Sale of the Week

Offbeat Americana: are Corvairs still under the radar?

by Eddy Eckart
2 July 2022 4 min read
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Bring a Trailer/edventure.

Though made infamous in the 1960s because of the way its rear-engine layout handled, the Corvair has led a rather obscure existence as a collector car. Despite the Corvair’s die-hard fanbase, they’ve remained consistently affordable for decades. With this week’s $27,037 sale of a 1965 Corvair Corsa, is the rest of the world is beginning to catch on to what makes this little grocery getter so special?

If you’re a car enthusiast with any passing knowledge of Detroit’s heyday, you know the story well: an enterprising Ralph Nader successfully made a name for himself in 1965 by asserting that the Corvair was inherently dangerous in his book, Unsafe At Any Speed. Sufficiently scared by the allegedly treacherous driving dynamics (and intrigued by more conventional options like the Mustang, which became available around the same time as Nader’s attack), the public shunned the Corvair, leaving it to die a slow death by 1969.

That’s a shame because the Corvair wasn’t dangerous: it was just different, as our editor-in-chief Larry Webster can attest.

The reality was that the handled rather well for its time and was predictable—as long as you knew what to expect from a car with most of its weight in the rear.

Photo courtesy Bring a Trailer/edventure

This week’s sale offers a window into how technologically advanced Chevy could be way back in 1965. Created during an era of incredible design and innovation at General Motors, the compact Corvair embodied a willingness to try a fresh approach at an economy car while other manufacturers were merely downsizing the existing front-engine, rear-drive architecture that ruled the day. Under the hood of this top-of-the-line Corsa sits a 180-horsepower turbocharged, air-cooled aluminum 2.7-liter (164-cubic inch) flat six mated to a four-speed transaxle. A trailing arm independent rear suspension replaced the first-gen Corvair’s swing axle setup for 1965. Inside, the flat-floor interior sports a 2+2 seating layout, telescoping two-spoke steering wheel, and a full complement of gauges.

The tech and comfort is wrapped in a perfectly-proportioned package that David E. Davis called “the most beautiful car to appear in this country since before World War II” in the October, 1964 issue of Car & Driver. It’s hard to argue with that statement, and this car’s subtle addition of Buick GS-like fifteen inch wheels add to the clean looks.

Photo courtesy Bring a Trailer/edventure

Speaking of modifications, this car sports a variety of add-ons, including a faster steering rack, cut HD factory springs, aftermarket ignition, and a host of comfort-oriented changes to the interior. This is not a concours car by any stretch, but all the changes appear well-executed and most are easily reversible. Besides, it appears that the Corvair community doesn’t greatly devalue cars with tasteful modifications, and this car’s well-documented build thread gave bidders confidence.

As often happens, a vibrant discussion flourished in the Bring a Trailer comment section. User Chebby caught my eye with an astute assessment: Corvairs are unique in that they’re not V-8-enough for the usual bowtie crowd and not German enough for the usual air-cooled people, so by and large the community has been pretty isolated and costs have remained reasonable. So, when a nice Corvair like this one pops up on a high-traffic place like Bring a Trailer, how long will it be before the speculators move in and ruin the party?

It’s impossible to predict the future, but data from the Hagerty Price Guide indicates that even in our red-hot market, the Corvair remains something of an acquired taste.

Except for a slight downturn in 2017 among all but #1 Condition cars, median values slowly increased or held steady up to the beginning of 2021. Corvairs have since followed the consistent market trend of #1 and #2 Condition cars seeing the most gains (12.8% and 23.7%, respectively), while driver quality cars followed a more modest appreciation. This is in contrast to standout examples like Porsche's 996 911, which has shot up some 40-50 percent in the latest surge. It's safe to say that the Corvair, while trending upward with much of the rest of the market, has yet to break through as the next big thing. Note that these numbers represent Corvair data as a whole, so a clean top-trim Corsa example like the one in question will transact well above median.

Photo courtesy Bring a Trailer/edventure

It turns out that within the growth of Corvair values, this particular car is pretty well-bought. A #2 Condition '65 Corvair Corsa with the turbo engine is valued at $31,800. Our team gave this car a "2-" Condition rating, meaning that it's an excellent driver car with only minor issues to be addressed. We felt it is likely accurately priced within the market. 

To Chebby's point about how insular the Corvair club may be, there's beginning to be interest from places you might not expect. Boomers continue to place most of the insurance inquiries for second-gen Corvairs, making up 45 percent of quotes. However, Millennials and Gen Z have shown the greatest uptick in interest, seeking 20 percent of quotes, an increase of six percentage points over two years. With younger generations knocking on the door, the Corvair crowd may soon find it has a new set of quirky car lovers. Whether the younger cohort drives up prices or if their numbers are significant enough to move the market remains to be seen.

In a different universe where Nader instead wrote about the Volkswagen Beetle and thus gave the Corvair a chance to further develop its place in the market, its collector status could be very different indeed. And, had its 30-mpg flat six survived into the gas crisis of the '70s, GM's look may have been very different through the malaise era. As it stands, though, the Corvair's attributes and story make it a standout among mid-century American cars, and it should be celebrated. Just not too much, so Corvair fans can continue to preserve their affordable fun.

