Porsche: Excellence Was
Poor man’s Porsche
As we’ve since come to learn, there are some distinct disadvantages to mounting the car’s heaviest component behind the rear axle — such as an often surprising tendency to spin out, sort of like an arrow weighted at the end. If that all sounds very Porsche like, it should be borne in mind that the Corvair has more in common with Porsche’s iconic 911 than many people credit. Both cars share the same basic rear engine and rear-wheel-drive architecture; both are powered by flat-six engines and feature swingaxle suspension in the rear — the Corvair eventually shifting to a more conventional rear set-up. In fact, the Corvair was frequently marketed and reviewed as the poor-man’s Porsche.
Another coincidental tie between the 911 and the Corvair is a man by the name of Karl Ludvigsen. Not only did Karl head up the public relations team for the Corvair at General Motors, he also wrote one of the best Porsche books — Expected.
Despite the negative criticism, or just the plain fact that most Americans simply didn’t know how to drive a rear-engined car with a swing-axle suspension safely, one special-edition model did become a worthy competitor to the ever-increasing opposition — the Corvair Corsa.
Corvair Corsa Turbo
The Corvair Corsa was launched as a special edition in 1965, at a time when sales of the secondgeneration Corvair were in decline. It boasted a 104kw (140bhp) flat-six engine and four single barrel carburettors, but, although this represented a huge increase over the 71kw (95bhp) and 82kw (110bhp) base-model Corvair models, it still wasn’t sufficient to capture additional sales revenue, as punters wanted even more power. The answer: Chevy offered up a 180bhp (134kw) turbocharged engine with a four-speed cog box as standard.
Naturally, this additional power meant larger brakes for the flagship model, borrowed from the
Chevelle. Indeed, braking is one of the Corvair’s finest but most overlooked virtues; in an era of pathetically inadequate brakes fitted to monstrous, front-heavy conventional cars, the Corvair — like any rear-engined car — almost perfectly weighted its brakes evenly as its rear weight shifted forwards. The new Corsa also received a beefed-up differential ring gear, a Delcotron alternator (replacing the original generator), not to mention significant chassis refinements — the Special Purpose Chassis Equipment (Z17) handling package that consisted of a special performance suspension and a faster steering ratio. By this time, Chevrolet had abandoned the Corvair’s single swing-axle rear suspension layout; it may have proved successful in the Volkswagen Beetle but it failed to meet to rigors of the heavier Corsa. In its place, Chevrolet specified a new three-link independent set-up adapted from the Corvette Stingray. Goodbye, swing axle!
These later Corvairs were loved by keen drivers for their agile handling capabilities. Their 60 per cent rear-biased weight distribution definitely contributed to the Corsa’s light and nimble steering and neutral feel — factors standing in stark contrast to the car’s nose-heavy American rivals.