The Chevrolet Corvair was General Motors’ radical entry into the compact car market in the early 1960s. Restrained in styling and massing and with a rear six-cylinder boxer engine, it was quite a departure from the chrome-laden barges that were offered by GM at the time. The Corvair was a huge experiment for the company, and a number of variations on the theme were produced including a coupé and sedan, as well as a van, a truck and an estate wagon, all manufactured with the idea of a new compact expression of mobility, one that would stem the poaching of GM customers by Volkswagen and other domestic competitors.
But what has been underappreciated over the years is how successful the Corvair was as a platform for experimentation. A number of concept cars and drivetrain prototypes were produced during the decade that Corvair was in the GM lineup. GM stylists and engineers were particularly keen on producing a sports car from the little compact’s humble frame and drivetrain.
The first of these, revealed in 1961, was the Corvair Sebring Spyder, a roofless streamlined racer designed for road courses such as Sebring and Le Mans. The Corvair frame was shortened by eighteen inches and a supercharger was installed on the engine. The rear seat area, now greatly reduced, was turned into a luggage space ahead of the rear engine. The two seats were separated into two pods with their own low windscreens. Their headrests were raised sculptural elements that tapered into the extended engine cover.
The Sebring was followed by the Corvair Super Spyder of 1962. A more radical version of the Sebring, the Super Spyder, had been designed by Larry Shinoda, and sported a new scowling front mask. Again, the car was roofless and a low racing windscreen curved around the cabin. The interior was bit simpler with just one compartment for both driver and passenger. At the rear, a dramatic six-pipe exhaust lent sculptural flair to an already streamlined composition. The car was originally all-silver in colour, but was eventually painted a dark blue-grey, with a racing stripe that echoed that of the Sebring Spyder before it.
But the Spyder cars were essentially customised Corvairs, and were merely a preamble to more radical experiments with the rear-engined car. Bill Mitchell, GM’s legendary design chief, assigned Larry Shinoda and Anatole ‘Tony’ Lapine to a secret project to develop a true sports car for the Corvair.
The Corvair Monza GT, as the car would eventually be named, would be a departure from the standard Corvair layout. The frame was shortened 16 inches and the engine, a standard Corvair boxer six with two carburettors, was placed in front of the rear transaxle. Two seats and a passenger shell were anchored into the frame – the pedals and steering column were movable, much like today's LaFerrari. A curvaceous shark-nosed GT coupé body was stretched over the chassis. Entry was gained through a dramatic canopy that was hinged at the cowl and swung upward. Another canopy, hinged at the rear, covered the engine.
Up front, two clamshell flaps opened to reveal rectangular headlights – a dramatic but complicated solution. At the rear, the sculpted fascia contained quad tail lights and previewed the second generation Corvair. Also at the rear, the engine exhausts were sculpturally integrated into the rear fender; a simpler, more elegant version of the Super Spyder composition.
The Corvair Monza had its debut at Elkhart Lakes races in June of 1962. A fully running prototype, the Monza was the pace car for the race. The crowd loved it, scarcely believing the Monza GT’s humble Corvair origins. Afterwards, Jim Hall of Chaparral fame came up and introduced himself to Bill Mitchell, and asked if a V8 engine could be placed in the car. And thus began the GM/Chaparral partnership that would be so successful in the late 1960s.
Mitchell loved the attention the Monza GT got, and scheduled it to appear at the New York Auto show in early 1963... but Mitchell had a surprise up his sleeve. The Monza GT’s companion car, the Monza SS, would also make its debut in New York, making quite a display at the Chevrolet stand. Although at a glance the SS looks like a topless GT, the cars were actually quite different.
The Monza SS, which had a different numerical designation (XP 797) to the GT, was also a shortened Corvair but with the rear-engine layout retained. The cockpit was more like the Super Spyder, with traditional doors and a wraparound windscreen that flared back into the sculpted engine cover. The shark nose was retained with a similar headlight arrangement. A later SS, shown above and below, had clear covers over the lights up front and a roll bar/spoiler integrated into the rear deck.
Meanwhile, in Europe…
Bill Mitchell not only had plans for the Corvair in America; it was believed by GM that Corvair could be established in Europe – where a rear-engined car was not as much of a novelty – and could hopefully render some measure of revenge against Volkswagen for entering the American market. Again, Mitchell, seeking to give the Corvair some sports car bona fides, sent a couple of chassis to both Bertone and Pininfarina, and challenged them to create a sports car.
Bertone’s solution, called the Corvair Testudo, was designed by a young, then-unknown designer, Giorgetto Guigiaro. Nuccio Bertone was so proud of the result that he personally drove the car over the Alps to the Geneva show. There, the crowds gaped at the rounded sports car with a forward-tilting canopy, eerily similar to the American Monza GT.
GM team members, on hand for the reveal, were shocked. Accusations flew, but it was never proven that one studio copied the other. However, the Testudo was designed at the end of 1962, thus giving the Americans the stronger claim on the idea. Over at Pininfarina, an elegant sports coupé design was overlaid on the Corvair chassis. It remains perhaps the most elegant expression of the Corvair; perhaps more tailored and elegant than the Corvair brief itself.
So, by mid-1963 Bill Mitchell had a stable full of Corvair ideas to work with. But GM was on the defensive with regards to the Corvair, which had suspension problems and a reputation for accidents. Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, had targeted the car and Chevrolet’s little compact soon became an automotive pariah. Although the handling problems were fixed, the damage was done. There would be no sports car coming in the Corvair line.
But the design of the Monza GT and SS would not go to waste. Larry Shinoda, who had been working overtime on the Corvairs and the marvellous 1963 split-window Corvette, would soon turn his attention to a new series of Corvette concepts – which we’ll be telling the story of next week.