Home » Boxy Boxers For Boxing Day: 1962 Chevy Corvair vs 1987 VW Vanagon

Boxy Boxers For Boxing Day: 1962 Chevy Corvair vs 1987 VW Vanagon

Sbsd 12 26 2023
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Good morning, Autopians! I hope you all had a good Christmas. Mine was low-key but very pleasant, just what I wanted this year. And I baked an excellent batch of gingersnaps, so there’s that. Today is, of course, Boxing Day, not an official holiday here in the US, though I still get the day off from my day job. In honor of the day, I’ve got a pair of boxes with boxer engines in them for us to check out.

On Friday, we pitted the four winners for the week against each other, and you all got to decide which of us here got one of them as a gift. Many of you expressed a desire to give the little green Fiat to Torch, and while it does seem like his type of car, I’m not sure a stress-inducing Italian car is the best gift for someone who just had heart surgery. The Peugeot was mentioned several times as well, and it got spread around; I think I even got a mention or two – and thank you for that! The 300ZX seems to have won the overall vote, but really, there wasn’t a bad car in the mix, as far as I’m concerned.

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The whole gift thing was a gimmick, and I hope you had some fun with it. But to be honest, just being here writing this silly little column, and reading your comments, is the best gift I could ask for. It doesn’t feel like a job, and that’s what makes it a great one. So really, truly, thank you all.

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So, my gift to you this Boxing Day is a couple of boxes on wheels, both powered by rear-mounted horizontally-opposed engines below the floor. Horizontally-opposed engines typically have each pair of pistons moving inward and outward opposite each other, canceling out each other’s vibrations. This engine layout is nicknamed the “boxer,” presumably because the pistons “punch” in and out like a pair of boxing gloves. (To the pedantics among you out there: Yes, I am aware that not all horizontally-opposed engines are boxers, but these two are.) Volkswagen is far and away the most prolific builder of boxer engines, followed by Subaru, I would imagine, but for a while General Motors got in on the act as well, with an air-cooled six-cylinder boxer in Chevrolet’s Corvair line. Let’s take a look at a couple of them.

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1962 Chevrolet Corvair Corvan 95 – $4,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.4 liter overhead valve flat 6, four-speed manual, RWD

Location: San Jose, CA

Odometer reading: unknown

Operational status: Runs and drives well

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Say what you want about certain business aspects of General Motors – the endless cost-cutting and badge-engineering, the callous and sometimes inept management – their engineers have never been afraid to push the envelope. In 1960, Ford introduced the Falcon, an entirely conventional front-engine rear-drive car that was essentially a scaled-down version of its larger cars. GM countered with the Chevy Corvair, which may as well have been a spaceship by comparison. It wasn’t an entirely original idea; many of its design elements were already well-established in European cars, especially Volkswagens. But down at the local Chevrolet dealership, they were downright exotic.

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Like Volkswagen, Chevy made a van out of its rear-engined car, placing the driver and passenger seats atop the front axle. With the entire drivetrain located behind the rear axle, a huge gap opens up in the middle with a nice flat floor. This “Corvan” (as the Corvair panel vans were known) has a wooden platform added in bridging this low center well and creating a flat level area behind the front seats, presumably for a bed. It also has some insulation added in over the bare steel walls, making me think it was used for camping.

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This van runs and drives fine, according to the seller. It has been upgraded with a 110 horsepower engine and four-speed transmission from a later Corvair. The brakes have also been upgraded to a dual-circuit master cylinder, an important safety upgrade on any vehicle this old. Originality is great, but so is stopping. The bench seat was redone before the seller bought it, and it still looks like it’s holding up well.

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The driver’s side of the exterior looks pretty good, but the passenger’s side has some issues, namely scrapes and rust. It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on with that rear side door, but it doesn’t look good. It almost looks like it was scraped up a long time ago, repaired badly with Bondo, and now the Bondo is coming off. If you overlook the needed bodywork, it’s a pretty cool van, however.

1987 Volkswagen Vanagon GL – $5,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.1 liter overhead valve flat 4, four-speed manual, RWD

Location: Portland, OR

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Odometer reading: 230,000 miles

Operational status: Runs and drives well

Before and after there was the Corvair, there was the VW Type 2. Produced from 1949 until many years from now in various forms and layouts, the Type 2 is Volkswagen’s workhorse. Here in the US, the third-generation Type 2 van was christened the Vanagon, a portmanteau of “van” and “wagon.” Originally air-cooled like its predecessor, in 1983 the Vanagon’s engine became water-cooled. Vanagon “Wasserboxers,” as the water-cooled ones are known, are easy to spot – just look for the radiator grille above the front bumper.

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Despite the radiator up front, water-cooled Vanagons are still rear-engined, still pushrod flat-fours. A four-speed transaxle sends power to the rear wheels, with about a mile-long shift linkage connecting the tall shift lever to the transaxle. This one has a fuel-injected 2.1 liter engine. It runs and drives great, according to the seller, and has been a daily driver for years, accumulating nearly a quarter-million miles. Nothing lasts forever, of course, and the seller believes this Vanagon’s engine will be due for an overhaul “within a year or two.”

