Chevrolet Corvair meets Fiat 500 – Air Cooled Extremes
One’s American, one’s Italian, both are rear-engined
By Fraser M. Martin
A big American convertible from 1965 meets a tiny Italian city runabout from 1969 – two completely different examples of the same theme – air-cooled rear-engined cars. Click through to read the full story of these irresistibly charming vehicles.
I would have dearly loved to be writing about the Tucker Torpedo, surely one of the most extreme air-cooled, rear engine cars ever to have come to light, but with the most recent auction sale of a 1948 model at the Barrett-Jackson sales in Scottsdale, Arizona, in January, at US$2.9 million, chance would be a fine thing indeed. With only 51 cars built, before the “Big Three” in Detroit, allegedly did Preston Tucker down (there’s a great film if you’re a petrolhead – Tucker: the Man and His Dream), the Torpedo could not exactly be called a mass production success.
What we do have however, are the smallest and probably largest rear-engined air cooled series production passenger car successes – one from Italy and one, curiously, from the United States. May I present the Fiat 500 and the Chevrolet Corvair – the extremes of air-cooled propulsion with one being about a quarter of the engine capacity of the other.
Both cars featured here have been lovingly cared for – and tweaked – by enthusiasts here in Dubai. Whilst the Fiat 500 started life as a ‘cooking’ model it has been much modified by owner Johnny Breinholt to resemble the racing Giannini Fiats of the 1960s. Now sporting a positively gargantuan 700cc, two cylinder motor, with extra cooling coming from the fact that the boot doesn’t shut, the lovely correct-colour grey Cinquecento still manages to weigh in at under 500kg in all of its two and a bit metre length.
The original Nuova 500 was first made in 1957, but lasted in various guises until it became just a bit too basic in 1975. It was offered in 2-door sedan and 3-door estate models (which lasted until 1977) as well as a small van derivative, seated four if they were not the size of Pavarotti and was certainly designed as the original City Car – even the ubiquitous Mini, in its original offering, was bigger. The air-cooled twin grew from 479cc to 594cc through this period and power, if that is a word that can be reasonably used when describing the tiny Fiats, increased from 13 to 21bhp.
Johnny reckons his car is pushing out around twice that, and develops about 40hp from the tweaked engine in his Giannini lookalike, so it certainly has the get-up-and-go that the base car buyers could only dream of. The charming little Fiat also has a set of original Borrani wheels and all the right badges, and though it was originally a base model 1969 car when it left the factory, it has been so painstakingly detailed that you’d be hard pressed to tell it apart from a Giannini original.
On the other end of the air-cooled scale is the Chevrolet Corvair. Chevrolet introduced this car as an ‘American’ Beetle – all the economy of the economy cars of its day, but with seats and dimensions to suit Americans who were used to driving chromed, bewinged barges. Introduced in 1959, and influenced by the Volkswagen Beetle when it was at its height in the US, the early 500 and 700 series cars were pretty basic with a bench seat in the front, a petrol-powered heater as an option and an 80hp flat 6 cylinder engine of 2.3 litres. This engine was to grow both in capacity and power through the Corvair’s lifetime to a 2.7 litre, pushing out 180hp in the Corsa model.
The Corvair was available in a host of body styles from the basic 2-door hardtop through the convertibles, a couple of station wagon variants and even an 8-door van and a pickup. The vans and pickups were forward-control (like the VW Camper vans they competed with) and the Rampside model featured a fold-down ramp for ease of loading, on – yes, you guessed it – the side of the pickup bed!
Todd Stermer’s car is a Second Generation Monza Convertible, the middle car of the range in 1965 when it was made, and delivers 110hp. It is one of 235,528 Corvairs made that year – the peak year of Corvair production. Todd’s car is sensitively modified too. It has the rare factory air-conditioning, but with a more modern and reliable compressor fitted, and has had the dashboard changed to the Corsa item to give a more comprehensive array with better and more useful information.
Exterior modifications are limited to the discreet air dam (standard from 1966 – probably the first time one was used on any production car!) which, according to the owner does actually make a difference in crosswinds. Todd says that despite the reputation that Corvairs had, the handling on his car is quite predictable – and it stops just as well as goes!
The Fiat and the Chevrolet, apart from the obvious benefits of having no radiators, hoses or water pumps to go wrong and having the engines slung out at the back, are examples of out-of-the-box thinking in their respective periods, are timeless in their appearance and are in beautiful condition.
What they also have in common is that their owners take the same approach to owning a classic car: a true desire to preserve and make use of important milestone cars in the history of the automobile and a love of the simplicity that such cars have. Both Johnny and Todd look after their cars themselves with only major work being farmed out to specialists and it is testament to the purity of the designs that these two cars thrive, even in the harsh conditions in which they now live.
Neither the Fiat nor the Corvair will ever be as valuable as the Tucker Torpedo, but they live, are being used and won’t end their days in a museum.