Jan 24

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Saluting the First Corvair

by Bob Stevens

This article originally ran in the July 1987 issue of Cars & Parts, pg. 58

1960 Chevy Corvair Monza 900

The revolutionary Corvair, the Chevy compact entry with rear mounted engine, had its debut in the 1960 model year. This pristine example is a Monza 900, the rarest model offered.

They called it revolutionary, futuristic and radical. Practically everyone was at least intrigued by it, and most car enthusiasts

Corvair nameplate is on the front fender; gas filler lid is also front mounted. This example carries the accessory locking gas cap.

were captivated by this novel little newcomer. The object of all this attention was Chevy’s all-new entry in the burgeoning compact car market of the late 1950s and early ’60s. Its nameplate read: “Corvair”.

Although the name would generate a lot of excitement when the car was first introduced on Oct. 2, 1959, it would become dead weight around the corporate neck of General Motors, and a nameplate that Chevy would have gladly shifted to another GM division. The Corvair would receive what has probably been the worst rap an automobile has ever endured, except for possibly the Edsel. And it was all because of Ralph Nader’s relentless attacks on the car’s safety characteristics. His book, Unsafe at any speed, showered criticism on the newest Chevy with uncontested vigor.

His charges, many without substance, were nonetheless given credibility when it was discovered that GM had hired private detectives to investigate Nader’s business dealings, his personal life and even his sexual activities. Nader not only won a huge settlement in his subsequent suit against GM for invasion of privacy, but he also used the publicity to catapult his previously unheralded book to the top of the best seller’s list. GM, by virtue of its own investigation of Nader, had given credence to his book, and his allegations.

The incident would erupt into an avalanche of government regulations dictating automotive design and equipment, and a huge bureacracy would be formed to manage the whole thing. Eventually, the much maligned Corvair itself would die a slow, painful death. Although its tarnished reputation can not be blamed completely for its demise, as the car did endure for 10 model years (the ’69 edition was the last), it played a major role in the car’s eventual ouster as a GM model.

But the Corvair also developed a true cult following. It was so different from anything else available at the time, in both styling and mechanical integrity, that it attracted many buyers. And many of them, in turn, became fanatically attached to the novel little critters. They are cute!


Monza 900 identification in the form of a colorful winged medallion is affixed to the lower quarter of the front fenders.

Corvair production in the car’s debut season amounted to 250,007, including just 11,926 Monza 900 coupes. The Monza was a mid-year introduction. Production remained strong for the Corvair, topping 200,000 every year through 1965. But then, reacting in part to the Nader book, the public suddenly turned its back on the car and sales diminished dramatically to 103,000 in ’66, about 27,000 in ‘67,15,000 in ’68 and just a paltry 6,000 in 1969. The Covair’s declining years of 1966-69 also coincide with the arrival of the very popular pony cars, the Mustang, Camaro, Barracuda, Challenger, Javelin, etc., indicating that it couldn’t compete effectively for the youth market against such formidable opposition. So Nader wasn’t solely responsble for the Corvair’s demise.

Still, any car that can tally 1,786,24 sales in a 10-year model run must have something appealing. And the Corvair did, even though its handling virtues were suspect. Engineering changes in 1964-65 dramatically improved the car’s handling qualities, but even the early models were fun drivers, once one became accustomed to the expected peculiarities of a light weight, rear-engined car with an “extra light” front end.

The car was definitely a champ in snow, with superb tractability thru the white, fluffy stuff.

Air cooling also meant no radiator, coolant, hoses, etc. And, the rear engine design translated into more floor space for feet, grocery bags, or whatever. The car had its obvious attributes, and more than 1 3/4-million Americans recognized and appreciated them.

That first-year edition featured a 108-inch wheelbase and a base weight of 2,280 pounds for the top-of-the-line Monza 900 club coupe, a two-door, six-passenger model with a base list price of $2,238. In line with its basic mission as a compact economy car, the diminutive Corvair was just 180 inches long, 66.9 inches wide and 51.3 inches high, with a ground clearance of six inches. Front and rear tread were both an even 54 inches. Front headroom and legroom, at 33.6 inches and 43.8 inches, respectively, were generous enough for a compact.

That air-cooled engine was a bit of a marvel, and reflected the dedication and reflected the dedication and talent of noted engineer and future GM president, Ed Cole, among others. It was a horizontally-opposed six with overhead valves, dual one-barrel Rochester carbs, an aluminum block, four main bearings, and hydraulic valve lifters. With a bore and stroke of 3.375×2.60 inches, it displaced 139.6 cubic inches and developed 80 hp at 4,400 rpm, and 125 ft./lbs. of torque at 2,400 rpm. The compression ratio was 8 to 1.

