Chevrolet Corvair

Failure at any speed?

Corvair 01
The author's 1964 Monza convertible.

I own a Chevrolet Corvair. The car is the tangible result of a post-divorce mid-life crisis and an attempt to recapture my youth with a vintage ’60s convertible. I never sought out the Corvair; it just came along and hooked me. 

Invariably, people approach me and comment about the car and Corvair's in general. The majority of the comments are positive: “My mother (father, uncle George, aunt Tillie) had one of those. It's a great car.” Occasionally someone asks: “Isn't that the car that would flip over (catch fire, engine fall out, etc.)?” Others remark about Ralph Nader and his 1965 book “Unsafe At Any Speed,” which devoted all of chapter one to the Corvair's unique handling characteristics. The car was and still is a good and safe vehicle. However, I have to admit that the Corvair had some perceptual problems in the marketplace that brought about its demise.

On October 2, 1959, General Motors' Chevrolet division introduced the 1960 Corvair to enthusiastic audiences. It was a new and radically different design for an American manufacturer. During the mid-1950s, Volkswagen's Beetle had become popular with economy-minded Americans. Taking a cue from this trend, GM decided to create an economy car—economical to operate but smaller than other American automobiles. Powered by an air-cooled six-cylinder engine—a first for Chevrolet—it was referred to as a “flat six,” since the cylinders were horizontally opposed rather than in the typical “V” configuration. Not only was the engine unique, but its rear location was a radical departure from the norm.

The 1960 model was offered in two body styles, a 2-door coupe and a 4-door sedan—available in two trim models—both which were somewhat austere. Later that model year the “Monza” was added as the line continued to expand. In ’61 Chevy added a pair of vans, a pickup truck and a station wagon, all with the engine mounted in the rear. In 1962 came the first Corvair convertible, along with the first mass-produced American turbo-charged car, the “Spyder.”

While early sales were promising, the other large American manufacturers quickly challenged with compacts of their own. Chrysler introduced the Dodge Lancer and Plymouth Valiant, while Ford countered with the Falcon and Mercury Comet. These other compacts were less expensive and more traditional. Even Chevrolet, like the other manufacturers, introduced a more “conventional” car to compete in the economy market. The Chevy II, which later became the Nova, was introduced in 1962.

What the sporty Corvair did have going for it was style. Even before the introduction of the Spyder, automobile enthusiasts were referring to it as a “poor man's Porsche.” But in 1964 Chevrolet introduced another sporty car, the Chevelle, and Ford unveiled the legendary Mustang. This signaled the beginning of the end for the Corvair.

While the Mustang quickly gobbled up market share, the Corvair continued to enjoy a loyal following who liked its distinct handling. It was this same handling, however, that was the basis for several lawsuits against General Motors. The Ralph Nader book “Unsafe At Any Speed” portrayed the Corvair as unstable and prone to rollover accidents. While many would attribute the failure of the Corvair to the book, the handwriting was already on the wall in the form of declining sales.

Interestingly, 1966 would have been the last model year, had the Nader book not drawn so much negative publicity. Even the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had opened an investigation into its handling. There was simply no way GM could halt the line without appearing to “cave in” to the charges, so production continued, albeit in limited numbers, through the ’67, ’68 and ’69 model years. Ironically, the NHTSA report, released three years after Corvair's demise, would exonerate Chevrolet of all charges, concluding that the Corvair was no more prone to accidents and rollovers than any other comparable car of the period.

Was the Corvair a failure? It's a matter of perspective. General Motors produced nearly 1.8 million Corvairs over 10 model years. The Corvair pioneered such technological advances as turbo-charging, true four-wheel independent suspension and unit-body (or unibody) construction, and its independent suspension was adapted for later model Corvettes. Perhaps the Corvair was a “niche car” that was never able to master its niche.

Today, 41 years after its introduction and 30 years after production ceased, the Corvair still enjoys a loyal following. The Corvair Society of America (CORSA) has a membership of over 5,500 people with 130 local chapters found everywhere from Idaho to Amsterdam.

I own a Corvair or maybe the Corvair owns me. Its kind of hard to say when the top is down and I'm driving east on Long Island's Southern State Parkway on a brisk, sunny day. Unsafe at any speed? Ralph Nader eat your heart out.

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