It was the summer of 1975, just before Andy Allen was to go away to college. He was working on his car when someone drove up and asked him if he wanted to sell it. “I’ve bought and sold lots of cars since then,” Allen says. “But that was the only time when, as it drove away, I thought, ‘I shouldn’t have sold that car.’ ”
This might be a surprise to many, as Allen’s old car was reviled by the 1970s as an engineering disaster, a menace to public health and safety. Time later called it one of the 50 worst cars ever made. And yet Allen had found it to be a wonder of leading-edge technology, far more like a sports car than wannabe rides like the Chevy Camaro and Ford Mustang. And so, some 30 years later, Allen went looking once again for a 1966 Chevrolet Corvair.
The Corvair came from the imagination of the legendary Ed Cole, the Chevrolet chief engineer who led the design of the small-block Chevy V-8 for 1955, became general manager of Chevrolet in 1956, and then went on to become the president of General Motors in 1967. He imagined a whole range of space-efficient, lightweight, rear-engine cars broadly inspired by architect Buckminster Fuller’s 1933 Dymaxion. His idea came to fruition as the 1960 Chevrolet Corvair, produced as a response to public enthusiasm for affordable, compact, fuel-efficient cars such as the American Motors Rambler American and Volkswagen Beetle.
More than 200,000 Corvairs were sold in 1960 and for each of several years afterward. The car impressed with GM’s first Detroit-built unibody design and all-aluminum, air-cooled, flat-six engine (another first from GM). Yet the Corvair quickly acquired a reputation for troubled handling due to its combination of rear-biased weight distribution and swing-axle rear suspension. Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” (1965) made the Corvair the poster child for what Nader called the car industry’s callous disregard for public safety in vehicle design.
Of course, none of this mattered to Andy Allen, because his father simply thought a car with a manual transmission would be a good first car for his 15-year-old son, and a non-running Corvair happened to be rusting in the neighborhood. As he brought the car to life with his own hands, Allen eventually realized that he had the Corvair Mk II, which had been introduced in 1965. With stunning pillarless-hardtop styling and a Corvette-type independent rear suspension, the Corvair Mk II was a sports car, not an economy car.
In 2003, Allen went looking for one of the 20,291 Corvair Corsas from the 1965-1966 model years to relive his experience with his first car. When he couldn’t find a good one, he convinced his wife that he should buy a stripped Corvair shell from eBay and build it into a running car. But when she came home one too many times to find him sitting in the shell and drinking a beer while trying to decide what to work on next, she persuaded him to send the car to a restoration specialist.
Usually this strategy never works out, as partly assembled collectible cars on Craigslist remind us. But because Allen is an airline pilot, he knows his way around a preflight check list, and he was able to acquire all the pieces, right down to the Torq Thrust wheels with the proper offset from American Racing. Meanwhile, Bill Cotrofeld Jr., of Cotrofeld Automotive in Vermont, worked on the car as a part-time, pay-as-you-go project, yet managed to push it out the door after only five years (a short turnaround as restoration shops go). When Allen picked up the Corvair with his wife and two younger kids, he drove it home to Chicago by way of Niagara Falls. And when the family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, he and his father drove it west on Route 66. (“We saw 110 mph indicated in Oklahoma,” he recalls.)
Chevrolet gave up on the Corvair after 1969, when only 6,000 trickled onto the streets (out of a total of 1,835,170 Corvair sales since 1960). But Allen has discovered that commercial failure doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with a car’s driving goodness. When he travels up to Alice’s Restaurant among the redwood trees on the San Francisco Peninsula, Allen loves the quick, powerful response from his Corsa’s 140-hp engine with its four single-barrel carburetors (0-60 mph in 11.0 seconds with the four-speed manual). And once the Corsa is full of 14 gallons of fuel, the 2,570-pound car on its 108.0-inch wheelbase handles much more predictably than its weight distribution (36 percent front/64 percent rear) would indicate, especially with the Corsa’s limited-slip Positraction differential and optional, relatively wide 15-inch tires. This Corsa is period-correct right down to its Chevelle SS 396-specification drum brakes. BMW M3 drivers who find a 1966 Corvair in the rearview mirror while racing along Skyline Drive rarely seem to believe it.
Apparently the Chevrolet Corvair is not one of the 50 worst cars of all time.
- Years Produced 1965-1969 (second generation)
- Number Sold 183,324
- Original Price (1965 Corsa Turbo) $2,465 (NADA)
Far more fun to drive (and cheaper) than comparable muscle cars. The engine comes in many configurations (including turbocharged), and modern tech has solved issues with cooling and leaky oil seals. About 20,000 cars of the 1,835,170 vehicles sold from 1960-1969 remain on the road, and NOS (new old stock) and reproduced parts are widely available. Remember not Ralph Nader but instead Automobile Magazine’s David E. Davis Jr., who ran a team of Corvairs in the 1961 Shell 4000 Trans-Canada Rally, encouraged Carroll Shelby to undertake a 24-hour endurance race with a team of 1962 Corvair Monzas, and endorsed the Corvair Corsa in print and on television. on television.