CHEVROLET’s Corvair was one of the most controversial models in GM’s 115-year history, and the second attempt by a US carmaker to market an air-cooled car.
The first was the Copper-Cooled Chevrolet, which arrived in 1923 and was one of GM’s earliest corporate disasters.
Only 759 of the scheduled 10,000 units were built, and 239 were scrapped before leaving the factory.
Of the 500 that had left the premises, 150 were in use by factory reps and 300 shipped to dealers; of those, 100 had been sold to customers.
In June 1923, Chevrolet recalled every Copper-Cooled model – and crushed them.
That didn’t happen to the Corvair, which arrived in 1960 in response to a market hungry for smaller, more economical cars, such as VW’s Beetle, Renault’s Dauphine and a few other Euro imports.
The attractively styled Corvair was produced from 1960 to 1969 in two generations and remains the only US-designed, mass-produced passenger car with a rear-mounted, air-cooled engine.
Only 1,839,439 were built, mainly because of controversy about its handling, brought to light by Ralph Nader’s best-selling book, Unsafe at Any Speed.
The first chapter was called “The Sporty Corvair -The One-Car Accident” and described how the Corvair’s rear wheels tucked under the car under hard cornering.
Nader said the rear-engine car had a suspension defect that made it easy for the driver to lose control and sometimes roll the car.
The result was that many owners quickly got rid of their cars, potential buyers decided not to and despite updates and improvements, sales were nowhere near what GM had predicted.
To this day, some Corvair enthusiasts dispute that claim, although GM did make significant suspension changes starting with the 1965 model, which the influential Car and Driver magazine said was ‘the most beautiful car to appear in this country since before World War II . . . the new rear suspension, the new softer spring rates in front, the bigger brakes, the addition of some more power, all these factors had us driving around like idiots.’
‘The ’65 Corvair is an outstanding car. It doesn’t go fast enough, but we love it.’
Corvairs were never sold in Australia and of the nearly two million built in Detroit, only about 150,000 Corvairs are still running today, most of them owned by collectors.
But a select few, said to be around 150 of them, are worth a heck of a lot due to the addition of the word: Yenko.
That name is revered by collectors and petrol heads throughout the US and beyond, and although a handful of other brands also benefited from it, the Chevrolet Corvair Yenko Stinger is the one that counts.
Don Yenko’s version of the Corvair could be had with air-cooled V6s that had anywhere from 160hp (120kW) to 240hp (180kW) available, depending on whether you wanted a Stage I, II, III, or IV upgrade
The standard motor was a comparatively paltry 140hp (105kW). And the package also had a modified chassis with stiffer rear springs, strong Monroe double-action shocks and upgraded steering and transmission.
From 1966 to 1969, only 185 of the Corvair Yenko Stingers were produced, and 100 were upgrades by Don Yenko to qualify for Sports Car Club of America D Production racing.
Until the end of Corvair production in 1969, the Yenko shop continued to sell custom Corvairs as Stingers.
Donald “Don” Frank Yenko, born in 1927, grew up in Bentleyville, Pennsylvania, learnt to fly at 16 and went on to serve in the US Air Force, before attending the Pennsylvania State University.
In the 1950s and 1970s, he gained international acclaim for racing Corvettes in regional races as well as prestigious endurance contests, among them the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Daytona, Watkins Glen and Sebring.
He was a four-time Sports Car Club of America national driving champion.
In 1957, he set up a performance shop for Chevrolets at the family’s Chevy dealership in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.
His first popular aftermarket car came in 1965, in the form of a modified version of the Corvair, which he named the Stinger.
Chevrolet began selling the Camaro in 1967, Yenko began to modify SS Camaros by replacing the original L-78 6.5-litre engine with a 7.0 Corvette powerplant and upgrade the rear axle and suspensions.
He also turned gave other Chevys, like Chevelle and Nova great firepower by fitting them with Corvette engines.
This limited series of cars sometimes had “sYc” (Yenko Super Car) signs attached.
When higher insurance premiums and tighter emission rules arrived in the 1970s, Yenko countered by placing his unique touch on the 1970 Nova.
Instead of placing a big block 7.0-litre in his special Nova he convinced GM to put in a very potent small block 5.7-litre that the new Z-28 Camaro and LT1 Corvette shared.