by James Kraus
The Corvair Line is an accent line that circumnavigates the entire vehicle, front, sides and back, visually dividing the body into upper and lower sections. It can rise and fall, curve and bend, but must be unbroken, with neither beginning nor end.
While the Corvair popularized this motif, it was not actually the first to make use of it. While there were a number of separate-fender era examples like the DKW Wanderer, 1937 Ford Model 74, Peugeot 202 and VW Beetle, the first modern appearance was on the Volkswagen Transporter of 1949.
In 1957, the Fiat 500 made its debut with a single concave character line encircling the perimeter. This was the first use of such a line in a single relatively flat plane, roughly parallel with the ground on a ponton, envelope body design.
The idea of a such a single character line uniting the front, sides and rear was a concept that was clearly in the air at the General Motors styling studios in the late ’50s. The 1960 Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles featured partial Corvair Lines, but the new 1960 Corvair incorporated the full all-round treatment in the form of a crisp deeply-drawn crease, deviating from complete linearity only by way of a slightly dipped section between the headlamps.
While the Corvair was not the first to incorporate the 360-degree accent, its sharp, well-delineated expression of the feature had an immediate marked influence on automobile designers the world over.
In addition to its popularity, the Corvair Line proved remarkably adaptable; usually highlighted, but occasionally sharing billing with multiple other character lines, and at times simply playing a minor supporting role. While many automotive designers appropriated the line in its entirety, other stylists incorporated the line in part, either bisecting it along the sides or terminating it at the front or rear.
The Lancia Fulvia Coupé, Daf 44 and Volkswagen T34 Karmann Ghia are good examples of partial Corvair Lines. Here is a look at some of the designs that incorporated the line in its entirety.
An early and well-known example is the NSU Prinz of 1961. Though the top surface of the luggage compartment lid has the dipped centre section of the Corvair, here they elected to maintain the leading-edge of the Corvair Line straight across.
Less noticed was the use by Chevrolet on their 1961 full-size lineup. Here the line runs along the top of the grille, drops along the flanks as it heads rearward before suddenly jutting upward and going across the back where it dips down sharply, echoing the dip at the front of the VW Transporter. The line is most effective and most easily discerned on Biscayne models where it is unadorned by partial accent mouldings.
That same year, American Motors launched the restyled 1961 Rambler American.
The Fiat 1300 and 1500 used a unique interpretation: echoing the Corvair, the line dipped between the headlamps, but Fiat also added a symmetrical matching dip at the rear between the tail lamps. The line was accented by trim moulding that incorporated the door handles, lending a very polished appearance.
In 1962, the first of many BMWs to utilize the line made its debut. Over the following decade, BMW would take the full Corvair Line and make it its own. By the end of the sixties and through the seventies, it was featured on nearly every car they introduced.
In France, the Renault R8 launched. Like the 1961 Chevrolet, there is a lot happening here but the Corvair Line does exist; it is the one not emphasised by a trim strip. The line suffers a further degradation by being intersected by another character line just aft of the rear doors.
Last but not least, the 2nd generation Prince Gloria was introduced in Japan.
1963 was a watershed year for the Corvair Line. The Corvair’s own sistership, the Corvette, became the Sting Ray for 1963; and its dramatic new space age styling incorporated a very effective deeply-drawn razor-sharp line extending around its perimeter.
Britain saw the introduction of the Hillman Imp which copied the Corvair Line faithfully, even incorporating the inter-headlamp dip.
In Japan, Mazda introduced the 800/1000 range with a strictly interpreted Corvair Line sans headlamp dip. No undulations; perfectly straight and parallel with the ground à la BMW and NSU.
Another Japanese entry was the 4th generation Datsun Bluebird of 1964.
1965 saw yet another interpretation by Chevrolet, again on their fullsize models. Ironically, this same model year saw the newly-revised second generation Corvair discontinue the encircling line it made famous in favor of a Kamm-style rear end treatment.
The next BMW to be graced by the line was the stylish 2000 C/CS. Like the Fiat 1500, Prince Gloria and Mazda 1000, the coupés door handles were adroitly integrated into the trim moulding highlighting the Corvair Line. Further emphasizing the line were the front lamp units which used it to define their upper edges.
A year later BWM announced the 1600. The new entry-level model had clamshell decklids front and rear whose shut lines were effectively camouflaged in the shadow of the bright trim accenting the Corvair Line.
In Japan, Nissan launched the Nissan Silvia/Datsun Coupe. Here again the designer chose to situate the flush-mounted door handles on the line, lessening their aesthetic impact.
Also in ’66, the line showed up behind the iron Curtain on the new ZAZ 966. This was to be the longest-lasting interpretation of the Corvair Line, in production for 29 years.
The most innovative interpretation of the Corvair Line appeared at the Frankfurt Auto Show in autumn of 1967 on the futuristically styled NSU Ro 80.
Rather than being solely expressed in sheet metal form and passing above the grille and headlamps as in all previous iterations, the line of the Ro 80 bisected the grill and headlamps before continuing along the sides and across the rear.
In 1968, the Renault 6 debuted; the second Renault to carry a Corvair Line.
The only manufacturer in Italy other than Fiat to incorporate the line was Lamborghini, where it appeared on the elegant Islero; the preferred transport of Ferruccio Lamborghini himself.
The BMW E3 Series 2500/2800 debuted with the first postwar BMW six-cylinder engine. In accordance with what was by now becoming a tradition with the Munich firm, the car carried an orthodox BMW version of the Corvair Line.
The Saab interpretation for their new 99 was similar to the Fiat 500, BMW 1500, 1600 and Renault 8 in that the forward section of the line was delineated by the clamshell-style bonnet.
In 1969 the final Corvair Lines of the decade appeared on two Fiat Group cars, the Fiat 130 and Autobianchi A111.
The Corvair Line saw continued popularity into the 1970s and was featured on many new designs including a number of BMWs, the Bristol 412, Porsche 924, Range Rover, Simca Horizon and Volkswagen 412.
The Range Rover carried the Corvair Line into the 21st century and it remains an integral feature of the current fourth-generation series.