The Making of the Chevrolet Corvair Engine
The ramp-up time to make America's Chevy Corvair was considerable because of its unique aluminum engine. The process began in 1952, when Ed Cole wanted to build a small (for that time), compact, economical car with an aluminum engine. Aluminum would allow the car to remain very light—just around 2000 lbs. No other American car would use as much aluminum in its engine.
The Issue With Aluminum
This choice made problems for Chevy and GM: aluminum is much more expensive to produce than iron, and GM had no plant devoted to molding things out of aluminum. Thus, GM would have to either build its own plant or convert an existing one.
GM started talking with Alcoa Reynolds Aluminum in 1954 about such a plant, but didn't strike a deal until 1956. Then GM needed to find a new plant site, and after a time decided upon Massena, New York, as the ideal. In 1957, a deal was signed and Chevy began to build their own foundry to mold the Corvair engine parts. Chevy committed itself buy over 37 tons of aluminum from Alcoa. Chevy was now fully committed to producing the Corvair, their only car with an aluminum engine.
Chevy officially approved of the Corvair project (then called "Holden" in late 1957). In 1958, the plant was constructed. It would produce 70 Corvair engines per hour.
Figuring Out How to Cast Aluminum Engines
The next problem was finding equipment that could mold the engine in an effective manner using aluminum casting techniques. For this, Chevy went to Germany in 1958, searching for a good method. They went to the Neckarsulm firm who were making Porsche engines. Chevy was more impressed with that method than with the one VW was using, and struck a deal with Neckarsulm to use their technology. Chevy purchased 24 casting machines from the German firm along with their tech support to train and operate. These began to arrive in 1959.
The first Corvair engine head was poured from molten aluminum in. The first production parts for the Corvair were made in April, 1959 (the public debut was Oct. 1959). The first production models came out in July for road tests etc.
The molten aluminum used to make Corvair engine parts was hauled to the Chevy plant by trucks pulling flatbed semi trailers, traveling at no more than 5 mph, each with two open ladles. About nine tons of liquid aluminum could be carried on each trip.
Was It All Worth It?
By the time the first Corvair was available to the public, Chevy had invested over $19,000,000 just to manufacture the engine parts. By 1962, the plant employed over 700 people on a payroll of over $5,000,000 yearly. Over 1.5 million Corvairs were sold during its 10-year production run for an average consumer price of $2,100 per car. Gross sales hovered around $32,000,000.
Ed Cole, the father of the Corvair, also went on to create the Chevy Vega, again with an all-aluminum engine. Soon, Chrysler used aluminum engines in their Valiants, and Pontiac used them in their 215 V8 engines.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.