Comments

  • Don Homuth says:

    The decision to end Corvair production as of the 1966 model year was taken by GM/Chevrolet in March-April 1965. Nader’s book, which does indeed discuss the shortcomings of the Folksbuggen in a later chapter, didn’t hit the stands until 11/31/65 – 7-8 months later. Book or no book, the Corvair was not destined to survive after 1966, and did only because GM decided to persist with it as a means of holding off lawsuits.

    • Toivok says:

      Don, have you finished your beautiful Corvair convertible?

      • Don Homuth says:

        Pretty much done. Finally found the correct remote control mirror — made of unobtainium. A guy in Murfreesboro TN had one sitting on a shelf for 35+ years. The last correct component required. Need one final buff of a slight swirl on the engine compartment lid, and need to look into an output shaft with a slight leak, and it will be Done. Seven long years, right down to nothing and back up. It’s entered in the Forest Grove Concours 7/17. Best of all, it’s a treat to drive.

  • George Costello says:

    The swing axle early Corvairs were dangerous in that most American drivers were unprepared to deal with all that weight behind the rear axle. Hit a wet spot in a curve or some loose gravel on the road and the rear end could spin around unexpectedly. I learned that the hard way in my ’63 turbocharged Spyder. Swing axles have never been a good suspension solution on any car, but they are cheaper than the better alternative GM installed in ’65 — which should have been on the car from it’s introduction. The car’s early critics were correct to point out it’s inferior & potentially dangerous design. You had to live with one to fully understand.

    • JohnL says:

      I agree with the swing axle issues but, nobody added that the VW Beetle had swing axles from day one and were also know for the rear end to break suddenly and spin out and even roll over! Too bad the early Corvairs got all the negative press and the Beetle continued to sell millions well beyond the demise of the Corvair

  • Michael Ingrassia says:

    I had to laugh looking at the picture of the yellow Corvair going thru a corner (will the Corvair kill you) , Look at all the rust popping out on the front!! Big problem for GM on the Corvair!

    • Jack Ramey says:

      Thats BS on the swing axel, they are not dangerous to drive , Vw had swing axel until 1968, Porsche until 1965, Mercedes had them.Bad drivers that don’t know how to drive them is the problem.

  • MJ Posner says:

    The Nader issue was mostly only the very early models, and that design shortcoming was corrected by 62, and gone by the 2nd gen fully independent suspension. (https://www.goldeagle.com/tips-tools/was-the-corvair-as-bad-as-ralph-nader-claimed/). Also, the Corvair has a great support system, a large 3k+ member national organization and parts availability is very high. 1.9 million sold is still a lot of cars.

  • Bill Traeger says:

    I’m of the generation where the word Cool carried a certain respectability along with the approved head nod. Awesome need not reply. The Corvair is Cool

  • Jim r says:

    That yellow car had a grossly underinflated rear tire, the problem that caused the Corvair to get a hatchet job. Another car other than the Beetle, which had a dangerous swing axel, was the Austin Healy Sprite.
    The 65 and up Corsa was a super handling vehicle… so great that Porsche copied that car several years later, with their rear engined, air cooled flat 6, Turbo which everyone thought was so great. Too bad that Chevrolet didn’t continue development. Missed the boat on that one!

  • Ronald Thomas Anderson says:

    I own a 68 monza. I would consider it to be a #2 driver. 65k miles. Needs a couple of minor fixes.

  • Allan Lacki says:

    FYI: It was the Triumph Spitfire that had swing axles, not the Austin Healey Sprite. The Spitfire’s swing axle suspension was subject to jacking, but they were fun to drive nonetheless. See:
    https://www.triumphexp.com/phile/8/135605/SWING_SPRING_SPITFIRE.jpg

  • Anthony says:

    Nader did go after the Volkswagen Beetle in his book, “Small-On Safety” in 1972. By then, most, if not all, of the issues such as swing-axle suspension had been addressed by VW.

  • Brad says:

    Someone mentioned 356 Porsches had swing axles, also Mercedes 190SL, 230SL, and four seat Mercedes, Renaults for the US market. Fiats with rear engines. Really, a chassis design attribute that was widely used outside the US in the 50’s and 60’s.

  • Brad says:

    Someone mentioned 356 Porsches had swing axles, also Mercedes 190SL, 230SL, and four seat Mercedes, Renaults for the US market, Fiats with rear engines. Really, swing axles were a chassis design attribute that was widely used outside the US industry in the 50’s and 60’s.

  • Ted Wilming says:

    The swing axle issue has been hashed over and had GM put camber compensators on or limiting straps it would not have been an issue. Then driver inattention, stupidity, or substance abuse is always a factor… The 1965 up Corvette style maybe should have been installed in the beginning, however the Corvair wasn’t a cheap auto to build (parts interchangeable was a big issue) and the bean counters had the final say.

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