Me and the Monzas
Or how a young public relations man found himself in the middle of one of the most interesting episodes in the history of the Corvair
by Karl Ludvigsen
From The Corvair Decade
An Illustrated History of the Rear Engined Automobile
by Tony Fiore
Published by Brownell Associates, Sarasota, Florida, 1980
LOC Card Catalog Number 80-66713
Courtesy of James Rice
I knew the Tech Center roads pretty well. I don’t mean the Check Road, the mile-long straight next to the railroad tracks with the loop turns at each end that was used for official running tests. I mean the other roads, the ones that most people used to get from Point A to Point B on the big Warren, Michigan facility but to me were as challenging as any section of the Nurburgring. Each had its own characteristics: The S-bend past the gas turbine building, the loop fronting the wind tunnel, and the fast bend around the Styling parking lot—one of my favorites.
On this particular sunny day I was belting along these roads in a dart-shaped silver coupe no higher than a man’s belt buckle. The Tech Center greenery glowed around me and no pillars blocked my view of the road rolling under the car’s sharp nose. It was warm under the canopy and the motor behind me rumbled happily. I cranked the wood-rimmed wheel to the right and the tires chirped as we slid around the long open bend past the working end of the Engineering Staff building—and braked hard to obey the stop sign before the main road. Myron Scott, veteran Chevy P.R. man, goggled from the passenger seat. “So that’s sports-car-ing!” he sputtered. Scotty had discovered what a sports car can do in the unique Corvair Monza GT—and he was as sure as a man can be that he knew all he cared to on the subject.
The Monza GT was a super car to drive. It had a thoroughbred chassis designed and built along race car lines. Its mid-placed engine gave it excellent balance. The rearward slope of its seats was radical for 1962, the year of its birth. Leaning back with my head just under the plastic roof, gripping the wheel sloped up at an odd angle from its column, I knew I was driving one of the most advanced cars of its time. And its looks—well, its looks have never been surpassed.
When I joined GM’s Public Relations Staff at the end of 1961, I was assigned to the “Styling beat.” It was my job to help the stylists tell their story. Bill Mitchell gave me the run of the building my first month on the job, and I found a lot of work being done on radical rear-engined sports coupes. This was the beginning of the rear-engined era in Grand Prix racing, and the stylists were spurred by that excitement.
Chevrolet gave them something to work on. Frank Winchell’s R&D group at Chevy was constantly experimenting with new arrangements of the Corvair hardware. They responded eagerly when Bill Mitchell suggested a chassis be developed that was more race car than road car. Bill wanted it to go under a body design that had been created in his private basement studio, under studio chief Ed Wayne, by the Katzenjammer Kids of Styling, Larry Shinoda and Tony Lapine.
The Chevy R&D engineer most involved with the chassis of the XP-777—as it was designated—was Jim Musser. Jim warmed up on these Corvair chassis for the design work he was later to do behind the scenes on the racing Chaparrals. He came up with a monocoque steel chassis, twin-wishbone suspension with torsion bars at all four wheels, and a mid-placed engine for the coupe. He built another chassis for his own tests with the engine at the rear in the normal Corvair manner. A rough-looking test car, this was irreverently dubbed the “Musserati.”
For me as a public relations man, the unveiling of the XP-777 was a nightmare. Public relations people like things to be orderly and programmed in advance. This was never likely with a Bill Mitchell/Frank Winchell project. Probably (though I didn’t know for sure) both had built the car unofficially with chunks of other budgets. So the first appearance of the Monza GT coupe was with no fanfare at all at the Elkhart Lake June Sprints of 1962, driven around the track between races. On such occasions the car was usually driven by Ken Eschebach, the genial sandy-haired mechanic whose task it was to keep Mitchell’s cars running right.
In the fall, we took the GT coupe to the Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. There we couldn’t take it around the track, because ‘Ford with its “Total Performance” promotion had bought those rights for its new rear-engined Mustang roadster—whose debut we helped to spoil by showing off the far more striking Monza GT in the infield. It was my pleasure to explain the car to John Cooper and his team driver, Bruce McLaren. They were fascinated by its clever features.
Later in ’62 the Monza GT was sent to California. There it amazed the public at the Riverside and Laguna Seca sports car races. It was also driven to the Los Angeles Art Center School, to be poked and gawked at by the future auto stylists of America. In the meantime, Styling Staff took over the “Musserati” chassis (Jim Musser had built a more advanced toy for testing) and put a roadster body on it patterned exactly after the lines of the coupe. This became the Monza SS. It had a nicer instrument panel and a feature called “theater seats”: lower seat sections that were spring-loaded so they rose up to make it a little easier to settle into this very low car.
These Corvairs were officially displayed to the public for the first time at the International Automobile Show in New York at Easter time in 1963. At last, as a public relations man, I had a chance to promote these wonderful cars. Walt Farynk and Ed Sperko of GM Photographic reached into their bags of tricks to make dramatic color photos of the coupe that simulated the flame patterns of a re-entry from space. I helped distribute the photos and story material to the car magazines; one of the photos was featured on the cover of the August, 1963 issue of Sports Car Graphic.
Using these and other photos, Chevrolet’s Myron Scott put together a brochure on the Monza GT for distribution at the New York Show. This gave me my moment in the Corvair sun. Among the pictures Scotty picked up was one showing me peering into the rear engine bay, with rear deck and canopy lifted. It’s nice to be a visible part of Corvair history. (A peculiarity of this brochure is the appearance—certainly inadvertent—of two objects in the right foreground of the cover picture. I’m not sure whether they’re the special lights for the flame effect or a pair of shoes removed by the man sitting in the car so he could walk across the special floor covering in the studio without leaving footprints.)
In the fall of 1963 I moved to New York to go to work for GM’s Overseas Operations Division as press officer. One of my first jobs was to prepare press material for publications abroad on the two special Monzas, which were sent to Europe at the end of 1963 to make the rounds of the major auto shows. I arranged for special photography of both cars, including shots of the two of them together at the Tech Center with a blonde model. One of these photos appeared on page 108 of Volume II of Automobile Year.
We also arranged for movies to be taken of the cars while they were in Europe. It seemed to me at the time that there was a reasonable chance that a car based on the Monza GT or SS might go into production. So we’d be covered for that possibility, I arranged for movies to be taken of several stages of its development: fabrication of the coupe body, tests of the “Musserati” at the Tech Center, and those shots of the two cars on the road in Europe. Not long ago I tried to find out if any of the film still exists, without success.
Chevrolet did consider producing a version of the Monza SS roadster. A photo of the revised edition, with bumpers and a full windshield, that was proposed for manufacture appears on page 400 of Volume 8, Number 4, of Automobile Quarterly. As we know, however, it didn’t happen. Instead, the two special Monzas left us brilliant memories of the sportiest Corvairs and absolute proof that if Chevrolet ever did want to produce a fine small sports car, its designers were more than ready to oblige.
Had I known about this well-written article that brings to light several factors about the Monza GT that have puzzled me, it would have definitely been in the Dean’s Garage book.—Gary