Chevy Corvair vs. Porsche 356 | Comparison Test

Photography by David S. Wallens and Alan Cesar

In a May 1963 road test article, Car and Driver dubbed the new Corvair Monza Spyder the “poor man’s Porsche.” And why not? This pair begged for comparison.

In a sea of huge and heavy front-engined iron, these sporty little cars stood apart. Each one boasted unibody construction plus rear-mounted, air-cooled flat engines and swing axle rear suspensions. 

Porsche’s 356 had been in production for 15 years, setting the standard for the rear-engined crowd. But its price pretty much limited ownership to enthusiasts with deep pockets. The upstart Corvair, introduced just three years earlier, was aimed at making its mark on the mass market. 

But was the Monza Spyder coupe—which sold for around $2700—worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the 356, which sold for more than $4200? And if the Corvair could be called a poor man’s Porsche back then, what about now, nearly 50 years later? The only way to find out is to stage a rematch. 

Corvair and Porsche: Closer Than You Think

When Chevy introduced the remarkably innovative Corvair for the 1960 model year, the engineering and design represented a bold and radical departure from the company’s traditional lineup. Motor Trend named it their car of the year, but to some critics, the oddly shaped Corvair seemed just too unconventional, almost un-American. To the masses, only German automakers Volkswagen and Porsche were building cars like that.

In fact, the rumor that Porsche had designed the Corvair persisted for years. Ed Cole, who then headed Chevrolet Engineering, finally cleared the air on that issue, although he did admit that the concept was influenced by the VW Beetle. 

Porsche did play a part in the Corvair’s development, whether they knew it or not. In 1957, Chevrolet Engineering bought a Porsche 1600 coupe. Later that year, the Corvair’s engine and suspension became ready for road tests before the prototype body was finished. So the engineers dropped the setup in the Porsche, where it reportedly fit quite nicely.

In a 2009 article, automotive writer and historian Karl Ludvigsen described Ed Cole’s reaction after he drove the Corvair-powered Porsche. Cole called it a great thrill and claimed that it was concrete evidence that the Corvair’s performance could meet the company’s expectations. His praise was high: “I drove this car at the GM Technical Center and Milford Proving Grounds and at Pikes Peak, Colorado, in early 1958. She ran beautifully. I knew that we had a winner.” 

When Chevy introduced the Corvair, Porsche returned the favor by buying one for a little dissection and research of their own. Four years later, Porsche released the first 911, powered by a robust flat-six engine.

Chevy’s Big Gamble

Chevy launched the Corvair as a four-door sedan with two levels of trim, and both were rather Spartan. The car was directed at the economy market to stem growing competition from VW, Renault, Ford’s Falcon and Plymouth’s Valiant. 

While the early, austere models sold relatively well, Chevy soon offered a sportier Monza coupe. Thanks to its bucket seats and four-speed transmission, sales took off. 

Chevy then upped the ante with a turbocharged Monza Spyder. It was available as both a coupe and convertible, and enthusiasts started to pay attention. One magazine mentioned that the only sporty American cars one could find at autocrosses, hillclimbs and races were the occasional Corvette and the new Corvair Monza.

But the bright prospects were not to last. A cloud of handling complaints and accidents rained a storm of bad publicity on the Corvair’s swing-axle suspension. Critics charged that under hard cornering, extreme camber change caused the outside-rear wheel to tuck under, with uncontrollable results. 

Investigations and lawsuits followed, and then the double whammy struck: Ford launched its sporty Mustang in 1964, and Ralph Nader released his scathing book, “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile,” in 1965. In the public’s eye, the Corvair was branded too hazardous to drive.

Many auto writers attributed the rear suspension problems to improper tire pressures and equally improper driving styles, but internal company memos (and lawsuit testimony) alleged that Chevy knew of potential difficulties and did not want to bear the cost of adding a $4 front anti-roll bar. Discussions of the corporate mistakes made with this promising car have filled volumes. 

Chevy improved the Corvair’s cornering stability in 1964 by adding a rear camber compensator, but the damage was done. Despite a comprehensive update in 1965—which cured the rear suspension problems and dramatically improved the styling—sales of the car plummeted. Chevy pulled the plug in 1969 after selling nearly 1.8 million Corvairs. 

In 1972, after a long investigation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released findings that exonerated the Corvair, but this report received little publicity. Today the Corvair remains America’s only mass-produced, air-cooled, rear-engined car. 

Porsche’s Long-Lived 356

The 356—the little car that launched the Porsche dynasty—was born in 1948 in Gmund, Austria, where about 50 of the lightweight, four-cylinder, air-cooled, rear-engined cars were built by hand, sharing many parts with VWs. Two years later, the factory moved to Zuffenhausen, Germany, and real production began.

