Simanaitis Says

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WHAT WITH OPULENCE GONE WILD in the late 1950s domestic auto scene (and increasing popularity of foreign cars notably the Volkswagen Beetle), compacts were a rational response. R&T was there in November 1959 with an all-singing all-dancing compact car theme including road tests of the Ford Falcon and Chevrolet Corvair, together with complete technical analysis of the latter, and another article comparing the 21 (?!) compacts available in the U.S. market. Indeed, the Corvair even made the cover (and the Falcon, a rare 4/c photo within).

Here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow are tidbits gleaned from these articles.

Defining Characteristics. R&T chose a defining compact wheelbase at 100 to 110 in. It wrote, “To us the most wonderful part of the entire picture is the fact that the compacts from the Big Three are so different from each other. Carried further, and including all 21 cars in this category, we have an even wider variety.”

This and following images from R&T November 1959.

“There are cars,” R&T recounted, “from England, France, Germany, Italy, and Sweden as well as the U.S. Amazingly, only the Corvair has a rear engine, and only one car, the French one, has front-wheel drive.”

Note, the VW Beetle’s 94.5-in. wheelbase put it smaller than compact; ditto for the fwd BMC Mini’s 80.2-in. wheelbase.

On a personal note, the Ford Consul made the list (“not to be overlooked”). And three cars, the Jaguar 3.4 and two Mercedes-Benz sedans, were included by virtue of size, not their up-market status.

John R. Bond’s Corvair Tech Analysis. “To us,” John wrote, “the most interesting technical item on the new Corvair is not the powerplant location, abut rather the type of engine chosen. Air-cooling, like the weather, is one of these things that everybody talks about.”

The Corvair’s 140-cu.-in. (2288-cc) flat-6 produces 80 hp, “deemed sufficient to give performance nearly equal to the big 6.”

“Air cooling,” John wrote, “has many obvious and well known advantages, which need not be explored here. The flat 6 is compact, fits into the ‘trunk’ space easily, is inherently in perfect balance and is basically a smoother-running unit than a flat 4 or even a V-6.”

Other Significant Features. John noted, “Though not new to the automotive industry, the Corvair’s unit structure is the first U.S. application in high production. It is said to be 30% more rigid torsionally than the regular passenger car.”

John observed, “Chevrolet’s philosophy concerning the riding qualities of the new car was simple—it had to ride as well as the larger cars…. Technically, the Corvair rear suspension is pure ‘swing.’ Its nearest geometrical equivalent has been used for some time on the Fiat 600.”

“All of the Corvair’s suspension elements are carried on subframes which bolt to the unit chassis/body.”

“The swing axles,” John explained, “are diagonal so that as each rear wheel moves either up or down, it toes out. In spite of this Chevrolet press information says that the car has definite rear-end roll-steer in an understeering direction. If true, this feature, together with the tire pressures [15 psi front, 26 psi rear] gives the Corvair a positive understeer and makes it inherently stable at all times.”    

John concluded by noting “Though the Corvair abounds in interesting ideas, it actually has nothing particularly new, or unknown, or untried. We predict a tremendous public acceptance for this car, literally America’s ‘Folks Wagon.’ ”

Tomorrow in Part 2, R&T tests the Corvair and its principal competitor, the Ford Falcon. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023

5 comments on “COMPACT COMPARO 1959 PART 1

  1. John Mcnulty
    February 27, 2023

    I bought a Covair Wagon back in in the early 60s, spun it out twice in the first week, Bought it for $500 and that week sold it to my sister for $500. Neat idea, but a real dog. The car, not my sister.

  2. Bill Rabel
    February 27, 2023

    The two right-most columns puzzle me: lb/ton and wear. Please explain.

    • simanaitissays
      February 27, 2023

      Lb/ton would be Tapley data; the Wear Index was a John R. Bond invention. Each is described here, accessible by Googling Simanaitis Tapley and Simanaitis Wear Index.

  3. -Nate
    February 27, 2023

    I still miss my 1961 700 Corvair Coupe, it’s only option was the PowerGlide slushbox .

    I didn’t know about the tire pressure differential and ran 35 PSI in all four, I was always waiting for the spin out but it never did .

    I drove it hard and fast on the Angles Crest Highway ~ a true Sports Sedan : lively and quick but not overly fast .


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