Home » Here’s Why The Chevrolet Corvair Is The Best Cheap Classic Car Right Now

Here’s Why The Chevrolet Corvair Is The Best Cheap Classic Car Right Now

Chevrolet Corvair Ts2
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Every day, people open up online car auction sites to gawk at air-cooled two-door cars with six-cylinder engines out back, sporting credentials, and possibly even forced induction. Who could blame them? The Porsche 911 is one of the most iconic sports car ever, and classic examples have the price tags to match. However, what if I told you that many elements of the air-cooled Porsche 911 experience could be had on the cheap, without resorting to water-cooled or four-cylinder engines? That’s right, move over Stuttgart, it’s time for Michigan’s own Chevrolet Corvair to shine.

Are those brave words? Sure, but they aren’t without precedent. In a 1963 road test, Car And Driver called the Corvair the “poor man’s Porsche,” noting that “The success of the factory-entered rally cars in various Canadian events, and a continuing succession of improvements, have made a warm spot for the car among automotive enthusiasts throughout the country.” However, while the Porsche 911 was canonized in the hall of sports car greats, the Corvair was crucified in the name of public safety.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

From Volkswagen-fighter to villain to bargain, the Corvair has lived a tumultuous legacy, but that legacy means it’s one of the great deals of the classic car world. On the North American continent, there’s nothing like it for the money, and the vehicle is far better car than popular sentiment may suggest.

From Humble Beginnings

1961 Corvair

In the 1950s, Detroit’s big three had left a little white space in the car market for other manufacturers to shimmy into. I’m referring, of course, to the compact car segment. From AMC to Volkswagen, all manner of manufacturers were fighting for that market space, and foreign automakers were making serious inroads. Obviously, the American establishment wasn’t going down without a fight, and while Ford and Chrysler were busy scaling down what they knew well, Chevrolet decided to take a more European approach.

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Corvair Greenbriar

With a rear-mounted air-cooled flat-six engine, a flat floorpan, unibody construction, and four-wheel independent suspension, the Corvair was unlike everything else coming out of Detroit, and GM’s throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks product planning approach gave customers some serious choice. I’m talking sedans, wagons, coupes, cabriolets, pickup trucks, vans — anything and everything to compete with Volkswagen. For the first two years of production, improvements were incremental. Then something big happened.

turbo go whoosh

For 1962, Chevrolet split the piñata wide open with the Corvair Monza Spyder, which wasn’t necessarily a “spyder” (i.e. convertible) and which draws its Monza name from a series of concept cars rather than directly from the Monza circuit in Italy. However, the odd naming convention doesn’t matter because the Monza Spyder was the second production car ever equipped with a turbocharger. Instrumented testing by Car Life magazine resulted in a zero-to-60 mph time of 10.8 seconds and a top speed of 105 mph. That’s good enough to keep up with modern traffic without substantial amounts of advanced planning. All of a sudden, the Corvair gained its wings, drawing a line in the sand regarding the future of the model.

All-In On The Sports Coupe

1965 Corvair

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For 1965, the Corvair was thoroughly redesigned to become something even better. With the Chevy II taking up the mainstream compact slot in the Chevrolet lineup, the Corvair was free to bet it all on black, chasing its dream of attainable, European-inspired performance. The swing axle arrangement was gone, replaced with a fully-articulated independent rear suspension. The B-pillar was also gone, for pillarless coupes always feel more special, and a 140-horsepower 2.7-liter naturally-aspirated flat-six effectively replaced the 150-horsepower turbo motor from the old Monza Spyder.

corsa cabriolet

That being said, a turbocharged engine was still on offer, this time with 180 horsepower. With the new zesty engines came the new trim designation of Corsa, and all was right with the world. Oh, and did I mention that this second-generation car looked stunning? Don’t just take my word for it, because here’s what David E. Davis had to say in Car And Driver:

And it is here too, that we have to go on record and say that the Corvair is in our opinion—the most important new car of the entire crop of ’65 models, and the most beautiful car to appear in this country since before World War II.

That is a bold claim, but not one without merit. Chevrolet’s stylists absolutely crushed it with the second-generation Corvair, with a shark-like front end, a Coke bottle silhouette, and solid proportions for a vehicle with an inherently awkward layout. Oh, and it drove properly too. In the words of David E.:

Our ardor had cooled a little by the time we got to drive the cars—then we went nuts all over again. The new rear suspension, the new softer spring rates in front, the bigger brakes, the addition of some more power, all these factors had us driving around like idiots—zooming around the handling loop dragging with each other, standing on the brakes—until we had to reluctantly turn the car over to some other impatient journalist.

With one redesign, the Corvair firmly transformed from economy car to reasonably-priced sports coupe, the anti-Mustang in every way imaginable. You just get a sense that it was built for Mulholland rather than Woodward, a rarity in the days of live rear axles and style-over-substance.

