(first posted 11/24/2012) Every silver lining has a cloud, and the Corvair’s is a deadly thunderhead. We’ve reveled in our love for the Corvair on these pages repeatedly, (here, here, and here), and shown how the 1960 Corvair sparked a global design revolution. But for all of our silver-tongued love sonnets for the most unique and refreshing car to escape Fortress Detroit in decades, we’ve so far avoided its very controversial shadow side. No longer; get out your umbrellas, for a hard rain’s gonna’ fall.
The most fundamental question has to do with the decision to make the Corvair a rear-engined car, as all of its issues ultimately stem from that. According to the oft-repeated story, in 1955 Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole asked Maurice Olley, the division’s Director of Research, to analyze the various engine-drive train variations for a small car, including conventional front engine-rear wheel drive, FWD, and rear engine variations. A number of small European cars were tested and examined, and the rear-engine configuration as used by VW and the smallest Renaults and Fiats was determined to be the most advantageous for a number of reasons.
Those were its light steering (power assist not necessary), a flat floor, a relatively quiet and comfortable ride, and excellent traction. It’s important to keep in mind that at this stage, the Corvair was envisioned as a more compact and cheaper alternative to the full-sized Chevrolet, not the sporty car that it eventually evolved to be.
Specifically, the Corvair project was to take up where the 1947 Chevrolet Cadet had failed: to be a profitable compact car. And the way that “compact” was defined then was for the car to be shorter and lighter, but still be able to accommodate six. That presented inherent challenges in packaging the drive train.
The solution then was Cadet Engineer Earle MacPherson’s use of his eponymous struts at both front and rear, combined with an independent rear suspension and the transmission under the front seat. A rather brilliant solution from a brilliant engineer, but this was not France or Germany where such an advanced car could be priced accordingly. The Cadet suffered from a recurring GM malady: technical overkill, given the cost structure of the US market. Wouldn’t a more conventional car seating perhaps merely five have been adequate?
The also-brilliant Ed Cole fell for similar trap, although in terms of construction costs, the Corvair probably was presumably profitable to build, despite the huge investment in unique facilities to build its engine. By trap, I mean the hubris of being convinced that he could find a low-cost solution to the problems that had long stood in the way of building a six-passenger rear-engine car.
The rear engine was the hot new thing in the early thirties, along with aerodynamics. Tatra epitomized and popularized both of those, and others quickly took them up too, at their peril. The first large V8 Tatra streamliner, the 77 (above) suffered from very severe handling problems, and was built in only limited numbers.
Its successor, the 87 (above) was shorter and lighter and had a smaller 3.0 L air cooled V8 in its tail, but its snap oversteer at the limit–thanks to its rear-weight bias and swing axles–was still deadly. So much so, that Hitler banned his top officers from driving it, after a number were killed in high speed accidents. It was dubbed “The Czech Secret Weapon”.
Mercedes, that paragon of engineering prowess, also took up the rear engine, but more cautiously. Its 130H, 150H and 170H (above) were built alongside conventional models. They sold poorly, in part due to a smaller luggage area, noisy engine, and bad handling vices. The positive rear camber clearly visible in this picture is a tip-off to that.
Mercedes dropped the rear engine, but did adopt swing axles, and eventually made them work quite successfully thanks to the better weight distribution of front engines and constant improvements in their geometry. By the late fifties, Mercedes had tamed it almost completely, with its exclusive “low-pivot” variation, but that was not suitable for a rear-engine car.
Of course it was the Volkswagen that popularized the rear engine, and the even-smaller Renault 4CV and Fiat 600 followed in its swing-axle tracks. But these were all small cars, with low power outputs. Even then, they were still susceptible to the dreaded effects of snap-oversteer and rear-wheel jacking. Needless to say, the early Porsche 356s were famous for their oversteer, but that was tamed to various degrees by initial negative camber, and in 1959, a revised rear end with softer torsion bars and a camber compensating spring.
When the rear end of a swing-axle car approaches or exceeds its limits, the centrifugal forces acting on the rear of the car causes the outside wheel to tuck under the body, which results in the rear rising and drastically exacerbating the intrinsic oversteer of a rear-engined car. This picture shows a front-engined Triumph Spitfire; rear engined cars can respond even more violently because of the high percentage of weight in the back. It’s very easy to lose control, unless one can anticipate the event, or forestall it with deft counter-steering. But that isn’t always possible, even in the hands of experienced drivers.
Maurice Olley, who was charged by Ed Cole to evaluate the various configurations, had written about the intrinsic limitations of the rear-engine format. From Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe At Any Speed”:
(Olley’s) field of specialization was automobile handling behavior. In 1953 Olley delivered a technical paper, “European Postwar Cars,” containing a sharp critique of rear-engined automobiles with swing-axle suspension systems. He called such vehicles “a poor bargain, at least in the form in which they are at present built,” adding that they could not handle safely in a wind even at moderate speeds, despite tire pressure differential between front and rear. Olley went further, depicting the forward fuel tank as “a collision risk, as is the mass of the engine in the rear.” Unmistakably, he had notified colleagues of the hurdles which had to be overcome.
So why did Cole go for the rear engine anyway? Despite the rep engineers have for being objective, it seems quite likely he wasn’t in this particular case. Cole had been intrigued with both rear-engines and air-cooled ones for some time, having been involved with an experimental rear engined Cadillac that had dual rear wheels to help deal with its severe intrinsic challenges. He also was involved with the M41 Light Tank that used an air-cooled flat six. Undoubtedly, he was prejudiced to some degree, and convinced himself of the rear-engine’s assets.
Seeing that this was the mid-late fifties–and GM–there was another important factor: trendy good looks. Which meant a very low car, among other things.
In January 1960, (Corvair project head) Kai Hansen told a meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers: “Our first objective, once the decision was made to design a smaller, lighter ear, was to attain good styling proportions. Merely shortening the wheel base and front and rear overhang was not acceptable. To permit lower overall height and to accommodate six adult passengers, the floor hump for the drive shaft had to go. Eliminating the conventional drive shaft made it essential then that the car have either rear-engine, rear-drive or front-engine, front-drive. Before making a decision, all types of European cars were studied, including front-engine, front-drive designs. None measured up to our standards of road performance.”
The result was a total height of 51.3 inches–extremely low for a six-passenger sedan–and lower than a current Porsche 911 Carrera. It’s quite clear that the rear engine configuration ultimately was selected for the sake of stylistic vanity, or in their words “the most aesthetically pleasant” way to achieve the desired space. The Corvair looked like a scaled-down full-size car, and that could only be achieved by making it lower. Which in turn demanded a rear engine. And once that ill-advised decision was made, GM was not prepared to spend the money to make it work properly.
One only has to look at Chevrolet’s own boxy front-engine rear-drive compact, the 1962 Chevy II, to see how tall it needed to be in order to have roughly the same interior space. This is exactly what the GM stylists were hoping to avoid with the Corvair.
All of the European rear-engined sedans GM had evaluated were much smaller four-passenger cars, with very small and light four-cylinder engines. A four-cylinder engine was originally considered for the Corvair, but abandoned for a six because of its greater smoothness. A boxer four is intrinsically a balanced design, but is prone to some exhaust growl due to its firing order. But that can be mitigated by exhaust system tuning.
Ed Cole’s initial plans and calculations were for the Corvair to use aluminum cylinders with a high-silicon alloy, similar to that later used in the Vega. Perhaps from a durability point of view, it was for the best that it was not feasible then, and individual finned cast iron cylinders were ultimately used. This contributed to the production Corvair engine weighing 332 lbs, 78 lbs more than initial projections.
That’s a full 50% more than the VW’s engine, which weighed 220 lbs. And being a four cylinder, the short VE engine didn’t stick out as far in the back as did the Corvair’s, which further affected weight balance negatively. And to make things worse, starting in 1961 Chevrolet moved the spare tire from the front trunk to the engine compartment, increasing rear weight bias further.
Needless to say, in a rear engine car the greater the weight in the back, the greater the challenges and risks, due to the intrinsic influence of centrifugal force in a curve. Production Corvairs had up to 64% of their weight on the rear wheels, a problem further exacerbated when the spare was moved from the front trunk to the engine compartment in 1961 due to complaints about trunk space. The VW carried 57% of its weight over the rear wheels. In a rear engine car, every percentage point of additional weight becomes disproportionately problematic in terms of stability, given the crude swing axle suspensions then in use.
Without going into all the technicalities of the specific choices made by the Chevrolet engineers, it is apparent that one over-riding criterion was predominant: cost control. Charles Rubly, a Corvair engineer, made the following comment at an SAE meeting in April 1960:
Another question that no doubt can be asked is why did we choose an independent rear suspension of this particular type? There are other swing-axle rear suspensions, of course, that permit transferring more of the roll couple to the front end. Our selection of this particular type of a swing-axle rear suspension is based on: (1) lower cost, (2) ease of assembly, (3) ease of service, and (4) simplicity of design. We also wished to take advantage of coil springs … in order to obtain a more pleasing ride …”
Having made their decision on the basic configuration, there were several ways available to mitigate the intrinsic tendencies of the Corvair’s suspension design. A front roll bar (estimated to cost $4) was originally intended to be used, for its (debatable) effect in compensating oversteer to some degree.
More critically, a rear camber-compensating spring was not used, despite the adoption of one by Porsche, and a large aftermarket for that developed for VWs, Renaults and older Porsches. This device had come to be seen as the most critical element in taming the vices of rear-engined swing-axle suspensions.
Given the $19.95 retail price of the EMPI Camber Compensator, it probably would have cost Chevrolet some $15 or less in mass volumes to buy and install. A whole industry grew around Corvair chassis improvements, as serious Corvair drivers were all-too aware of its limitations:
By 1963, sports car racer and writer Denise McCluggage could begin an article on Corvair handling idiosyncrasies with words that assumed a knowing familiarity by her auto buff readers: “Seen any Corvairs lately with the back end smashed in? Chances are they weren’t run into, but rather ran into something while going backwards. And not in reverse gear, either.”
Then Miss McCluggage went on to describe a phenomenon she termed a “sashay through the boonies, back-end first.” “The classic Corvair accident is a quick spin in a turn and swoosh! — off the road backwards. Or, perhaps, if half- corrective measures are applied, the backward motion is arrested, the tires claw at the pavement and the car is sent darting across the road to the other side. In this case there might be some front end damage instead.”
