A Valuable Proposal

1964 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Coupe

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Look up “value” in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, and the first definition you see is: “the monetary worth of something.” Keep scrolling down, and eventually you find the alternate definition: “relative worth, utility, importance.” That’s reflective of how many enthusiasts view classic cars; value is primarily defined by dollars and cents. But the Chevy Corvair is a good reminder that there are other ways to define value. The first generation Corvairs (called “early models” or “EMs”) have long been overlooked by the collector/investor world, and yet they provide a wonderful classic car experience, while representing a key intersection in the history of American car design and engineering. Starting at about $4,000, you can have a solid driving and good looking example of a Corvair. The unrestored one pictured here sold for ~$4,200 recently, a total mint one might cost a bit more than double that. And while I would strongly discourage you from planning your retirement around the appreciation of your mint Corvair, when you are ready to move on, I bet it will still be worth about what you paid. That makes it a pretty compelling purchase for someone looking for a fun and usable classic, if not an investment.

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The early models spanned model years 1960 to 1964. For 1965 there was a refreshed body style (along with other mechanical changes), and while those cars trade for pretty reasonable money, they are still nearly double the price of first generation cars. The early models came in several different body styles, including sedan, coupe, convertible, wagon and van variants. All were powered by horizontally opposed 6 cylinder engines that were air cooled, and mounted at the rear. The Corvair was the first (and only) American car so configured. They were very much a response to the success that VW and Porsche were having with similar configurations in the beetle and 356 (and similar to the soon to be launched 911). There are distinct similarities between the early Porsches and the Corvair, like air cooled, rear mounted, “boxer” engines, rear swing axle suspension, and unit body construction. While the Corvair is sometimes called the American 911, once you drive both you know the similarities end on paper. These vehicles have a very different feel, personality, and price.

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Engine power and size varied among first gen Corvair models and over time, but it peaked in the first American made turbo charged production engine, a 164 ci unit with a single turbo charger, called the “spyder,” with a stout 150 hp.  Confusingly, there were “turbo air” and “super turbo air” options which weren’t really turbos, but rather naturally aspirated variants which started at 80 hp, and ended up at 110 hp.

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The example here is a 1964 Monza Coupe, with a beefier 110 hp motor, and a 4 speed floor mounted shifter.  This car is in its original “Bahama Green” color with saddle vinyl interior, and black wall tires. We know it’s the original configuration, because the first owner wrote letters to CORSA, the Corvair club of America, describing the day it was delivered.  He owned the car from 1964 into the early 2000s and kept extremely detailed records.  For those of us who enjoy cars as rolling history, the records add great value to this car. Let’s hope that hope successor owners protect the historic documents, and continue to chart this well loved example’s travels.

Driving a Corvair is a pleasure, but probably not best described as "exhilarating." They were sporty for their time, and this one even saw some time on the track at Lime Rock in Connecticut, but they are easily outgunned by a Corolla today. That does not mean, however, that they aren’t fantastic to drive. The sound of an air cooled boxer with flat tappets is unmistakable and nostalgic. Without the need to advertise Nurburgring lap times, the suspension actually works on the road. They are light compared to modern cars, and when you jack up just one corner you have a good appreciation for how stiff the unit body construction remains nearly 60 years on. Handling depends greatly on tire pressure. With its rear engine and almost no weight in the frunk, running lower pressure up front and firmer at the rear greatly improves feel and traction on turn in, as well as overall balance. It’s thought by many that lack of consumer understanding of this unique setup led to some of the reputation for scary handling.

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Most Corvair discussions eventually come around to Ralph Nader.  In his book, Unsafe at Any Speed, he profiled the Corvair, and declared that the suspension design was dangerous and resulted in rollovers, along with other safety issues like solid steering columns, and shoddy seat belts. The contrasting perceptions of the early Porsches and the Corvair are telling: Both cars had a tendency to enter corners forwards, and exit them backwards… and sometimes on the roof. Yet, the reputation of the Porsche was one of an uncompromisingly tuned Teutonic instrument that most mere mortals simply couldn’t tame. In contrast, the same driving characteristics led to the reputation of the Corvair as an unsafe car that epitomized American corporate greed and ineptitude. In reality, the tendency of owners to ball up their Porsches and Corvairs was probably some combination of inevitable physics, lack of awareness, and poor decision making.

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Really, Unsafe at Any Speed was more about the state of safety across the American automotive industry, and less about the Corvair itself. While the book undoubtedly stigmatized it, Ralph Nader’s contribution to the demise of the Corvair is probably exaggerated, as they continued to sell well after the book was published. More likely, GM just didn’t have the stones to keep making something so different (recall that even Porsche almost caved to the pressure to conform, originally penning the front engine V8 928 to replace the 911). After swimming against the tide for 8 years, GM moved away from light, unit body construction with modest but strong 6 cylinder engines, and merged back into line with heavy, body on frame, front mounted V8 engines. In that way, Ralph Nader shares responsibility for the decades long American love affair with gas guzzling V8s. Perhaps not the legacy he intended. Incidentally, he owned and daily drove a Corvair.

Nader be damned, Corvairs are special cars that hold a fascinating place at the intersection of American car culture, design, and engineering. They provide a pure classic car experience for not a lot of money, and in that manner I propose to you that they have a whole lot of value.