The first cars sold mostly in Europe, but by the early 1950s the Porsche had gained a reputation for superior aerodynamics and handling—along with excellent build quality—and was beginning to sell in North America. By 1954, the stripped-down Speedster, promoted by American importer Max Hoffman, became a hit with weekend racers. A legend was born.

The distinctive body style, which earned the car the nickname “bathtub Porsche,” stayed pretty much the same throughout its long life. Even so, the 356 went through several revisions to gain better creature comforts, increased power and improved braking. 

From its early days, this Porsche enjoyed unmatched success in rallies and races, and pro and amateur hotshoes had equal success. Year after year, it won events and built an enviable reputation around the world. Porsche leveraged this success and focused on producing a no-compromise car for enthusiasts. The result: fanatical brand loyalty and the inception of an upscale motoring lifestyle. As a sales brochure touted, “We have spent years developing a great competition car so you can have fun driving to work.”

The 1965 356C, which some say is the best of the breed thanks to increased power and four-wheel-disc brakes, marked the last of the bathtub Porsches. During the 356’s 17-year run, Porsche churned out fewer than 80,000 examples. Today, the 356 is high on many enthusiasts’ lists of top sports cars of the ’60s, and it has become a highly regarded collector car that continues to gain value.

Test Car: 1965 356C Cabriolet

Orlando’s John Reker bought his first Porsche, a 356C coupe, about four decades ago. Since then, he has enjoyed a succession of Stuttgart’s finest. 

“Back then,” he says, “the coupe was a family car. When our kids were born, they came home from the hospital in the Porsche.” John drove a 356C coupe to work every day for 10 years before moving to a pair of 912s and a parade of 911s.

After a couple of decades, John admits, he missed the 356. This time, though, he wanted a convertible. About 15 years ago, after a long search, he found the one he wanted. “Cabriolets were getting hard to find even then,” he recalls. “This one had a nice paint job and looked good from 20 feet, but it needed some work.” One more factor pushed John to take the plunge: His wife, Jan, loved the color, a fetching Champagne Yellow. 

After John got the cab properly sorted, he and Jan drove the car to events around the country, venturing from Florida to Indiana, Ohio, Virginia and elsewhere. John says the cab is a comfortable long-distance hauler that always brings them home. 

Two years ago, however, he decided that the 356 deserved a complete restoration. He took the car apart and farmed out the paint, bodywork and heavy mechanical jobs. 

While the transmission had been previously rebuilt and the engine upgraded to SC specifications, John painted and detailed the engine to concours standards. The window frames and other components were rechromed, and the rest of the car was carefully restored to factory specs. A complete leather interior was a finishing touch. “We finished it in a year,” he says, “which was quite a feat.”

This example is a high-level car from top to bottom, and it has several best-of-show awards to prove it. But that doesn’t stop John from driving it 3000 to 5000 miles a year. He even autocrosses this beauty. “With the top down, it’s more fun to autocross than my 911,” he says.

To John, the 356 projects the premier classic sports car image and backs that up with a superior driving experience. He puts it this way: “I actually enjoy driving that car as much or more than the 911. There is no power steering, no power brakes, no ABS. It’s pure classic, open-air fun.” 

Test Car: 1963 Monza Spyder Convertible

Classic Motorsports’s very own Margie Suddard fondly remembers riding in her older sister’s 1963 Spyder as a kid. “She was in high school, and I was her adoring little shadow,” she recalls. “The top went down, and it had a back seat so every trip could be a party.” Even the occasional fan belt fling added to the adventure. Margie says her sis became quite adept at popping the belt back on while clueless males stood by and watched.

Naturally, when Margie grew up, she wanted a Monza convertible. Imagine her delight when she found one—even the same color as her sister’s—listed on eBay Motors a few years ago. And this was a top-of-the-line turbo model. It needed some work and was “pretty crusty,” as she puts it, but the body was sound and free of rust. Of course, she bought it.

Everything seemed fine at first. The engine had previously been rebuilt and came with the receipts to prove it, although the car had been driven little since then. Margie just needed to make a few upgrades to personalize the car: 14-inch Panasport-style wheels, a set of Koni shocks and new Firestone tires. 

However, short trips soon revealed transaxle problems and, worse, a persistent engine misfire. An engine teardown revealed extensive valvetrain damage, probably caused by a careless rebuild. A complete engine overhaul was in order, along with transaxle and clutch repair.

Once the flat-six powerplant was running and driving, Margie made the conversion to a Weber DCOE 40 sidedraft carb to improve throttle and turbo response. An upgrade to front disc brakes increased braking power, while a front suspension rebuild with a new anti-roll bar improved steering and cornering. As the miles rolled up, more sorting followed, including brakes, transmission seals, carb jetting and fuel pump pressure adjustments. 

These days, the Monza is pretty well sorted, and Margie says it’s great fun to drive—with the top down, of course—in a “who knew that 35 mph could feel so fast” sort of way. She says it draws nods and smiles at every stoplight and seems to demand acknowledgment. “‘Hey, Corvair!’ is the soundtrack for my every journey in it,” she adds. Plus Clark’s Corvair Parts has everything needed to keep these cars on the road.

