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.