Feb 19

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The Italian Corvairs

Original article was first published in the August 1980 issue of Cars & Parts

by Wallace A. Wyss

Covair Testudo conceptualized by Bertone of Italy

The Corvair Testudo conceptualized by Bertone of Italy was a bold design, reflecting in certain respects on GM’s own experimental Corvair model, the Corvair GT. Bertone even painted it silver, one of GM’s favorite show car colors, but GM design chief Bill Mitchell didn’t want it.

The famous Italian coach-building houses, like Pininfarina and Bertone, have tried repeatedly to sell Detroit auto makers on the idea of buying either styling plus coachwork on a new model or adopting just a styling concept.

Pininfarina has had some mild success with Oeneial Motois, having received a contract in 1959 to build the coachwork for the Cadillac Eldorado four-door sedans. But, in that case, Pininfarina had nothing to do with the design and had to build the car to match GM’s full size clay model.

Corvair looking like a stretched Porsche

Since the Corvair was powered by a flat opposed six mounted behind the rear axle line like the Porsche, it was probably natural for Pininfarina to restyle the Corvair into a car resembling a stretched Porsche.

Pininfarina has had a little more ability to influence the design in a couple of semi-secret contracts since then. One contract covered their preparation of a metal prototype for the Chevrolet Monza. Another contract covered the building of the Two Rotor Corvette, a mid-engine Wankel-powered car that was shown briefly and then deep-sixed along with GM’s self-immolation of their costly and fruitless rotary engine project.

Ital Design, the 10-year old f i r m that designed Volkswagen’s complete line of front wheel-drive models, is said to be currently wooing GM.

Back in 1960, the Corvair created a sensation in Europe. It was the first new idea from the U.S.!

The Europeans were understandably inspired by the Corvair. After all, at least on paper, its specifications were much more like a European car than an American car: flat, air-cooled engine; independent rear suspension; magnesium and aluminum engine block; bucket seats; the availability of a turbocharger, etc. The European coach-building houses had no reason to think that the Corvair wouldn’t be around for at least a decade to come, just as the air-cooled beetle had endured since 1939.

Bertone — being one of the biggest coach-builders — could affort to “take a flyer” on a Corvair-based show car; it could afford to absorb the cost of building the car if GM did not place an order for it in the first place. They could then write it off as a “promotional” car.

Their dramatic Corvair-based show car was the Testudo. This silver bomb had many interesting features which have been used on subsequent cars. For instance, the headlights lay retracted into the front deck when not in use, but popped up when summoned. This idea is now used on the Porsche 928.

One not-too-practical feature of the Testudo was the way one entered it — the en- tire front “bubble” cockpit and door panel assembly lifted forward en masse to permit access. This required gas-filled struts to help lift the enormous weight of the assembly. Also, if the car ever rolled over on its roof, how would one get out? A final problem with the tilt-forward canopy was that there was no room for a crank-down window.

The Testudo was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, now one of Italy’s most famous designers and the owner of a 500-man design studio called Ital Design. But, back in the early 60s, he was working for Bertone and it was there that he designed the Testudo.

One Giugiaro touch on the Testudo was his “rolled-and-pleated” silver upholstery, which he used on several subsequent show cars. Although he was famous for flat, angular planes on the exterior, he prefers rounded soft forms on the inside.

The second Italian prototype Corvair that this author has been able to unearth is a 1960 version by Pininfarina, which has very Porsche-like front fender lines but a general uncertainty of line everywhere else. One really gauche feature is the giant 18-inch-wide emblem on the front deck. The roofline is also quite bizarre, as if Pininfarina’s designers couldn’t agree on a shape.

At any rate, all of the Italian efforts to impress GM with their ability to make the Corvair more of a ” w o r l d appeal” car came’ to naught because GM canceled the Corvair, partly out of fear that the hostile feelings toward the car generated by consumer activist Ralph Nader might never go away.

What happened to the Italian Corvairs? If GM was not the prime contractor and this author suspects it wasn’t — then the cars are either still in the possession of Pininfarina or Bertone or possibly have been sold to private buyers. Frequently, show cars are sold, particularly if the coach-builder is running out of storage space.

Pininfarina didn’t include the Corvair prototype in its 50th anniversary display at the 58th Turin Auto Show.

Permanent link to this article: http://antiquechevyclubofqueens.org/2018/02/the-italian-corvairs/