Chevrolet Corvair history begins with an early attempt to make a European-style car in the United States. The classic Corvair was the first small vehicle made in the United States. From the start of the American auto industry until the 1950s, manufacturers focused on big cars with big engines. Chevrolet saw that Renault, Fiat and Volkswagen had good sales on their smaller cars, so they decided to design a smaller car for the budget-minded or for a second car.
The classic Corvair is powered by an air-cooled straight-six engine. The engine is located in the back of the car in the trunk area, rather than in the front. This was typical for European cars, but nearly unheard of in America at the time. The Corvair was the fist car to use Unibody construction, and reflected the simpler styling found in European cars. The Corvair did not have Chevy's famous tail fins or a chrome grille.
Initially, the Corvair was a success. Motor Trend named it the 1960 Car of the Year. European car makers began to copy its body style, and other US car makers introduced their own small cars, including the Ford Galaxie and the Plymouth Valiant.
Despite these successes, the Corvair became a headache for Chevrolet. It was expensive to produce and was not an economical car to operate. Although the idea of smaller cars had taken hold among the American public, consumers quickly started looking for Corvair alternatives.
The Corvair Line Grows
In 1961, Chevrolet added the Monza sedan and station wagons to the Corvair line. Chevrolet also added horsepower to the engine and a standard transmission. In 1962, Chevrolet introduced the Chevy II as their economy car and moved the Corvairs over to the sport line. A convertible model and the Spyder were added to entice younger drivers. The Spyder was the first car with a turbocharged engine mass-produced in the United States. By this time, Corvair had 12 different models in its line, including panel vans and trucks.
The Corvair station wagons were discontinued in 1963. In 1964, Chevrolet improved the rear suspension and made the Corvair engines a bit larger with more horsepower.
In response to Ford's Mustang, Chevrolet introduced a second-generation design of the Corvair in 1965. The new model had even better rear suspension and a new body style. While the car still had some appeal among sports car enthusiasts, sales had fallen steadily since its first year of production.
In 1965, Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed. The first chapter was about the Corvair suspension from the early -60s, which had already been discontinued. Though the information in Ralph Nader's book was outdated, the Corvair's reputation still suffered. Sales dropped 50% in 1966, and Chevrolet stopped development of the Corvair. The line was gradually phased out until only a convertible and two coupes were being made. The last Corvair was built in May 1969.
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