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Vanagons were available with all sorts of interior configurations, ranging from bare cargo vans all the way to pop-top recreational vehicles complete with kitchenettes. This one appears to have been a passenger van originally, but is now lacking its middle row of seats. It has what looks like painted plywood on the floor, and some sort of built-in drawer under the rear seats. The interior generally looks pretty good, if a little dirty.

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Outside, it’s a little scruffy, but generally presentable. It’s missing two bumper end caps, but Vanagons have enough of a following that you can probably get them from somewhere. I always thought Vanagons looked a little ungainly, but they’re growing on me as I get older. I think it’s the utilitarian aspect of them.

Chevy’s Corvair van only lasted until 1965, and while Volkswagen’s rear-engine vans soldiered on in Brazil until 2013, the boxer engine finally met its demise in 2006. VW vans, like nearly all small vans these days, are now front-engined and front-wheel-drive. Vans with rear-mounted boxer engines are no more, except for survivors like these. So what’ll it be – the one-generation-only Chevy, or the legendary Volkswagen?

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(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Dr. Asteroid
Dr. Asteroid
3 months ago

The Chevy has much cooler style. The VW has better daily quality and less age. Tough match for me.

67 Oldsmobile
67 Oldsmobile
3 months ago

I’ll take the Wanagon. Both because of my affinity for VW and because these things run forever and are easy to work on. The Corvan is probably the cooler one,but the VW looks like it would actually make a road-trip without loosing the floor on the way.

Swing_Axle
Swing_Axle
3 months ago

I daily drive an ’82 aircooled Vanagon, in LA freeway traffic no less. I can’t speak for the watercooled variants, but mine does just fine with its original engine.

As cool as the Corvan is, especially with it’s bigger engine, I’m firmly team Vanagon.

Masterbuilder
Masterbuilder
3 months ago

I cannot believe that Corvan is losing out so badly to a meh Vanagon. No even a proper Type 2 bus, but a Vanagon.

I swear that young guys today have no sense of style.

Mike F.
Mike F.
3 months ago

I can’t imagine that either would be a ton of fun to drive and both strike me as death traps in the event of a front end collision. Given that I don’t really want either of them, I’ll take the Corvair. It’s messier but undeniably more cool.

Joe The Drummer
Joe The Drummer
3 months ago
Reply to  Mike F.

I’ve owned a 1977 Type 2 Westfalia, and borrowed my wife’s parents’ 1986 Vanagon Westfalia for many road trips. Are they fun the same way a Miata or a GTO are fun to drive? No. Are they fun to drive as the tiny shrunken Greyhound they are? In a perverse, very slow way, yes. They’re a vibe.

And yeah, I’ll take the Corvair too, but only because it is indeed more cool, and more rare. I’m guessing the Vanagon is probably actually better to drive, though.

Mike F.
Mike F.
3 months ago

I just go back to the few experiences I’ve had in VW vans, which were not fun at all for me, although many others have no issues with them. I’m sure the Westfalia would be much better than that, so maybe this is unreasonable prejudice.

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
3 months ago

The Corvair Van is awesome as it sits. I’d investigate ways to simply arrest the rust. Perhaps adding a clearcoat. Maybe multiple coats of automotive wax, applied regularly. Either way, I’d try not to disturb that finish at all.

Then I’d outfit it as a camper/adventure vehicle, to haul kayaks and bicycles. I’m sure it could pull my little aluminum fishing boat, too. Any additional dents and scratches accumulated in the backwoods would not cause any concern.

I’ve ridden in a VW Vanagon and can’t imagine what they would be like fully loaded. The expected speed on US roads, even in backwoods areas, is faster than the VW can reliably provide.

In addition, while the Corvair wears its patina with pride and will never look any better or worse than it does now, the VW will simply look crappy as it ages. I’m not sure why there’s such a big contrast, but that’s my opinion.

Last edited 3 months ago by PaysOutAllNight
Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
3 months ago

The Vanagon is ugly, boring, and “needs an engine overhaul in a year or two,” probably means it will blow up on the way home. Corvan all the way!

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
3 months ago

If I’m gonna live in a van down by the river, I’ll take the VW.

Freelivin1327
Freelivin1327
3 months ago

Vanagon! Merry Christmas and Happy Festivus!

Cal67
Cal67
3 months ago

Wanted to pick the Corvan but every body panel on the right side is creased or dented. By the time you fix that properly you’ll be an extra $4K or more into it without paint.

OrigamiSensei
OrigamiSensei
3 months ago

The Vanagon might be the more sensible choice but the Corvan has presence and style. It would take some work but the finished product would be infinitely more interesting and exciting than the Vanagon could ever possibly be.

Dar Khorse
Dar Khorse
3 months ago

Save a kilo-buck and buy the one with unique character AND decent power. I have fond memories of the mid-70’s VW van we had when I was a kid (I know, it wasn’t a Vanagon) but having any kind of acceleration definitely isn’t one of those memories. Straining up a long hill with that little boxer crying out in its anger and its shame “I am trying, I am trying” but the speed remained the same.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
3 months ago

I’ve been out of the VW scene for some time, but I seem to remember that the transitional Wasserboxers had a few issues. With this having moon-mileage, many of those have likely been worked out, but, imo, an air-cooled 6 beats a specific-year-changes water-cooled 4.

