By the mid-1950s, domestic car manufacturers were getting concerned about a growing buyer attraction to imports -- especially the smaller, less-expensive models that had lower operating costs and better fuel economy than full-size North American models.
Targeting the Volkswagen Beetle, with its simple construction, four-wheel independent suspension and air-cooled four-cylinder rear engine, General Motors felt it could do a better job for the North American market.
In crafting a better bug-killer, GM designers started with a larger six-passenger compact car able to carry growing American families. They stayed with an air-cooled rear engine but added two cylinders and a larger displacement that was better for highway driving.
In late 1959, the Chevrolet Corvair hit showrooms to mixed reactions. Wholly unconventional and totally unlike the compact Ford Falcon and Plymouth Valiant that had also just entered the market, the Corvair was a controversial buy. It was such a radical departure in design from what any other American manufacturer offered many buyers felt unsure and avoided the car.
Riding on a compact 108-inch wheelbase with a total length just over 180 inches, the Corvair was sized like the competitors. But that's where the similarity ended.
Available as a four-door sedan, coupe or station wagon, power came from a rear-mounted, all-aluminium, air-cooled, horizontally opposed, six-cylinder engine. It came with either a manual gearbox or extra-cost two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission, and had the usual optional-equipment packages familiar to Chevrolet buyers.
Enthusiasts liked the feel of the car and its rumbling rear engine. The introduction of the Monza Club Coupe in mid-1960 helped sales. The station wagon model was history by 1962 and the Monza Convertible and Monza Spyder took the stage, as did four-speed manual transmissions and turbocharged engine options.
An all-new Corvair arrived in 1965, with smooth styling and a Corvette-oriented rear suspension that improved handling, but two developments dashed any hope of Corvair sales ever really taking off. First, Ford introduced the Mustang to industry-leading success. Then, the quality of the 1960-'63 Corvair's swing axle and coil-spring rear suspension was criticized in Ralph Nader's book, Unsafe At Any Speed -- though, by the time it hit the book racks, GM had already worked out the suspension kinks.
Winnipegger Gino Moccia easily recalls the fun time he had with is Corvair in the late '70s and had his eye out for another one. "I had one in high school, and when I heard there was a really nice, restored 1966 Monza convertible for sale a couple of years ago, I was interested," he said.
The Monza was a recent full restoration, one about 90 cars in a Chicago-area collection. An original, rust-free car with just 52,000 miles on the odometer, it had been repainted in the original custom-ordered Lemonwood Yellow.
Topped with a yellow convertible top, striking white leather upholstery and white carpeting, it's a definite eye-catcher. Whitewall radial tires with full wheel covers, a tinted windshield and AM radio add to the appeal.
Powering the drop-top is the original 110-horsepower, Turbo-Air 164-cubic-inch six-cylinder engine. A $79 option over the base 95-hp engine, it's backed by a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. The only modification is a Pertronix 2 electronic ignition upgrade, and a full change of all fluids and filters.
"Instead of a project car, I wanted to find one that had already been restored," said
Moccia, who purchased the Monza for his wife Maria Lena as a birthday gift. They've attended many area car shows and took "Cruiser of the Week" honours twice in last year.
Just how rare is a 1966 Monza convertible? Well, there were 10,345 built in the U.S. and 279 in Canada. With 39 exported to other countries, that leaves only 241 that were sold in Canada.
With the introduction of the Camaro in 1967, Corvair sales continued to slide. Yet, with factory ratings of up to 180 horsepower and a solid aftermarket to add even more to that figure, it was a lightning rod for car guys. Lightweight, nimble and with moderately good handling, the Monza and Spyder models remain popular today.