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Axle Of Evil?

swing axle diagram

Mention the Corvair in just about any conversation, and it’s only a matter of time before someone brings up Ralph Nader. The safety advocate’s book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile brought sweeping changes to the way cars were designed and engineered in America, but it also tarred and feathered the Chevrolet Corvair for its unusual swing axle rear suspension.

See, a swing axle arrangement gains camber under compression and loses camber in droop. While the former is a good thing, excess of the latter could theoretically lead to the outside rear tire tucking under the car, encouraging rollover. In addition, swing axles out back are typically tail-happy, and while decreasing the front roll stiffness with an anti-roll bar can mitigate this tendency, Chevrolet initially relied on a massive difference between front and rear tire pressures. However, several other automakers from Porsche to Volkswagen to Mercedes-Benz used swing axles at some point, and they weren’t put under the same scrutiny following the publication of Nader’s book.

Firstly, the Corvair was the scapegoat because it was the obvious homegrown car with a swing axle setup. Secondly, the Corvair wasn’t even that dangerous to begin with. In 1971, NHTSA tested the handling of an early Corvair against that of a late Corvair, a Ford Falcon, a Plymouth Valiant, a Volkswagen Beetle, and a Renault Dauphine. The result? Absolution, as per NHTSA report PB 211-015.

The 1960 to 1963 Corvair understeers in the same manner as conventional passenger cars up to about 0.4g lateral acceleration, makes a transition from understeer, through neutral steer, to oversteer in a range from about 0.4g to 0.5g lateral acceleration. This transition does not result in abnormal potential for loss of control.

The limited accident data available indicates that the rollover rate of the 1960-1963 Corvair is comparable to other light domestic cars.

The 1960-1963 Corvair compared favorably with the other contemporary vehicles used in the NHTSA Input Response Tests.

The handling and stability performance of the 1960-1963 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover and it is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles both foreign and domestic.

Boom. The Corvair was no more of a rolling hazard than many of its contemporaries. Oh, and let’s not forget that for the particularly squeamish, the second-generation Corvair did away with the swing axle design for a proper fully-articulated rear suspension setup. Mind you, the legacy of Nader’s book means that Corvairs are still cheap,

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How Cheap Are We Talking?

1963 Corvair 1

While Chevrolet made all manner of Corvairs, let’s jump right into the performance trims. While outstanding examples fetch decent money, the Corvair isn’t a car you buy to show off. It’s a car you buy to drive, and even on Bring A Trailer, driver-condition hot Corvairs are still sensible money.

1963 Corvair 2

This 1963 four-speed Monza Spyder cabriolet certainly isn’t perfect, although it does meet the definition of Michigan mint. There’s some surface corrosion on the underbody and some rust around the rear wheel arches, but nothing egregious. The paint is in a condition best described as well-loved, and the fuel gauge didn’t work at the time of the auction. The grand total for this summer cruiser? A mere $8,000 on Bring A Trailer in mid-2023. Yep, that’s not bad.

1966 Corvair 1

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Alright, but what about the sleek second-generation car? Well, here’s one that came up on Bring A Trailer in late 2023, and it’s a desirable Corsa turbo four-speed manual coupe. Being a southwestern car, it’s pretty free of corrosion, although it does have a few dings and other cosmetic imperfections. The seller did note that the odometer wasn’t function and the steering was a bit tired, but this is a nearly 60-year-old car, and would you really trust a five-digit odometer anyway?

1966 Corvair 2

Even though this is the bee’s knees as far as hot, standard production Corvairs go, this white shark only fetched $10,000 on Bring A Trailer. That’s ten grand for some of the eccentricities of an air-cooled Porsche 911. If that isn’t solid value, I don’t know what is.

Corvair Corsa Spyder

If you’re willing to put up with a more patinated vehicle, you can hop on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace and find hot Corvairs for as little as $5,000. Here’s a primer-sprayed Corsa cabriolet on a lively set of aftermarket wheels for $5,200 in the San Fernando Valley. That’s project MG B GT money for a flat-six drop top. Who could argue with that? Sure, it isn’t the coveted turbocharged model, but the 140-horsepower Corsa isn’t that much slower than a turbo car.

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Bargain Of The Year

1962 Corvair Monza 1

Everyone loves a good redemption arc, and the Chevrolet Corvair is primed for one. In 2023, the Corvair’s handling is a non-issue. Actually, it’s better than a non-issue, as it’s downright joyous. Controllable, progressive oversteer with classic looks, solid performance, and a reasonable price tag? That’s hard to ignore. Don’t sleep on the Chevrolet Corvair, for it might just be the budget-oriented driver’s car you’ve been craving.

