Is it time for the Corvair to come to an end of its run in our imaginary alternate reality? Like any series with sequels, at some point the main character has to die or transform into something else, right?
An innovative car that existed for only two generations over ten model years (1960-1969), the Corvair is a machine with which we here at The Autopian are obsessed. In fact, your humble automotive publication has attempted — via my drawings of Corvairs in an alternative universe — to show what would have happened if General Motors had somehow kept the dream of a rear engined compact alive. Through the imaginary generations 3, 4, and 5, we’ve shown how this layout of car could have stayed competitive long after its actual death in the real world.
Still, one has to believe that after thirty years, The General would finally decide to give in to the profits and make its compact car just a smaller version of the other front wheel drive models it offered. As much as I hate to see the all-things-to-all-people Corvair go Cavalier, maybe by around 1990 the time had come. Still, I wouldn’t weep too much. The name Corvair always meant new ideas in the true and imagined reality, and it’s going to stay that way with what would be the spiritual sixth generation: A hybrid.
The Backstory: The General Motors “Impact” Concept Car
You would think that, in reality, the world’s largest car company, which in many ways pioneered electric vehicle technology, would lead the market. However, in actual history, GM squandered the advancements it made, ended up with a public relations disaster, and then an eccentric South African kid started building EVs and ate the company’s lunch. Here’s what happened.
By the late 1980s, Ford had started the aerodynamics revolution while Chrysler had purchased Jeep and replaced slant sixes with turbocharged four cylinders. Sadly, after going front wheel drive at the beginning of the decade, General Motors had comparatively not done much in terms of dramatic design and innovation to its production cars. Behind the scenes, however, the world’s largest carmaker was working hard on the technologies that we’d start to see proliferating only recently. The 1990 GM Impact (terrible name) show-car was arguably the first real ground-up electric vehicle by a major manufacturer and a revelation after the Fairmonts-stuffed-with-lead-acid-batteries EVs we’d seen up to that point:
The Impact became the well-received “EV-1” production car later in the decade, only to be quickly discontinued, creating terrible optics and anti-EV conspiracy theories by the public. Truth be told, GM likely wasn’t lying when it said it could not profitably make electric cars at the time that battery tech was weak and EV infrastructure nonexistent.
But what if GM had been smart enough to realize that the future of initial EVs was actually gas/electric hybrids, and then changed its fortunes? Are you thinking it’s too early for that technology? Not really- remember the Briggs & Stratton Hybrid car from 1980?
The creation of this lawn mower engine manufacturer (which saw the light of day again recently thanks to our man Jason) was a bit crude, with a two stroke two-cylinder engine, but you can imagine what a company the size of GM could have done with it over the next decade (and were likely doing in some skunkworks at Tech Center). There is no reason that GM couldn’t have leapfrogged Toyota and prevented Tesla from ever existing to become the leader in what would become one of the most important automotive categories.
The Sixth Generation Corvair
With the 1989 EV-Air (pronounced EE-Vair), the sixth generation of Corvair would go back to its roots and lead a revolution for General Motors. The EV-Air would feature a hybrid drivetrain that would still utilize the horizontally-mounted inline four of the fifth generation Corvair in back but combine it with an electric motor/generator. Batteries would be placed under the floor of the frunk. This low-profile powertrain would allow the EV-Air to keep cargo space in back, expandable by folding down the rear seats. The fuel tank would still be like the Fiero and Fifth Generation Corvair by being mounted between the front seats (limiting its size, but then less fuel would be needed in a hybrid).
[Editor’s Note: I’m imagining this would be set up link a Chevy Bolt — the gas engine or the motor can propel the car. -DT].
The Impact’s styling looked dramatic and futuristic in 1990, yet I always thought there was something amiss with its pyramid-like bar-of-soap proportions. With its long tail and giant glass rear window it seemed like it should have had a hatchback, a rear seat, and better use of space. I also wasn’t a big fan of the squinty face which, combined with the heavy shape, made it look a bit like a poop emoji. The productionized EV-1 didn’t really fix things, and in many ways made it worse with detailing like bespoke taillights that still end up looking like parts-bin Saturn units:
With the EV-Air sedan, I’ve done some pushing and pulling with the car’s form in the name of making it more useful. Adding an extra set of doors and a hatchback, then exposing the rear wheels a bit gives the EV-Air a rather Citroenesque look similar to that of Toyota hydrogen cars of a few decades later. The nose is just slightly taller than the EV1 for increased frunk space.
More Body Styles
The EV-Air also offers the option to replace the hatchback with a wagon-style rear that hooks into the same hinges sort of like the eighties Pulsar NX. This means a sedan and wagon could easily be changed at the dealer or even by an owner years later (I’m thinking they could all be black to match any body color). See a clean six-year-old one on a used car lot, but really want a wagon? Just buy a wagon back, install it, and sell off the hatchback in the classifieds (this was pre-ebay and internet).
There is also a two door coupe, which would have a standard trunk lid instead of the hatch:
You can see the grille on back for the rear mounted radiator and round proto-Corvair taillights.
Old Innovation Returns
The real star of the lineup is the EV-Air Tropez coupe. Once again, I’m obsessed with the Sawzall works of Heinz Prechter’s ASC, the company that created innovative convertibles and open-topped cars for virtually every manufacturer. However, I am most intrigued by an idea he presented in the late seventies- the power operated T-Top roof. Here, the roof is essentially divided into thirds, and the left and right T tops electrically slide in on top of one another to open. There’s no fumbling with putting big glass panels into bags and stuffing them into the trunk.