While Chevy built more than 1.7 million Corvairs, this particular setup is fairly rare. According to the Corvair Society of America (CORSA), Chevy built just 7472 Monza convertibles with the Spyder option in 1963.

The Verdict

So, is a Monza the poor man’s Porsche? Just as it did in 1963, the answer depends on how much money you want to spend. If you crave an air-cooled, rear-engined sports car of the era—and can afford it—you’re already enjoying your 356. 

This car set the class standard then, and it remains the standard today. If you crunch the numbers (an exercise most of us avoid), the price for that driving experience is even higher today, both in initial cost and ongoing expense, than it was nearly 50 years ago. 

Collectors crave the 356 and are willing to pay. Parts and labor are costly. Values continue to escalate. A restored 365C cab now commands nearly six figures—more for numbers-matching examples with history. Older Speedsters and race cars? Be prepared to gut the kids’ college funds. 

Let’s face it: No Porsche enthusiast worthy of his string-back driving gloves will choose the Monza over the 356 because the Corvair is faster, handles better, or is more fun to drive. After testing the Spyder, our 356 owner was not tempted to sell his cabriolet and buy a dozen Corvairs. For Porsche loyalists, the slogan says it all: There is no substitute.

But what about the rest of us? For dollar-conscious enthusiasts seeking a sporty ’60s car with many of the Porsche’s attributes at a fraction of the cost, the Corvair offers an appealing alternative. In our discussion, David put it this way: “When I go to the liquor store, I pick up Pabst Blue Ribbon and Ruskova, which is billed as premium Russian vodka at a bargain price. Maybe that explains why I would have to go with the Corvair. Sure, I’d love a 356 cab, but I simply can’t afford it.” 

In our view, the little Corvair has a lot going for it. It’s 100-percent Amurrican, and arguably remains the most daring production car GM ever built. The suspension woes that contributed to its demise were sorted long ago. Decent examples are inexpensive, and so are the parts needed to keep them on the road. 

What would we shop for? Our choices would be either a 1962-’64 Spyder convertible like our test car or a 1965-’69 coupe with the 140-horsepower, four-carb setup or the 180-horsepower Corsa turbo engine. These second-generation cars feature a sleeker look and the much-improved four-link rear suspension. After the 1965 design changes, Car and Driver called this coupe “undoubtedly the sexiest-looking American car of the new crop and possibly one of the most handsome cars in the world.” Car Life kept up the gushing, saying the ’68 Monza Sport Coupe offered “more fun per dollar than any other American passenger car.” 

They may not be wearing string-back driving gloves, but Corvair owners relish their underdog status. They even feel a bit chippy, since they believe the car stands on its own merit. Given its history, this car is a remarkable survivor. Forget the Porsche comparison, they say, here’s a moniker they like better: “The best European car America ever built.” Take that, Ralph Nader. 

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Comments
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wspohn
wspohn Dork
9/2/20 2:33 p.m.

I raced against both (was usually hip deeep in bathtubs). The Porsche had inherently better handling although the Corvair had several things that could substantially improve their  inept  stock handling. Weight favoured the Porsche of course.

The Corvair had a larger engine with potential higher output (if it could keep the fan belt were it belonged ( so there was potential . I ran against a Yenko Stinger that was pretty darned good.

The do make an interesting comparison, but I think a proper comparison would be between the Corvair and the six cylinder 2.0 engined 901/911s.  The Corvair wasn't going to win that one!

YenkoYS100
YenkoYS100 New Reader
9/2/20 5:53 p.m.

Here's what a Stinger could do, with a good driver, back in the day. Note #27 D-Prod. This was Mt. Ascutney, in 1972. :-)

cyncrvr
cyncrvr New Reader
9/2/20 7:20 p.m.
YenkoYS100 said:

Here's what a Stinger could do, with a good driver, back in the day. Note #27 D-Prod. This was Mt. Ascutney, in 1972. :-)

 

Wow!! What a roster of cars!

fjcamper
fjcamper None
9/3/20 9:12 p.m.

Chevrolet may have contested or denied Porsche involvement in devloping the Corvair, but stopped short of the engine.

In May 1956; "Sports Cars Illustrated" magazine visited Porschewerk and noticed an air cooled engine running in a test rig, but was not allowed to photograph it or disclose any detail on it, except to be able to say it was for a Detroit manufacturer. Check that issue.

This may have been an early GM air cooled engine test.

FJC

 

 

 

wspohn
wspohn Dork
9/4/20 10:24 a.m.

fjcamper
fjcamper New Reader
9/9/20 5:11 p.m.

 

Air Cooled road racers! We also run against the Yenkos, Yenko copies, 356's and such.

Our Ghia at Daytona, HSR member. -- Frank Camper

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