Our Family Album feature car is fitted with the optional Powerglide two-speed automatic transmission, a $146 option over the standard three-speed manual transmission (a four-speed manual was also offered). The Corvair also came with 6.50×13 tires and an 11-gallon gas tank. It would cut a turning circle of 41.3 feet in diameter. Its independent suspension consisted primarily of coil springs at the four corners and swing axles in the back.


Special wheel covers were part of the Monza package, but the whitewall 6.50×13 tires were optional ($21 for a set of five).

Corvair buyers had to be content with the cheaper 500 and 700 series until the fancier Monza 900 appeared about midyear in the 1960 run. The Monza, in addition to all the standard features of the 500 and 700 models (windshield wipers, dual headlamps, twin sun visors, dual horns, cigarette lighter, etc.), came standard with dual bucket seats, carpeting, glove box light, special wheel covers, stainless steel rocker moldings, rear ash trays and a folding rear seat. It was definitely the top of the line for Corvair in 1960, and its production numbers would have been significantly higher had the car arrived with the rest of the lineup at the launch of the 1960 season.

The first-year Corvair was quite a package, one brimming with innovation from an engineering and technical standpoint. It did have some handling and stability problems, but then so did a lot of compact cars (and so do a lot of modern front-wheel-drive small cars). It represented a unique automotive experience, one to be shared by the more adventuresome. As the former owner of an inaugural edition of Chevy’s bold new compact, the author can attest to the car’s ability to inspire the curious. The Corvair was such a novelty in its first year on the market that even Chevy haters had to know more about it. Also, the automotive press was quite enchanted with the little charmer.

And, as previously mentioned, it was a car that would develop a real cult following — not as widespread and active as the Mustang or Corvette, but just as sincere and sometimes even more intense.

One Corvair loyalist who has devoted considerable time, money and effort to the restoration and preservation of a first-year example is Joseph Miceli, of Birmingham, Ala. He owns the gorgeous 1960 Corvair Monza 900 coupe pictured in this month’s Family Album. The car was acquired by Miceli in 1983 thru an ad in a local Birmingham newspaper. He was delighted to discover that the car was a one-owner, 81,000-mile car.

“Mechanically, the car was sound, but cosmetically it was in need of considerable repair,” Miceli recalls. The potential was tremendous, though, as there was no rust and no major accident or other damage to the car. “At the time, I knew nothing about repairing or restoring Corvairs, and my wife thought I was crazy for wanting to buy a car in such condition.”

He started his restoration of the car September of 1983, stripping the body, cleaning the engine compartment by hand, etc. The drivetrain would be left intact with nothing more than a good cleaning and some serious detailing.

Joe handled the body prep and painting work, both interior and exterior, himself, with help from his brother. “The entire body was then hand sanded with 600 sandpaper and machine buffed to the gloss sheen it has today. Every cosmetic part was replaced with either “NOS” or orignal used parts in excellent condition,” Joe said.

The interior was refurbished with exact reproduction seat covers, door panel headliner, interior luggage compartment, carpet, and vinyl dash. The fuel and brake systems have also been replaced. Tires are 650×13 reproduction 2-1/2″ wide whitewalls. “With my wife’s help, I completed most of the interior work myself,” Joe stated.


Chevy bow-tie mirror is a popular option with Corvair restorers.

Miceli’s Monza is a really loaded Corvair, starting with the optional gas heater. It was the only year that the Corvair would come with a gasoline-fueled heater. Other options on the car, including a few added during the restoration, are a radio, seat belts, locking gasoline cap, compass, tissue dispenser, bumper guards, door edge guards, gas filler door guard, defroster, light group, outside rearview mirrors with Chevy bowtie emblems, vanity mirror, windshield washers and back-up lights. The car was repainted in an original dark gray color, and the interior was done in black.

The various options appearing on the Monza add significantly to the appearance, serviceability and value of the car, Joe observes, adding that he invested alot of time and money locating and purchasing them. “Since replacement parts and accessories came from all over the United States and Canada, we have nickname our Monza, Frankenstein,” he says.

Miceli is fully aware of Ralph Nader’s vicious attacks on the Corvair, and he takes issue with the well-known consumer advocate. “I am a proud Corvair owner, he says, “and I must disagree with Mr. Nader’s opinions. I believe our Corvair is a perfect example of the automobile’s durability, styling and beauty, despite some of the problems for which the car is noted.

Joe believes that the Corvair is appealing to collectors, in part, because of its availability, drivability, economy and affordability. And “Corvairitis” can be contagious. “I am now seeking a 1964 Corvair Spyder convertible in restorable condition,” he says. Obviously, the first restoration was rewarding enough for Joe and his family to inspire a repeat performance.

He’s gotten a lot of support from his wife, despite her initial misgivings. “We have become a real ‘Corvair family’ just from the experiences we have shared in restoring and driving our little collectible compact,” Joe says.

Isn’t that what the old car hobby — or any hobby — is all about?

Permanent link to this article: http://antiquechevyclubofqueens.org/2018/01/saluting-the-first-corvair/