Before there was a Camaro, before there was even a Chevy II or Nova—and before Ralph Nader ruined its reputation—the Corvair was Chevrolet’s sporty compact.
Yes, it was kinda funky looking, and yes it had an air-cooled engine that was mounted in the “wrong” end of the car. But there were a lot of go-fast goodies offered for the Corvair in its day. Tuners ranging from old-school hot rodders like Barney Navarro to Chevy dealer/racer Don Yenko tried their hand at making them faster and competing in them.
In November 1961, editors from several Petersen Publishing magazines, including Hot Rod, Motor Trend, Sports Car Graphic, Car Craft, and Rod & Custom, plus some pretty heavy hitters in the racing community, gathered at Riverside International Raceway for what Hot Rod described as a “24-hour high-speed economy run” using two bright-red ’62 Corvairs. And we do mean heavy hitters: It speaks to the power of Petersen’s empire that guys named Unser, Gurney, and Shelby were on hand to help shepherd these two little coupes around Riverside’s winding 2.7-mile road course for what would be a “grueling 1,549.1-mile ordeal.”
Carroll Shelby conducted the test, acting as “sports car racing expert” and in his capacity as the chief of the high-performance driving school he hosted at the track.
Chevy performance guru Bill Thomas prepped the cars. One was left mostly stock, “having only such extra items as were deemed useful for safety,” like a Sun tachometer, Empi front sway bar, Shelby-branded smaller steering wheel, dual Moon fuel tanks (to aid in accurately measuring fuel economy), Goodyear Blue Streak tires, and Lucas driving lights. A second car got those parts too, but it also was fitted with Thomas’s four-carb induction setup, a Racer Brown camshaft, Hands magnesium racing wheels, sintered metal brake linings, and open exhaust. They’re easy to tell apart in the photos by their numbers: 98S for stock, 98M for modified.
“The plan,” as Hot Rod described it, “was to allow each driver two hours behind the wheel, with predetermined averages posted as a target speed for each car and with gasoline consumption and mileage carefully recorded for each hour’s tour.” Petersen Editorial Director (and head of the NHRA) Wally Parks would start in the modified car, and Sports Car Graphic Editor John Christy would take the maiden laps in the stocker. Our lead photo (from Hot Rod’s March 1962 issue) shows Parks (center) and Christy (right) posing with a sweater-wearing Shelby at the start line.
Things did not go as planned.
After just the first hour, while the stock Corvair was “breezing along,” the modified Corvair was wounded. Upon inspection, it had developed “a mechanical failure not typical of Corvairs—a loosened key in a timing gear allowed the cam to retard, thus impairing the engine’s previously healthy output.” The car was pulled, though “it had already proved its potential, and speculation ran high as to what lap speeds it might have chalked up with Dan Gurney or one of the other scheduled pilots aboard.”
The stock car, then, became “the real star of the show.” Lap after lap “it steadfastly maintained its speed as the hours passed slowly by,” even during an 11-hour nighttime rainstorm that “made the track slippery and laden with deep puddles, testing the skill of the drivers and adding to the event’s challenge to the Corvair.”
At the 24-hour mark, the stocker had run 1,549.1 miles at an average speed of 66.3 mph. Fuel economy was 16.6 mpg, “despite the fact it was driven at speeds varying from 40 mph on some turns to 105 mph on the straightaway.” Just one quart of oil was added during the test, and the “stock brakes were as good as new.”
In the end, “contestants and observers agreed this was one of the most demanding controlled endurance tests ever encountered by an American stock car, and Corvair won a flock of new admirers as a result.”