When Chevrolet introduced turbocharging on the 1962 Corvair Monza Spyder, it was an important innovation, and a surprisingly affordable one, too.
When the Corvair Monza Spyder was launched at the Chicago Auto Show in February 1962, it was heralded as the world’s first turbocharged production car. But to be fair, Oldsmobile introduced its turbocharged Jetfire just weeks later on April 20 at the New York show, and surely both vehicles were developed and signed off in the same timeframe at General Motors. So for most purposes we can say it was effectively a tie.
In Chevy’s favor, the Monza Spyder was considerably more successful than the Olds. While the Jetfire was offered for only two seasons, the turbocharged Corvair remained in production through 1966 with nearly 60,000 cars built and sold. What’s more, the Monza Spyder was affordably priced.
Major technical advances like these tend to appear first on expensive luxury cars and exotic sports jobs, but the basic Spyder package (RPO 690) added only $317.45 to the price of a Monza 900 Coupe ($2,273) or Convertible ($2,483). If you could afford a new car, you could probably afford a Monza Spyder. Chevrolet was offering turbochargers for the people.
The Corvair’s turbo setup (above) was simplicity itself. A division of TRW supplied the turbocharger unit, which shared the engine’s oil supply and featured an 11-fin, 3-in compressor turbine. The carburetor was a one-barrel Carter YH sidedraft, the same carb used on the original six-cylinder Corvettes, while the built-in boost limit was a fairly aggressive 10 psi. There was no wastegate or boost valve as such. Basic as it was, the result was an impressive gain in output, from 102 hp to 150 hp at 4400 rpm, while torque was a sporty 210 lb-ft at 3,300 rpm—a 56 percent increase.
To handle the additional cylinder pressure and loads, the Corvair’s 145 cubic-inch flat six was upgraded throughout. Heavy-duty crankshaft, connecting rods, and bearings were developed. The cylinder head castings were revised and the exhaust valves were a special high-temperature alloy.
While Oldsmobile’s strategy used limited boost and water-alcohol injection to control detonation, the Chevy engineers went in another direction with redesigned pistons that reduced the compression ratio from 9:1 to 8:1 and a specially calibrated distributor with a pressure-retard can in place of the usual vacuum advance. This clever little unit retarded the ignition timing 10 degrees when the manifold boost reached 2 psi of gauge pressure.
Monza Spyder buyers were also treated to an exclusive instrument panel with racy round dials, including a 120 mph speedometer, a 6,000 rpm tachometer, a mainfold pressure gauge that read in inches of mercury, and a cylinder-head temperature gauge. The sole available transmission at introduction was a floor-shifted four-speed manual, coupled to a 3:55:1 final drive ratio rather than the standard 3.27:1.
The Monza Spyder wasn’t a ball of fire by modern performance standards, or ’60s muscle standards for that matter, but it did offer a significant improvement over the standard Corvair. In August of 1962, Car Life magazine tested both a vanilla Corvair with Powerglide and a Monza Spyder. While the automatic Corvair did 0-60 mph in a slug-like 21.6 seconds, the torquey Spyder got it done in a respectable 10.8 seconds. Chevrolet continued to improve the air-cooled flat six with an increase in displacement to 164 cubic inches in 1964, and in its final 1965-66 form, the turbocharged Corvair was rated at 180 horsepower.