The North American market has always been the most important as far as Porsche is concerned, with more of its production sold there than anywhere else. In the 1950s and '60s, European manufacturers had the sports car market to themselves, but that nearly
How did Chevrolet’s Corvair convertible compare to Porsche’s 356?
By the end of the 1950s, Porsche's 356 had already been in production for almost a decade. Throughout that time it had undergone considerable development but mechanically, and arguably in terms of its styling, it was beginning to show its age. And although the launch of the all-new 911 was on the horizon, Porsche soon discovered it wasn't the only manufacturer with plans to build a six-cylinder rear-engined sports car. In the busy US market, the 356 was about to meet a rival with what would soon be a familiar technical specification…
Since the mid-1950s, General Motors had been developing a new compact car to slot in below the traditional full-sized sedans in its model line-up. Turning to both Volkswagen and Porsche for inspiration, what GM'S designers came up with was a real departure from the accepted norm of a front-engined, rear-wheel drive car with a body mounted on a separate chassis.
The new car, which was known as the Corvair, created quite a stir when it was launched in autumn 1959. Rumours circulated that Porsche had played a part in designing its engine, largely as a result of General Motors, whose Chevrolet division manufactured the new model, having used a 356 as a mule to test the Corvair's new flat-six air-cooled engine. ( Classic
Porsche carried a feature on this programme in issue #37, entitled The Missing Link). Yes, horizontally-opposed sixcylinders and cooled by air – just like a 911. The suspension was most Porsche-like, too, with swing-axles at the rear, although coil springs were used instead of torsion bars.
To the casual observer, there were few other similarities between the Corvair and the Porsche 356. The former had modern, angular styling and, although small by American standards, it was still a fairly big car to the European eye. The 356, on the other hand, sat low to the ground, was curvaceous in profile but, to be frank, beginning to look a little out-dated. But as different as the two cars appear today, they were aimed at much the same market. Compared to other domestic sports cars, such as Chevrolet's own Corvette and Ford's Thunderbird, the Corvair looked small, stylish and almost European in execution. And under the skin lay what many Americans regarded as 'European technology'.
In 1959, when the average American car was still a feast of fins and chrome, the Corvair cut quite a minimalist dash, with its crisp, muted styling, lack of ostentation – and no radiator grille. The latter was a major point of conversation when chrome was king. The styling was universally praised and almost certainly influenced the design of certain forthcoming European models,
“THE CORVAIR LOOKED SMALL, STYLISH, ALMOST EUROPEAN…”
including the NSU Prinz and the short-lived VW Karmann Ghia Type 34, both of which were also air-cooled, rear-engined and featured swing-axle suspension, of course.
The Corvair's engine used aluminium castings in an effort to reduce weight and to help dissipate heat. Producing just 80bhp from its 2.3-litres, it was not a powerful engine in its original form, but had plenty of torque, which was something European engines tended to lack in comparison. The driving force behind the Corvair was Edward N Cole, who had been head of the Chevrolet division of GM since 1956. In his previous role as head of Cadillac in the 1940s, Cole had put forward the concept of a rear-engined car but it was not taken up by GM at the time. That was left to Tucker with its infamous 'Torpedo' sedan.
The compact sports car (it is still a little hard to think of the Corvair as a sports car when put alongside the 356 today…) was available in a variety of body styles, including a stylish twodoor coupé, a four-door sedan and, arguably most attractive of all, a two-door convertible. This was the 356's main rival in the USA and when, in 1962, the 150bhp turbocharged Corvair Monza Spyder was launched, the gloves were off. This was the second production car to feature a turbocharger, the first being GM'S Oldsmobile F-85 Turbo, which had been released just weeks earlier.
Had the Corvair been launched in Europe by a European manufacturer, its reputation today might be very different. However, a spate of roll-over accidents in the USA put the first nail in the Corvair's coffin. As any Porsche owner will know, the secret to fast driving is to brake, turn in and then power through and out of a corner. What you don't do is enter a corner fast and lift off the throttle halfway round. The resultant shift in weight causes what is known as lift-off – or roll – oversteer, meaning the tail will try to swap places with the nose.
Many Corvair owners, more used to heavy front-engined cars which had a tendency to understeer, failed to adapt to the required driving style, with disastrous consequences. The swing-axle rear suspension would 'tuck under' and potentially flip the car on its roof. GM'S engineers could have helped alleviate the problem if they had fitted an anti-roll bar to the front, or impressed on owners the importance of maintaining the correct tyre pressures.