And noted race driver and Corvair-tuner John Fitch had this to say: “I didn’t want a race car,” he said, “if I did, I’d buy something for that purpose. But I did want to feel more confident when behind the wheel that the car would go where I pointed it.”
Instead, Chevrolet jiggered with the tire pressure differential, arriving at a somewhat ludicrous 15 lbs front, 26 lbs rear recommendation. The benefits of the differential were known, as the lower front pressure increased understeer to counteract the oversteer. But there were several fatal flaws in these numbers, which were obviously arrived at in a desperate attempt to maintain the vaunted GM soft ride.
To start with, 15 lbs in the small 6.50 x 13″ front tires reduced their load capacity precariously low, again considering the six-passenger seating and luggage capacity. But the more critical issue was the rears, as they were also technically overloaded with just two passengers at 24 lbs. And 26lbs was not enough to ensure that the tubeless tires would resist deflection to the point of popping off the rims under the extreme pressures in a critical handling situation; specifically an oversteer/jacking up incident.
Shortly after the 1960 Corvair was released, a number of tragic accidents occurred, and it was noted that the pavement often showed severe gouging. This was the result of the rear tire popping off the rim, which then contacted the pavement and had the effect of drastically escalating the incident into a severe or deadly accident.
Popular entertainer Ernie Kovacs was killed in his 1961 Corvair Lakewood wagon (which had an even more exaggerated rear-weight bias) when he lost control on a rainy evening in Los Angeles (picture at top of article). Note the right rear tire that is off the rim; it’s possible that happened from the curb, but it is typical of numerous similar incidents where the rear tire rolled off the rim during an emergency maneuver and caused the Corvair to be essentially uncontrollable.
Corvair engineers knew about this problem and considered raising the recommended rear tire pressures. Once again, however, they succumbed to the great imperative-a soft ride. Rubly recounts it plainly enough: “The twenty-eight psi would reduce the rear-tire deflection enough but we did not feel that we should compromise ride and add harshness because under hot conditions tire pressures will increase three to four psi.”
Even if the recommended inflation numbers had been increased with a similar differential, say 19/28, there was still another huge obstacle: essentially no one in America was used to the concept of a differential tire pressure. When I was a gasoline station attendant in 1968-1970, we inflated all car tires to 24-26 lbs, unless told otherwise. Which we never were, except the occasional sports car fanatic who knew and cared about such things.
Chevrolet made no effort to educate its dealers and the public on the importance of these differential tire inflation recommendations. As well, there was no reference to “oversteer” and how to identify it and compensate for it by counter-steering in the Corvair Owner’s Manual or elsewhere. This was an innately counter-intuitive thing to do for Americans that had grown up with understeering cars, and were repeatedly told in Driver’s Ed to “steer into the skid”, not against it.
The issue GM and other American makers using cheaper undersized tires has been a recurring one (and one we’ve covered here). VW, Porsche and Renault used 15″ tires on their rear-engine cars. And interestingly enough, the 1961-1963 Pontiac Tempest, which used a modified version of the Corvair’s swing axle rear suspension (but with a front engine), bucked the trend and was the only GM car during that whole era to use 15″ tires exclusively. That looked rather odd at the time, but undoubtedly was a conscious decision at Pontiac based on the belief that larger diameter tires would mitigate the swing axle’s tendencies.
Pontiac had been on track to have its own version of the Corvair for 1961, dubbed Polaris (above, and which also looks to have substantially larger tires that the Corvair). The division had already spent some $1.3 million in adapting the Corvair, before John DeLorean pulled the plug. He was convinced by his top engineers, including Advanced Engineering Chief Albert Roller, who had come from Mercedes-Benz: “(he) tested the car (Corvair) and pleaded with me not to use it at Pontiac…he said that Mercedes had tested similarly-designed rear-engine swing-axle cars and had found them too unsafe to build”.
DeLorean got approval to dump the Polaris project, and instead adapted the front engine Buick-Olds compact, but not without some creative engineering, including the swing axle rear suspension. And as it turned out, even the Tempest came in for criticism due to its turning nasty in extreme situations. It was a short-lived experiment.
DeLorean also alleges in his book “On A Clear Day You Can See GM” that the problems with the Corvair’s handling were all-too well known inside GM. He says that Frank Winchell, then a Chevy engineer, flipped one of the first prototypes, and others followed. A huge internal fight ensued, with Ed Cole and his camp on one side, and a number of top engineers on the other, including Charles Chayne, VP of Engineering, and Von D. Polhemus, GM Chassis Development head. Their efforts to keep the Corvair from production, or change its suspension was a lost cause, as “Cole’s mind was made up”.
A number of GM executives were directly affected by the Corvair, including the death of the son of Cadillac General Manager Cal Werner, and the critically-injured son of Exec. VP Cy Osborn. Of course these represent just a small sampling of the accidents that the public was experiencing, and which soon led to a spate of lawsuits against GM, most of which were quickly settled.
Undoubtedly, driver negligence was involved in some of these cases, but there’s also no doubt that the Corvair’s unique response to sudden steering, brakes or other inputs created a situation the general public was unfamiliar with. And one that could be exacerbated by incorrect tire pressure.
In a partial response, for 1961 Chevrolet made available an optional RPO 696 sports suspension, which included stiffer springs and shocks, the previously-missing front anti-roll bar, a negative initial camber setting for the rear wheels, and rear-axle rebound straps to reduce tuck under, all for some $10 or so. My 1962 Monza four-speed had it, and it performed admirably enough under lots of spirited cornering. But then I also knew of the ultimate danger and respected the Corvair’s limits, except on certain snowy parking lots or frozen lakes. Nevertheless, the camber-compensating spring was still not installed or available.
And the sports suspension had its limitations too, reducing rear wheel travel due to the negative camber and stiffer springs. This made it less than ideal for the kind of use a family sedan might typically get, with heavy loading and such. Chevrolet had put themselves between a rock and a hard place with the Corvair’s suspension design.
DeLorean says that after Bunkie Knudsen took over at Chevrolet in 1961, he was so concerned about the Corvair’s handling issues that he demanded that the camber-compenstor be made standard. The roughly $15 cost to make and install it was deemed too expensive by the “Fourteenth Floor”, and he was turned down. Eventually he gave the top brass an ultimatum: either he would be allowed to improve the Corvair’s suspension, or he would very publicly resign from GM over it. They relented, and that led to the camber compensating spring in 1964, and the complete redesign of the rear suspension for 1965, which essentially eliminated the issues altogether.
Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe At Any Speed” is commonly blamed for the Corvair’s demise, but that already happened years before its publication in 1965. By that time, the Corvair was already on artificial life support. Within two months of its introduction in the fall of 1959, Ed Cole realized that the Corvair was not really the right formula for what America was looking for in a compact sedan. The Falcon instantly outsold it two-to-one, and Cole ordered a crash program to develop the very pragmatic Chevy II.
From that point forward, the Corvair’s future, to the extent it had any, was in its new role as a sporty coupe, and the bucket-seat Monza immediately became the best selling version after it was introduced in the spring of 1960. The Monza pioneered a whole new market segment that would be taken over by the Mustang in 1964.
Given how obvious that was by mid-1960 makes it even odder that GM resisted the efforts to adopt wholesale the suspension improvements readily available. One thing is clear: Ed Cole did not set out to design a sporty car. The up-scale Monza coupe was shown as a show-car concept in January of 1960 to generate some interest in the coupe version due shortly (in 500 and 700 trim levels), but the public response to the Monza was so favorable, it was rushed into production.
The Monza inadvertently created and opened a huge market segment (we covered that here) which led to bucket seat versions of its competitors, as well as the Mustang. But a flat floor and seating for six was certainly not in the brief for a sporty coupe or convertible, as the Mustang proved convincingly. Unless you like your passenger to squeeze left.
The Monza may have pulled some of the Corvair’s fat out of the fire, but that doesn’t negate the fact that Ed Cole’s Corvair was a fatally flawed design for its original intended role. In fact it’s tempting (and fairly easy) to speculate that if Chevy’s 1960 compact had arrived in more conventional front-engine form, like the related B-O-P 1961 compacts, that it would have just as readily (and likely) spawned a sporty coupe variant with V8 power, one that would have largely usurped or dampened the Mustang’s huge success.
The Corvair was the product of GM’s repeated tendencies to go off in directions that were an engineer’s dream, but were either flawed from the initial concept, or diminished by the bean counters. In the case of the Corvair, it was both. But for us lovers of the Corvair, like the lovers of the 1966 Toronado, the Vega, and other GM Deadly Sins, it was a huge boon. Suspension mods are easy to effect, and Corvairs are now safely in the hands of those that understand and respect its limitations (and tire pressures). But that was not the case in 1960 or so, and probably more than needed to paid the price.
Related reading at CC:
“Unsafe At Any Speed” Turns 50: The Most Influential Book Ever On The American Automobile Industry
How The 1960 Corvair Started a Global design Revolution
1960½ Corvair Monza Coupe: The Most Influential Car of the Sixties
What If? 1961-1964 Corvair Monza Hardtop Coupe
1961 Corvair Rampside: It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time
1962 Corvair Lakewood Station Wagon: Why Did We Go Ahead And Build This?
1963 Corvair Monza Spyder Convertible: The Turbo Revolution Started Here
1963 Corvair Greenbrier: We Don’t Want A Better VW Bus
Auto-Biography: 1963 Corvair Monza (My First Car): The Tilt-A-Vair
1964 Corvair Monza Spyder: Activate The Turbo Scat
1965 Corvair 500: Double Or Nothing!
1966 Corvair Monza Coupe: The Best European Car Ever Made In America
Although I disagree with many of your deadly sins, this one is definitely one of the top two deadly sins for GM. The only other contender for the top position in my eyes is the 1980 X-cars Although perhaps not as “unsafe” as the Corvair, it was terribly built, unreliable car, and it had the most negative impact on GM’s sales and reputation. Whereas the Corvair was not a success, Chevrolet was selling record numbers through the 1960’s, so it didn’t really play a massive effect on the public perception of GM at that time.
I would agree that there was far too much cost cutting at GM in the design of this car, and the suspension was woefully inadequate. Although, it is interesting that once they put a true independant axle on the 1965 models, they were known for their good handling, certainly much better than the typical American car of this vintage. As a point of interest, the original 1960-63 suspension was tested by NHSTA in 1971 and it was found not to be unsafe when compared to other cars in its class of the same vintage.
The report stated:
“The 1960-63 Corvair compares favorably with contemporary vehicles used in the tests,” and, “The handling and stability performance of the 1960-63 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover, and it is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles both foreign and domestic.”
