Machine 7, high quality air-cooled  restoration and performance parts


Aug 20 2009

America’s only air-cooled, rear engine car: The Chevrolet Corvair 1960-69

Posted by volkszone

Author’s 1967 Corvair Coupe restored

Odds are if you are under 40 yrs, you have never even heard of a Chevy Corvair as they stopped making them in 1969, writes www.examiner.com. Some 20-30 year old somethings think they are a Japanese car. If you were a kid in the mid to late 60’s, you probably know about them. You probably still love the body style, sporty and sleek, they are just cool looking. If you have never seen one, you will probably also agree with that observation. Even today’s tweenies (10-14 yrs) love them, especially the convertible! Corvairs are known as the “poor man’s” collectible car. They usually range from $1000 to $8000, over 1.5 million were made. Most are either on craigslist or Ebay. Parts for restoration are not an issue at all. Several places on the East and West Coast sell only corvair parts. There are plenty of books about them. There are probably still over 80,000 of them in the US.

Owning a Corvair is an experience. It usually is a love\hate relationship. You love the car when its running great and looking good, then, hating it when you buy a costly part and unable to install it because of rust.

The car is a time machine (well, any old car is) in that it makes one realize how far car technology has come in 40+ years. Until you sit and drive one, it is hard to differentiate the obvious and subtle differences. As a kid, I had always thought that the 60s cars were sophisticated machines. They were for their time, but driving a car made today (or since the 90s) and driving a Corvair is like night and day. The most noticeable item is the near all metal dash, more strength is needed to steer the car, thicker body metal, more chome. With older cars, you hear the engine, so they are more noisier. The Corvair was the economy car for Chevy, yet, it is as big as many of today’s cars! The Corvair is low to the ground, comes with either 2 or 4 carbs that need to be synchronized in air flow and idle\fuel mix. The engines are simple yet temperamental. Settings must be close to specifications or it will not run correctly, even for these more primitive engines. Another thing, as a Corvair owner, always carry some tools and a spare fan belt.

Rust is any old car’s number one enemy. It can make a simple job turn into a costly, long, nightmarish episode. Any Corvair you buy will have at best, just surface rust, which can cause problems. At worst, heavy rust to make the car’s chassis unsafe and the externally nice looking car, worthless. Rust means it multiplies everything: your time, cost to remove, cost to fix etc.

If it spent its life on the East Coast, due to snow and salt in the winter, the car will have serious rust. How bad depends on whether the car was in a protected area. If the car was in the Midwest, the same applies, but may be not as bad. Corvairs that spent their life in the South, Southwest, West, generally have the least rust.

Why should you, as a collector, care?

In a nutshell, you want the least amount of rust. Rust destroys. It can create holes in the body, stop restoration (even the most minor things like getting a nut off), forces you to spend more money, causes frustration. You will have enough frustrations without additional rust ones!

Those who own a Corvair have an unique American car, the only air cooled rear engine ever made. Most buy them because they were exposed to them in the 60s when they were kids. Others buy them thinking they are a real “money maker” like a Corvette or Mustang. Not so. The Corvair is the “poor man’s” collectable car. Why? The Corvair will seldom bring in as much as Vette or Mustang in the same show condition. The car suffered from a bad public image for a variety of reasons ranging from being temperamental and oil leaker, unsafe (thanks to Ralph Nader) and with early models (pre-1965), ugliness.

Owning such a car is usually reserved for the mechanically inclined or a rich guy who can hire someone. In either case, you will need to find and purchase the year model chassis manuals for your car. These will help you repair and diagnose the inevitable problems, without them, you are lost. Even with them you may be! If you don’t already have them, you will be investing in more tools. If you are not a mechanic by nature, you will become one just to save money and time. If you are a mechanic, you will need the shop manuals as the Corvair is not a typical GM car!

The problem with nearly all previously published material is that it presumes the target audience is either a mechanic, was a hobby mechanic, or knows a lot about the 60s era cars. Even mechanics who know your standard type engine, knows little about the Corvair engine, unless they worked on VW’s, its closest cousin!

I have the manuals and books from the “pro” owners, but many times the procedure was lacking in detail for a newbie, so commonly found in many manuals in other fields. The detail was lacking because the target audience was presumed to know general items related to the field. This led the writer to gloss over details instead of creating a detailed procedure.

For any new Corvair owner, the most helpful resource is the Corvaircenter.com. This is a forum for only Corvair owners with none or years of experience. Their advice and tolerance helped me a zillion times. You can post a question and within hours someone will provide the answer.

A BRIEF HISTORY

The Corvair name originated as a fastback show car in 1954, and like many Chevy concept cars of the period were based on the Corvette (including the Chevrolet Nomad and Chevrolet Impala). The design was, as an answer to the growing popularity of small, lightweight imported cars (namely VW).

The car was originally an experimental two-passenger fastback and was a “new aerodynamic design” for the sports car class. The roofline swept back into the jet exhaust-type rear opening. GM failed to convince the public and due to sluggish sales of the 1954 production model Corvette deterred GM from moving forward with the fastback coupe. Hence, the Corvair was not developed. Of course, the nameplate would be recycled later for the infamous 1960 rear-engined compact car. This version was a rear-engine vehicle in the style of the Volkswagen Beetle and the Porsche 356 Speedster and shared very little with the 1954 concept but for its name.

