1964 Chevrolet Corvair Greenbrier Classic Drive
As the concrete dried on Ike's interstate highway system, hordes of American families started steering their sedans and wagons onto the pristine pavement to see for themselves the purple mountains' majesty and amber waves of grain they'd long been singing about. Motor hotels spread across the landscape like dandelion fluff, but families on tighter budgets and city dwellers seeking a greater escape from their concrete canyons took their families camping. Field & Stream magazine ran a special section on outdoor vacationing in its February 1962 issue, predicting that 5 million Americans would vacation outdoors that year, enjoying a network of 5000 public campgrounds spread across the 50 states, typically charging $1.25 a day or less for a campsite. The 23-page special section detailed all the gear a neophyte outdoorsman would need, ranging from tents and sleeping bags to trailers, slide-in pickup-bed units, and self-propelled camper vans. To illustrate this last option -- deemed most preferable for ease of driving, parking, setup, etc. -- the editors logged more than 4000 miles in a Chevy Corvair Greenbrier stuffed with the GM accessory camper package, tent, and awning.
What made F&S choose the little forward-control van built on Chevy's new air-cooled rear-engine compact instead of a VW Microbus Westfalia or a similarly campy Ford Econoline? Perhaps the editors had read Car Life magazine's roundup of these three vanlets in their passenger wagon guise that had run just 5 months earlier. While the editors weaseled out of picking an outright winner, they criticized the quicker-accelerating Econoline for a ride that was "more harsh than in the others [with] a noticeable front-end heaviness [that] caused uncomfortable jouncing." They described the VW's 1192cc flat-four as "hard-pressed to move the 2310-pound vehicle." The Greenbrier was praised for having the quietest, most comfortable ride and deft handling "with more nimbleness than you'll find in the Chevy station wagon." The Field & Stream editors' odyssey also included a chance to appreciate the traction advantages of the Corvair's drivetrain layout. "When the snow was dry and powdery, the Greenbrier was able, with summer treads, to go anywhere a station wagon with snow tires could go."
The Corvair product line bowed in 1960, winning Motor Trend's coveted Car of the Year award with sedan, coupe, convertible, and wagon body styles. The next year, two vans and two pickups joined the lineup, rounding out Chevrolet's high-stakes attempt to drive Volkswagen back into the Atlantic. The idea was to borrow what worked best about the German people's car (and truck/van) and tailor it to better suit American people. If a rear-mounted, air-cooled flat-four engine made good sense in terms of packaging efficiency and low operating cost, adding two cylinders and doubling the power output seemed a logical upgrade of Herr Dr. Porsche's concept for 70-mph interstate cruising and Rocky Mountain climbing.
Arguments used by Chevy chief engineer Ed Cole to persuade GM president Harlow Curtice and the Engineering Policy Committee to pull the trigger on Corvair included the rear-engine's favorable weight distribution for traction, light steering effort without power assist, and reduced cabin heating with the engine out back, while air-cooling saved on parts cost and maintenance. And for utility applications, placing the driver controls ahead of the front axle (as VW had shown with its Transporter, starting in 1950) affords impressive cargo and passenger carrying space within a compact car footprint. Ford's forward-control Econoline also arrived in 1961, based loosely on Falcon mechanicals, with the engine residing in a "doghouse" between the front seats and utilizing a beam axle and leaf springs in front. Dodge's similarly Valiant-affiliated A100 van arrived in 1964, also with a solid axle leaf-sprung front end. And of course GM followed suit with the technologically retrograde Chevy-II-derived ChevyVan and GMC Handi-Van in 1964, as the company's faith (and investment) in the Corvair platform began to wane. One can argue that those clunky solid-axle front-engine boxes were better equipped for delivery van service and in pickup truck guise, except for applications where the Corvair Rampside's low floor and easy roll-aboard loading made sense. The front-engine trucks had higher floors, but they were flat from front to rear, whereas VW and Corvair floors had to kick up over the engine compartment. (VW's vertical cooling fan made its engine package way taller than the Corvair's.)
But the Corvair proved the superior basis for a camper-van. That low floor afforded 1.5 inches more inside height than the 10-inch-taller Econoline, and the side doors were taller and wider. Apparently the body structure was robustly constructed, too, as the Field & Stream report attested: "My test vehicle remained rigid and rattle-free over the worst roads." That's saying something for a big, open box stuffed with all manner of aftermarket plywood furnishings including a kitchen sink. And while neither publication had much praise for the original 80-hp engine's get up and go (especially in the heavily outfitted camper), relief arrived for 1964 with a bore and stroke increase that boosted displacement from 145 cubic inches to 164. Base output increased from 80 hp to 95, with the still naturally aspirated but higher compression Turbo-Air engine producing 110 hp. That was still near double the output of VW's by then upgraded 1500 engine (52 hp) and comfortably ahead of the Econoline's 105. Of course, many of the well-known John Fitch performance upgrades designed for the Monza and Corsa cars bolt right on to the Greenbrier. Car and Driver's Barry Brown built himself such a sleeper performance van: "I am satisfied as I have never been with any other automobile -- it is a business tool, family car, and sports car all at the same time."