This concept was shown on a gargantuan Toronado (and also an Eldorado or two), but GM apparently never got the operation and leaking under control. By 1989, I am sure the company could have figured it out, so our flagship Tropez coupe would have panels; simply lower all four windows (no B pillar), slide in the roof panels, and lower the rear window for open-air motoring.
Wouldn’t they just make a retractable hardtop? Possibly, but in 1990 we were still a few years early for that, plus retractable hardtops still require a lot of chassis stiffening and the lowered roof kills much trunk space. Not on the Tropez. Headroom in the center would get decimated by this system but there are no center seats in the Tropez coupe anyway.
On the interior, we have some obligatory Weird Shit (at least obligatory for me). The steering wheel hub connects with the side of the wheel, and the ‘pod’ is mounted to adjust up and down with the wheel. Everything is angled towards the driver and easy to reach, though the radio (recognize that thing from your old GM car?) is fixed. The parking brake blends into the console when released, and the ‘L’ stick gear lever features a gate for braking/recharging.
Below is a guide to the controls. Note that we would give the car a Prius-style animated schematic to illustrate power flow and energy usage, but in a fluorescent display since this predates LCDs. There’s even an illuminated logo above the glove box (likely later replaced by an airbag door). The standard-style turn signal stalk is hidden by the steering wheel in the picture, while the Tropez adds controls for the roof and rear backlight about the rear view mirror (plus an express open/closed button for all windows and roof panels).
What Would Have Happened?
Releasing such a technically advanced and radically different looking car would be a gamble for GM, but the styling only helps to reinforce just how revolutionary the EV-Air would have been. We couldn’t just shove this system into a concurrent Lumina, could we?
In 1989, we knew that electric-only range and regenerative braking would be in their infancy, but fuel economy would meet or exceed even the most stripped-down Geo Metro. It’s hard to imagine that the EV-Air couldn’t have succeeded in the market and probably been able to generate profits in a category that is usually a loss leader.
Would General Motors really care about the positive environmental impact of the EV-Air? I’m not sure, but as long as it was a safe car the ironic thing is that Ralph Nader would likely have publicly praised the social consciousness of the successor to the car he tried to kill three decades earlier. Could you imagine a bigger PR win for America’s largest car company?
All illustrations by The Bishop
Our Daydreaming Designer Takes The Chevy Corvair Into The Eighties By Borrowing Features From The Pontiac Fiero – The Autopian
A Daydreaming Designer Imagines The Corvair Surviving Into Days Of Disco – The Autopian
The Daydreaming Designer Imagines A World Where The Corvair Never Went Away – The Autopian
Our Daydreaming Designer Takes The Chevy Corvair Into The Eighties But In Van And Pickup Truck Form – The Autopian
“The productionized EV-1 didn’t really fix things, and in many ways made it worse with detailing like bespoke taillights that still end up looking like parts-bin Saturn units”
While the taillights did not originate not from the Saturn parts bin, the interior door handles and power lock switch did.
Nice Elec-Taurus !
Bishop, when did ASC come up with the retractable t-tops? Wondering if they pre-dated the Citroen SM Espace concept that came out in ’71 with segmented, retractable t-tops.
I love the L-shaped shifter, feels like a throwback to the throttle-style shifter in some older GM’s (well, maybe not a throwback, this would’ve been just past when the last-gen Toronado stopped using it when they did the long-tail refresh).
Maymar- actually the Toro in question I believe has an upside down ‘U’ shaped shifter, not an ‘L’. The U shape is awesome, I just thought the L would be easier to shift sideways to allow for energy generation as on Prius shifters.
Sorry, yeah, the U-shape is what I meant, assumed it still inspired the L-shape. I’m not sure GM ever used an L-shape, but the U-shape ended up in several of their personal luxury coupes from the 60’s to the 80’s.
So glad you kept going on this arc. The front is a bit too 90s GM for my taste, but these daydreams are based in semi-reality and that’s what makes them more appealing to me. I really like the wagon add-on (of course), and the Tropez top is great. Don’t recall having heard of that one.
I’m betting this took a bit of time and effort. The detail I really need to compliment you on is the line from the D pillar to the rear: it cuts that visually large rear into palatable sections. The GM radio fits well, too, but can I haz mine wit CB?
TOSSABL- I always liked the technology in the Impact/EV1, and the styling was suitably futuristic but a bit too obtuse. Glad you like the concept! Yes, it does take time but when people like yourself tell me that they find this crap amusing it’s worth it.
“I’m imagining this would be set up link a Chevy Bolt — the gas engine or the motor can propel the car. ”
Slight correction – the Chevy Volt was the plug-in hybrid; the Bolt is the pure EV.
That button filled dash is sooooooo much of its era.
Thanks for a really interesting series! It’s been quite a fun ride.
I love that the dash drawing includes the same old Delco radio/tape deck. Nice touch.
Mark- it was either that or a setup like on a Pontiac or Camaro Berlinetta with the buttons near the wheel and a separate tape deck down below.
Expect a call from Micheal Simcoe at any moment.
A perfect cap to the story, especially since GM did make some attempts at an electric Corvair:
Ended up reading about the different iterations when I owned a Corvair and got the club newsletter.
Sid- I was not aware of this one. Kind of odd that the Electric Corvair has what looks like a radiator grille under the front bumper!