The Corvair didn’t know soon it would be dethroned from the top of the Sporty Compact pile as the last of the original series went on sale in the fall of 1963. And why should it have know? There were still improvements and refinements that made the 1964 the finest of the original series.
Given the studly update that was just around the corner, the original hot geek that could hold his own Corvair had nothing to worry about. Soon enough, it would once and for all ditch Clark Kent pretenses and go full Superman.
America’s Queerest Post-War mainstream offering gained a handy transverse leaf spring to quell worries caused by the wild swings of its axles (and the resultant oversteer most American drivers didn’t know how to handle). The flat six saw a delightful and useful displacement bump, which gave as much standard horsepower as was the maximum option in 1960. And after churning out around a million of those Body By Fisher uni-body structures, the Corvair became the staple home grown oddity that won back at least half a generation of import deflectors.
The surprise surprise, of course, came close to the end of the model year of 1964. The sophisticated (for an American Car) Corvair found itself bum-rushed by the most All-American of Jocks: The Ford Mustang. We all know the tale of how the Corvair lost its crown as the sophisticated bon vivant of compact cars to the Hamburger and Milkshake Falcon in Butch Drag. It’s worth enumerating some of the reasons however.
American buyers, buoyed by a boom cycle in the economy, have never really been able to resist the lust and thrust of a V8 engine, damn the other qualities that make driving an enjoyable task. The Corvair, really hemmed in at the root of still being conceived as a mild mannered economy car, couldn’t and without some major modifications, wouldn’t ever be able to compete. There wasn’t much further than the 164 cubic inch displacement already on offer that the Flat 6 could go, hence the turbocharging.
The unseating started to take place close to a year before Unsafe at Any Speed foisted the peculiarities of the Corvair handling issues to the forefront. The burbling among scorned owners possibly didn’t help either.
There’s much debate about who was to blame; American Drivers raised on understeering barges destined to plow their ways through mountain twists or the oddness of uneven tire pressures and unlimited swing axles used as cost saving measures. There’s plenty of European cars of the time that had handling characteristics like the Corvair; the Corvair wasn’t called a “poor man’s Porsche” by accident.
20/20 hindsight doesn’t really resolve the issue, yet paints the Corvair as an entry point for a subset of the American driving populace that wanted something a bit more sophisticated than brute force.
It’s worth of note that Corvair sales never drained standard sized Chevrolet sales in the way the Falcon drained buyers from standard sized Fords. In fact, every Falcon variant (be it the Fairlane, the Mustang, etc) drew profitable attention away from the larger Ford automobiles. There’s plenty to be said about the unique question that the Corvair posed to American buyers throughout the 1960’s.
It called for Americans to embrace more than the rote “Missionary Position” of Front Engine, Rear Drive, V8 powered monotony. It told people to live a little, try some new positions. Life is a bit sexier with variety and spice, and there’s more flavors than salt and pepper.
Despite it’s flaws and image as an outlaw, The Corvair allowed the American Buying public to broaden their tastes and experiences, like a number of icons of the 1960’s. At this point, 50+ years after the first generation cars went out of production, we should all be thankful for the alternative lifestyle vision the Corvair offered us.