Were it closer, I’d sell the Subaru, put some snow tires on it—and a propane heater in it—and go winter camping. Easy choice for me

A. Barth
A. Barth
3 months ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

put some snow tires on it—and a propane heater in it—and go winter camping

<hank>Heh, that’s a pretty dang good idea, I tell ya whut.</hank>

A few years ago I picked up a Little Buddy propane heater to take the chill off the workshop. (It’s rated for indoor use but the larger model in that line is not.) It would keep an insulated van nice and toasty.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
3 months ago
Reply to  A. Barth

I first used one in my garage years back. Now I have one with tipover & low oxygen safeties on it—and a CO alarm separately—for aux heating in the house when it gets below zero.

I was thinking the camper size, with an adapter to a bbq tank mounted on the back. And, the Corvair is already a beater, so I could take it in the woods without fretting much

Last edited 3 months ago by TOSSABL
A. Barth
A. Barth
3 months ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

Oops, I goofed: mine’s the Buddy heater (MH9BX), not the Little Buddy.

It has tipover and low-O2 sensors, and a discrete CO detector is a good idea. (I have one for the shop but haven’t used it.)

I also picked up the adapter hose that allows the use of 20lb propane tanks. The longer run time is nice and the tank can be located away from the heater, but on first use it takes a while to get enough gas to the heater (using the ‘prime’ button) to get the flame to stay on reliably. Still worthwhile, though.

A. Barth
A. Barth
3 months ago

Corvan, please!

I like an old VW but the Corvan is more likely to be able to go up a hill at freeway speeds.

It’s also insulated on the inside, which I really appreciate for some reason. The seller mentions it was a work van for a while; maybe that’s why, or maybe it was a sort of camper as Mark mentioned. The insulation probably provides some noise reduction as well.

I would remove the wooden platform and add some ratchet strap attachment points to the floor in the lower part of the cargo area. It would be easy to roll a small motorcycle (or two) up a gentle ramp and secure it (them) inside for transport, while having additional cargo room inside the rear doors/above the engine. Generally I think it would do van things a bit better than its competitor.

The Corvan is also $1000 less than the VW, which is nice.

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
3 months ago

Having grown up with series of air-cooled and water-cooled Vanagons, I’m going Corvair. I have many fond memories of the VWs, but they lack the style and uniqueness of the Corvair.

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
3 months ago
Reply to  Squirrelmaster

This is the answer.

DubblewhopperInDubblejeopardy
DubblewhopperInDubblejeopardy
3 months ago

I’d take the Corvair over the Vdub any day of the week. If I had the moolah, I would find a wrecked C8 Corvette and transplant the Corvair body over the C8 chassis.

Nlpnt
Nlpnt
3 months ago

VW because it’s a window van. If the Corvair were any other body style (especially a Rampside truck) it would’ve won.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
3 months ago

I was all ready to go Vanagon, despite my bias toward Corvairs, as the first picture looked like really serious rust and that is not an easy thing to deal with on these. But, California van and apparently just localized old body work that needs to be redone is less concerning than first glance, and the vans do carry some premium, so if you could sort out that issue and spot paint the area, it might not be a terrible deal.

10001010
10001010
3 months ago

I like both of these, but the Corvan speaks to me more for some reason. I can’t explain it.

Redfoxiii
Redfoxiii
3 months ago

Both of these are restoration/repair project candidates.

In my opinion the older Corvair will take a restoration better than the Vanagon, and has enough following (in the US, at least) for there to be multiple dedicated parts suppliers and re-manufacturers.

They both need various sorts of work, bodywork in particular being my sore point, so in this instance it comes down to which would be easier to work on and source parts for – in my estimation the Cor-van is the simpler of the two.

Bobfish
Bobfish
3 months ago

Vanagon, always. Dad had the ’84, manual, brown-on-brown-on-brown. I can still hear the sliding door closing after filling it up at the local garage sale. I can also find the fuel line under the front passenger side by feel alone (had to crimp it with dad’s vice-grips in it’s old age for better starting, then release to not stall!). Battery right under the passenger seat. He actually drilled out the bolt pattern on some Infiniti I30 6-spokes to fit, looked pretty good! Learned stick on that cane they put up front, any car after that felt like a short-throw race car. Speedometer stopped working about 8 years before he stopped driving it, never was an issue (highways were the only roads long enough for top speed, and VW engines plus aerodynamics decided that was 65 mph). I miss that smelly brown beast.

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
3 months ago

Corvan for me. Those flat sixes will run until the end of time. Plus the bodywork doesn’t look as bad up close as from far off. Being from the Northeast it looked like rust holes. That would be an automatic hard “no”. Zooming in it’s clear those are just flaking paint. There may still be pinholes that would need to be attended to but that’s far less intimidating than recreating structure. Folks are enthusiastic enough about these that someone likely knows someone who has a spare or three.

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