Turbocharging Pioneers: Chevrolet Corvair

Classic Cars / Comments

The first turbocharged production car, the Corvair was different kind of car for the domestic market.

If we're going to cover cars which blazed a trail in the area of turbocharging, this is the only logical place to start. Though the Corvair would ultimately come to be remembered for its starring role in Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed, the Corvair was also the world's first turbocharged production car, a fact which is sadly often forgotten. It would take until 1974 for Porsche to introduce a model with a turbocharged air-cooled flat-six mounted in the back, but Chevy had one in 1962.

The more you know about automotive history, the harder it is to believe that the Corvair was ever built in the first place. American car companies have never been big on air-cooled engines, or flat engines, yet here was a car which had just such an engine, and it was rear mounted too, another oddity. The Corvair would end up being an easy car to love, and one which sold quite well, at least at first. The project was started in 1956. Sales of big cars were still doing well at that time, but imported compact cars were also picking up momentum, and American carmakers recognized that they should do something about this.

Sales in this segment would heat up after recession hit in mid-1957, and by 1960 the Plymouth Valiant and Ford Falcon were carrying the compact banners for their respective companies. Chevy's response for the compact segment was also for the 1960 model year, but it was a radically different car than anything else from the Big Three. The 2.3-liter flat-six engine was all aluminum and produced 80 horsepower, but the car had a power-to-weight ratio that was actually quite good for the price at the time.

The Ford Maverick Is The Small Truck Subaru Should Have Built
The Ford Maverick Is The Small Truck Subaru Should Have Built
All The Cool Trucks We Hope To See In 2022
All The Cool Trucks We Hope To See In 2022

In fact, although a station wagon body style joined the Corvair lineup in 1961, Chevy soon learned that Corvair buyers tended to be more attracted to the car's sporty nature than they were to its attempts at economy. So a new and more conventional compact car was dreamed up to go up against the Falcon and the Valiant, and the Corvair was given added sport emphasis. The sport line of Corvairs was known as the Monza, which was introduced toward the end of 1960. This would grow to become by far the most popular of Corvair models, with some 80 percent of Covairs sold in 1963 coming from the Monza line.

It was the Monza which, in 1962, would get the option of a turbocharged engine. The base Monza engine was the same as the regular car, but here it was tuned to produce 95 horsepower. Alongside this was the optional "Spider" engine, the 150-horsepower forced-induction version. There would eventually be another turbo engine, known as the "Corsa", which produced 180 horsepower. A rebadged Oldsmobile version known as the Jetfire would become the world's second turbocharged production car, debuting just a couple months later. This is sometimes called the first turbo car, but the Corvair was actually first.

However, the heavy lifting of the engineering work was done at Chevrolet. The sporty image was good for sales, with sales peaking at 337,371 units in 1961 and staying strong through 1965. Motor Trend had named it Car of the Year in 1960, and the second-generation Corvair, which debuted in 1965, received a shower of praise from none other than David E. Davis Jr., then of Car and Driver. The power figures might not have been amazing, but remember that the only Porsche available for sale in 1962 was the 356, which wasn't much lighter, offered less than half the horsepower of the Corsa engine, and was much, much more expensive.

With all of its exotic engineering, these were the kinds of cars the Corvair was up against, and it did very well. Two things would lead to the decline of the Corvair. The first was Nader's book, which suggested that the rear-engine layout of the Corvair made it inevitable that anyone driving one would die in a horrible crash, and probably soon. Of course, the much more popular VW Beetle had the same layout, but nobody cared, possibly because it wasn't as much fun, and fun is always the enemy of the safety-minded. A study at Texas A&M University in 1972 for the NHTSA would ultimately conclude that Nader didn't know what he was talking about.

Simply put, the Corvair was no more prone to crash than any of its contemporaries, but by then it was too late. Nader certainly didn't help, but the real undoing of the Corvair was the Ford Mustang. Debuting in mid-1964, the Mustang offered nearly 100 horsepower more than the top-end Corvair and for noticeably less money. Thus would begin the era of the pony car, as well as the muscle car, and there was no need for the expensive exoticism of turbochargers. The Corvair would hang on until 1969 before it was killed off, but sales slowed to a trickle from 1966 on.

Although the reasons why are easy enough to understand, it's still a shame that it took GM so long to get back into turbocharging. But when they did, the results were even more spectacular, more on that later in this series.

To Top