There is some additional info here:
In the end, Ed Cole’s choice of building a rear engine car result in a much more expensive to build car vs a conventional front engin-RWD layout (like the Falcon/Chevy II). This more expensive overall build cost lead to the cost cutting to maximize the already small profit margins. Combine this inadequte suspension with a car that offers unusual handling for most Americans in this era lead to one the biggest auto flops in history.
Corvair, 1980 X-cars, another cotender to the Deadliest sin to add is the Vega. We could wonder what if GM had decided to go right away with a conventionnal front-engine-RWD layout from the start against the Falcon and Valiant? Or taking a different path and beating Ford to the finish line if they had go with a FWD car a la Cardinal?
The NHTSA report is certainly ironic, and intriguing, in terms of just exactly how it was conducted. It does not appear to be available on line, so maybe I should order a copy.
I can’t help but wonder about just how rigorous it really was. The Corvair’s tendency for snap-oversteer and rear-wheel jacking typically happened only in fairly extreme circumstances, such as when someone over-reacted. Up until that point, the Corvair could be quite benign.
There’s also the question of the differential air pressure, and whether that was considered in the NHTSA test.
In any case, I’m not really arguing that the ’60-’63 Corvair was x times more dangerous than other cars out there at the time. Falcon with 6.00×13 tires overloaded with family and luggage undoubtedly could be just as deadly.
What is abundantly clear are a couple of points: that knowledgeable drivers of all sorts were aware of the Corvair’s tendencies, and respected it at their peril. There are many references to that extent. And most of all, the Corvair was a failure as a compact car, largely due to its intrinsic configuration. And that GM was aware of those, and dragged their feet in ameliorating them.
The 1960 Corvair could have been a brilliant sporty coupe, with just a bit more effort. Or it should have been something altogether different, as a family-friendly compact sedan.
I think the fact that the Corvair’s jacking and tuck-under only really became obvious at the extreme had a lot to do with the disconnect about what to do with it. By the ’50s, a lot of automakers became very wedded to standardized proving grounds testing and there are a number of cases that strongly suggest that not enough consideration was given to how a car or a system would behave outside the specific parameters of the test regimen. Excepting heavy-duty “off-road” parts, which were dictated by police buyers or race car builders, the tests were often based on some kind of model of normal driving, on the grounds that there was no point in spending a lot of engineering resources on capabilities 90 percent of customers were never going to need in 90 percent of their driving.
And of course, few domestic cars of the era were exactly without stain in their emergency handling — strong understeer followed by a ragged transition to oversteer was pretty common. The big-engine Camaros didn’t have the early Corvair’s jacking issue, but contemporary reviews complain about the terminal handling in pretty strong terms.
I’ve never seen anyone try to deny that the early Corvair does have a tendency to hoist its tail in hard turns or that that can ultimately lead to tuck-under and snap oversteer. Mostly, people just minimize how likely it was to happen, often leavened with the usual car nut insistence that it wasn’t a problem if you “know what you’re doing.” (See also Porsche 356, Mercedes 300SL gullwing coupe.)
My goal is neither to damn nor praise the Corvair, because there are plenty of entrenched positions, like with just about everything else. Your point is absolutely correct: the handling of many American cars would quickly deteriorate under duress, especially with any significant amount of load aboard.
When I think of how we loaded six of us and a jammed-full trunk in our ’62 Fairlane with the rear springs bottomed out and the tiny tires bulging, and headed off to vacation doing 75 on the fresh interstates…and the mountains of Colorado.
There are many reasons why the fatality rate has plummeted over the decades. The Corvair aficionados could make light of its vices, but the typical owner didn’t have a clue as to what he was really driving. What else is new?
Well said, Paul. As I have mentioned here before, I love old cars but from a safety standpoint, I would never drive one on a daily basis. I like airbags, ABS and crumple zones on my daily driver, not to mention properly sized tires.
I think the biggest thing lost in hindsight was that the Corvair, was a Chevrolet. All the other kooky swing axle oversteering cars were pretty much out of the mainstream, while the Corvair shared showroom space with the All American Impala.
I think a lot of neglect on GM’s part was about not highlighting how *different* the Corvair was (and only playing up some rather goofy advantages). GM had a lot of trust from loyal customers, and when one of it’s products behaved in a way completely foreign to them, I think it sullied their reputation. Although not a homerun, The Corvair outsold the Valiant through 1962 if we don’t count the Lancer twin. That’s plenty of loyal Chevy customers taking a risk on something unfamiliar.
Much as I love Corvairs myself, if I ever get a pre-64, that camber compensating spring will be bought and installed before I take it out on the road. As someone that has spent the majority of my driving life in cars more typical to the classic American formula of Front Engine/Rear Drive I know that a Corvair would be a handful (in 20/20 hindsight and foresight) in my hands. Not the same could be said for any American buyer in the winter of 1959.
Thanks Paul! Excellent and insightful writing , I want to share some of my memories with you regarding Corvairs back in 1960’s Iran.
Corvairs were imported by GM in Iran only for one year: in 1960,
All came with the floor mounted three speed manual transmission, the main problem with these cars was fan belt tossing, due to manual transmission downshifting jerks and heavy stamped steel fan which couldn’t be slowed down.
This problem was less crucial in the US, as the majority of Corvairs were sold equipped with Powerglide transmissions, PG could absorb downshifting jerks without too much stress on the fan belt.
Chevrolet Division solved the problem in1961 with a much lighter magnesium fan , but this was too late for Corvairs in Iran , nobody wanted them anymore. So GM stopped importing Corvairs in 1961 and went on with the tried and true Impala , after this small car fiasco they did not even dare to import Chevels or Chevy IIs.
This is to say that, the high accident rate did nothing to kill Corvairs in Iran, it was mediocre engineering.
I can’t recall where I saw it, but I have a pretty strong recollection of studies showing that insurance claims and deaths for the 60-63 ‘Vairs were no worse than similarly-priced contemporary cars. I have a theory that the strong negative rep they carry was due to 1) Mr. Nader’s book and 2) when they did step out, they did it in a unique, and therefore more disturbing, fashion than other cars of the era. And, if I’m correct in my recall of the statistics, it wasn’t even a more dangerous steering failure mode- just different. My first car was a ’62 Monza coupe, 110HP/4spd, and even at 18, I never managed to get it sideways.
That being said, though, of course they should’ve had the roll bar, camber spring and 14″ (or even 15″) wheels from day 1.
My first car at 19 was identical to yours, except being a four door. And mine had the handling option, which almost undoubtedly yours did too (I think most or all four-speed Monzas did). And I never got it sideways either, except on purpose in snow or on ice. I’m quite glad that was the case. 🙂
Nader’s book didn’t come out until 1965, years after most of these issues had already played out, including lawsuits and the changes to the Corvair’s suspension.
Just good old garden-variety oversteer was benign, if one didn’t over-react to it. And fun, if one knew what to do with it. Bit if and when a Corvair actually tucked and jacked, I can assure you it was a potentially very dangerous situation, because one pretty much lost all or most control, except in the hands of a very astute driver.
Not to pick nits, but the optional engine in a ’62 Monza was 102HP, not 110HP. One of my early cars was also a four-door ’62 Monza with, God help me, a three-speed. I never got mine sideways either.
I might have more details of the NHSTA tests, but I don’t have access to them now. I don’t recall how extensive they were, nor if the tire pressure issue was discussed. In the end, regardless of the test, I am not disputing the fact that the 1960-63 Covairs had some very dangerous tendencies at the limit, which without a doubt caused some deaths. I believe I have a road test by a car magazine from the early 1960’s that discusses the tuck under issue with the Corvair, that I will try to dig up.
I agree that it was the choice of the rear engine configuration and being an economy sedan that caused the cost cutting and inadequate design. Had this been designed as a “sporty” compact, the price could have been set higher and I would like to think that a front sway bar and camber compensator would have been included. Would the 1960 American market have been ready for it though? But in all honesty, I don’t think GM took small cars that serious, since the profit margins were small. And in the end with time, the Corvair did become a “brilliant sporty coupe” (well almost) with the addition of the fully independant suspension in 1965.
One other point to mention about the small tires used. Don’t forget in this era, low profile tires didn’t exist, so the only way to get a smaller diameter tire was with a smaller wheel. Smaller tires were being used to lower the car, regardless of the fact the tires may have been border line to get that low look. Again form was selected over function. Remember in 1957 many cars went to 14″ wheels to help lower them, which in resulted in poor brake performance in a lot of cars due to lack of cooling space (the 1958 Chevy was one good example). It wasn’t until the later 1960’s that lower profile tires became more the norm.
As rigorous as it gets! Tested on the Texas A&M College Station campus for the NHTSA. Their testing is extremely thorough, as is all of their testing for the NHTSA and TxDOT.
Another great lesson from Professor Niedermeyer! If only the GM engineers had taken some of his classes.
With all due respect, remember that Professor Niedermeyer is teaching with the basis of 50 years of hindsight. And hindsight is 20/20.
Also, back during the Corvair’s development, rear engine/rear drive was THE alternative to the classic American sedan. Although the Mini preceeded the Corvair by a year or so, this design, now recognized as a classic, wasn’t even considered a success for the first year or two. It was the mid-60’s when the Mini’s reputation really took off.
There were probably just about as many companies building FWD cars in the fifties in Europe as rear-engine cars: Saab, DKW, Lloyd, Citroen, Panhard, etc.
Ford’s own sub-compact Cardinal, which was supposed to arrive in 1962 and had been under development for years in Detroit was FWD.
The real issue is whether Cole chose the rear engine for objective reasons. My point is that I don’t think it was a good choice for a six-passenger American sedan. And that may be hindsight, but plenty of others felt so at the time.
Realistically, a conventional compact car, like the Chevy II, would have made much more sense.
If Chevy had wanted to build a rear-engine sporty car, and done it without compromises, Amen to that.
General Motors’ Experimental Corvairs:
Didn’t really learn how to drive in one of these but I did get the chance to prove I had learned. My drivers ed car in 59 or 60. Liked it even with the powerglide. Would love to have one today.
Not talked about much but it was an easy engine swap to drop one of these engines into a beetle. Knew a person with one and he waxed everything in town except for one big block vette.
Drove all over the east coast in a (probably) 67 model. Buddy and I traveled a lot and his corvair was bigger than my beetle and had a better heater. It can be a deadly sin if you say so but you can consider me a possibly clueless fan.
