SI Vault
Chevy puts its power in the back
Nick Thimmesch
October 12, 1959
General Motors' compact car entry, the Corvair, provides the first rear-engine model by a major American automobile manufacturer. Here it is
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October 12, 1959

Chevy Puts Its Power In The Back

General Motors' compact car entry, the Corvair, provides the first rear-engine model by a major American automobile manufacturer. Here it is

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"When you open up its rear end," rhapsodized a Chevy engineer, "there is all its little machinery sitting there smiling at you."

The acknowledged advantage of a rear engine is that its power is directly transmitted to the wheels with greater efficiency. In the case of Corvair, the entire power unit—engine, transmission and axle—are compacted into a whole through use of the "trans-axle" (combination transmission and axle). And the engine weighs only 332 pounds, about half of what a conventional six does. Just three bolts are used to fix this engine to the frame, so the engine can be removed in less than one hour.

This engine has 80 hp, smallest of the three Detroit compacts. But power pack units will be offered later, perhaps because of what looks like an incredible but developing horsepower race among compacts. The Falcon has 90 hp, the Valiant at least 100. Corvair must catch up and its optional power pack will probably increase horsepower to 90.

The Corvair will give up to 30 miles per gallon and will provide other operating economies. The air-cooled engine means no radiator or water pump and no need for antifreeze. Repair bills should be less because of engine accessibility and consequential cuts in labor costs.

With no radiator, warm air must be provided by a heater, which burns gasoline at a maximum rate of one quarter gallon an hour. Chevy pooh-poohs charges that such heaters and the front-located gas tank are dangerous. The location of the gas cap on the left front fender and the vented deck in the rear are the visual clues that this is a rear-engine car.

Unitized construction and all-weld design describe the body, and simple, clean lines describe the styling. The Corvair's flat roof edges over the rear window, and both the hood and rear deck have a slight downward slope. There are dual headlights and a quiet, plain face up front, sans grille, of course. The Corvair 700—the de luxe line—has an austere strip of chrome running knee high on the sides, from snout to tail. The Corvair 500—the standard line—has no chrome trim to speak of. The wrap-around windshield has followed the engine to the rear, and the front windshield is plain Jane. This car not only is economy but looks it.

Four thin doors invite you into the Corvair. Tall people will strain some on the way in but once seated will find generous headroom. A prominent Chevy engineer once significantly and sensibly explained why one small car has four doors. He said: "Small car bodies do not permit crawling across without loss of dignity. So each of the passengers sits back in his appropriate hole and slams the door on himself. This is the way one handles these small cars. You do not so much get into them as put them on, like an article of clothing."

Inside, the Corvair reflects more economy. Fabrics and upholstery are not as plush as those of its competition. The dash is simple Chevy all the way. The emergency brake is a ratchet, pull-across type. Money was saved by not installing a flashing red light to indicate the emergency brake is on; instead, the brake handle shows an arrow when the brake is on and none when you release it. The two-speed automatic transmission shift control is thumb-operated. In standard models the gearshift is on the floor instead of on the steering post. For once the ashtray is where it belongs—up almost to eye level.


Detroit's Big Three all claim room for six passengers in their smaller car offerings. The fact is that five can be comfortable in the Corvair, and six is a squeeze. In the Corvair the leg room in front is two inches less than that of the 1959 Chevy. Rear leg room in the Corvair is skimpy compared with that of the 1959 Chevy.

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