Coupes de Grace
What is it about a coupe?
One with genuine, if not expansive, room for four, performance sufficient for comfortable travel at any legal speed, superb outward visibility with which to see and be seen, and elegant style that draws attention—but the kind that draws you in, not repels with ostentation or aggression.
Maybe it’s the people who take the plunge and buy them, people who are willing to sacrifice a little practicality, or for whom a two-door car represents no sacrifice at all, to enjoy a more intimate driving experience. Maybe it’s the sense of occasion that a drive in such a self-evidently non-utilitarian car takes on.
Or maybe it’s just that no such cars are made anymore, not really—the few two-doors that are left on the market are about contrived aggression and outward displays of performance and bunkerlike coal-bin cabins that shut the world out.
What is it about these coupes? A sense of occasion indeed marked the day I recently spent with this 1966 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa sport coupe and 1967 BMW 2000CS, taking a pleasure cruise along the levee roads following the Sacramento River.
Certainly on paper, there’s little to differentiate these two surprisingly similar looking hardtops from their four-door counterparts. The 2000CS, the second BMW to wear the now-legendary CS badge after the short-lived, Bertone-designed 3200CS in the early ’60s, shared its twin-carbureted inline four with the 2000TI sedan, although its Karmann-built bodywork increased the coupe’s curb weight by over 100 pounds. Corvair sedans and coupes were all hardtops, with the attendant structural reinforcement that a pillarless design requires, reducing the weight difference between two- and four-door models to a negligible amount—only around ten pounds, according to manufacturer specifications. The Corsa’s standard four-carburetor flat six could be optioned on any other Corvair, although the available turbocharged engine was a Corsa exclusive.
That the Corvair sedan is a hardtop helps it retain some of the coupe’s Coke bottle-hipped glamour—but then again, I may be biased—but the 2000CS is a much more surprising stylistic departure from its TI sedan stablemate. Where the four-door 2000 is severely boxy and upright, with multiple character lines giving it somewhat busy flanks, the coupe is smooth and slinky. While the greenhouse is still tall and glassy, the absence of the B-pillar and the faster windshield and rear window angles and extremely slim pillars significantly reduce its visual bulk.
There’s a bit of mutual admiration in the styling of these coupes. The stainless steel-accented beltline that wraps around the entire perimeter of the BMW was a much-imitated feature of the first generation Corvair, while the shark nose frontal treatment introduced on the second generation Corvair in 1965 is strikingly similar in shape to that of the New Class BMW sedans first seen in 1962. That the CS lacks a traditional full-width grille, with only a pair of tall, narrow kidneys and a good amount of painted metal, only makes its resemblance with the Corvair at the front more noticeable.
That front end is the most controversial aspect of the BMW. It was regarded as unconventional when the design was first seen in 1965, especially with the completely faired glass headlights of the European version, and has not always been kindly received; even today, the later 2800CS and 3.0CS coupes, which shared the same body aft of the A-pillars but replaced the nose with a more BMW-conventional full-width grille with inset round headlights, are considered more beautiful. What I think is overlooked, however, is how much more futuristic the 2000CS design is. It may have seemed like a stylistic dead end at the time, but alongside modern BMWs, which have lost their outboard grilles and pair wide headlights with only kidneys, the 2000 looks right at home. The extra differentiation of having completely different frontal styling between the sedans and coupe also helps heighten the coupe’s exclusivity and glamour.
The Corvair’s glamour quotient, meanwhile, was upped significantly with its first and only major redesign in 1965, which swapped out the bathtub-like styling of the slightly austere early model—which had, after all, originally been designed strictly as an economy car before taking on a new sense of purpose as a quasi-sports sedan—for a flowing fender line ending in a distinctive Kamm tail. Ornamentation is jewel-like and impressively restrained for a ’60s domestic car, but the silver-painted rear panel on the Corsa gives it a little extra distinction over lesser Corvairs.
Only when parked next to the BMW does it become evident that the Corvair’s beltline is a little high; I was shocked to learn that the glassy BMW is only an inch taller. The difference in greenhouse height is keenly felt from within as well. The Corvair’s primary dimensional advantage is an extra four inches of width; passengers in the BMW sit more upright and higher off the floor, opening up more room for the rear seat, although headroom is consequently no better than in the Chevy. The Corvair’s low seating position and high beltline start to feel a little confining in a darker-colored interior such as the black on the car seen here. Owner Wes Nicholas had the dashboard panels in front of the driver and front passenger refinished in silver, usually only seen on mid-level Monzas, instead of the Corsa-standard black, to help alleviate the darkness. The BMW’s dash is liberally trimmed in honey-hued wood, which has a similarly lightening effect, although the acres of glass help significantly, too. Both cabins are businesslike and functionally-laid out; the Corvair boasts very complete instrumentation and a sporty feel, while the BMW tends more toward elegance and luxury, with finer materials befitting its higher pricetag.
While the BMW’s rear passengers get a full-width bench and a pull-down center armrest, the Corvair’s are victims of a stylist’s prank: while visually, legroom in the back of a Corvair coupe is on par with that of a sedan, this is a trick of the eye achieved by shortening the seat cushion by about three inches! The coupe’s faster roof required the seatback to be moved forward. If the rear of the Corvair is unoccupied, however, the seat can be folded down, augmenting the fairly small front trunk.
Both of these coupes, then, are equipped to handle passengers in reasonable comfort and high style; what about the performance side of the equation? The Corvair has the advantage of two extra cylinders, extra displacement, and greater output—not to mention less weight—and it is unsurprisingly the faster and smoother performer here. Compared to my dual-carb, automatic sedan, the four-speed, four-carb Corsa is capable of much more immediate response without sacrificing cruising comfort, although the lower axle ratio specified on this car during restoration helps lengthen its legs compared to its original spec. The car’s low center of gravity and fully independent suspension keep handling planted and secure despite the lack of assist on the steering.
The BMW, meanwhile, is a slightly peakier machine that invites and rewards driver involvement. Unsurprisingly, since the engine sits in front of you instead of behind, there’s more mechanical noise, none of it unpleasant, and the more closely spaced gear ratios mean keeping the revs a bit higher. The overall effect is a bit more tactile and immediate than the ultra-smooth Corvair; both cars do credible grand tourer impressions, with the BMW slightly further to the sporty end of the spectrum and the Corvair oriented slightly more toward comfort—each essentially offering the opposite of what its driving environment promises.
These are surprisingly well-matched—and both very satisfying—cars. The BMW is undeniably more luxurious, as it should be considering it cost nearly twice as much as the Corvair when new. It’s a much rarer beast, too; U.S. annual BMW sales in the mid-sixties were still in the low- to mid-four figures, and the flagship CS accounted for a small fraction of the total. The Corvair, for its part, is a slightly more effortless car, a bit more comfortable with the low-speed demands of American driving in addition to its high-speed cruising abilities, as a mass-production American car should be. And (in my hands, at least), it has a habit of punching above its weight, price-wise.
Effortless is as good a descriptor as I can come up with for the appeal of these cars, too. Their clean, elegant good looks, their engaging performance, the way they make every drive feel a little more special—it all seems so charmingly, gracefully effortless. Maybe that’s what it is about coupes….
My immense gratitude to Wes Nicholas and to Norm Walters and Marion Pepper for sharing their Corvair and 2000CS, respectively, and a fabulous day along the Sacramento River with me.