Did the Corvair suffer from trailing throttle oversteer as well (anyone know from experience)? I would assume so, given the configuration…
A ’63 Corvair was raced several times in the 24 Hours of LeMons by a team that appropriately called itself “Trailing Throttle Oversteer.” Yes, if you react to going into a corner too fast by suddenly lifting off, you shift weight forward at precisely the wrong moment. The trick is to make the rear weight bias work for you rather than against you as long as possible, and that means staying on the gas when your panic instinct says not to.
All that being said, the LeMons Corvair did quite well under racing conditions (except for being slow). They skidded/spun a few times but always recovered; they never rolled it, collided or went catastrophically off the track. I was always curious why the TTO team didn’t try to track down a period aftermarket camber compensator. It is also possible to upgrade a 1960-63 car with ’64 parts but that requires swapping out the entire transaxle in addition to the suspension, which is a cost issue in a LeMons car.
I never really understood what all the fuss was about this car but I do now. Thanks for the very clear explanation of what snap-oversteer is & a little history behind “why” GM did what they did. Excellent piece Paul — it was very enlightening.
My point is this: it was a good car for what it was initially intended to be – a basic, inexpensive, but roomy family hauler, with a thrifty little engine helped by rear-wheel traction thanks to the weight distribution. That is, the way it worked so well for Europe. But, just as usual, GM started to cut costs even further and simultaneously trying to market it as some pocket rocket, a corvette on a budget. And so the trouble came.
I actually tend to put the blame for most of the accidents on the drivers, just as in the infamous case with SUV rollovers in the 80s. Know its limits, and don’t push it to them – and you’ll be fine.
But yes, it *could be* better designed. Look at Tatra’s 613’s – it was rear engined, BUT the engine was not behind the rear axle, but rather directly on top of it (somewhat a reminiscent of Cadillac Eldorado’s powertrain), which gave it almost 50×50 weight distribution. I happened to drive one, and despite it’s age and unkempt condition it was… a pretty sharp handling car, maybe on par with some E23 BMW’s. There were also transverse-engine configurations, like the one found in the West German NSU, which also made for favorable weight distribution. But GM chose to stay with the most obvious, straightforward and deficient layout. Just as with the swing axle design.
All in all, I always had a weak point for rear-engined cars, both for aestetic (cab-forward design dictated by weight distribution) and practical (no transmission hump or central console to hide it, just a flat floor; two luggage compartments, as in case with VW Squareback) reasons, and kind of miss them. Hope they will make a comeback at some point. Maybe when, as Popular Mechanics was predicting back in the late 1940’s, “engines will be so small that engineers would place them under the backseat” ?..
Rear engines are back, Stanislav, in a 5-passenger 4-door sedan: the 2013 Tesla S. It has both a hatchback and a trunk in the front.
A bit late but that was a 4 wheel drive
I have a weak spot for rear-engined cars too, quite obviously. And I’m jealous if your driving a Tatra 613. That was their final solution to ultimately taming the previous Tatra’s vices.
Personally, I’m glad GM built the Corvair, but it wasn’t a success as a regular family sedan, and it should have been refined further to be a proper sporty car.
Once I happened to give Ralph Nader a ride across town in my NSU. I explained how it differed from the treacherous Beetles he’d denounced in his earlier book, “Small on Safety.” But when I told him how few NSU existed in the USA, that’s when he truly lost interest. Not a car guy– he got excited about consumers, and overall, I’m glad he did.
Was actually not “easy” to swap one into a VW, as you either had to change the camshaft so the engine can run backwards, or flop the ring gear to the other side of the VW transaxle, which was easier, but led to R&P failures. The cam swap was much better. I believe Crown made the swap kit.
Perhaps you are right but it was commonly done. Kits were available and corvair was not the only thing that was used. I saw a sbc once covered by a plywood top and cut suitcase tops glued to the plywood to give an explanation for the sag. The corvair was a much better idea. JC Whitney would help you.
I must say I agree with Mr Paul Niedermayer´s comments about the Corvair failure: While living in the USA(´62-`73) and in High school in Alexandria VA. lost a school mate who got killed by driving his brand new Corvair thru the West Virginia mountains in one of the turns rear wheels jacked up and HE rolled over(NO SEAT BELTS AT THAT TIME EITHER). May be he was one of the few that got injured due to Corvair´s poor designed suspensions, but It did happen, even GM may have tried to minimize it untill Mr Nader made it public in his book “Unsafe at any speed”(I wrote a paper in my Junior year in HS about this book and and led into a long time discussion as I used my friends killing as a clear example of how “UNSAFE” such cars were. THANK GOD CARS ARE NOW MUCH SAFER DUE TO THIS ´60`S ERROR!!!
Do you know if a lawsuit was filed regarding your friend’s death in the Corvair accident?
I have recently become quite knowledgeable about tires, from pressure, to construction, to how differently proportioned tires behave while driving.
I’m also aware of how little attention drivers pay to their tire pressures, at least here in the U.S. I’d say 80 percent of drivers notice it only twice: when they install new tires, and later on, when those tires need repair(a flat) or replacement. I check mine every two weeks – and have been lauded as “anal” by fellow Yankees for such practice!
In the above context, it is my belief that incidents involving the Corvair(the first gen. at least) would have been dramatically reduced if that car’s pressure offset recommendations(front 15psi, rear 26) had been adhered to by most Corvair drivers.
What I suspect happened is that most drivers, and even garages and dealers, simply didn’t notice the pressures listed on the trunk lid, or in the owners and service manuals, and just applied arbitrary pressures typical of that era: 24 to 28psi in all tires. The car behaved accordingly, and tragically so, sometimes, with tires inflated to such pressures.
I agree. I check my car tires every other week. I check for tire pressure, see if there’s any damage to the tires, etc. Why more people don’t do those things is beyond me.
Another excellent article Paul; in my opinion the Corvair was the most influential automobile ever built. After Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed” was published GM was so outraged they did lots of rather unethical things, like tapping Nader’s phone and trying to tempt him with prostitutes..when news of those efforts became public, there was a huge outcry which eventually led to the passage of the Highway Traffic Safety Act in 1966 and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Now we’ve got airbags, crash bumpers, rollover standards and all sorts of safety related equipment in our cars.
It’s interesting to speculate what would have happened if GM had simply ignored Nader’s book. It probably would have sold a few thousand copies and then quickly ended up in the bargain bins in the bookstores and today Nader would probably be working for some nondescript law firm. Instead Nader’s career as a muckraker took off and the automobile industry has never been the same since. You can’t get any more influential than that.
Not only that, Ralph Nader ran for president in 2000 and got enough votes to tilt Florida. Talk about influential.
If the Corvair had a camber compensator in 1960, the world might be a different place today. Good example of the butterfly effect.
I agree, the Corvair was the most influential car in history.
What people tend to overlook about Unsafe at Any Speed (the Corvair chapter of which was published in The Nation before the book was released) was that it was essentially a compilation of previous complaints and lawsuits — tied together with Nader’s harsh commentary, but still basically a recap of information that was already publicly available.
Nader didn’t invent the safety lobby, either; it was already gathering steam, particularly in states like New York, because other people had read the same case records Nader had. Nader certainly made himself the flashpoint of that movement, but I think it was a matter of riding a wave that was already cresting. GM probably accelerated the process with their response — few things strengthen an opponent like making it look like you’re afraid of him — but I think a lot of the outcome would have been similar either way. There was a lot of frustration that Detroit (not simply GM, which isn’t even the sole target of Unsafe at Any Speed) was too blasé about automotive safety. I’m of the mind that if it hadn’t been Nader, it would have been someone or something else.
Agreed; it was in the air, and inevitable. Part of the growing consciousness of many things going on all around: environmental, political, military, etc… One of the many tipping points of the sixties.
I don’t “blame” Nader at all. Detroit was building cars it KNEW were unsafe and gambled safety for the sake of lower costs and hence increasing profits. It’s pretty crass all around. Fifties and sixties cars were all style and chrome with as little structure under the glam to make the car go down the road as possible. The new Interstates also served to make obvious defects such as inadequate tires glaring. I can remember as a kid seeing drivers changing blown out tires the side of the road all the time. Now it’s a real rarity.
Want proof how weak these cars were? Look at the Greenbrier wrapped around that pole. A safety cell, side impact beams and a side airbag would saved the driver. Stability control probably would have prevented the whole incident.
The reduction in traffic fatalities over the last few decades ranks, in my opinion, as one of our greatest achievements, albeit one few have noticed. However, it’s not often we hear of friends and family killed in car crashes anymore. It was too bloody common forty years ago. I can personally name several victims, all people I knew well.
Everything was unsafe then, toys were made from cast iron and painted with lead, toy guns fired real pelletts, and they looked and felt like real guns, no children ever rode in cars seats they bounced around the car while their parents puffed second hand smoke in their little faces. We need more dangerous things, stupid people breed too quickly.
Amen. We’ve turned into a nation of wimps, afraid of our own shadows, and completely unwilling to take any kind of risk anymore.
Syke, why is it I can tell Carmine is joking but I think you’re serious?
Based on other replies of his, just be glad these guys usually loose… for ex the last election.
OK, Mike. I’m not trying to start a right-left thing here. I respect Syke and know he prefers a good BMW to a Detroiter from the 70s. My point is only that German and other companies took safety seriously b/c their gov’ts did too. Forcing the Big Three to take safety seriously was not a bad thing.
I’m not sure you can point at just Detroit. I don’t see any huge safety advantages from any other automaker at the time.
I believe they built what people wanted, and I don’t think safety was at the top of the list. Even comparatively speaking, look at the cost between a car of today and a car then. We pay alot more money, mostly because of the safety features we are forced to have.
I personally have very little use for traction control, stability control, and for the most part ABS. Ten airbags are great, but I’d rather not find out if they work or not.
Are all these things a result of Nadar or just part of the natural evolution of the automobile…?
Detroit was building the cars that people wanted. The simple fact is that most most buyers didn’t believe that they would ever be in an accident – otherwise, they would have stopped driving completely – and weren’t about to pay extra for such things as seat belts or collapsible steering columns, if they had the choice. If people had the choice of paying for safety belts or a vinyl roof, most people would have gone for the latter.
The imports, except for Mercedes, Saab and Volvo, also basically ignored safety. VWs, Fiats and Renaults were absolute death traps even by the standards of the time, and Japanese cars weren’t any better.
