100 Years of Chevrolet – The Swinging Sixties

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Part 4 of an eight-part series of monthly newsletters celebrating the heritage, acknowledging the achievements and looking into the future of Chevrolet XPs, electric cars and turbines

What came to be known as the Swinging Sixties got off to a great start for Chevrolet when it established itself as America’s No 1 truck maker. Building on this success, the following year an all-new line of forward-control rear-engined trucks known as the Corvair 95 range was introduced.

The line-up comprised a pick-up, panel van and a ‘Greenbrier’ passenger van that seated six passengers. A more radical Corvair-inspired vehicle was the Monza two-door based, supercharged XP-737 Sebring Spyder, which Bill Mitchell (who had taken over from the retired Harley Earl as vice-president of GM design in 1958) revealed at the Chicago Auto Show.

Mitchell had been busy – his experimental XP-755 Shark made its début, a foretaste of what the next-generation Corvette was going to look like. The Shark was later renamed the Mako Shark 1. The ‘big block’ 409 ci (6 702 cm3) V8 made its first appearance, too. Completing a busy 1961, Semon E ‘Bunkie’ Knudsen (son of former general manager William) succeeded Ed Cole as head of the division.

The Chevy II was introduced in 1962 – in South Africa, too – but the year was memorable more for powertrain development. Turbocharging was offered on the Corvair motor and the 327 ci (5 358 cm3) small-block Chevy was introduced. Mitchell revealed the XP-785 Corvair Super Spyder concept, and later in the year the XP-777 Monza GT fastback coupé, designed by Larry Shinoda under the direction of Bill Mitchell, appeared at Road America in Elkhart Lake.

However, the big surprise was Chevrolet’s involvement (along with GM’s Research and Development division) with the Chaparral sports racing car project, led by Jim Hall. The car featured novel aerodynamic tweaks, a ‘racing’ automatic transmission, an adjustable rear wing and ‘sucker’ ground effects, a combination that was to turn sports car racing on its head.

With styling cues taken from Mitchell’s race car of the same name, the production Corvette Sting Ray arrived in 1963. Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov developed the Corvette Grand Sport to compete in international racing but only five cars were built before Chevrolet again backed off in deference to the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) ban on factory sponsored racing.

However, this did not stop the legendary Junior Johnson winning seven NASCAR races in the ‘Mystery Motor’ Chevy Impala… Along with the Monza GT, a flame red Monza SS roadster concept toured the country as Chevrolet production passed two million vehicles in the year, during which time the 50-millionth Chevrolet was manufactured. In 1963, one in every 10 cars sold in the US was a Chevrolet.

In 1964 the mid-sized Chevelle was introduced (in South Africa too) in three series – 300, Malibu and Malibu SS – and on the same platform the El Camino pick-up reappeared.

The Chevy Van and Sportvan passenger models also arrived. A highly customised Impala convertible show car called Toronado was displayed at the New York World fair (the name was later used by Oldsmobile) along with the Super Nova, which had débuted a few months earlier at the city’s auto show. The millionth Corvair was built and an all-electric powered Electrovair, based on a Corvair platform, also appeared during the year.

Despite the AMA ban, Chevrolet still managed to tease the performance market. Arkus-Duntov developed the mid-engined CERV II to race at Le Mans and Sebring but it ended up being a research vehicle for a ‘super’ Corvette programme that was eventually cancelled. However, a similarly-configured Corvette GS II was being developed to test the limits of Chevrolet performance. Another experimental Corvette was XP-819, which featured a water-cooled V8 mounted behind the rear axle.

Still with Corvettes, in 1965 the Mako Shark II appeared in New York and Paris to reveal what the next-generation Corvette would look like. The Corvair received all-new styling, the Concours show car did the exhibition circuit and the tilt-cab Turbo-Titan III ‘Truck of Tomorrow’ was revealed, powered by a 209 kW gas turbine engine. More conventionally, the Turbo Jet 396 high-performance V8 was released. Elliot M ‘Pete’ Estes became the new general manager and GM of Canada established a plant in Quebec. The Impala was made available in South Africa and GMSA’s engine plant in Aloes was opened. The local company also held its first travelling ‘Autorama’ in this year.

The Trans-American Sedan Championship (TransAm)
was created in 1966 and Mark Donohue dominated the series for the first three years in the famous Roger Penske Sunoco-sponsored Chev Camaro. The Caprice replaced the Impala as the top-of-the-line Chevrolet and the Electrovair II appeared. At the Chicago Auto Show, the Caribe ‘dream convertible’ – built on an Impala four-door platform – had a top that folded smoothly away into the bodywork under a tonneau.

A new Camaro appeared in 1967 and paced the Indy 500 but it was the introduction of the now-famous 350 ci (5 735 cm3) small-block V8 that would have the most lasting impact.

A light-duty truck line-up was introduced encompassing no less than 35 different models ranging from an El Camino to a one-ton stake truck, with seven engines on offer. The Chevy van-based Dream Camper II was shown featuring a glass fibre bubble roof with a Plexiglass front section, a fold-out balcony bedroom and an interior with a refrigerator, stove and sink. The mid-engined Astro I premiered at the New York Auto Show. Caprice arrived on the South African market.

The Astro-Vette, a study in aerodynamics, was shown to the public in 1968, which was a relatively quiet year in the company’s history. The third-generation Corvette appeared, but Chevrolet had not given up on a mid-engined Corvette as the reveal of Astro II at the New York Auto Show proved. A massive flood in Port Elizabeth caused a lot of damage to GMSA’s products.

Another Chevrolet destined to become a favourite was the Blazer SUV, which arrived in 1969. A gas-turbine Astro III concept was revealed and a steam-powered Chevelle was shown at the Progress of Power show. A Camaro SS paced the Indy 500.

Mitchell changed the styling and powertrain of the Mako Shark II to create the Manta Ray. Chevrolet sold 2 834 716 vehicles, making it the country’s sales leader for the 10th consecutive year, but after an infamous battle over safety instituted by political activist Ralph Nader, the Corvair – 1,7-million cars and more than 79 000 trucks sold during its nine years of production – was controversially discontinued. John Z DeLorean succeeded Estes as general manager.

In South Africa, the Holden-based Kommando and Constantia models arrived and soon became a local favourite along with the new CE/CS-Series one-ton pick-ups.

Next month: Back in racing – and some trendy awards