Chevrolet recommended a differential of around 10–12psi between the front and rear (today 20psi front and 30psi rear seems to be an acceptable compromise) which helped, but many owners unused to such wildly different pressures would pump the tyres up too hard, creating high-speed handling problems with disastrous results. Volkswagen and Porsche both advocated the use of lower tyre pressures in the front for the same reasons.
Unfortunately, a well-publicised spate of accidents involving GM'S new compact attracted the attention of consumer attorney, Ralph Nader. His damning book Unsafe At Any Speed destroyed the reputation of the Corvair at a stroke and even
“UNSAFE AT ANY SPEED DESTROYED ITS REPUTATION…”
GM'S efforts to improve the handling by redesigning the rear suspension in 1965 (to a semi-trailing design not dissimilar to that of the 911) did little to salvage its reputation. By 1969, the Corvair was dead, with sales of 1.8 million falling far short of General Motors' expectations.
Hans Mezger, the man behind the iconic Porsche 911 engine, admits that at that time, Porsche had a Corvair 'in the house', but he said that it was more for 'general education' than for use as a source of inspiration for Porsche's new six-cylinder motor. He was also unimpressed by the car's handling on the fast curves of the Solitude race track where testing was carried out: 'And Ralph Nader scared us!', he adds.
Nader's attack on the Corvair had, in fact, followed his initial investigations into the handling of the VW Beetle and Porsche's 356, whose chassis design was, in his opinion, responsible for many fatalities. On 9 September 1959, just three weeks before the Corvair was unveiled, Porsche presented its updated 356B, many of the upgrades over the previous 'A' model being as a result of pressure from the US market where Porsche sold some 70 per cent of its output – notable among them was the use of a compensator spring on the rear of the most powerful Super 90 model in an attempt to tackle the problem of roll-oversteer. A coupé, cabriolet and a roadster (the latter replacing the Convertible D) formed the line-up, joined in August 1960 by the Karmann hardtop.
In 1962, the 50,000th Porsche was produced, a 356B Cabriolet produced in the former Reutter plant in Zuffenhausen. An admirable statistic, but General Motors' production capabilities far exceeded those of the tiny German company, and in 1962 some 16,596 Corvair convertibles were built, followed by another 44,165 in 1963. Of these, one of the most popular models was the Corvair Monza 'Super Turbo-air', an example of which you see here alongside a 1962 356B Cabriolet. Despite its name, it wasn't actually turbocharged but simply fitted with a pair of carburettors – a case of marketing at its best!
When the two cars are placed side by side, it would seem to be an unfair comparison to make. The Porsche is small, being strictly a two-seater with limited interior space and only modest luggage carrying ability. The Corvair, in comparison, can carry five people with ease and has a huge luggage capacity some four times greater than that of the 356. But that came at a cost: the Corvair was 260kg (over 570lbs) heavier yet was blessed with only 12bhp more than its 90bhp German rival.
Despite the Corvair's sporting pretentions, its bulk let the side down compared to the Porsche. Even when the second generation came along, with its redesigned rear suspension, it
felt ponderous compared to most European sports cars. The Corvair's drum brakes don't inspire much confidence, either. The two-speed automatic transmission favoured by the American market did the car no favours, while the all-synchromesh manual was heavy compared to that of the Porsche. The Corvair's engine was also not one that liked to rev, producing maximum power (102bhp) at 4400rpm and 134lb ft of torque at 2800rpm. The 356 produced its 90bhp at 5500rpm and 89lb ft of torque at 4300rpm, and was a joy to push to the red line.
Both cars are undeniably fun to drive, the Corvair best suited to long journeys on smooth roads – the kind you'll have found all over the western states in the early 1960s. The Porsche on the other hand begs to be shown the twists and turns of an Alpine pass, or pushed hard along a favourite cross-country route – or even taken to the race track, somewhere that a Corvair convertible would have felt distinctly out of place.
The Corvair may still have a great deal of presence – and there's no doubt that the level of equipment far exceeds that of the 356B – but it cannot hold a candle to the German cabriolet as a driver's car. Porsche's 356 remains a gem of a sports car, but there is a price to pay.
A good 1962 356 will set you back four or five times the price of a Corvair convertible in excellent condition, if not more. But it's a small price to pay for superior German engineering, right? That's the difference between an icon and an interesting footnote in automotive history… CP
“IT’S A SMALL PRICE TO PAY FOR SUPERIOR ENGINEERING…”