Building mainstream cars was a comfortable and profitable business for US mega brand Chevrolet until 1959. It rarely involved more than establishing an annual styling theme on an old school chassis powered by a six and V8, then capping it with as many different cabins and seating arrangements as the market could bear. As imports and rival compacts threatened to undermine this annual 1.5 million unit comfort zone, Chevrolet rushed the Chevy II to market in barely 18 months. As a 1962 release, it was Chevrolet's second counterstrike in two years and there was more to come.
There was no road map to counter the innovative, oddball imports. Should Detroit deliver a better version of the class-leading Volkswagen or distill what made their larger cars so popular into a smaller package? Chevrolet was the only company to do both, and the world was richer for it.
The 1960 Chevrolet Corvair delivered by Ed Cole was the first response and highlighted the pent-up talent inside GM waiting to be turned loose on a car that was genuinely different. Corvair styling was still influencing some models into the 1970s, the air-cooled flat-six pre-empted Porsche's shift to a flat-six and the four door family-sized body with an automatic option was a first for a rear-engined model. Intended to beat the Beetle at its own game, the $2103 Corvair could be legitimately regarded as an evolution of the Czech Tatra and the Tucker, both top shelf models.
Because Chevrolet bean counters had no experience with this unconventional engineering, they removed the handling safeguards that Cole and his team had specified for the suspension to rid the Corvair of the Beetle's shortcomings.
This not only left the Corvair with the Beetle's flaws but they were amplified by the extra weight and size. It was not enough to kill sales, yet, but it was a time bomb all the same. The big picture strategy worked as 1960 Chevrolet sales topped 1.6 million. Closer scrutiny however, showed that the Corvair's healthy 250,000 launch figure was a long way short of the Falcon's dominating 435,000.
Corvair sales peaked at 292,500 in 1962 and from there it was a steady decline. Ralph Nader added to that in 1965 with his "Unsafe at Any Speed" expose. Chevrolet had shown some foresight rushing the Chevy II into production as a back stop. Its 1962 debut sales of 327,000 climbed to 375,626 in 1963 exactly as Corvair sales started to slide to 254,600. These combined numbers were not only healthier than the Falcon but Chevrolet was holding its own against renewed competition from the Rambler American , a more mainstream Plymouth Valiant and a more stylish Studebaker Cruiser.