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Holley Rendered Rides: Redemption For The Chevrolet Corvair

Author: Bryan McTaggart | Photographer: Rotislav Prokop | 05/05/2021 < Back to Motor Life Home

After nine years of research and development, studies on what the consumers wanted and the investment involved with a clean-sheet design, the Chevrolet Corvair appeared on the American market for 1960. The era of the whitewall sled had done two things for the automobile buyer: it had shown them what a good compact car could be in the form of vehicles like the Volkswagen Beetle, Renault Dauphine, and Rambler American, and it had opened their eyes to their own needs versus what the Big Three had been selling them in the past. Frugal, more reasonably sized machines were the way to buyer's hearts and AMC had scored a major run by repurposing the former Nash Rambler for a second, separate model run, something that should have never been successful. Ford and Chrysler had tried to downsize their full-size offerings at first while working up new vehicle lines, but GM went the furthest into radical territory, because nothing about the Corvair was traditional for an American auto manufacturer of the time.


An air-cooled boxer-style engine mounted at the rear of the car was like a Volkswagen. The rear-engine, rear-drive layout could be traced back to a Tatra. The body was trimmer than a Chevrolet Biscayne by a wide mile (the Chevy II was two years away from production) and it had fully independent suspension all around. The first generation of Corvair (1960-64) sold well, with two-door, four-door, station wagon, pickup and van variations composing the total. But sales dropped for 1964, and the answer for the decline was summed up in one word: Mustang. Ford's sporty re-do of the Falcon compact was more than a sales hit, it was a shot across the bow to every single manufacturer. The Mustang shattered sales records for a new model and gave GM something to chew on when it came to the next generation.


The 1965-1969 Corvair was a streamlined affair compared to the first generation: the van would continue for 1965 before going away. The truck and station wagon were already gone. Until the end, it was two-door hardtop, four-door hardtop, and droptop. They were lookers...David E. Davis, Jr. wrote in the October, 1964 issue of Car and Driver:


Prokop Corvair passenger side



"When the pictures of the '65 Corvair arrived in our offices, the man who opened the envelope actually let out a great shout of delight and amazement on first seeing the car, and in thirty seconds the whole staff was charging around, each wanting to be the first to show somebody else, each wanting the vicarious kick of hearing that characteristic war-whoop from the first-time viewer."


So why is the Corvair name so tainted? Well...how do we discuss this subject without involving one Ralph Nader? In 1965, Nader published a book, Unsafe at Any Speed, which took aim at Detroit's seemingly cavalier attitude towards passenger safety. But it's better remembered for the first chapter, "The Sporty Corvair - The One-Car Accident". Nader singled out the early Corvair for its swing-arm rear suspension that he felt made the car too dangerous for standard use. (Nevermind that in 1972, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration completely absolved the Corvair of the reputation, comparing it favorably with a Ford Falcon, a Plymouth Valiant, a Volkswagen Beetle, and a Renault Dauphine. Or that the Beetle itself used the same exact suspension design.)


So the car was just fine. And the second-gen was a sporty machine, with more power than ever, striking looks that hold up even today, and a pedigree helped along by SCCA competitors and the likes of Don Yenko and his "Stinger" Corvair racers. It's a pity that the Corvair went out with a whimper in 1969 after years of downward sales thanks to one activist from Connecticut and his laser-targeted aim on Chevrolet's smaller sporty car. So why not give the rear-engined machine a second chance? We reached out to Rotislav Prokop and asked him to try to conjure up a reborn Corvair. Here's what he came up with:

Body And Chassis


Prokop Corvair left-rear


Before you can have a good body, you have to have good bones. Having a solid, rigid structure for the engine and suspension not only enhances the driving experience by keeping the car from flopping around like a wet noodle, but engineers can incorporate a rollcage-like structure to the body for additional safety measures. Here, a scaled version of what the C8 Corvette utilizes would be ideal. The C8 has proven to be a safe vehicle, courtesy of testimony of individuals unfortunate enough to have crushed their new sports cars. Adapting this technology to the Corvair is a no-brainer. Independent suspension at all four corners won't raise an eye quite like it did in 1960, and there will be plenty of grippy rubber at all four corners, so there should be no worry about being haunted by the ghost of Ralph.


