2 May 2006

1965–66 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: Ralph Nader didn’t kill the Corvair. Blame can be more squarely placed on the Camaro, the pony car that rendered Chevrolet’s weird, rear-engine small car irrelevant to its product planners. Indeed, when the Camaro was introduced in 1967, the top-of-the-line Corvair Corsa series was put out to pasture – and if not for Nader’s polemic book, Unsafe At Any Speed, the whole line would’ve been axed at the same time.

But either to spite Nader or to give the impression that GM wasn’t going to buckle under pressure, the Corvair was kept in production until 1969. Alas, safety standards requiring a locking steering column, which the Corvair didn’t have, went into effect in 1970 and thus became an excuse to end production of what could rightfully be called the most controversial car of the 20th Century.

Fun at Every Speed
All drama aside, the Corvair was actually a cool American sports car with a very un-American design. After five years of production, Chevy stopped trying to sell the Corvair as an American Volkswagen, and realized that with a few tweaks, what they really had was a U.S. Porsche. To this end, the performance-oriented Corsa hardtops and convertibles were introduced with 1965’s restyling. Further, advertising that linked the Corvair to the Corvette meant a new cadre of performance-minded owners discovered that this radical (for Detroit) smaller car had superior handling to your typical Chevrolet. Of course, in that era so did most farm tractors.

The second-generation Corvair had a decidedly more European flair, with more than a few styling cues borrowed from two design studies by Pininfarina. Not only did the new Corvair do a better job of looking the part of a sports car, but several engineering changes made it act the part too. Most notable was the fully independent rear suspension derived from the Corvette Sting Ray, which gave the 2,400-pound Corvair nimble handling.

The base engine for the Corsa was a new 140-hp configuration of the 161-ci, air-cooled boxer six, fitted with four one-barrel Rochester carburetors (two per cylinder head, acting as a primary and a progressive secondary for each bank) and redesigned heads with larger valves and slightly better porting. A turbocharged engine option was available, now tuned to 180 hp and capable of providing a spirited 10-second run to 60 mph.

In theory, the base level transmission was a three-speed manual, but I’ve never seen one in a Corsa, regardless of the engine. In 1966, the four-speed was the same Muncie unit as supplied in the V-8-powered GM muscle cars. This and other refinements in trim and amenities generally make the second year of Corsa production more desirable.

Avoid the Turbo
Turbo Corsas are at the top of the pecking order for desirability, but after 20-plus years of personal experience around the cars, let me offer this advice: If you plan to drive your car, don’t bother with the turbo. Turbo Corvairs are fussier to live with, more difficult to work on, and you really have to wind the motor up to get any power out of it. Under 3,000 rpms, the turbo is just creating backpressure and you’re basically driving an 80-hp car. This was one of the reasons that the turbo engine was never offered with an automatic transmission.

For the most enjoyable real-world driving, get a Corsa with the 140-hp engine, which has excellent torque all across the powerband. Even from a dead stop, just put your foot into it and the four carbs give you power right away, with more for the asking.

One pitfall that tends to plague the four-carb engine is a propensity to drop valve seats. This is mainly due to the larger valve surface area, although other Corvair engines can be and are similarly afflicted, usually when working the engine hard, then coming off the gas abruptly (like climbing a hill and coasting down, or coming off the freeway onto a cloverleaf). Remember to downshift and you shouldn’t have a problem.

The other drawback to the four carbs is the somewhat intensive labor to correctly synchronize them, but once set up they tend to stay in tune. As a progressive secondary at the end of the fuel lines, the fuel system for the “back” carbs doesn’t recirculate, so if you don’t work the engine hard, the gas in those carbs can get stale or even percolate out. This is not an issue if you make it a point to run the car at full-tilt at least once each time you drive it – not exactly a tortuous task.

As GM’s first unibody production car, Corvairs were heavily undercoated. So heavily, in fact, that it peeled and cracked significantly within a year or so, allowing moisture in, so rust is always a problem. A rust-out idiosyncrasy tends to occur at the base of the A-pillar and windshield, and even cars reared in salt-free regions of the country can have bubbling in this part of the body. Repairing this correctly (in lieu of the usual Bondo-stuffing) is not easy to do, especially on a convertible, as the upper portion of the cowl really should be replaced.

The Corvair Cult
The Corvair has always had a cult following, no matter the year or model. Traditional Chevy guys won’t have anything to do with the cars, and Corvairs have long suffered the stigma of being cheap – with even cheaper owners.
But lately Corvairs are being discovered by a new generation of enthusiasts who weren’t even born in the ’60s, and these kids don’t hold such preconceived notions. Heck, they think Ralph Nader is just some wacko who cost Al Gore the 2000 presidential election. I say more power to ’em, as the only thing their new-found enthusiasm can do is drive up the value of my rusty, trusty and potent ’65 Corsa.

Years produced: 1965-1966
Number produced: 39,116 (27,621 hardtops, 11,495 convertibles)
Original list price: $2,666 (1965 Corsa hardtop)
SCM Valuation: $3,800–$8,200 (hardtop), $4,400–$10,600 (convertible)
Tune-up/major service: $150
Distributor cap: $10
Chassis #: in the engine bay, alongside the battery on the left side structural rail
Engine #: stamped on the engine block, between the alternator support casting and the engine top cover
Club: Corvair Society of America, Lemont, IL, www.corvair.org
Alternatives: 1965–1967 Porsche 911, 1966–1973 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, 1967–1969 Chevrolet Camaro
SCM Investment Grade: B

– B. Mitchell Carlson
Sports Car Market magazine

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