We are used to seeing fully restored, top-of-the-line convertibles, hardtop coupes and muscle cars at classic car shows today. Most people in the 1950s and 1960s were not driving those cars. That is why they are so rare and valuable today. Quite a few people thought it was sufficient if their car had an automatic transmission, power steering, a heater and an AM radio. They weren’t about to shell out extra money for safety belts or other safety equipment.
I remember my grandmother’s “gentleman friend,” who drove a 1968 Chevrolet Bel Air sedan. It had the I-6, column-mounted manual transmission and no radio. But he was saving on gas and didn’t need to listen to the radio anyway. My grandmother, who came of age in the Great Depression, didn’t see anything unusual about a car equipped this way.
We never wore safety belts until the late 1980s, when states began passing mandatory safety belt laws. I remember, as a kid in the 1970s, driving with my mother in our 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88 Holiday sedan. On the interstate highways, she regularly cruised along at 75 mph on bias-ply tires and drum brakes, and no one wore safety belts. Around town, my little brother liked to ride on the package shelf behind the back seat. Imagine a mother who allowed her children to do that today…but even in the 1970s, we didn’t seen anything wrong with this.
Regarding seat belts:
“I’d rather be thrown clear in a crash.”
Seat belts used to be dragging along the road, hanging out the door, on many cars in 60s/70’s.
That’s due to the lack of pre-tensioners and another example of how much less safety-conscious the driving public was in years past. Most automakers built in a lot of “slack” in the belts so people wouldn’t feel too restrained. Though they didn’t get anywhere near the same publicity as the lawsuits against the Corvair, I believe that a number of plaintiffs also successfully sued GM in the 80s over fatal accidents caused by too much slack.
How true. For those with a memory of the 1950’s and early 60’s, it’s astonishing to reflect on the ‘regularity’ of car crash deaths in those days. Very few families were untouched by the loss of friends, relations, or acquaintances.
The lax attitude towards drinking and driving (Pre-MADD) contributed to the carnage. When I moved to Houston in 1978 drinking and driving was legal. On Friday nights it seemed like everybody had a drink in hand while ripping around the Loop at 70+. Of course now we have texting…
First, a correction: The car in the photo is a LAKEWOOD, not a GREENBRIER. The Lakewood was the Corvair station wagon in 1961, losing the name for the body style’s final season in 1962. The Greebrier was the Corvir forward-control window van.
Someting that the article doesn’t point out is that Ernie Kovacs was well and truly plastered when he wrapped that car around the pole (not an unusual condition for him), with a b.a.c. of well over double the legal limit. I’ve owned Corvairs for well over three decades and have never once so much as slide the rear end out of line… unless I did it intentionally on an autocross course. I’ve never been in an accident in any of the dozen or so Corvairs I’ve had over the years. I’ve never gotten one stuck in snow. I’ve tossed a few fan belts, dropped a valve seat due to cheap unleaded gas, and had a couple of oil seals let loose, but those are the only real mechanical trouble I’ve had with any of these great little cars.
As for Ralph Nader’s assertions in his “Unsafe” book, did you realize that the horizontal tailfins ofthe 1959 and 1960 full-size Chevrolets causethe rear ends of those cars to LIFT CLEAN OFF THE ROAD AT 70 MPH??? That’s what he claims in the second chapter of his book. If that’s the case, then how did Junior Johnson win the 1960 Daytona 500 in a ’59 Impala at an average speed of nearly 140 MPH? He must have been the all-time drafting champion to maintain an average speed of twice what the car was capable of on it’s own, since the drive wheels were in the air, according to Mr Nader who, by the way, is a LAWYER, not an engineer, and to this day has never had a driver’s license.
The state I grew up in passed a mandatory seat belt law right about the time I started driving. When I drove, I got used to putting the seat belt on immediately, so there wasn’t a getting used to period when I forgot to put them on. Before I started driving I probably hadn’t worn a seat belt a half dozen times in my life. We just didn’t wear them back then. I also rode in the beds of pickup trucks many times as a child and in the ‘wayback’ of a VW Beetle numerous times. Things have changed a lot since then.
I’ve never understood why that is. I’m not against making money, but why sacrifice safety to do it? That makes no sense.
Excellent article Paul, very fair and balanced. I’m no Nader fan, but give the devil his due. Until he brought auto safety to America’s conscienceness in the late 60’s, Detroit cavalierly dismissed any safety concerns of its vehicles, usually blaming the “nut behind the wheel” for the alarming accident rates at the time. Nader set the stage for seat/shoulder belts, crumple zones, ABS, and a host of other safety improvements that, along with a big assist from M.A.D.D., brought the fatality rate down from 5.5 per million miles in 1966 to the 1.1 we see today.
As for the Corvair, I have distinct memories of me and about 6 other teenage buddies stuffing ourselves into a friends 1960 700 sedan that he thought was a sports car, as we careened around the Baltimore Beltway at 80 mph. Air pressure differential? Ha! The Pep Boys recaps were lucky to hold any air at all. My guardian angel definetely earned his pay.
Like many disasters there is no one incident to blame for the Corvair’s demise, but a cascading series of unwise decisions that led to its failure. Ed Cole, a superb engineer, wanted a revolutionary design that gave six passenger comfort and great handling in a compact size. This car could be built (as it was in 1964 and beyond) but unfortunately not at the price of a 1960 Falcon, its intended rival. The relatively expensive basic design led to the cost cutting that led to the elimination of the front sway bar, etc., that led to the handling issues that led to the demise of the car, along with a number of its unfortunate drivers. But this was 1960, the height of GM’s power and hubris, where they could do, and did, anything they wanted.
The fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled had been falling throughout the 1950s. It rose from 1962 through 1967, most likely because of the large number of Baby Boomers receiving their licenses, and began falling again (with a blip up in 1979-81).
As has been pointed out, the real problem is that people at that time were not concerned with safety and did not want to pay for it. For example, Nash offered seat belts in 1950 – there were few takers. Ford pushed safety in 1956 – their sales tanked. The majority of car buyers were just not interested.
In contrast, today safety sells. There are few people who would be willing to buy new cars without safety equipment even if they were available.
I believe that Chevrolet had a good thing going with the Corvair, and they should’ve continued. Every car design has flaws and limitations. It’s that drivers need to learn how to drive them and learn their limitations.
I disagree with the notion that people didn’t care about safety. One would have to be suicidal, or homicidal to not be. I believe that 90-95% of American drivers cared a lot about safety.
“I disagree with the notion that people didn’t care about safety.”
Most did not care enough about it to pay for it, as can be seen by the sales figures for the safety equipment that was available at the time. Note that many refused to even wear seat belts when they were made standard in the 1960s.
My anecdotal recollection of car buyers in my circle of family and friends at the time was that safety was not much of a consideration aside perhaps from keeping some people away from those funny looking little furrin’ cars.
I don’t get why General Motors would do such unethical things as tempt him with prostitutes, etc. While their outrage was justified, I see nothing to justify what GM did.
Whether the Corvair was a deadly sin or not, I never quite warmed up to them save for the last couple of model years when I liked the looks better.
I’ve said often that I’m generally a big car guy with my DeLuxe, Bel-Air and Impala history – including my father’s Impalas, and the beat goes on.
I do give serious nods to Chevelles, Camaros and Novas, however.
It has been a very long time since I rode in a Corvair and never got a chance to drive one.
As to Nader’s book and the stink it caused, I’m quite thankful for the safety equipment the controversy spawned, as cars have never been safer, nanny-state or not, we have benefitted and I’m grateful.
Interesting. I’d always assumed the case against the Corvair was exaggerated by a young Nader, eager to make his name in taking down one of the Industrial Giants of the time. I’d always figured the Corvair case was ridiculously overstated, perhaps fabricated; and that GM shot itself in the foot in their clumsy response.
This is a strong argument otherwise, and if Nader overstated the case regarding the Corvair, certainly GM gave him the opportunity and motive.
As I said above, most, if not everything, in Nader’s book was distilled from case reports and the like. For example, one of the non-Corvair points was a discussion about the alleged safety problems of the old Hydra-Matic shift pattern (NDLR, rather than PRNDL); many of those complaints came from an engineer and inventor named Oscar Banker, who had been making that case at the SAE since the mid-1950s. (In his own memoir, though, Banker expressed distaste at being associated with Nader’s excoriation of the Corvair, which Banker claimed was totally unfounded.)
The Corvair Chapter of his book makes interesting reading. It’s on-line here: http://www.american-buddha.com/nader.unsafeanyspeed.1.htm
Not anymore. But the explanation is a must read.
Some of my earliest memories are of the 1960 Corvair that my parents bought in the fall of 1959, and it’s therefore a bit hard for me to be objective about ‘Vairs. This having been said, the first-generation Corvair qualifies as a deadly sin. What a fatal combination of an engineer in love with an idea whether or not it made sense, and bean-counting that trumped safety considerations! Speaking of safety, one thing I recall about that Corvair is that my parents paid extra to have seat belts installed. This was a few years before belts became mandatory.
My parents, or rather, my Dad did the exact same thing in 1964 as the outside front seat positions had them, but not in the other positions, so he paid to have belts put 3 across the back seat, and one in the front center.
This being a 1964 Dodge 330 station wagon we’d purchased new.
It was a combination of factors that killed the Corvair, but ultimately it was on borrowed time anyway. I pointed this out in response to another Corvair article but it should be noted that just about everybody was moving away from the rear-engine configuration at about the same time. Alec Issigonis had proven that front drive was the way to go.
Renault, Fiat and even VW would dump their rear-engine models by the mid-1970’s. By the end of the decade, the only car you could buy with a rear-mounted air-cooled engine was the Porsche 911, and even it was on a 928-inspired death watch until it experienced a renaissance with the introduction of the 964 in 1989.
The Corvair shared little with any other Chevy, while the Chevy II/Nova could accept any engine that could fit in an Impala. While a fine car in its second iteration, the Corvair was an engineering dead end.
Rear-engine cars still produced in the ’80s (aside from the Porsche 911):
– Skoda 105/120
– Renault Alpine A310
– Tatra 613
– Suzuki Cervo
– ZAZ 968M
– VW Beetle
– Polki-Fiat 126P
– Fiat 133
– Zastava 750
– DeLorean DMC12
Not even listing the mid-engine ones (Lambo, Ferrari, Matra, etc.)… There are some new rear-engine designs (Tata Nano, Smart Roadster, Tesla S) in production, though perhaps not too common on US roads.
