JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Bill Ulrich showed off his 1963 Chevrolet Corvair Spyder at last Saturday's Cruisin' Mopars of Jacksonville Northeast Florida and Region AACA annual show at the Baymeadows Junction Shopping Center.
The Corvair was GM's answer to Volkswagen's Beetle. Like the Beetle, it was powered by an air-cooled rear engine. But the Corvair was more powerful, with a six-cylinder that produced 80 horsepower. It was more stylish and roomy, allowing it to compete with cars like the Ford Falcon and Plymouth Valiant.
The Corvair was an instant hit for GM with a quarter-million sold in its first year. Chevrolet made a tremendous number of variations of the model that included a two-door, four-door, convertible, station wagon, six-door van, eight-door van and even a pickup truck.
Although the vans and pickup shared parts and had air-cooled rear engines, they had little -- if any -- of the cars' styling cues.
It may be hard to believe such a varied model line could also be sporty but that's exactly the word that describes Ulrich's Corvair.
He has one with the high performance 150 horsepower turbocharged "Spyder" option and four-speed manual transmission. According to corvaircorsa.com, the Corvair was the first production automobile to come with a turbocharger as a factory option.
The Corvair continued to be a strong seller for GM into its second generation, which was introduced for the 1965 model year, although by then sales were already sliding. Ralph Nader is widely credited with leading to the Corvair's demise. Nader slammed the Corvair's handling characteristics in his book "Unsafe at Any Speed."
Many in the automotive enthusiast community came to the Corvair's defense, pointing out that although a rear-engine car's handling might be different, it wasn't unsafe. In 1972, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration agreed, concluding the car's handling was inline with its contemporaries, according to a press release issued based on 1971 testing. But the findings came way too late.
In 1968, sales dropped to less than 16,000, with pony cars such as the Mustang and Chevrolet's own Camaro grabbing the sporty car market. The public had moved the beyond the idea of an air-cooled rear-engine American vehicle. By 1969, the Corvair was done with just 6,000 produced as another chapter of automotive history came to a close.
Production numbers cited in this story were obtained from Wikipedia.