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.
The body sides also take on more of a Pontiac-like appearance. The rear quarter-panels are unique, with a skeg that gives this Poncho more of a Coke-bottle appearance than the Corvair, and that line extends to the tail. Simulated brake-cooling vents, similar to those on the '67-'68 Firebird, are used.
The Pontiac Polaris roofline is different than its Chevy counterpart. The '65-'69 Corvair used a revised version of the '61-'62 full-sized GM bubbletop design, but the Polaris takes a slightly different approach, using a fastback roofline with extended C-pillars that sweep back to the tail. From the side, our vaporware Polaris resembles John Fitch's Corvair conversion, which interestingly, was called the Sprint. The back light is flush with the C-pillars, unlike Fitch's flying-buttress design.
The revised roofline necessitates a raised rear deck. Between the rear glass and the engine-compartment decklid is a louvered black panel that allows additional cooling air to the engine. The tailpanel is slightly tunneled and houses slotted lamps, a Pontiac design icon. Add a set of Rally I wheels, Polaris block lettering, and redline tires, and the look of Pontiac's Z-body is complete.
What about the powertrain? How could such a uniquely Chevy engine design be made into a credible Pontiac powerplant? Simple. The same way that Pontiac engineers, led by the legendary Malcolm R. "Mac" McKellar, took the lowly Chevrolet six and made it the Sprint—an overhead cam (OHC) conversion.
McKellar had long been enamored with OHC engine layouts, and this short-stroke boxer engine would be a natural for it. Chevy built a similar engine for the Chevy Astro I show car as part of an experimental modular-engine program, so the idea was already making the rounds.
In this Pontiac version, we add a McKellar-style belt-driven overhead-cam system with hydraulic-cam followers. The system is topped with signature finned Pontiac cam covers. Like the Pontiac OHC-6 engine that was produced from '66-'69, our take on the Polaris is offered in two versions, both in a 3.2L configuration, up from the Corvair's 2.7L displacement. The extra cubes come from a 3.75-inch bore size to complement the stock 2.94-inch stroke.
Like its Corvair counterpart, our Polaris' base engine uses a one-barrel carburetor on each bank of cylinders, with mild cams and a single exhaust. We estimate 165 horsepower, which makes for a responsive, economical street car.
The Polaris Sprint option is an aggressive, performance-oriented American version of a Porsche 911. The 3.2-liter six features hotter camshafts, 10.75:1 compression, and Pontiac's Tri-Power system, but with a twist. Where Pontiac's 389s and 421s used three two-barrel Rochester 2 GC carbs, this version uses two three-barrel carbs, one carb per bank.
The carbs themselves are similar to Weber downdrafts but use standard Rochester internals in specific three-barrel main bodies. (Carbs of that type were actually developed by GM, but were abandoned when the Corvair was scheduled for cancellation.) Round out the combination with free-flowing manifolds and a dual-exhaust system, and you have a sweet combination.
With its free-revving valvetrain and ample carburetion, the flat-six would put out somewhere north of 200 horsepower, with a rev range that wouldn't be afraid to tip 7,000 rpm. Couple it to a close-ratio four-speed with 3.73 gears, a quick-ratio steering box, and a hefty set of front and rear sway bars, and you have just the ticket for sport-car fans looking for something exciting from this side of the pond.
I wonder if DeLorean ever regretted his decision to back away from the Polaris concept? The second-generation Corvair was a beautiful car, and I think he would have appreciated it. By the time he took over as Chevrolet general manager, however, the Corvair was cancelled.
Had the Polaris gone into production, it is likely the Y-body Tempest would not have happened. The GTO might not have been introduced for the '64 model year, and we might not be celebrating its Golden Anniversary now.
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