Just as companies like Westfalia Werke in Rheda-Wiedenbrück, Germany, had developed a booming business outfitting VW Type 2 Microbuses as campers (many of which came home with returning American service personnel throughout the 1950s and '60s), the camping gear industry in the U.S. embraced the Greenbriar, Corvan Panel Van, and the Rampside pickup, offering specially tailored cabinetry, roof-top tents, pop-up units, awnings, screens, curtains, and more. Removing the ramp on the side of a Rampside pickup made room for a proper storm door entry to a high-roof Campside camper from Michigan's Traville Corporation.
Soon enough, General Motors got in on the action with a full catalog of camping accessory items sourced from an Ocala, Florida, company that primarily employed retirees to craft the plywood cabinetry, drawer base couch units, tables, and such. Clearly that company didn't enjoy Westfalia's success, as its name is no longer known by even devout "Corvanatics."
Our subject vehicle is one of a handful known to be equipped with the dealer-installed $595 Camper Unit (GM part number 985654). This second-generation design rearranged the floorplan to a slightly more useful layout, placing the sink (with 11-gallon water tank), cabinet, and 7-gallon Coleman icebox behind the front seats.
The cushions of a forward-facing couch can be elevated to join cushions over the engine, forming a double bed. Cabinetry along the driver side provides lots of storage for gear, as do two shallow drawers immediately atop the engine. A table can be erected in front of the couch or hung off the opened side door to support a camp stove. Curtains, including one that separates the front seat from the rear, provide privacy, and accessory screens ($34.50) keep the bugs out. This setup slept three indoors, with one on the front bench seat. (A bunk bed cot setup was offered by some companies to sleep a second child above the front seat.) For larger families, GM also offered a two-person rooftop tent with ladder ($103), a freestanding dome tent ($107), and a large shelter fly ($75, discontinued after 1963). To get a Westfalia-style pop-up roof, you had to go to the aftermarket for a unit like our subject car's Turtle Top. Its fiberglass lid lifts straight up on steel scissors supports, providing 74 inches of stand-up headroom with four skylights and screened windows for ventilation. A canvas cot sleeps another adult at roof level.
Owner Allen Bristow still camps frequently in his Greenbrier, having racked up some 50,000 miles crisscrossing the country. Along the way, he's made several practical upgrades, including an alternator, radial tires, a camshaft from the 95-hp engine to boost low-end torque, EMPI side steps to aid ingress to the front seat, and a front air dam from an S10 pickup, which he says dramatically reduces buffeting from side winds and passing big-rigs. And even after 86,000 miles of camping use, the dealer-installed plywood furnishings remain unbelievably rattle-free.
(I once test-drove a brand-new Westfalia Eurovan with empty cabinets that rattled like the Joad family Hudson.)From behind the wheel, I'm struck by the unique and now unfamiliar perspective offered by the forward-control seating position. There's a perfect view of whatever I'm just about to run over, but I must lean forward to see traffic lights. Sitting above the front tires means delaying steering inputs a fraction of a second to avoid climbing a curb, but the 95-inch wheelbase makes this little van very maneuverable. The ride quality is exceptional, if a tad roly-poly; steering is light and communicative; and handling belies the vehicle's utilitarian mission. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is how mechanically precise the shifter feels, despite its 7-foot remote connection to the transaxle -- a far cry from the carrot-in-a-Cuisinart feel of most VW Type 2s. Avoiding chatter from the (Vega upgrade) clutch demands a healthy combo of slippage and throttle, and the engine clearly has its work cut out motivating nearly 2 tons of people and gear, but the 3.55:1 axle and four-speed gearing afford adequate merging acceleration and comfortable cruising at 65-70 mph. Four-wheel drum brakes encourage advanced planning, but pedal feel is reassuring.
One can't help wondering how the Corvair's history might have played out had anti-roll bars and/or radial tires been specified from the start to prevent the cars' handling from attracting Ralph Nader's attention. Maybe if Chevrolet had continued to develop and market Corvair variants, Porsche's 50-year-old sports car wouldn't be the only rear-engine car on the road today, the Vega debacle mightn't have happened, and the GMC motorhome might've been a pusher instead of a puller.
