May 14, 1969 – The last Chevrolet Corvair is built, then vanishes

rusty corvair

The idiosyncratic Chevrolet Corvair hit the market for 1960, marking a major departure from common automobile production practices in the United States. The air-cooled rear-engined compact more closely resembled a Volkswagen than the land yachts rolling off most US assembly lines at the times. While its unique design attracted curious consumers, the car also attracted unwanted attention. Ralph Nader famously targeted the Corvair in his book Unsafe at Any Speed, which called out automakers for failing to implement known safety equipment. Eventually lawsuits rose surrounding the Corvair’s alleged flaws. While General Motors intended to scrap the Corvair in 1967 before the book ever went to press, the little car’s life earned an extension to make it appear that Nader didn’t bully GM into killing the car.

1964 Chevrolet Corvair. By Greg Gjerdingen from Willmar, USA CC BY 2.0

Available as a two door coupe or convertible or a four door sedan or station wagon (as well as a truck and van lineup), Corvair sales remained healthy despite the bad press. When GM announced the car would be discontinued following a run of 6,000 1969 models, a flurry of orders began to roll in. Buyers didn’t want just any Corvair, however, several tried to lay claim to the very last one off the line. Las Vegas casino tycoon and car collector Bill Harrah placed an order through a Tacoma, WA Chevy dealer. He called for the last car to be an Olympic Gold Monza coupe with the upgraded 110-hp engine, Powerglide, Positraction and enhanced suspension.

the last corvair
A photo of the last Corvair from the Oakland Tribune.

Who bought the last Corvair?

Not long after, a former GM vice president, Harold Boyer, called up headquarters and made a request for the last car, which the VIN would end in 6000. The conflicting orders became problematic for Chevrolet. Many executives wished for the last Corvair to fly under the radar, however, that just wouldn’t be the case. Prior to the end of production, the suits and ties decided that nobody would get the last Corvair. Instead Chevrolet would donate it to the Sloan Museum in Flint, Michigan, or so they thought.

corvair interior
1964 Corvair Interior. By Greg Gjerdingen from Willmar, USA CC BY 2.0

On May 14, 1969 members of the automotive press swarmed Willow Run Assembly in Ypsilanti, Michigan to watch the last Corvair come down the line. The second to last Corvair, destined for Boyer’s driveway, failed to start at the end of the line. Workers pushed it aside, making way for Corvair 6000. It indeed carried an Olympic gold paint job, but under the hood sat a 95 horsepower engine. It also featured tinted glass, a push button radio and white wall tires. The flashbulbs went off and the press went home, but what happened to the last Corvair?

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Nobody really knows. Just two days before the end of production GM’s Chairman of the Board James Roche apparently decided the car should not leave Chevrolet. Boyer got #5999 and Harrah would receive two cars, #5968 and #5606. That very last one rolled itself into an automotive mystery.

Was the last Corvair scrapped?

Dave Newell, author of 1969 Corvair Finger Tip Facts, tried to track down the car. According to the stories he collected, Manufacturing Manager Jim McLernon promised Roche not to sell the car. Several people told Newell the car went to the scrapper, but no paper exists to prove it. Another possibility is that the car did remain at Chevrolet as a test mule as part of ongoing litigation and other engineering practices. Most of the last 10 to 20 cars ended up in the hands of engineering units until just two remained. One went to Ed Sloan, GM’s president, the final one sat in a basement until 1975. That car got billed as the last production Corvair when it sold at auction, but it didn’t carry the final VIN number.

So what happened to the last Chevy Corvair? Nobody knows. This is one of those automotive mysteries that is ripe for solving. Grab your shovel, it’s time to go digging! Without evidence to say otherwise, chances are that the last Corvair is still out there.

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