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Chevrolet Corvair
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Chevrolet Corvair

Carroll Gantz
Hill, Ron
Chevrolet Corvair

Chevrolet's new compact car, the Corvair, designed by Ron Hill and GM Styling Staff, entered the market in 1960, and received a coveted annual design award from the Industrial Designers Institute (IDI). To most designers, it was a welcome innovative design response to compact European imports, and hailed as a pointed departure from the tail fin and chrome excesses that dominated the previous decade in Detroit (see 1957 Chrysler "Forward Look").

Up to now, Detroit cars came in only one size—big. By contrast, the Corvair was compact, economical, and simple in design; represented the styling sea change many designers had been hoping for—functionality.

The Corvair was GM’s version of the rear-engined Volkswagen, which by 1960 had demonstrated the appeal of imported compact low-cost cars in US markets. The Corvair had a 6-cylinder, horizontal engine and conventional suspension. But the independent swing axles in the rear produced dangerously unstable steering.

Ralph Nader singled it out as "one of the nastiest-handling cars ever built." in his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed, which criticized the absence of automotive safety standards. The very next year, the government established the first safety standards for US cars.

Initially, Corvair sales were successful in cutting into import sales, and captured a huge 42 percent of the new car market. But at mid-year, 1960, Chevrolet brought out an upscale Corvair line, the Monza, which soon accounted for more than half of all Corvair sales. It became clear that customers were still attracted to comfort, convenience, and styling. It was concluded that the initial appeal of the Corvair was not its frugality, but its difference from the previous monotonous line-up of standard family sedans.

So by 1961 the Corvair engine was made more powerful, and by 1962, the Monza Spyder model sported a 150-horsepower, turbocharged engine.

By mid-decade the push for automotive "individuality" expanded into "muscle cars", like the Pontiac Grand Prix, and personal "luxury" cars like the Ford Thunderbird and Buick Riviera.

The result of this Detroit "sea change" was that chrome had been reduced, tail fins were gone, but simple design elegance was still far in the future.

100 Years of Design consists of excerpts from a book by Carroll M. Gantz, FIDSA, entitled, Design Chronicles: Significant Mass-produced Designs of the 20th Century, published August 2005 by Schiffer Publications, Ltd.
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