Just as Ferry Porsche envisioned a sports car based on the Volkswagen, John Fitch envisioned one based on a Corvair. The result was the beautiful and nimble Fitch Phoenix. The Phoenix was built on a 95-inch wheelbase (13 inches shorter than a stock Corvair's), with an overall length of 174 inches. The elegant steel-bodied roadster weighed in at only 1,950 pounds, allowing the 170-hp Weber-carbureted Corvair engine to propel the car from zero-to-sixty mph in 7.5 seconds. Top speed was estimated to be in excess of 130 mph. The acceleration and top speed capabilities of the Phoenix were matched by an upgraded braking system, with Girling discs at the front and stock Corvair drums on the rear. Staggered wheels (175R/14 in front and 185R/14 in rear) further enhanced performance. Although the fender humps are a key design element, they also provided a place to stow the spare tires. For those who weren't concerned about flat tires, the humps were a delete option. Despite critical acclaim, General Motors' decision to cease production of the Corvair scuttled hopes of Phoenix production, since there would no longer be a source of engines and parts. This prototype is the sole example.
Given the bowtie badge on its nose, the Chevrolet Corvair was a surprisingly un-American car. Chevy, which had for so long specialized in hulking Detroit iron and big V8's, decided to gain entry into an opening compact car market with the Corvair. The idea of a small, economical car was still relatively new to American manufacturers, so Chevy looked to the overseas experts when seeking inspiration for the Corvair.
An important influence on the Corvair was the Volkswagen Beetle. One of the least American cars on the face of the Earth, the Volkswagen was great at its job. Tidy and efficient, it helped put many people on wheels for the first time and provided a reliable and economical form of transportation for the masses. It was the ideal compact car benchmark.
As Chevy's small car, the Corvair featured an air-cooled engine mounted behind the rear axle. Chevrolet reasoned that, as such a design had worked so well for Volkswagen, the Corvair would be able to soundly tackle any competition. Much was overlooked, though, and the high weight of the Corvair's flat six behind the rear wheels led to very shaky handling. The cars become notorious for their tricky antics and were declared thoroughly unsafe by the motoring press.
Such problems did not deter John Cooper Fitch, who saw potential in the Corvair's basic design. As a P-51 fighter pilot during World War II and a successful racing driver for both Mercedes-Benz and Cunningham, Fitch had plenty of experience with riskier maneuvers than a Corvair's handling limits. Fitch introduced a Sprint package for the Corvair that helped turn the little deathtraps into finer handling cars with a sporting edge. Corvair Sprints had tighter steering ratios and increased power from a modified flat six with a quartet of carburetors. Most importantly, they had a revised rear suspension that, coupled with radial tires, gave far superior handling over a stock Corvair.
Fitch opened up his own company, called John Fitch and Co., to install the Sprint kits. The installation facility was located at what had previously been a Chrysler dealer in Falls Village, Connecticut.
After developing the Sprint kits, the Fitch company decided to work towards the creation of a more exotic car built on the platform of a Corvair Sprint. Called the Phoenix, it was to have a racy body over a shortened platform. The idea of an air-cooled, rear-engined sports car was hardly an American concept, and the Phoenix was assembled by Intermeccanica. Built in Italy for a company in America and with a hearty number of ideas borrowed from a couple of German auto makers, the Phoenix was set to be a real world car with international influences. Fitch ran into pre-production uncertainty, though, and the cross-cultural collaboration never amounted to anything but a single prototype.
The root of Fitch's uncertainty was the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. The law was put into action in 1966, and Fitch was worried about how the new regulations would affect the final design of the Phoenix. There was great irony in Fitch's worries about the new Safety Act, as the Phoenix had been designed to keep passengers safe even before the law was introduced. The Phoenix featured an energy-absorbing crush zone to reduce the risk of injury in a collision, and its targa top design incorporated a functional roll bar.
Beyond the Safety Act's passing, Fitch was also worried about the future of the Corvair. Chevrolet had decided to cease any further development of its small car, and the company was preparing to end production in the foreseeable future. As Phoenix production would necessitate an accessible supply of new Corvair components, the bleak future of the Corvair made it clear that producing the Phoenix would be risky.
Had the Phoenix made it to production, it likely would have been a success. The 500 units planned for sale should have had no problem selling, as 100 orders had already been placed before production had begun. With a sub-2000lbs weight and a 170hp Weber-fed engine, performance would have lived up to the highest expectations. Even the styling would have found plenty of fans. Though strangely proportioned, the Phoenix looked special. Its frontal features and roofline were similar to the C3 Corvette (the final iteration of the Stingray theme), and its low 45-inch height helped give the appearance of a fast and sporty car.
One of the design's most unusual features, a single hump behind each front fender was incorporated into the body. Beneath these humps were the car's twin spare tires. Two were deemed necessary as the Phoenix used a staggered tire setup with 175mm-wide units at front and 185mm rubber out back. The staggered arrangement emphasized the car's performance potential, as did the Girling disc brakes used on the front of the car. With a top speed of over 130mph, the Phoenix was designed to be quick and capable.
While it's unfortunate that the Phoenix never reached production, it's comforting to know that the prototype is still a functional car. The one and only example is still owned and driven to shows by John Fitch himself. Wherever the Phoenix goes, it reminds that even a flawed platform can be reworked to greatness by a bright and enthusiastic mind.
'Intermeccanica/Fitch Phoenix.' Intermeccanica Enthusiasts Club Web.5 Jul 2009. http://www.intermeccanica.org/vehicles/phoenix/phoenix.htm.
Strohl, Daniel. '1966 Fitch Phoenix.' Hemmings Motor News 01 July 2006: Print.
