Back in the late '50s, America was in the grips of a short-lived recession, and General Motors (GM) was hard at work designing and engineering a compact vehicle to compete with the Volkswagen (VW). Like the VW, the new Chevy featured an air-cooled and horizontally opposed aluminum engine. It came to market as the '60 Corvair.
The Corvair featured four-wheel independent suspension, unitized construction, and an innovative transaxle system. It was a huge departure from the conventional full-sized vehicles that GM was famous for.
As history notes, the Corvair's life was one of ups, downs, and controversy. Ralph Nader targeted it in his book, Unsafe at Any Speed , and though his findings were largely debunked, the swell of public interest was enough for the federal government to initiate the National Highway Safety Bureau, a forerunner of today's National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA). Oh yes, Nadar's exposé killed the Corvair's sales potential.
There is a Pontiac angle to all of this. GM Styling mocked up a Poncho version of the Corvair, which was to be called the Polaris. Its exterior styling was adorned with Pontiac-like features grafted to the Corvair shell. Up front, the Polaris featured large chrome headlamp bezels that mimicked the full-size '59 Pontiac's grille design and housed turn signals. The hood was flat rather than peaked as on the Corvair, and it extended down between the headlamps. Its front fenders were sculpted to accommodate the headlamp bezels. Out back, the deviations from Chevy's new economy car were not as significant. Pontiac designers added rectangular taillamps with rounded corners, which were set into faired-in housings.
It was an attractive car overall, though it did not scream out the performance message that Pontiac was quickly becoming known for. There were other problems as well. Pontiac upper management, particularly General Manager Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen and Assistant Chief Engineer John Z. DeLorean, were not impressed with it.
Knudsen could not see any justification for Pontiac charging as much as $300 more for essentially the same car as the Corvair. That might not sound like a lot of money today, but it was more than 14 percent of the $2,103 base retail price of the Corvair.
Secondly, and more importantly, DeLorean, in his book, On a Clear Day, You Can See General Motors, recalled that he witnessed a Chevrolet engineer flip over an early-prototype Corvair sedan on a test track at GM's Milford Proving Grounds. As mishaps became a more frequent situation, and with GM's unwillingness to spend the money to add front and rear sway bars to correct the problem, Pontiac wisely distanced itself from the new Z-body. Instead, it worked on a more suitable Pontiac compact, which became the Y-body Tempest of '61-'63.
As the '60s unfolded, Chevy refined the Corvair to the point that it became a credible machine. When its second generation debuted in '65, it was met with critical acclaim, both for its beauty and handling prowess. Much of the credit goes to a redesigned rear suspension that traded controversial swing axles for a fully independent design inspired by the Corvette, but using coilsprings and not the Vette's single crossleaf rear spring.
It is here that we jump in with … What If? What if Pontiac had approved the Polaris for production back in 1960 and GM introduced it along with the Second-Gen Corvair in '65? What would we have, and how would we make it a real Pontiac, not a badge-engineered corporate me, too?
This is where things get really interesting. Truth be told, Pontiacs and Chevys have always shared some platform DNA. The thing that sticks in the craw of most hardcore Pontiac fans is the use of Chevy power in their beloved vehicles. As Pontiac has done in the past, it took a common platform and made it its own. This exercise is no different.
Our What If? Pontiac Polaris styling keeps with the basic Corvair platform but receives Pontiac-like identity. Up front, the original '60 Polaris nose design receives an update, thanks to cat-eye-shaped headlamp bezels and a fresh hood design that gives the nose a Pontiac-esque beak without actually having grilles.