The Weirdmobile

One of the best reasons to go to an old car show isn’t so much because the cars are ancient but because they are weird — relative to the same, as they are today.

Weird under the hood, especially, which is sometimes under the trunk.

One such oddball is the Chevrolet Corvair, which GM built as a kind of better VW Beetle or poor man’s Porsche 911, depending on your point of view.

It was the late 1950s, and in those days, cars were hashed out between the customer and the company, which designed the car in such a way as it hoped would appeal to the customer.

There was no red-white-and-blue middleman interposing his notion of what ought to be designed and what ought to be bought. Designers went wild with almost a cartoonish freedom of expression in both form and function. This accounted for the almost Cretaceous-looking mechanical velociraptors of the era, such as the grinning and finned Cadillacs favored by Elvis and barely cars at all like the VW Beetle.

The Beetle defined minimalism in transportation. It didn’t even have an oil filter, just a reusable screen. Early models had a fuel dipstick. There was just enough horsepower to achieve 60 or so MPH if the road was flat and the headwind light. It wasn’t much, but it beat walking, and millions were sold to empty-pocketed post-war youth and to millions of others who simply liked the idea of keeping what they had in their pockets.

GM thought the idea was sound for a similar configuration since the Beetles sold so well they were eating into GM’s small-car profits.

So, why not build a better Beetle?

The Chevrolet Corvair made its public debut in 1959 for the 1960 model year.

Unlike the Beetle, which came just one way—a two-door hardtop coupe with very cramped rear seats—the Corvair was offered with two or four doors and with or without a roof. It also offered multiple configurations of its air-cooled, trunk-mounted six-cylinder engine.

The Beetle’s four-cylinder engine came just one way—underpowered. You could hot-dog the thing with aftermarket parts, and this was a popular diversion among the youth of the ’60s. The only thing you could get for a Beetle at the point of sale was a choice of colors.

This isn’t a criticism. It was in keeping with the Beetle’s prime directive. Simplicity uber alles. It wasn’t literally the people’s car (which is the translation for Volkswagen) for nothing.

In the aftermath of World War I, millions of Germans not only needed food but reliable and affordable transportation. Germany in the early ’30s was in some ways like America had been 30 years earlier. People needed a motorized vehicle that was basic and cheap, with everything else optional or not even available.

The Beetle was Germany’s Model T.

But in 1960 America, something more was wanted or at least, there seemed to be a crying need for it.

Hence, the Corvair’s standard six-cylinder engine. Like the Beetle’s four, its engine was horizontally opposed as well as air-cooled. Very much unlike the Beetle, the Corvair’s engine came standard with two carburetors rather than just the one, and you could opt for four of them. There were also hotter camshafts and even a turbocharger—an exotic thing back in the ’60s.

That’s why the Corvair was inevitably and favorably compared to the Porsche, which was similarly laid out, but a lot more expensive. The Corvair wasn’t much more expensive than a Beetle, which was rarely compared favorably with Porsches. When it went the other way—Porsches with VW-related engines—the comparison was generally held to be extremely unfavorable.

To the Porsche

The ‘Vair was like the Porsche—a technical tour d’ force for its era. Its aluminum engine used intricate casting technology light years ahead of the crude-by-comparison rough cast-iron pourings typical of the era. Its rear-mounted transaxle was also exotic for the time.

As, of course, was its handling, which proved to be its undoing.

Not because it handled poorly. It handled excellently in comparison with the bias-ply’d road oafs of the era. The problem was marketing mismatch.

Few regarded the people’s car as a hot rod, and thus, it wasn’t driven like one. More to the point, it was hard to drive the people’s car like a sports car, even if you tried. There’s only so much trouble you can get into in a car with 36 horsepower and a top speed, all-out, of maybe 80 MPH.

But the Corvair offered 110 horsepower in the Monza and 150 in the turbo’d Spyder. This caused some people to drive it like a Porsche. Usually, these drivers would have been kept in check due to the unaffordability of a Porsche. The people who could afford a Porsche generally knew how to drive one.

But the average American had never driven a rear-engined sports car with an independent suspension (then an exotic thing) at high speed. They understood nothing about the criticality of differential tire pressures in handling stability in a car with a heavy rear and a light front.

They suicidally filled all four tires to the same pressure—an error compounded by their not knowing to stay on the gas in a high-speed curve. The result was sometimes a fatal tuck and roll and the exploitation of a few high-profile such incidents (e.g., the death of the comedian Ernie Kovacs) by an emerging young ambulance chaser by the name of Ralph Nader.

The Corvair, which was only “unsafe” at speed if there was an idiot behind the wheel, was effectively tarred-and-feathered by Nader, who never pursued the similar Beetle or Porsche for the same supposed crimes. Though hugely successful at first, the juggernaut of bad press generated by Nader did to the Corvair what “cheating” on government emissions certification tests did to modern diesel-powered VWs.

Both are no more.

That’s a shame because both gave customers something different for a change. In the land of the same-same, that’s now a no-no.


Photo attribution: Greg Gjerdingen licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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