Poor Man’s Porsche

Was the Chevy Corvair doomed by an unrealistic nickname, or can it measure up? Was the Porsche 912 just a poor substitute for those who couldn’t afford a 911? We put them head to head to find out.

…[The] Corvair has  superior handling qualities and roadability over any U.S. car…. I compare its roadability to the best of the German sports car—the Porsche.
—Floyd Clymer, Automobile Topics, September 1960

We drove a Monza Corvair that would undoubtedly out-handle a Porsche Super 90! To those with Corvair experience this may sound like an incredible statement, but, so help us, it’s true. 
—Jerry Titus, Sports Car Graphic, December 1961

Corvair Monza Spyder: Poor Man’s Porsche adds a “Super” to the top of the line 
—Road test headline, Car and Driver, May 1963

Within a week in October, 1959, the big story for the 1960 model year dropped: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler each unveiled their first domestic compact car lines. The Corvair, Falcon, and Valiant (respectively) were intended to appeal to the same target markets of women, seniors, and second-car buyers, but GM made one fatal miscalculation: it made the Corvair interesting.

While the Falcon and Valiant were utterly conventional, essentially shrunken versions of their full-size counterparts, the Corvair married Chevrolet General Manager Ed Cole’s longstanding fascination with air-cooled powerplants with the rear-engine formula of the then-bestselling compact import, the Volkswagen. Designers’ demands for a low silhouette necessitated a low profile, horizontally opposed engine layout; early prototypes of the new, aluminum-intensive flat six were tested in a Porsche 356 body, and as soon as Chevrolet introduced the notionally sportier Corvair Monza coupe in January, 1960, it seemed that the comparisons were inevitable.

The problem was that, while the Corvair’s layout, engine configuration, and seemingly exotic handling characteristics—typical of rear-engined cars, but foreign enough to the average domestic car buyer to get GM into serious trouble down the line—seemed to invite the comparison, it had been engineered with frugality, not performance, in mind. The introduction of the turbocharged Monza Spyder in 1962 only confused matters more, as Chevrolet neglected to reengineer the suspension to handle the additional power.

The second generation Corvair, introduced in 1965, is a different beast. A true poor man’s Porsche? We’ll see.

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So what of the poor man’s actual Porsche? These days, it seems the only one left is the 1980s 924, but for many years it was possible to get a Corvair contemporary for just a hair more than Corvair money.

If the Corvair in the early ’60s could be semi-plausibly seen as a budget alternative to the Porsche 356, it was perhaps only because the 356, dating in its most basic form to the late 1940s, had been around long enough to seem a little quaint in spite of its performance credentials. Just as there was a radically improved Corvair for 1965, however, there was a new breed of Porsche hitting the streets that year: the now-legendary 911.

Porsche worried that the jump in price from the four cylinder 356 to the new flat six 911—an increase of nearly 42% from the 356SC coupe to the 911—would be too great, and as an interim measure until its consumer base could adjust to the new regime, or a suitable entry-level model could be developed, the 356’s 1600cc flat four was transplanted into the new body to create the 912.

Between 1965 and 1969, when it was replaced by the 914, Porsche built more than 32,000 of the 102HP 912s in coupe and Targa form. While skyrocketing prices for early 911s have recently pushed 912 values up significantly, for years the 912 was itself a kind of poor man’s Porsche.

So does the Corvair truly belong in Porsche’s shadow? Is the 912 a poor cousin to the 911? Or can we finally declare that each of these cars is worthy to stand on its own?

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Short answer: neither of these cars deserves to remain in the shadows.

The Corvair is, of course, a significantly larger car than the 912, casting a shadow some 20 inches longer than the Porsche, and weighing nearly 400 pounds more. While the 912 could be had with a removable Targa roof, the Corvair was available in coupe, convertible, and sedan bodystyles with a choice of four engines, three transmissions, and three levels of trim. Our featured Corvair, Jamie Torres’s ’66 Corsa coupe—the replacement for the Monza Spyder at the top of the range—makes up for the added girth with a quad-carbureted version of the flat six, rated by the factory at 140 (gross) horsepower, equivalent to an early 911. Even more thrust was available with the optional, 180-horse turbocharged engine, predating Porsche’s first street-legal turbo by a decade. The 912 you see here, Roger Emmett’s ’69, is the last of the line, but while the 911 benefitted from a program of constant improvement, the 912 was largely left unchanged from year to year. A five speed manual was the sole option, with a more tactile linkage than the Corvair’s somewhat vague four speed, although neither is the model of precision that drivers of front-engine performance cars might expect.

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Not that they are entirely dissimilar. While neither the Corvair nor the 912 are fire-breathing performance cars, both are pleasantly quick and smooth with exceptionally docile handling—in the Corvair’s case, significantly better than the 1960-64 models, and in the 912’s case, more so than the temperamental early 911. Their horizontally opposed engines emit a characteristic rumble, the Corvair’s six with a hint more sewing machine smoothness, while the Porsche’s four has traces of the trademark fruity blat of a Volkswagen.

Balance is the key characteristic of both cars. The 912 benefits from less weight hanging off the rear end than the 911 for more favorable weight distribution, while the Corvair’s sophisticated, fully independent rear suspension essentially entirely cured the ills of its swing axle forebear.

The Corvair’s added size means more interior space, especially for rear seat passengers—the Porsche’s rear jumpseats are a cruel joke for anyone over the age of five—but it’s telling that the prototype for the Corvair’s bucket seats was made by cutting a bench seat in half; there’s no lateral support, and the cushions are broad, flat, and marshmallow-squishy. Seat belts are a must in even low speed cornering maneuvers. The Porsche, true to its mission, has a much sportier driving position and far more supportive seats, at least for the front passengers. Those rear jumpseats do fold down to create a generous parcel shelf—but, surprisingly, so does the Corvair’s rear bench. So, it wins on space and practicality, if not comfort.

How Much?

Corvair Corsa: $2,519

Original price in 1966 dollars

Corvair Corsa: $19,090

Original price adjusted to 2016 dollars

Porsche 912: $5,095

Original price in 1969 dollars

Porsche 912: $34,170

Original price adjusted to 2016 dollars

Styling is, of course, purely subjective. Fortunately, the Corvair and 912 are distinct enough that each can be appreciated on its own merits, without drawing direct comparison. The 912 is a member of a family that has demonstrated remarkably long stylistic legs; its influence is clearly visible in the 911 you can buy from your Porsche dealer today. The integral body-color bumpers were a particularly unique feature in 1965 that helps the car look fresh to modern eyes. If the Corvair is more clearly of its time, it represents perhaps the cleanest, most elegant design, especially in coupe form, to emerge from Bill Mitchell’s GM Design studio, an era already known for crisp, elegant shapes. The Porsche presents as a pure sports car, while the Corvair Corsa looks more like a sophisticated grand tourer.

In character, they are perhaps a bit closer, hewing more to the touring side. Both are extremely satisfying cars to use in real-world conditions; how much driving do you actually do at 10/10ths?

Poor man or no, the Corvair can clearly hold its own in this company. As for the 912, well, this is very fine company, indeed; who cares about the 911? Leave that one to the deep-pocketed purists and enjoy the balance and sweetness that makes the 912 special in its own right.

Special thanks to Roger Emmett for sharing his amazing 1969 Porsche 912 and Jamie Torres for sharing his stunning 1966 Chevrolet Corsa. Check out Jamie’s work and share the love here – he is a true artisan!

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