Originally published in AutoWeek February 15, 1982
1965 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa Spyder; Photos by John Matras
Conceived in the midst of Eisenhower’s orthodoxy and reared in Kennedy’s conformist Camelot, the Chevrolet Corvair was GM’s initial venture into the unconventional. No one expected such a car from Detroit, and by common knowledge, it should never have been built in the first place. Big companies generally are not known for innovative tendencies, yet somehow Chevrolet managed to mass-produce the Corvair: a car with an air cooled and horizontally opposed engine in the rear and fully independent suspension at each wheel. Never before had a car with these specs been built in this country. Nor has it been done since.
What makes the whole thing even harder to comprehend, and what makes the responsible engineers seem even more audacious, is that the Corvair originally was intended to be an economy car. Introduced as a 1960 model, it was Chevys lead card in the compact car match of the early ‘60s.
Despite its other dull origins, the Corvair developed quite a following in his maiden year. Even the European sports car crowd accepted the little rear-driver, something no Rambler was ever capable of. And so General Motors, ever on the lookout for a good opportunity, began seeking ways to improve the original design. To them, at least at that time, improvement meant more power.
Improvement came the very next year, in the form of a Corvair show car GM commissioned TRW to develop. TRW provided a turbocharger for the car which boosted horsepower of the base flat six from 80 to 150 hp. Chevy took the car and ran back to the factory, from which soon issued in 1962 spider. It was in April of that year that the first 150-HP econobox hit the streets.
The Spyder came with the TRW turbo and a single-throat Carter YH side-draft carburetor on the 140-cubic inch displacement motor. Special accommodations for the blower unit had to be made. Among these were improved exhaust valves and guides, a special cam and a new 8:1 compression ratio. Spark retard under boost was used to inhibit detonation.
This car was a top of the Corvair line until 1965, when Chevy made some dramatic handling and styling changes in the original design. A swoopy, rounded look replace the original boxy design and the ponderous swing axle was jettisoned in favor of the Corvette-type transverse-link rear suspension. Nor was the powerplant ignored. By improving the turbo and employing a carb with larger venturi, the engineers boosted horsepower of the Spyder engine up to 180. (Displacement had been increased to 160-CID a year earlier with no increase in power.)
As if this development weren’t enough, the Corvair reached its apogee in 1966. Although the engine remained unchanged, a new performance package was added to the cars option list. This was the RPO Z 17, which gave faster and more precise three-turns-lock-to-lock steering along with a flatter-cornering heavy-duty suspension.
It was a ‘66 Spyder that AutoWeek drove recently, a Corsa convertible owned and restored by Mark Hilmlund of McLean, Virginia. Mark acquired the Corvair in 1977 in relatively good condition. With only 23,000 honest miles on the odometer, the only visible damage was minor sheet metal crinkling to the left rear fender. Nevertheless, Mark examined the entire car very painstaking, refitting and refurbishing where necessary. Most components, including the engine (which was balanced and rebuilt), Mark left stock.
In its original trim, the car came fully optioned, and its window sticker might as well have been a Xerox of the option book. In addition to the Z 17 steering/suspension option—which surprisingly was not included on all Spiders—Mark’s Corvair has the Corsa package: Tach, redlined at 5700 RPM, vacuum/boost gauge calibrated in inches of mercury, cylinder head temperature gauge, clock, trip meter, and…a speedo reading all the way up to 140 mph. Other options included on the car are a wood-rimmed steering wheel mounted on a reach-adjustable steering column, an oil bath primary air cleaner, dubbed the “desert package,” headrests, AM/FM radio and a power top.
Mark made only a few changes in the original set up, among these being the substitution of 14×6-inch ’67 Pontiac GTO wheels (fitted, of course, with Chevrolet center caps) for the original 14×5½-inch rims. On these replacement wheels Mark fitted FR60 Goodyear GT radials. Chrome detailing, the Hurst shift handle and black crinkle paint with bright metal highlights on the dash complete the modifications.
So what is this 16-year-old like? How does it feel like almost two decades after its inception? Quite nice, to both questions. The driver and front seat passenger have room to spare, although the backseat is purely vestigial, nothing more than a cursory nod to the family person. After all, the ragtop has to be stowed somewhere. The floor is entirely without a transmission hump, Chevy’s not-so-subtle way of advertising its rear-mounted engine. For the uninitiated, this planar surface is unsettling, as the pedals and four-speed stick seemed to sprout like cornstalks from nowhere. The steering wheel is more than adequate for a car its size, looking as if its large-diameter circle might be more at home in a semi rig.
This is it. Key in the dash, fire up the engine. From somewhere in the back emanate sounds of the air-cooled engine. There is no whine from the turbo. The shifter feels heavy going into gear, and the steering follows suit. Now the reason for the massive steering wheel becomes apparent. The ride is firm, but contrary to expectations, the Corvair proves to be no toss-about car. Instead, one has to plan and plant it, deliberately, and let the suspension do the rest. The Corvair handles if manhandled.
It’s just too bad that the seats aren’t up to par with the car’s cornering power. They are from a period before the Enlightenment, having the contour of a stool and the slipperiness of someone who owes you money. One is persuaded to buckle up immediately, if only to prevent sliding off the seat in mid-turn.
Once the turbo lag is out-of-the-way, the boost comes on a very civilized manner, with power becoming more and more palpable as the revs climb toward the line. With the boost up, the 2600 pound Corvair performs admirably. One complaint, however, is that with the boost on there is often unmistakable smell of gasoline. Mark claims this is not uncommon with Spyders. Hmmmm. Well, at least no one will dare smoke in the cockpit.
After its meteoric rise from its economy car beginnings, the Corvair went on to a hasty and rather unexpected demise after Ralph Nader discovered some alleged handling problems. The flat-six fell victim to the V-8. The Spyder option disappeared after 1966 and the last Corvair ever rolled off the assembly line in 1969. Born in an era of economy, the nonconformist car died in the age of Aquarius.