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
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
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/)
"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.