I’d drive either of them if given the opportunity. Among the most interesting to me are the DeLorean DMC12, the Tatra 613, the Renault Alpine A310, and the Skoda 105/120.
This is all ground that has been fought over many times. The physics of a swing-axle car with rear weight bias are undeniable and much of the rest of the discussion revolves around issues of opinion and policy.
Where I am a bit troubled by this story is by the use of the photos of the Kovacs accident without any context, such as the following:
1. There is evidence that Kovacs was trying to light a cigar at the time of the wreck.
2. The Lakewood was his wife’s car. They had arrived at a party separately and switched cars to go home — ironically, perhaps because Kovacs wanted his wife to be driving his much bigger car (a Rolls) in the rain. But whatever the reason, he was probably not familiar with how the car handled.
3. The severity of the accident indicates two things. One is that Kovacs was probably going too fast for the wet conditions. The other and more important point is that the Corvair, like just about every other unibody and X-frame car of the time, had essentially no side impact protection — and no seat belts. Kovacs died of skull fractures and a ruptured aorta when his head acted as a battering ram forcing the passenger door open. Similarly, the young man who was killed when a teenaged Laura Bush ran a stop sign in 1963 was driving a Corvair. He was T-boned by the much heavier Impala driven by the future Mrs. Bush, with predictable results. In her autobiography, Mrs. Bush insinuates that the young man died because his Corvair was an unsafe car. However, it was not any handling issue that killed him; it was the lack of resistance to a side impact. The ’63 Impala that Laura Bush was driving had the same side impact vulnerability due in part to the overall lack of design attention to this issue across the board at the time, and in part to the X-frame used by Chevy from 1958 to ’64.
It is curious to me why the author of this article didn’t reply to your comments about Kovacs and the use of that picture. The guy was drunk and not paying attention evidently so who’s to say he didn’t deserve what happened. Find another picture !
Looking at that lead photo… as much as I love classics, it’s sobering to be reminded how many of those cars simply folded up in an accident. Had Kovacs been driving the most basic $10K Hyundai today, he would have likely walked away with a bruise or two–if he’d crashed at all.
Makes one grateful for the sort of progress you can usually take for granted, right up until you can’t.
An excellent discussion of this aspect of the Corvair. I read Unsafe At Any Speed back in the 1970s and had forgotten most of the details. This piece freshens me up on the car’s unique suspension and handling issues.
I once knew a mechanical engineer who told me that there is no such thing as a correct answer in engineering, everything is about tradeoffs between costs, design life, capabilities, ease of service, and a bazillion other parameters. Every time I see a Corvair up close, I am struck by how low it is. Now I better understand the tradeoffs made to get it there.
JP’s last statement is correct more than anyone in the program management field cares to admit. You establish a reasonable schedule at the onset of the program and that includes design, prototype, testing, and production planning. Part of the schedule effort is a risk assessment and mitigation plan to ensure that when things go wrong, there are reasonable alternatives at hand. When things don’t go to the original plan, and they rarely do, production planning ends up being the big dog. Too much money in fixtures, tooling, real estate, and manpower to be sitting idle when the product isn’t production ready. Then the real pressure begins and dumb decisions are often made.
I would go further by stating that all designs, by definition, are compromises. Formula One cars make terrible grocery getters, but your family car will never win a Formula One race. A Swiss Army knife (or Leatherman) can do a variety of tasks, but none of them well.
This wouldn’t have been a DS if GM’s idiot management didn’t decide to go cost-cutting worse than British Leyland!
I have first hand experience of another Corvair quirk, the heater. The inefficient engine sealing sometimes caused oil to drip into the heater boxes, filling the passenger compartment with acrid smoke. On my daily commute I used to know exactly when, by location, to roll down the windows to ventilate the blue smoke that was about to billow out of the heater. (1964 Spyder convert). I seem to recall that the heater boxes covered both the block and headers so that a gasket leak would vent carbon monoxide into the interior There were stories of unconscious drivers running off the road.
1960 Corvairs had a gas heater in the trunk- that makes it a bad place to carry a can of spare gas. There was also a special windshield washer fluid for them that would not burn.
VeeDubs and Vairs weren’t the only cars with worthless heaters/defrosters. My friend used votive candles in his Jag XK 120 to keep the windscreen clear.
Ed Cole was an engineering’s blunderer: chevy vega, corvair were too complex and expensive to produce for popular cars. For instance, corvair, with an bigger displacement than a beetle’s volkswagen, was to be featured with an aluminium engine whereas the beetle, more little, was equipped with a cheaper cast-iron engine. Futhermore, Ed Cole focused on small aircooled rear engine cars and didn’t take a chance to FWD configuration during early Maurice Olley’s studies. About the Cadet’s Chevy, I found on the “http://www.moaaad.org/catalog_cat1d.php?pageNum_RScategory1=23&totalRows_RScategory1=54&decade=1940s” a conceptual rendering with the”Microbe’s Maccuen”. these drawings present an compact car (its dimensions are similar to opel kadett) whose motor space doesn’t seem very great. Maybe, charles leroy maccuen, the charles kettering’s successor as , wanted to propose a FWD small cars for Cadet project.
Don’t be so quick to dismiss Ed Cole, he was a car enthusiast’s engineer.
The Beetle had a magnesium block engine I believe.
Thanks for the read Paul. I’ve always been very intrigued by the Corvair. I’ve never gotten to even ride in one but hope to someday.
In regard to Ed Cole, I wonder if the Corvair’s Deadly Sin status is not so with any engineering failure as it is with the Corvette. Remember, Cole was the guy who believed in the Corvette, keeping it in production even after the dismal ’53-’55 six-cylinder cars.
Being as he stuck with the Corvette, nurturing it until it was a success, did Cole figure he could do the same with the Corvair? The problem with the Corvair was it had the potential to not only be Chevrolet’s VW Beetle, but Chevrolet’s Porsche if the handling was improved, which undoubtedly could not be acceptable with the Corvette in the line-up.
So, was GM’s logic in not fixing the Corvair’s rear suspension from the start not so much one of economics, but that of marketing, making the Corvair doomed simply by the Corvette’s existance?
A lot of good points mentioned here about not just the Corvair, but of many cars built back in the day.
A typical American car could not handle worth a hill a beans, unless equipped with the proper suspension ordered, but most people didn’t know what that was, nor cared. Thus most typical cars of the day did fine, as long as you went straight, but if you tried to carve a twisty road at any speed, or even turned from one street to another in anything other than a crawl, you ran the risk of the front plowing forward. This was true up to more recent years as handling improved with rides that are not nearly as soft and squishy as they once were, which I think helps a great deal.
That and improvements in tire technologies, such as tubeless tires, the radial tire etc helped there as well.
But I will agree that it was not an uncommon occurrence to see a Detroit car with the barest of safety equipment in it and design compromises that compromised all but style for the sake of any modicum of safety.
These days, even a “modest” FWD car can out handle just about anything made back in the day, and do it without breaking a sweat, even with the Gov’t Nannies disabled. That said, even back then, I would wager that even a FWD car could not handle like their contemporaries today can, but I would expect them to handle better than many cars of the day though, especially those of the rear engine/wheel variety, or the conventional front engine, RWD layout, thanks to the types of suspensions used with a typical FWD car back then, Vs what the other layouts often used.
As to the Corvair, it was a handsome car, in both 2 and four door variants, the wagon too for that matter. It looked like a more expensive car than it actually was in my estimation, and even in its more plain jane guises, it was still a handsome vehicle. Something that you can’t always say about the base variants of most cars, even those built today.
I have always wondered if we, the buyer over the years were told we think we wanted in a car by the automakers and willingly went along, that is, until something like the Corvair came along and changed the game, making it a car that if you didn’t respect its limits, it was deadly, if you did, it was OK, but did so with that soft cushy ride at the heart of its suspension design, which as we all know, helped make it more unsafe initially than it was once the rear suspension was completely redesigned for ’65.
A good article there Paul in taking a long, hard look at the Corvair and its vices, but without damning the car all together.
Having owned and driven cars that were built in the ’50s and ’60s, I can say that even the most impecunious (ie, me) learned that the cheapest way to affect a car’s handling was by dicking with tire pressures. My uncle was a tire dealer and I asked him (in the bias ply days) how much tire pressure I could safely run. He said 40 psi. So I ran 36 front and 40 rear in my ’57 Chevy. I could actually get the bitch to oversteer. Steering precison (manual) was greatly improved. My ’64 Monza was a revelation to me, but my roommate’s ’65 plain Jane 4-dr was even better. What a great car! I couldn’t wait until I got out of school and had enough money to buy a car with disc brakes, radial tires and four wheel independent suspension. Also, light weight. No Detroit fatties for me.
See Kevin, that’s my biggest issues with tire pressure – ‘MIBbies’
What is a MIBby?
(M)ore (I)s (B)etter. MIB!
I studied extensively the cold tire pressures specified for cars during the domestic bias-ply era, generally accepted to extend into the early 1970s, or roughly fifty years as I type this.
And most passenger cars(sedans, coupes, wagons) typically specified/recommended pressures between 24-28psi.
So with all respect due your uncle, I feel he was unintentionally doing you a disservice telling you to keep 40psi in the tires of that 1957 Chevy.
That would be akin to running the radial tires in a 2017 Malibu at 45-50psi! I believe spec on that year was 33-35.
This ‘MIBby’ism (more is better-ism) continues today, and I feel has resulted in the following distribution of tire pressures in the typical supermarket parking lot:
Under-inflated: 40percent of all cars
Inflated at or close to spec: 20percent! (including your’s truly)
God bless the USA!
(when it comes to drivers knowing anything about tire pressure!)
In the “good old days” it was “bad luck” to even talk about car accidents. And their solution was to ‘drive slow’. Which was why so many older drivers in the 60s/70s/80s, who learned to drive before Interstates, drove 45 mph tops.
Today’s 70ish elders mostly keep up with traffic, since they came of age when 70 mph was common.
It is interesting to look at the Corvair suspension in comparison to the Hillman Imp, which had swing axles on the front and semi-trailing arms on the rear. It was designed with positive camber on the front and lower tire pressures to reduce front-end grip and mitigate against oversteer, although an error regarding side (or parking) light height meant the early cars were raised which led to the comical ‘knock-kneed’ ~3 degree positive camber setting. The weight distribution is approx 60% rear.
