The Making of the Chevrolet Corvair Engine

Updated on January 20, 2019
perrya profile image

Perry has been a technical writer for over 10 years for biotech and I.T. firms. He loves to write.

The Corvair Early Model Engine
The Corvair Early Model 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.


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    • perrya profile imageAUTHOR


      2 months ago

      Good to know

    • profile image

      Russ McNeill 

      2 months ago

      The Corvair engine was assembled at the Chevy Tonawanda Engine plant on River Road. At that time, it was the longest engine assembly line in the world.

    • profile image


      3 months ago

      In the 60's I maintained a Corvair for a Doc. in town on the rear hood

      there was an emblem 185 HP Turbo think it had 4 Carbs it was fast, I used to service it and tune it

    • profile image


      13 months ago

      I had a Buick with that 215 in it, ran good but used oil and wore our too soon. I was told that the rings wore the cylinders out quick because they were too soft compared to cast iron. I think later ones used cast-in cylinder sleeves to solve the problem. Vega learned that costly lesson also.

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      4 years ago

      Pontiac, 215 Aluminum V8? Try Buick Kids then came the 300 Olds. These were engines that never quit. They were in MGB's, Range Rovers, and Triumphs

    • perrya profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      For some reason, I think the AT fluid may be added thru where the dipstick.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      trying to add transmission fluid to my corvair monza 1963. Feel stupid but I cannot locate where it goes. Just got it and having trouble shifting. Can anyone direct me to where the fill cap is? M

    • profile image

      MIke Henson 

      8 years ago

      I recall the Corvair as being a very sound car. Oh sure there were the typical complaints of leaking valve cover gaskets and the like. But overall, everyone I knew who had one (and there were many) really liked them. Especially when it snowed! I think the car got a rather raw deal from Lex Luther (aka "Ralph Nader"). And considering all the bad press, they continued to build them up until 69. Which wasn't such a bad run for a single model. I rode in several, and even drove a couple. The care was a good handler for the time.

    • perrya profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      marv- ironically, I have both. A 67 Corvair monza and a s.0 LL Bean outback. Love the corvair, like the Outback. Both get around the same MPG! for a corvair is fine, for a 05 outback-not good enough.Hard to compare the cars, IMO.

    • profile image

      Marvin McConoughey 

      8 years ago

      The Corvair engine was very pleasant in actual use. I recall driving one on a long trip from California to Oregon. The pleasant hum of the engine and the quiet cabin made for a happy drive. My 2010 Subaru 3.6R six cylinder boxer engine doesn't sound as good, vibrates at idle, and is rougher at high RPM than that old Corvair.


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