Didn’t Porsche Design the Corvair?

Just how did the Corvair come to be? Of course, said many, it was designed by Porsche. Numerous influences, including a powerful tank engine, shaped Chevy's fear-engined compact. And Porsche was involved--in an unusual way.

December 10, 2015
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It’s an idea that refused to die. When Chevrolet introduced its Corvair in the autumn of 1959, rumors were rife. Porsche designed the Volkswagen, didn’t it? And wasn’t the Corvair a grown-up Volkswagen? And what did Chevrolet know about designing air-cooled rear-engined cars anyway? Thus it was obvious: Porsche must have designed the Corvair!

The idea had some legs because it would not have been the first time that Porsche designed an American car. Between 1952 and 1954 it engineered and built prototypes of its Type 542, a four-door sedan for Studebaker with 120-degree V6 engines, air- or water-cooled to choice. This was a front-engined car in the conventional style, albeit with unibody construction and independent suspension at all four wheels.

Anticipating that such a full-sized auto might not be the answer to Studebaker’s prayers, Ferry Porsche, the head of Porsche AG, also suggested a smaller car, his Type 633. His proposal showed a notchback two-door sedan with a Porsche-like front deck and a 2.0-liter flat-four engine behind the rear wheels. Air-cooled, it had hemispherical cylinder heads. Torsion-bar springs and 13-inch wheels were suggested for an admirably practical 14-foot-long car.

Ferry Porsche later pointed out with a knowing smile that many of the Type 633’s features and dimensions foreshadowed those of the Corvair. Its wheelbase was shorter at 102.4 versus 108.0 inches, but its track and width were similar. Although it was shorter, its seating would have been adequate with a height of 55.1 inches against the Corvair’s 51.5. At just over 80 horsepower its engine output was to be similar with a top speed much the same at 90 mph. Porsche posited a weight of 2,112 pounds against the Corvair’s 2,420.

Similarities notwithstanding, the Type 633 was not a Corvair precursor. Edward N. Cole, who headed Chevrolet Engineering when the project got under way, confirmed this. “I didn’t talk to anyone at Porsche,” said Cole, “but I did speak to some of the people at Volkswagen. I had known (VW’s managing director from 1948-1968) Heinz Nordhoff quite well when he was at GM.” A senior executive at Opel in Germany in the 1930s, Nordhoff had liaised frequently with his American counterparts. He had no reason to withhold information from Cole, who would be competing in an altogether different segment.

Planes, Tanks & Cars

With Porsche locked into a consulting contract with Volkswagen after the war, Nordhoff may well have told Ferry Porsche about his conversations with Cole. Although its agreement with VW prohibited Porsche from working for any rivals in the Beetle’s engine-size category, this wouldn’t have barred it from designing a larger-engined car for GM, just as it had for Studebaker. But it didn’t. A comprehensive list of Porsche project numbers show none that could even remotely have been attributable to the Corvair project.

Also from Issue 234

  • The 2016 Boxster Spyder
  • 991 & 964 Targa Face Off
  • Original Porsche 550 Spyder Drive
  • Market Update: 1952-1965 356
  • Pushrod-engined 356 Carrera GT Speedster
  • Barn Find, Jersey Style 911
  • Rennsport Reunion V
  • 911 Suspension Evolution
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