The body screams "sports car", and why shouldn't it? The 1965-69 Corvair was a looker, and oddly modern for its time. What would be "antiquated" actually comes off as retro-inspired on the new variation, so round headlights with color-changing halo rings sit up front in binnacles that echo the second-generation car, while out back a blacked-out tailpan with four round taillights sits square. The shape comes off as timeless...it could be 1969, 1989, or within the last nine seconds, but this thing looks good. The side inlet scoop is toned down, only there due to necessity, and the bulging fenders look muscular. In fact, the only thing that was ignored from the original was the funky exhaust routing systems...surely, a straightforward quad-exit system won't bother you, will it?

Interior


Prokop Corvair head-on


Here, we have to take a liberty or two with the design, so before we dive into the design, we should explain the reason. The Corvair was designed as a four-passenger automobile, a kind of do-it-all compact. That's why in the first generation there was the station wagon, the truck, and the van. By the second generation, that group was narrowed down to two-door, four-door and convertible. In the fifty-plus years since the Corvair was put out to pasture, the automotive scene has changed. Two-door, four-passenger cars rarely work, and even more rarely work well. So, we decided to just abandon the pretense of this car being a four-seater altogether, and instead incorporate another radical General Motors design that started out a bit shaky, became really good, then was unceremoniously killed off right when the mix was just about perfect: the Pontiac Fiero. George Milidrag and Hulki Aldikacti's idea of a sporty two-seater was sold to GM brass as a "sporty commuter car" and proved to be a popular hit. It was so different from virtually every other GM product at the time that it sold just on that merit...well, that, and the fact that it looked like a mini-Ferrari.


So, the new Corvair will be a two-seater. Not a problem, that should leave plenty of room inside for two adults. But this is where we have to go back to the original Corvair: one recurring theme in both generations was a very open front cockpit. No console, no transmission hump to speak of. Just a floor shifter for the manual transmission and two wide, comfortable seats up front. We can make a small adaptation to the modern age: a cupholder with power ports directly between the seats, going no further than the forwardmost position of the seat bottom. Otherwise, one thin dashboard and open floor space will be the calling card of the new car. The idea is that the Corvair isn't a pure sports car, but instead more of a Grand Tourer or daily, livable car. Have you actually sat in a Corvette with the sport buckets? Those seats will hold you tighter than your first love, but that gets old when you just want to take a nice cruise or were looking forward to taking the car to work.

Powertrain


Prokop Corvair right rear quarter


The fun part of a concept rendering like this is that the sky is the limit when it comes to what you can do, especially when it comes to the powertrain. What's your flavor? That is only limited by your imagination, since General Motors has many options for just about any kind of power level you could possibly want, many already compatible with a transaxle package setup. Knowing General Motors, you aren't going to get anything that already exists in the Corvette, and realistically, if you want that kind of power level anyways, you probably want real deal and not the upstart. So what was available in recent history that would work well? Well, on a somewhat controversial limb, let us offer up a suggestion: the 2.0L LTGTurbocharged Ecotec four-cylinder found in GM products like the Chevrolet Camaro and Cadillac ATS. A direct-injected, dual overhead cam turbocharged mill, it's good for about 250-270 horsepower and can push close to 300 ft-lbs of torque in standard trim. Notice that we said "standard"...we are aware of heavily modified engines capable of thumping out over 500 horsepower. Have it as mild or as wild as you dare.


The transaxle, then, needs to be stout and capable of taking such punishment. If you stayed stock, you could use a front-wheel-drive vehicle's transaxle and save on cost. Going for that big turbo, E85-fueled fun? Then we can only think of one option: the Tremec M1L eight-speed dual clutch unit found in the C8 Corvette. The Corvette team won't like that option, but the driver should. This would help keep the open floor concept of the Corvair intact, and will be stout enough to hold up to what most people would put it through.

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