1964 Chevrolet Corvair Greenbrier Specifications Engine 163.6-cu-in/2680cc OHV flat-6, 2x1-bbl Rochester HV carburetors Power and torque (SAE gross) 110 hp @ 3600 rpm, 154 lb-ft @ 2400 rpm Drivetrain 4-speed manual, RWD Brakes front: drum, rear: drum Suspension front: control arms, coil springs; rear: swing axle and semi-trailing arm, coil springs Dimensions L: 179.7 in, W: 70.0 in, H: 68.5 in Weight 3600 lb Performance 0-60 mph: 32.2 sec, quarter mile: 25.0 sec @ 55 mph (Car Life, September 1961, 145-cu-in/80-hp engine, two-speed automatic transmission, 3040-lb 9-seater, no camping accessories) Price when new $3658
ASK THE MAN WHO OWNS ONE ALLEN BRISTOW, a self-described ADHD car collector, owns an insurance agency and a shop specializing in VW diesel tuning and repair. The latter nourishes his Golf TDI road-racing hobby, which he slots in between nostalgia drag races with his '63 Pontiac Grand Prix.
WHY I LIKE IT: "I was always into cars as a kid, and I built a model of a Corvair that made me want the real thing. So, at age 10, I bought a '63 Monza for $75 of my own lawn-mowing money. That one led to others."
WHY IT'S COLLECTIBLE: The Greenbrier arguably ranks as the first American minivan. Its blend of utility, space, and efficiency dovetailed perfectly with America's growing wanderlust, and the rare GM camper package makes this a blue-chip Corvair.
RESTORING/MAINTAINING: Clark's Corvair Parts produces the unique mechanical and wear items, and many chassis parts are shared with full-size Chevys. Maintenance is econo-car simple (no coolant to flush!), and experts abound.
BEWARE: They rust in the same spots VWs do, and cooling is essential. Maintain the long fanbelt religiously, using only belts of dedicated cloth-wrap design, and keep body vent paths clear—insulation near the side vents can dislodge and block airflow.
EXPECT TO PAY: Concours-ready, $50,400; solid driver, $27,200; tired runner, $10,400. (Source: Hagerty Price Guide estimates based on VW 15-window Microbus; there simply are no Greenbrier camper comps.)
JOIN THE CLUB: Corvanatics Chapter, Corvair Society of America (corvair.org/chapters/corvanatics/)
OUR TAKE THEN: "Four thousand miles of turnpikes, gravel roads, even no roads were covered in comfort. This sets the Greenbrier apart from other campers I have driven. Possibly it is the most practical private passenger vehicle yet produced." -- Roger Barlow, Field & Stream, February 1962
NOW: Vintage enough to draw admiring thumbs-up, advanced enough to match modern traffic speeds and ride comfort, the Greenbrier is still a remarkably efficient way to bring the comforts of home out into the wilderness.
Ultra Van -- the ultimate Corvair RV So the Greenbrier's floor plan cramps your style?
Air-cooled adventurers had an even more advanced choice in the 22-foot-long, 8-foot-wide, 8-foot-tall Ultra Van. Pilot and tinkerer/inventor David G. Peterson employed structural engineering concepts from aviation to build his own ultimate recreational vehicle, then ended up selling 370 of them between 1966 and 1970 priced between $8500 and $12,500. Rounded front corners and a tapered fiberglass tail blended with aluminum flanks for an aero-sleek look that helped return reported fuel economy in the 15-mpg range.
The aluminum monocoque construction with no separate frame brought his large, roomy camper in at under 4000 pounds furnished (not a lot heavier than our Greenbrier). Power came from a 140-hp Corvair engine and transaxle, while Chevy II front suspension corners and an independent coil-sprung rear suspension delivered ride quality similar to the Greenbrier's.
The Ultra Van slept four adults and featured a complete kitchen and bath with toilet and shower. Four 35-gallon tanks resided under the floor: one for gasoline, one for clean water, one for gray water from the sinks and shower (which was used to flush the toilet). All solids were ground up so that the fourth black-water tank could be emptied via a 50-foot garden hose into a gas-station restroom toilet -- a cleaner, more convenient job than the usual RV waste discharge routine.
Some 200 Ultra Vans are still on the road, most having racked up 100,000 to 500,000 miles.
Motor Home RV History, Facts & Figures
The Society of Automotive Engineers recapped the history of recreational vehicles in a 1971 paper that called for increased efforts to holistically engineer what had up until then largely been an issue of adapting travel trailer or mobile home parts and equipment to truck, van, or bus chassis with minimal regard to crash safety, buzz, squeak, and rattle issues.
- 1910: First functional motor coach (per the Family Motor Coach Association), a Packard 3-ton truck chassis with 22-foot-long coach bodywork commissioned by V.H. Dandurand of Montreal, featuring a kitchen, a toilet, seating for 23, and beds for 11.
- 1923: W.K. Kellogg commissions the Ark, a $17,000 custom coach on a White chassis with kitchen, shower, lav, and sleeping quarters for three, and tours the country in it.
- 1958: Raymond Frank develops the assembly line-produced Frank Motor Home, which becomes the Dodge Motor Home and later Travco (top model: the Dodge Mahal). Its Destroilet incinerates waste with a propane flame.
- 1964: Motor coach production totals 683; sales double annually for the next five years.