AL­TER­NA­TIVE VIEWS

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

Classic Porsche - - Contents - Words: Keith Seume/jan-hen­rik Muche Pho­tos: An­dreas Beyer

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…”

Above left: Corvair’s styling looked crispand mod­ern when re­leased in 1959. It was re­garded as a com­pact car by US stan­dards Above: Corvair’s 102bh­pflat­six engine was air-cooled and mounted in the rear. Does that sound fa­mil­iar?

Above: By con­trast, Porsche’s 1600cc engine pro­duced 90bhp, but the 356 B Cabri­o­let weighed over 260kg less than its ri­val Above right: In some peo­ple’s eyes, the 356’s styling was be­gin­ning to look dated by the end of the ’50s

Above left: The dash­board of the 356 was al­ways a lit­tle aus­tere, the in­te­rior rather cramped… Above right: …whereas the Corvair’s in­te­rior was spa­cious and well-equipped. It could seat five in com­fort

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