I have experienced the swing-axle jacking effect, when the tyre keeps gripping rather than sliding and instead lifts the body of the car, pivoting around the outside shoulder of the tread. When the wheel tilts most of the tread face is lifted off the road, which gives you the sudden lack of grip. In the case of the Imp, it is the front that lifts – it is like driving up a ramp in a multi-storey parking garage. I had it happen during a slalom run on a skidpan, and easing the steering angle slightly was enough to bring it back down again and continue the run.
On the wet skidpan it was easy to get a lot of lift-off oversteer, there was no need for handbrake turns. At another event I experimented with a large amount of negative camber on the front and discovered why the car was set up with less front-end grip, because the rear end would slide on most corners as it could not keep up with the front. I would turn into the corner and immediately have to apply opposite lock to catch the slide, I think at the same time the inside front wheel was off the ground so it probably looked spectacular.
Hello Paul Neidermeyer,
I see that your blog posting has a photo of a white 1962 Corvair doing laps on a race track in the rain. (Corvair-curve.jpg). The photo was copied from the Northeast Corvair Council (NECC) website photo galleries.
I am familiar with the photo because I am the NECC webmaster. That particular ’62 Corvair was participating in the 2004 NECC time trials at the Pittsburgh International Race Complex, formerly known as BeaveRun. One car crashed at that event, and it wasn’t a Corvair. It was a brand-new front-wheel drive Pontiac Sunfire.
NECC has been running time trials for Corvairs at Lime BeaveRun, Lime Rock, Mosport, Pocono, Putnam Park, and Summit Point every year since 1973. We haven’t flipped one yet.
This year, in 2013, NECC will be running three consecutive days of high performance driving events for Corvairs: time trials at Virginia International Raceway, drag racing at Roanoke Dragway, and autocross at Danville Airport. We’ll be posting more information about these events on the NECC website in a few days.
To read this blog, one would suspect that the Corvair was a dismal, deadly failure, but it must be remembered that the Corvair was designed in the mid 1950s, before the Interstate Highway system was built, and back when 50 miles per hour was considered high-speed driving in most parts of the country. Chevrolet built and sold 1,835,000 Corvairs from October 1959 through May 1969.
Back in their day, Corvairs were popular cars, and a number of us still have fun driving them. Al Lacki
Thanks for your comment. Please note that I am a Corvair enthusiast, my first car ever being a ’63 Monza four-speed: https://www.curbsideclassic.com/auto-biography/auto-biography-part-13-the-tilt-a-vair/
I have written numerous articles here on the Corvair, including this very popular one: https://www.curbsideclassic.com/automotive-histories/automotive-history-how-the-1960-corvair-started-a-global-design-revolution/
If you do a search here using “Corvair” you’ll find a raft of other Corvair articles.
I wrote this piece not to denigrate the Corvair, but simply to point out the thinking behind the conception of the Corvair, its intrinsic challenges, and the mistakes GM made by shortchanging the Corvair’s final specs.
I hope that helps put it in perspective.
Parents bought a 60 Corvair Coupe. They loved it. It lasted until 1964 when a Coupe Deville ran a red light on CA 99 in Merced, CA. The Cadillac hit us from the side, and deflected us directly into a traffic light standard. That traffic light was not a break-away design and made a nice deep, vertical impression, nearly dead center of the front end of the Corvair.
We were rushed to the hospital. My mom, in the passenger seat with my 3 year old brother on her lap, received the worst injuries, a cracked rib. By brother (on my mom’s lap) had no apparent injuries. My dad (driver) next with a bruised chest and mild concussion from hitting the windshield. I was sitting in the middle of the front bench seat leaning forward with my head on the steel dash. I got a bloody nose. My older brother and his girlfriend in the back seat ended up with bruised shins.
But… My favorite part of the story, besides everyone surviving…
They towed the Cadillac off because its radiator had leaked out all of its coolant. However, the next day, after they pried the front bumper away from restricting front passenger wheel, we drove the Corvair 200 miles or so back home with its newly customized, U shaped front end. The insurance ended up totaling the vehicle.
‘Til the day my mom passed (2010) she always had fond recollections of the Corvairs’ ease of driving. My father’s only regret was that it was a “small” car (by 1964 standards) and decided to get Impalas after the accident.
Personally, I don’t care for the Corvairs’ first generation body style (60-64), but the second gens style (65-69) is a timeless.
I believe the intent of the Corvair’s original mission was to combat the growing competition from the likes of the VW bug, but shortly after it’s introduction, people began to see it more as a small, sporty car, much more eager to take corners than other cars they had experienced driving before. In fact, it is believed that Ford’s Mustang was, in part, due to Ford recognizing that the Corvair Monza had attracted a whole new cay buying segment. Hence, the ponycar era. So, the Corvair may be the most misunderstood, misaligned, under-appreciated vehicle GM ever produced, for many reasons!
I have limited experience behind the wheel of a Corvair, having driven both a ’64 Monza 2 door and 4 door (both 4 speeds) back in 1991. The 2 door seemed to handle better than the 4 door, but that may just have been due to worn 0suspension parts on the 4 door. Having been a Studebaker Lark fan for years and having driven every old car I could, I then believed that the Corvair was the most modern feeling (driving) antique car I had driven. That claim was surpased a few years later after I drove a ’72 BMW 2800cs. Driving the Corvair after years of driving a 1963 Lark was like driving a dream. Although the Studebaker’s frame and suspension was dated to the early 1950s and felt it, just driving a Studebaker at reasonably low speeds on a warm dry day, you quickly realize a few things. The car was meant for cruising at 55 mph on a nice straight highway. Turns and curves demand brake pressure – period! These cars feel like they have a high center of gravity, if not downright top heavy, so you know slaming it on a curvy road during a rain will not take you to a happy place! So, the Studebaker, on many levels, may be “unsafe”, however, the driving experience is honest, try a few quick manuvers and the car reacts just the way you think it would; slam on the power drum brakes at 45 mph and the brakes lock and skid before coming to a stop. Slam into a curve and feel the bodyroll and hear the tire scream. Not ideal, but honest and typical behavior of medium and large american cars of the early 1960s.
The Corvairs were different, the steering is light and the body is low. It doesn’t take very long to let your guard down and enjoy the ride with confidence because the car feels safe, and feels like it grabbing the rode. Only the brakes remind you that your not driving something newer, they are four drums, just like the Studebaker, but they don’t lock as quickly because the car is lighter and the body doesn’t roll, so you feel more in control than in the bigger cars. So, I imagine this feeling of security and control got alot of people into trouble back in the day.
Maybe Ed Cole knew the car wasn’t safe and didn’t care, but I would rather prefer to think that he got carried away on his pet project and just wanted to see it go into production and either lost sight of the (safety) details or was willing to give them up to the “bean counters” to see the car into production. I not defending either, but it is a reality of business. Lets face it, a 1960 Nova instead of the Corvair would have been better, cheaper competition for the Falcon, Lark, Rambler, and Valiant but, just as many have blamed the Avanti for the demise of Studebaker, look how boring it would have been if these companies had not been willing to gamble on something totally different. Clearly, Cole realized that smaller version of a large car with traditional front engine, rear drive would have been cheaper to produce, but his interest in aircooled engines and rear drive, had him push the project into production. I’m glad he did and my only regret is not buying that ’64 coupe back in 1991!
If you are interested in the design philosophy of the original Corvair, try to get a copy of “Case of the Methodical Men”, a promotional movie made by GM for the introduction of the car. It isn’t available on Youtube, as yet. But maybe soon.
My interest in the Corvair is less about the car itself, than the reaction of GM to the allegations in “Unsafe At Any Speed”.
The Corvair was undoubtably a flawed car, but honestly not much worst than most on the road at the time. However, when the book came out GM took on a dirty tricks campaign against Nader that in many ways foreshadowed the Watergate scandal that torpedoed Nixon in the seventies.
Phone tapping, spying, digging the dirt, a whispering campaign ( Hey, Nader’s homosexual, visits hookers, is a communist)….these might have discredited him if they hadn’t blown their cover.
It all started to look like GM had a lot to hide, and that ‘Big Business’ was after the heroic ‘Little Guy’ for a lot of people. It stopped being about the car and became about corporate ethics. As a case study for handling a company crisis it pretty much is a list of what not to do!
1. Don’t fix the fault- the compensator bar could have been quickly and easily fitted at any time in the first generation production cycle.
2. Don’t address the allegations directly and ethically- an ad campaign targeting the allegations about the handling or calling on Nader to prove them would have looked defensive, but spying and wiretapping look much worse.
3. Don’t swallow your pride- the most important one! There are times when you just have to back down in life, because what ever you do you won’t win. All you can do is salvage a bit of your good name. This is a case where if GM had quietly stepped back, let the Corvair die a natural death as a forgotten embarrassment and quietly compensated litigants, then this would have quietly blown over. However they ended up making Nader look good with their ridiculous smear campaign ….
The Deadly Sin here is not the Corvair. It was the insane reaction to Nader and his book by General Motors.
MY GRADUATION PRESENT IN JUNE 1963 WAS A CORVAIR 900 MONZA CONVERTABLE WITH A 4 SPEED…..ON DECEMBER 31, 1963, AS I WENT AROUND A CORNER THE REAR END CAME AROUND ONLY TO BOUNCE OFF A PARKED CAR AND THEN HIT A ONCOMING CAR.. 1500 DOLLARS DAMAGE REPAIRED…NEXT YEAR DURING A RAINSTORM WHILE GOING AROUND A CORNER ON A COUNTRY ROAD, I SPUN AROUND AND ENDED UP IN A CORNFIELD…..DURING ONE WINTER, THE GAS PEDAL STUCK DOWN DUE TO SALT CORROSION UNDER THE FLOOR MAT AS RUST ON THE MOVING MECHANISM PREVENTED THE GAS PEDAL TO RETURN TO NORMAL……TODAY I OWN TWO CORVAIRS AND THEY ARE THE MOST FUN, BEST LOOKING CARS EVER…..EVEN THO I HAVE TO DRIVE WITH THE WINDOWS OPEN UNTILL I REPLACE THE LEAKING PUSH ROD TUBE SEALS– THE CABIN FILLING UP WITH EXHAUST FUMES….
Push rod tubes don’t carry exhaust gases, just oil. To have exhaust gases your exhaust manifolds would have to be loose and if that’s the case you would hear a lot of extra noise and the car would not run as well–hey big signal to you to fix it! As far as the oil leak problem with pushrod tubes that was an issue in the 60s because the O-ring technology sucked. New Viton O-rings have solved the oil leak issue.