(Photo credits: Bring A Trailer, Chevrolet, Craigslist seller)

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Balloondoggle
Balloondoggle
22 days ago

My grandma had a ’68 that I wanted, but she traded it in for an Escort in ’87. Wouldn’t sell it to me because of that book, and I was 18 and working for fast food wages.

Framed
Framed
3 months ago

“ a swing axle arrangement gains camber under compression and loses camber in droop”

I think this is backwards.

Bruce H
Bruce H
3 months ago

If you have to have wildly different tire pressure front and back to make your car safe to drive, you are guilty of bad suspension engineering. 99% of drivers never check their tire pressures unless they are visibly low. You can’t design a car that only gearheads can drive safely.

Nobody talks about it anymore, but the Porsche 914 was notoriously treacherous to drive if the tires weren’t exactly right. I remember seeing somebody spin one doing a lane change on the 405 when I was a kid in the OC in the late 1970’s.

Stephen Walter Gossin
Stephen Walter Gossin
3 months ago

the cheapest Corvair out there: The one that is still sitting in the Central American jungle to this day.

How did this not come up here in the Comments yet?! It’s the best part of Greater Corvair Lore.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=ghgRH9m2fOI&t=1502s

Kleinlowe
Kleinlowe
3 months ago

 The Corvair was no more of a rolling hazard than many of its contemporaries.

Ok, but wasn’t that the the entire point of Unsafe? It’s been the hottest of minutes since I’ve actually had the book in my hands, but I remember it being an indictment of the state of automobile safety across the board, using the Corvair (and others) as examples. Aaaand I don’t think anyone would really disagree with the thesis “Most cars of the 1960s were ill-handling, unreliable deathtraps.” these days.

That’s a bit like dunking on ‘Supersize Me’ by saying ‘Well, McDonald’s isn’t any less healthy than any other fast food chain!’. I’m not sure that’s worth a ‘Boom’.

It’s kind of funny how Unsafe has gone down in history as ‘Aww, mean ol’ Mister Nader is pickin on the poor Corvair!’, which conveniently exonerates all the other cars of that era built with cost-reduced and styling-first features that quite happily turned anything worse than a parking-lot fender bender into a splatterhouse-style gorefest.

It’s kind of like someone had some kind of vested in discrediting Nader and spent a bunch of money on PR, whisper campaigns and a private investigator to smear him… Nah, that’s conspiracy theory talk, I’m sure.

Bassracerx
Bassracerx
3 months ago
Reply to  Kleinlowe

It makes sense that the intent of the book was “america can do better than this.” but the court of public opinion decided that the book was a witch hunt against the corvair and sales of the car plummeted and it was not cost effective to try and change american’s mind to get them to buy a car nobody wants anymore because the evening news said the car is unsafe. GM had to stop selling the corvair because of that book. The truth is almost irrelevant if the people believe the car sucks and they don’t want it that’s all that matters.

Nader would have been better at conveying his message by not singling out the corvair but in doing so he got a lot of media attention and sold a lot of books.

Kleinlowe
Kleinlowe
3 months ago
Reply to  Bassracerx

While many sources claim that Unsafe made GM stop producing the Corvair, I’m not sure I completely buy that narrative. The second generation Corvair was produced from 65-69 (nice), the same length of time as the first generation. Also, while Unsafe came out in 65, something else more dangerous to the Corvair did, too; the Mustang. If you were in the market for a sporty, small car in 1965, you would see the Corvair, which started at $2000 (with the Monza and Corsa at $2500) but if you took your $2500 across the street to Ford, you could get a Mustang with a V8. American consumers in the 1960s were much less concerned with handling than with sheer horsepower – so the Corvair became a hard sell, regardless of Unsafe.

Considering the length of the second generation’s production run, I think it’s more accurate to characterize the end of the Corvair as ‘not getting a 3rd generation’. As for why that didn’t happen, I think competition from the Mustang turning GM’s attention to the Camaro, the Corvair’s engine reportedly being the most expensive to manufacture for GM at the time, and monocoque construction meaning that GM couldn’t ameliorate any R&D costs by reusing them across other product lines were more influential. Keep in mind that in 1963, uniqueness had doomed the far more conventional ‘rope drive’ Tempest.

So yeah, the whole ‘Oh, poor us, mean ol Mister Nader made us kill the sweet lil Corvair and forced us to produce more conventional cars that offered a higher profit margin.’ story feels… bleh. If GM hadn’t cost-reduced the 1st gen Corvair’s rear axle, it wouldn’t have been made the poster child for terrible midcentury automotive engineering.* GM shot themselves in the foot, then successfully convinced Americans for the next 60 years to blame the gun, the bullet, and the foot for conspiring to do them harm.

*Yes, yes, other cars. But it takes a heroic effort or a really big hill to get a 1960s Beetle up to roll-over speeds and the number of Triumph or Mercedes sold was essentially a rounding error compared to the Corvair.

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