Corvair Style by Richard Lentinello
Published in 2020 by Lentinello Publishing
196 pp., perfect-bound softcover
Purchased new from publisher’s website.
For many, the tale of Chevrolet’s Corvair is a sad one. The daringly different car from GM’s entry-level marque actually sold quite well but was an oddball among American cars. Not only was it a small car, it had an air-cooled, flat-6 engine, and they’d gone and stuck it where the trunk ought to be! Then, 5 years after its debut, consumer advocate Ralph Nader slammed the Corvair in his book Unsafe at Any Speed, citing a dangerous suspension flaw that made the car a death trap.
But for others, the Corvair represented forward-thinking. They saw it as a stylish, fun compact that gave a pleasant driving experience in an innovative package. Today the Corvair has a devoted fanbase, including long-time owners and collectors who often have more than one of these little cars in their stable.
Lentinello Publishing’s second book Corvair Style applies the formula used in Cadillac Style, Volume 1 to the compact Corvair – a high quality publication, with great photography and first-hand accounts from collectors. There are 50 Corvairs featured, representing every year of production. There is a slight bias to the 1964 model with 11 cars shown, while no other year has more than 7 cars featured. Most of these are sedans, coupes or convertibles of the usual trim levels (500, 700, Monza, Corsa), but there’s a couple of station wagons, a Rampside pickup, a Greenbrier van, and a number of Yenko Stingers and Fitch Sprints (including the one-of-a-kind Fitch Phoenix) to round things out.
As with Cadillac Style, Volume 1, this book presents the owners’ viewpoint. You get a real sense of their pride and enthusiasm for the Corvair. Many of these people mentioned, in one way or another, that their Corvairs are really fun to drive and handle quite well. Almost everyone mentioned the styling, and some had definite feelings preferring the early cars to the late ones, and vice versa. In almost every case, the car featured was not the owner’s first Corvair or even their only Corvair. Drivers describe their cars as adequately powered — maybe not ‘pin you back in the seat’, but capable of handling highway speeds with ease. But so many of them spoke of how their Corvairs were happiest on twisty country roads up to 50mph. That may seem strange given Nader’s assertion the car’s handling made it so unsafe.
The truth is, these cars do handle very well because of the rear weight bias and the suspension. The trick is maintaining proper tire pressures and knowing a little about how to drive a car set up this way. Over the years, an understanding about the Corvair has grown. Unlike most other contemporary cars, which recommend all tires have about the same pressure, the Corvair favours a larger variance — one Monza coupe owner says he maintains his front radials at 22lbs while the rears get 32lbs, allowing good handling at speed even when exiting the highway. Proper tire inflation mitigates much of the danger of the swing arm suspension, as does a knowledge of the car’s tendencies given much of the weight is in the rear.
On a personal note, the Corvair is a special car to me. For a few years of my childhood, my mom drove a Sandalwood Tan 1966 Monza coupe with the PowerGlide. It may be her favourite among cars she’s owned. When my grandfather passed and ma inherited his LTD, the Corvair became superfluous and someone she worked with jumped at buying it. I think ma regretted letting it go, even though she got a couple grand for it (in 1977!). But it really was a great little car to ride in, and I think a great looking car.
Looking back, it was a couple of things that did the Corvair in. Absolutely, Nader’s criticism of the early car’s suspension and assertion that it was inherently unsafe took a huge toll on sales. Thing is, Nader had tested a 1963 car, and Chevrolet had actually revised the swing arm suspension by the time his book was published. In 1971, government testing revealed the Corvair was no less safe than any comparable competitor car, especially when recommended tire pressures were used.
But perhaps more importantly, competition killed the Corvair. The Chevy II, Ford’s Falcon, Dodge’s Dart and Plymouth’s Valiant crowded the compact market. Of course, Volkswagen’s Beetle and other import cars also grabbed their share. To make matters even worse, Ford’s Mustang debuted to huge numbers in 1964, offering sporty good looks that could be had as an economical commuter or as a power-packed pony car. In 1967, Chevrolet created the Camaro to go head-to-head with other pony cars, and the Corvair was essentially done. It simply didn’t make sense to roll out Chevy IIs, Novas, 6-cylinder Camaros and still try to sell Corvairs, which shared almost nothing with the rest of the line up. Chevrolet allowed the Corvair to simply fade away.
How precipitous was the decline of the Corvair? Consider that in model years 1960-1965, Chevrolet sold almost 1.7 million cars, vans and pickups of the Corvair model. From 1966 through 1969? Just under 160,000, and almost 110,000 of that was in 1966, before the Camaro debuted.
Richard Lentinello’s Corvair Style is a wonderful book that shows off these stylish little performers very well. Certainly, the owners do tend to gush a little about their cars. But there’s no denying the passion these folks have for one of the best known yet misunderstood cars of the 1960s.
Pros: good variety of Corvairs represented; very good photography; high quality publication
Cons: a few minor typos
Where to find it: Lentinello Publishing