s a strong Corvair community in America to this day. Taylor is a member of the Long Island Corvair Association, with a yearly meet-up and shared resources for owners. Corvairs are easy to maintain, and they offer classic styling at an affordable price. While Taylor keeps his car garaged, it has been his daily driver for the past year. With regular care and upkeep, I’m sure we will see this stylish set of wheels on the road for many years to come.