The Chevrolet Corvair holds the unenviable distinction of being one of the most maligned cars in American automotive history. It is best known for being harshly (and I would argue unfairly) criticized in consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed. This is unfortunate because the bad publicity obscured the fact that the Corvair was an innovative American car for its time and that its model lineup included a technically fascinating high-performance economy car. In 1962, Chevrolet took the then-novel approach of installing a turbocharged engine in the sporty Corvair Monza. The end result was a truly innovative, albeit much overlooked classic: the Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder.
Introduced in the spring of 1962, (only a few weeks after the world’s first turbocharged passenger car, the Oldsmobile F85 Jetfire), the Corvair Monza Spyder was a limited edition version of the Corvair Monza. It was the product of considerable market research. When first introduced in late 1959, the Corvair was originally intended to be a small economy car. But Chevrolet soon discovered that many customers who bought Corvairs were motoring enthusiasts who enjoyed the car’s lively handling characteristics. The company also learned that many of these enthusiasts desired more horsepower. In response to this demand, Chevrolet’s engineers went back to the drawing board and determined that turbocharging was the most feasible way of increasing the horsepower of the Corvair’s engine to high-performance levels.
In most respects, the 1962-1964 Corvair Monza Spyder closely resembled its stable mates. It employed the same rear-engine, rear-wheel drive layout and rode on a 108-inch wheelbase. However, it differed from its Corvair brethren in that it was offered in only two body styles: a 2-door Club Coupe and a 2-door Convertible. Outwardly, the Monza Spyder was identifiable by discretely placed emblems, which included “Spyder” emblems placed on the front fenders and a “Turbocharged” emblem placed on the rear deck. Inside, the Monza Spyder was given a sporty interior, which featured bucket front seats and a special instrument panel that included a 120-mile per hour speedometer, a tachometer, a manifold pressure gauge, and a cylinder head temperature gauge.
But it was the Corvair Monza Spyder’s engine that really set it apart. The engine itself was a 145 cubic-inch flat-six power plant. An innovative engine for its day, it featured an aluminum block and employed air cooling. The engine was fitted with a turbocharger supplied by Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge, Incorporated, which was powered by exhaust gases. To cope with the heat generated by the turbocharger, the engine received a number of modifications, including a chrome-steel crankshaft and a modified exhaust system.
Thus fitted with this turbocharged power plant, the Corvair Monza Spyder was capable of an impressive level of performance. The engine produced 150 horsepower at a then-impressive ratio of just slightly over 1 horsepower per cubic inch. The car also had excellent acceleration, able to go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 10.8 seconds. The Corvair Monza Spyder’s performance was further improved by some upgrades it received over the course of its model run, which included receiving a 164 cubic-inch engine in 1964 and transverse leaf springs on its rear suspension that same year.
The 1962-1964 Chevrolet Corvair was arguably a more successful turbocharged car than the Oldsmobile F85 Jetfire. Approximately 40,000 cars were built before it was replaced by a turbocharged version of the Chevrolet Corvair Corsa for the 1965 model year. Surviving examples are prized collector items today.
Kowalke, Ron, ed., 4th Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1946-1975, Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1997, p. 216-221.
New Sun and Fun Car!!! Corvair Monza Convertible, Chevrolet: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, Corvair, 1960-1962, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Step Out and Go with New Corvair Monza Spyder, Sports Car Optional Equipment, Chevrolet: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, Corvair, 1960-1962, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.