It was late in 1959 and early 1960 that automakers realized that they needed to introduce an American-made compact car. Early designs were nothing more than scaled-down designs of conventional American cars that were powered by a four- or six-cylinder engine.
But hidden in the Chevrolet studios was a revolutionary little automobile that would become described as Car of the Year. The Corvair was championed by Chevrolet’s General Manager Edward Cole. Initially, it was powered by an air-cooled six-cylinder engine that was made almost entirely of aluminum. The styling was unconventional for the time, but was popular when released.
Just before the Corvair suffered its fatal blow from Ralph Nader, GM started a project that would have taken the Corvair into the Sports car market. The Corvair Monza GT was designed by Larry Shinoda and Tony Lapine, with inspiration drawn from the Bertone designed Testudo. With a wheelbase that was 16-inches shorter than a standard Corvair, the Monza GT’s rear-engine needed to be repositioned. For that reason, the 145 cubic-inch horizontally-opposed six cylinder engine was rotated 180-degrees from its standard production-Corvair position, which created a true mid-engine car. A sports car needs a manual transmission, so a four-speed was employed.
The passenger compartment opened to the world, via a canopy that hinged from the base of the windshield to the B-pillars. This wraparound canopy was comprised of the roof, a panoramic windshield, and both doors.
There was also a rear-opening engine cover, as the entire rear section of the fiberglass body hinged upward to allow access. The rear deck also featured a panel of adjustable louvers that were controllable from the cockpit. The louvers were adjustable to aid rearward vision and ventilation.
The engine used two carburetors, and got the fuel to run from a 12-gallon tank mounted in the nose of the Monza GT—Nader would have loved that. To cool the engine, the needed air would enter through the intake openings on the rear quarter panels. Dual exhaust outlets were located behind each rear wheel opening. Finally, the GT got its sports car-like braking from a set of four-wheel disc brakes wrapped in true magnesium wheels.
The passenger compartment was truly futuristic, and featured reclined contoured seating. The floor pedals were adjustable forward and rearward, but the seats were stationary. The dash panel had reflection-free wrinkled finish, and all gauges to the right of the driver were angled toward driver’s position for maximum viewing capability. All told, the sporty Corvair had a height of 42 inches.
The car was built in 1962, and underwent some informal testing at Elkhart Lake and Watkins Glen. After that, the car made its public debut at the 1963 New York Auto Show in April 1963. Its design stole the show, but alas, the car would not reach production. The car is currently housed in the GM Heritage Center.
Although the concept never really caught on, the influence was forever etched in automotive history when the Corvette featured a new design in 1968.