Time magazine named it one of 'The 50 Worst Cars of All Time.' Ralph Nader highlighted its design flaws in his influential book Unsafe at Any Speed. Yet the Chevrolet Corvair, which faced more negative press during its lifespan than any other car of the era, continues to have a loyal following of true enthusiasts.
Different from any American cars before or since, the unique Corvair has become most notable for its flaws. The car had its merits as well, but the more agreeable facets of the Corvair have been largely disregarded by the public and held onto only by an adoring group of fans enamored with the vehicle.
A rear-engined car, the primary flaw of the Corvair sprang from Chevrolet's inexperience with the new drivetrain layout. The Corvair was designed to be a mass-produced compact car able to compete with the incoming wave of tidy foreign vehicles. For inspiration, Chevrolet looked to the king of the compact—Volkswagen.
With a name that translates literally to 'People's Car,' Volkswagen had nailed the formula for affordable and charming transportation with the evergreen Beetle. When the Corvair was introduced, it borrowed heavily from the Beetle. Like the VW, the Corvair used an air-cooled engine mounted at the rear, with a trunk located up front. The Corvair also used a swing-axle rear suspension similar to the Volkswagen's. While VW had many years to perfect its engine and suspension, Chevrolet jumped right in with the Corvair. With no real experience making such cars, Chevy's new compact was bound to have some serious teething issues.
When it debuted for the 1960 model year, the Corvair suffered from grave problems. Its rigid steering column was aimed just right to impale unlucky drivers when the cars were involved with collisions. The car's most notable fault, though, came from its suspension design. Though the light and underpowered Volkswagens could use a similar design without serious problems, the heavier and more powerful Corvairs developed dangerous handling characteristics due to the use of a swing-arm rear suspension.
Under hard cornering, the inside rear wheel of Corvairs had a tendency to tuck. When this happened, and it happened often, the cars became uncontrollable. With barely any surface area gripping the road at the back of the car, a tucked wheel could easily cause a spinout. Even worse, many cars would roll over when the suspension gave out in a turn.
Chevrolet recognized the problem and began working to remedy it as early as 1962. For 1964, a transverse spring was installed to compensate for camber changes under cornering. By 1965, with the introduction of the second generation Corvair, an entirely new suspension design had replaced the flawed swing-axle layout. Salvation came late, though. Also released for 1965 was Ralph Nader's book Unsafe at Any Speed that targeted the glaring problems of the early Corvairs. The improved models were hurt by the infamous reputation of their predecessors. Sales slowed to a trickle, and production was ended after the 1969 model year.
Despite the follies of the early cars, there was plenty to like about the Corvair. Its styling was crisp and clean with a sporting flair that couldn't be seen on other American compacts. The forward slanting nose with its four small headlights and absence of a grille looked distinctive and fresh. The car's lines were taut and athletic, a welcome step away from the American excess of just a few years prior.
Later Corvairs, with their improved rear suspensions, offered engaging driving dynamics. The improved handling made Corvairs fun cars in the corners. The air-cooled, aluminum flat sixes were versatile engines. Offered in 145ci and 164ci displacements, they produced anywhere from 80 to 180 horsepower. More affordable trim levels, like the 500 and 700, made due with less power while the sportier Corsa, Monza, and Spyder trims were all given more gusto. Four carburetors were offered on some models, and for the 1965 and 1966 model years there was even a turbocharged variant of the 164ci engine. It was this turbo engine that, when ordered in the Corsa, put out a hearty 180hp at 4,000rpm. The relatively light weight of the Corvair coupled with such power provided astounding acceleration. The ¼ mile could be achieved in the 13-second range.
Ushering in such innovations in an American car was a brave move for Chevrolet. The Corvair had dire flaws—problems that ultimately led to the car's end. It represented Chevy's willingness to take risks, though, and in doing so showed that the American car industry could step outside its bounds and create its own distinctive brand of transportation to take on a new class of cars from all over the world. With the support of a large group of admirers who continue to voice their praise over the cynics' criticism, the Corvair has become the car world's most successful failure.
GM: The First 75 Years of Transportation Products. Second. Detroit: Automobile Quarterly Publications, 1983. Print.By Evan Acuña
The Corvair came on the scene in 1959 and featured a flat-six engine mounted in mid-ship. Even with putting the engine in the middle of the vehicle, the weight distribution was not evenly distributed. The engine sat behind the rear axle and this actually caused handling problems. The vehicles main competition was the VW Bug and the Porsche 911. It was originally built to compete with the Bug, but with the flat-six engine, it was more in the Porsche 911 league. But with the poor handling, it was in an undesirable class of its own. The handling issues were addressed in 1965 when new suspensions with upper and lower control arms were added. But when comedian Eddie Kovacs was killed due to over-steer, public confidence and sales plummeted. Chevrolet tried to save the Corvairs by introducing media campaigns that focused on the new suspension. Race drivers were used to demonstrate the cars ability. However, it was not enough and Chevrolet finally ended production of the Corvair in 1969.
The front of the vehicle did not have a grill. This was because the engine was air-cooled, so a grill was not needed.
The car came with fifteen different color options on the outside and eight on the inside. The retractable room was foldable, and an automatic option available for an additional charge. In 1962, a turbocharged version was added to the line-up in attempt to boost sales and improve the image of the vehicle as a sports car. A top speed of 115 mph could be ascertained with the turbocharger with a zero-to-sixty time of about 10.8. In 1966, the vehicle received styling updates and was named the Corvair Corsa. Drum brakes were always used. The vehicle came in a variety of gearboxes such as a three-speed manual, four-speed manual or an optional two-speed automatic. The body was integral chassis with two-door steel body.
The name Corvair came about by breeding the Corvette and Bel Air together, two trademark names of Chevrolet. By Daniel Vaughan | Jul 2009
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