The rear engine version design began in 1956. The early model (EM) style is a more boxy, dated body style, while the later model (LM) from 1965-69, is a timeless design that continues to appeal due to its sporty corvette type look and a European sports car.

A dramatic redesign of the Corvair body and suspension and several powerful new engines came in 1965. A new fully independent suspension similar to that used on the Corvette replaced the original swing axle rear suspension. In 1966, one change of note was a more robust four speed synchromesh transmission using the standard Saginaw gear set used by other GM vehicles. In 1967, the 140 hp and 180 hp engine options were deleted as well, although the 140 HP option would remain available until Corvair production ended in 1969. Dual brake system was also introduced allowing for independent braking.

Corvair production finally ceased in 1969 with sales of only 6,000 cars, a victim of Nader’s book, Ford’s Mustang, and Chevrolet’s own Camaro and Nova and the other mid-60’s muscle cars, all having way more horsepower. Oddly enough, despite its sporting look, it was never intended to be a muscle car with high HP. It was always an economy car even to the end. Chevrolet did provide “muscle” car type packages, such as, a 180 Hp Turbo, a four carburetor 140 hp. Even these additions were weak in power when compared to a stock Mustang with a 289 hp. Because the car had a racy look, people thought it WAS a sports car.

A new Corvair in 1965-69 ranged from $2000-3000. The top of the line was the Corsa. Corsa’s were only made in 1965 and 1966. Why? Corsa failed because the difference between it and less expensive Monza, was small: a Corsa had more gauges on the dash giving it a racing look, the trim and emblems were slightly different, the engine was a 140 hp or more. Other than those features, one could not tell the two apart. So if you have bought a Corsa, make sure by its VIN that it is really a Corsa, not a Monza made to look like a Corsa! To complicate things, you could buy a Monza or the most base model, the 500, with a 140 hp motor, and except for the trim, little else was different.

The Corvair was radical for an American car and litigation and controversy followed during its life. One main issue that continues today are the pushrod rubber O-rings. During its production, the material to seal the tubes into the block and head was unable to withstand the high engine temperatures and after about a year, the car would begin to leak oil. The leak would only get worse over time. Once the oil leaked onto the hot exhaust, the burnt oil smell permeated into the interior at times or could be seen while at a stop light or when the car stopped coming from the vents. Also, carbon monoxide could also enter the passenger compartment if the engine hoses connected to the heater had become disconnected or fallen apart ( I recall this vividly as my friend in high school had a Corvair and picked me up in the morning. In the dead of winter, we drove with the heater on and windows open to avoid being asphyxiated!). It was not until the 70’s that a new O-ring was created by Viton, for plumbing. This Viton O-ring once installed correctly would create a leak free Corvair as the rubber O-rings could withstand high 400 degree engine temperatures without falling apart.

RAPLH NADER

This young lawyer nearly destroyed the car with his book, Unsafe at Any Speed. In his book, only one chapter specifically mentions Corvair issues and only with those made from 1960-64. The rest of the book deals with car manufacturers in general and why safety was really a political issue.

One of his gripes was that the steering column, upon impact, would be shoved into the driver causing serious injury. Not many cars at that time had collapsible steering columns. His more serious accusation was its steering. A driver could easily oversteer and flip the car over because it only weighed 2000 lbs. This was true if the tire pressure in the front was 25-35 psi, however, Chevy knew this and stated clearly the front tires should not exceed 15 psi. Your typical buyer did not heed the warning.

The car was designed to avoid terminal oversteer by using very low air pressure in the front tires, typically 12 to 15 psi , so that they would begin to understeer (slip) before the swing axle oversteer would come into play. Although this pressure was quite adequate for the very lightweight Corvair front end, owners and mechanics, either through ignorance of the necessity for this pressure differential between front and rear or thinking that the pressure was too low for the front, would inflate the front tires to more “normal” pressures (25-35psi), thus ensuring that the rear of the car would lose traction before the front, causing it to oversteer. It should be mentioned that the Corvair is by no means unique in requiring different front and rear tire pressures for normal controllability. The Ford Explorer (many years later) had widely-publicized stability problems when equal pressures were used. See Firestone vs, Ford Motor Company controversy. Corvairs built from 1965-69 do not have this issue. Chevy had made the necessary changes to the chassis as a result of his book.

Nader overstated the severity of the handling problems, as was later found by US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigators, and Chevrolet made changes to the suspension. In 1964, adding a transverse leaf spring extending between the rear wheels to limit rear wheel camber change. In 1965, the Corvair got a fully independent rear suspension closely resembling that of the Corvette, even sharing some components.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) ran a series of comparative tests in 1971, studying the handling of the 1963 Corvair against four contemporary cars: a Ford Falcon, Plymouth Valiant, Volkswagen Beetle, Renault Dauphine and a 1967 Corvair (with a revised suspension design) was included for comparison. The final result concluded, “The 1960-63 Corvair compares favorably with contemporary vehicles used in the tests…the handling and stability performance of the 1960-63 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 Corvair pioneered such technological advances as turbo-charging, true four-wheel independent suspension and unit-body (or unibody) construction, and its independent suspension was adapted for later model Corvettes.
Today, 41 years after its introduction and 30 years after production ceased, the Corvair still enjoys a loyal following. The Corvair Society of America (CORSA) has a membership of over 5,500 people with 130 local chapters found everywhere from Idaho to Amsterdam. There are probably over 80,000 of them on the road. Some owners have several. Parts are easy to find from Clarks, Corvair Underground, and Larry’s.

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