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Chevrolet Corvair

The Chevrolet Corvair remains one of General Motors' most unusual creations. Design began in 1956 under the auspices of Ed Cole, and the first vehicles rolled off the assembly line in late 1959 as part of the 1960 model year.

The Corvair -- like the Ford Falcon, Studebaker Lark, Nash Rambler, and Chrysler Valiant -- was created in response to the small, sporty and fuel-efficient automobiles being imported from Europe by Volkswagen, Renault and others.

The entire line, which eventually grew to incorporate sedans, coupes, convertibles, vanss, pickupss and station wagons, was initially based on an aluminum, air-cooled 140 cubic inch flat-6 engine mounted in the rear of the vehicle in the style of the Volkswagen Beetle and the Porsche 356 Speedster. (The "trunk", on the other hand, was in the front of the vehicle.) The first engines produced as little as 80 horsepower, but later developed as much as 180.

The early 1960 models were rather boxy and had few amenities, but the line quickly grew from plain 4-door sedans with bench seats (the base 500 and slighly more upscale 700) to sportier 2-door coupes with bucket seats (the Monza 900).

For 1961 Chevrolet added an optional 4-speed manual transmission to augment the standard 3-speed manual transmission and the optional 2-speed automatic transmission. This seemingly minor addition proved to be the spark that ignited the Corvair line and separated it from the better-selling Ford Falcon.

A rear-engine station wagon, the Lakewood, was also added to the lineup in 1961, and it contained a total of 68 cubic feet of cargo room -- 58 in the main passenger compartment, and another 10 in the "trunk" under the hood. Engine heat and gasoline odors migrating up through the floor of the station wagon proved to be a persistent problem with this particular model, however.

That same year, Chevrolet also added a panel van (the Corvan), a window van (the Greenbrier), and a pickup, which was notable not only for the fact that the air-cooled engine was mounted under the pickup bed, but that the side of the pickup bed folded down to form a ramp, hence its name, the Rampside.

In 1962, Chevrolet began to phase out the austere 500 series and introduced the 150 horsepower turbocharged Spyder for the 1963 model year, making the Corvair the first production automobile to come with a turbocharger as a factory option. With Porsche squarely in its sights, the Spyder introduced a close-ratio transmission, improved brakes and suspension, and a multi-gauge instrument cluster which included a tachometer. A convertible option was added as well.

The lineup remained relatively unchanged for the 1964 model year, with the exception of the engine growing from its initial 140 cubic inches to 164, the base horsepower growing from 80 to 95, and the Monza engine growing from 95 horsepower to 110. The 150-horsepower Spyder engine remained unchanged.

However, 1964 also saw a critical improvement in the Corvair's suspension in response to growing pressure from consumer safety advocates. In particular, a young lawyer named Ralph Nader wrote a book called "Unsafe at Any Speed" in which the Corvair (and its tendency to roll over) was used as a dramatic case study, though it should be noted that a 1972 safety commission ultimately exonerated the Corvair and declared it no more unsafe than any similar vehicle of its era. However, Nader's book, which was published in 1965, was a severe blow to the Corvair line, and the sporty, inexpensive Ford Mustang, which was introduced in late 1964 in response to the Corvair, ultimately finished off Chevrolet's bold experiment.

A dramatic redesign of the Corvair body and suspension and introduced several powerful new engines came in 1965. The new body style lay somewhere between that of a baby Chevrolet Corvette Stingray and a mid-1960s Italian sports car and foreshadowed the 1967 Chevrolet Camaro that eventually replaced the Corvair. A new fully independent suspension similar to that used on the Corvette replaced the original swing-axle rear suspension. The previous 150-horspower Spyder was replaced by the normally-aspirated 140 horsepower Corsa and the 180-horsepower Corsa Turbo. The 140-horsepower Corsa was notable for the fact that it used 4 linked carburetors. The base 95-horsepower and 110-horsepower Monza engines were carried forward as well. By the point the more utilitarian station wagon, van and pickup body styles had all been dropped in favor of the sportier coupe, sedan and convertible styles.

The 1966 lineup remained essentially unchanged from 1965, and sales began to decline as a result of Nader's book, the popular new Mustang, and rumors of the upcoming Camaro.

In 1967 the Camaro was introduced and the Corvair line was trimmed to the base 500 sedan and coupe, and the Monza sedan, coupe and convertible.

In 1968 the line was trimmed even further to just the coupe and convertible, and only a few thousand were sold.

Corvair production finally ceased in 1969 with sales of only a few hundred cars, a victim of Nader's book, Ford's Mustang, and Chevrolet's own Camaro.