Guess I was a guinea pig! Wonder if my parents were trying get rid of me!
The day I got my license, Dad gave me a Renault Dauphine. I promptly rolled it three times the next day. Three of us survived without a scratch. Then when I got my license reinstated six months later, he got me a Corvair Monza convertible. That one I survived through high school. Who knows how? :)) Just lucky I guess.
It wasn’t luck. Your assumption about the car being more dangerous than it was is INACCURATE.
It’s unforgivable that Chevrolet didn’t change the rear-end suspension until 1965. While it wouldn’t have changed the rear end bias any, wouldn’t it have made the car easier to handle, made it more forgiving in handling?
Jason, in fact Chevrolet did change the rear-end before 1965. For model year 1964 a front stabilizer bar was made standard and a single transverse leaf spring was fitted at the rear. The springs and shocks were also changed all around to work in conjunction with the new stabilizer bar and rear transverse leaf spring. Even before that, the rear shocks had been recalibrated more than once to allow less positive camber when fully extended, most dramatically on the 1963 model year Corvairs. The earlier rear shock absorber changes were not publicized and so, not covered in the enthusiast press but the 1964 modifications were positively received by the motoring press and the results in road tests were favorably compared to the handling characteristics of late ’50s Porsches. And then, of course, there was RPO 696, the optional heavy duty handling package available beginning model year 1962 with front stabilizer bar, shorter, stiffer springs and shocks all around and rear rebound straps.
Interesting reading. I read every post and find myself still suffering from the screen name I have used here. Recently I have had a 62 Corvair Turbo Spyder come into my life as a yet another responsibility. Garaged for 33 years I have nearly brought this little car back from the dead. Soon I’ll have to drive it home. The stories above are both shocking and intriguing. I’m not sure what to do with this little car. I was going to continue my restoration project past the drive home from where it has sat untouched for all these years. Now I’m not sure where to head with my project. Any thoughts?
The Spyder had the “sports suspension” with lowered ride height, anti-sway bar, and limiter straps on the rear wheels to minimize the chance of “jacking”. Thes changes made the Corvair much less likely to experience extreme oversteer and ‘jacking”. All Corvairs should have come with his suspension form the beginning.
If your Corvair’s suspension is in good shape, (and you could add an anti-camber spring in the back), don’t worry about it and enjoy it. It’s no less safe than other cars of that time. Respect the limits of the car, and have fun!
Are you suggesting that ALL Spyders came with the heavy-duty handling package? This is not true. Initially, when the Spyder option was introduced in Spring of ’62, the heavy-duty handling option was packaged with the Spyder option but they were soon decoupled in an effort by Chevy to lower the cost of the Spyder package. In other words if you wanted the heavy-duty handling package, R.P.O. 696 (shorter, stiffer springs; stiffer shocks; front anti-roll bar and rear rebound straps) you had to order it separately. BTW, the rebound straps were eliminated from the heavy-duty handling package in model year 1963. Whether that entire package should have been standard on all Corvairs from the get-go is debatable. It was said to render a rather harsh ride that was not the preference of American motorists in those days. Perhaps the front stabilizer bar with the rear rebound straps would have been advisable for all Corvairs but the stiffer, shorter springs and stiffer shocks were deemed too extreme for the American ride quality standards of the day.
I made that assumption, erroneously, apparently. I’ll take your word for it, but that’s almost shocking, that GM would do that to the Spyder, which was obviously geared to the performance-oriented driver to save how much? A couple of bucks at their actual cost? Jeez; that’s almost another GM Deadly Sin right there! 🙂
Dear Corvairy Confused, If you are afraid that your 62 Corvair Spyder will go out of control or gas you out, relax. It’s very unlikely that you will get yourself in trouble.
Join a local Corvair club or check out the several Corvair message boards on the internet. You’ll get plenty of support on how to maintain your Corvair, including tips for maintaining all components including the suspension and direct air heater. Probably the best one is http://www.corvaircenter.com/, but there are several others.
Also, the Corvair Society of America has published a series of Tech Guides which are chock full of information for maintaining your Corvair. http://www.corvair.org
And if you think you’ll flip your Corvair, then check out the Northeast Corvair Council (NECC) website, where you will see photos of plenty of Corvairs on the track. The NECC website address is http://www.neccmotorsports.com
If you are still concerned, then sell your ’62 Corvair Spyder to a real Corvair enthusiast who will appreciate it.
Thank you for your help. The idea of driving this auto home makes me uneasy. For many reasons. I drove home its garaged neighbor, a 65 Impala in March and it overheated. I made it but not an enjoyable trip. Although, towing the Corvair seems boring. I’d rather take the risk I guess. Thanks again.
If your concern in driving the car is the safety of its handling, here’s all you need to do: Make sure the tires are safe (decent tread, not out of date, etc.) and inflate the front tires to 10 fewer p.s.i. than the rear (e.g. if radials, you’ll probably inflate the rears to 32 p.s.i. In that example, inflate the fronts to 22 p.s.i.). If you’re unfamiliar with the route you’re going to take, exit ramps, etc. pay attention to those yellow signs that tell you the safe speed at which to take a turn, exit, etc. Obey the sign like everyone should! You’ll be fine and soon you’ll trust and love your car.
Thanks for all the comments. I know I have some straps underneath the rear and questioned those to my mechanic. He said they were stock so I may have the additional components that will help to ensure a safe 125 mile drive home. This car has quite a lot of money poured into it to get it up and running. Although it is, for lack of a better word, enchanting. I just hope it makes it home. I could tow it and still might but that wouldn’t be what a true enthusiast would do now would it? Wish me luck. Thursday we ride.
Didn’t make the intended drive home this last Thursday. Could not locate Shoes, drums, wheel cylinders or a spring kit for the brake system. Still looking. I did notice the straps that attach to the springs that help prevent “jacking” are both torn. Where do you find an anti camber spring or any of these parts?
Cute car though. It is not even like a car its so cute. Got to get it going. Engine work came out great and it runs great. Just need these brakes now.
I’ve never owned or driven an early Corvair, but I did get to drive an early 60s VW Beetle. While its handling is different from that of a front engine car, I don’t believe that it’s dangerous. I’ve known plenty of people who have driven rear engine rear-wheel drive VWs, both Beetles and Buses. They’ve never had an accident while driving either.
I’ve learned over the years that a car is only as safe as the driver. If an accident does occur, it’s more the driver’s fault. He’s either suicidal, homicidal, drunk, or simply stupid. Ernie Kovacs was drunk when he drove his Corvair way too fast and crashed.
The first time I saw a VW beetle roll over I was both surprised and impressed three cars in line a Austin A40 Farina VW and us in a Landrover hard left then a hard right on gravel and suddenly the Beetle was on its side beside the road having rolled one and a half times luckily only at about 40mph we stopped and helped the three occupants out none were seriously hurt and helped them right their car then towed it through the roadside ditch and out onto the road again, the car wasnt even badly damaged thats what impressed me, Later I owned a Triumph Herald which is the sedan version of the Spitfire with terrible rear jacking behaviour on hard turns, mine had bad shocks which didnt help, but I never managed to roll it.
I reckon that could happen if you deliberately took a turn at a faster speed than what the vehicle was designed to do.
I never noticed any handling issues with my 1303 beetle. But I guess that doesn’t mean they weren’t there.
the main problems were with the seatbelts and the gear knob vibrating loose.
In high school I ended up with a 1960 Corvair after not being able to score my dream ’55 Chevy. Been driving one since. I keep the tire pressure 24 in front and 35 in the rear cold. An old neighbor told me to take the curves like any other car but to not steer around the curve…and if you feel like you’re in trouble, hit the gas and accelerate out of the curve. Lot’s of frustrating things about the car but it hasn’t let me down in 20 years.
I wonder why this article was about the 1960-63 Corvair – wasn’t the ’64 model part of the same generation? It’s my understanding the ’65-’69 models were the second gen.
I think the double-jointed IRS replaced swing axles a year ahead of the new styling.
From the article:
DeLorean says that after Bunkie Knudsen took over at Chevrolet in 1961, he was so concerned about the Corvair’s handling issues that he demanded that the camber-compenstor be made standard. The roughly $15 cost to make and install it was deemed too expensive by the “Fourteenth Floor”, and he was turned down. Eventually he gave the top brass an ultimatum: either he would be allowed to improve the Corvair’s suspension, or he would very publicly resign from GM over it. They relented, and that led to the camber compensating spring in 1964, and the complete redesign of the rear suspension for 1965, which essentially eliminated the issues altogether.
The camber compensating spring added to the swing axles for 1964 essentially prevented excessive jacking (tuck under) of the rear wheels. The new double-jointed rear suspension for 1965 totally eliminated it.
As my screen name suggests I an vaguely familiar with gm swing axels the throttle jacking problem is also unnerving on shaft drive motorcycles compared to chain or belt drive models thanks Norm
OUTSTANDING writing here, Paul. You take the official facts, distill them into the most exciting synopsis, and add your own theories. I agree that, given the proper foresight into what was coming around the bend with the Mustang, that the Corvair could have really been the car that had the Mustang became, had it been a tad more conventional. It seems to be the link between the Corvette and the Mustang. At the time, Ford told Iacocca that the Mustang had to be practical, which bore the inclusion of the four seats, instead of just having two. But it’s interesting to note that many people in the industry felt that Ford may have another Edsel on their hands with the Mustang.
In your writings, with the influence of the Corvair on Euro design, perhaps the styling (which is still incredibly striking to this day) was just too European, as you mention. American car buyers always seem to want the flair and the it factor of European design, but filtered through something that they can understand in traditional American sense. Turbocharging the Corvair was an incredible foresight, as is trying to stick with a smaller displacement engine that made for a fun, fairly quick ride with good gas economy (Europeans have always seemed to traditionally do better with smaller engine designs). But turbocharging was something that when it broke down, mechanics generally didn’t know how to fix it and it would essentially be a foreign concept. Plus, you wonder how many mechanics saw the engine and either didn’t know how to work on it, or would just automatically charge a higher price to fix it because they viewed it as a hassle.
The Mustang had the advantage of having its base car have an inline six–which was maligned at the time (and to this day to a certain extent), but it was reliable, road tested in the Falcon, and super easy to work on because mechanics were well versed with it. Same thing with the Corvette in 1953……sure it had an anemic Blue Flame six, but seeing as that it was from Chevy’s parts bin already, the know-how and knowledge to repair them was there.
Ideally, i’d never tell a car company to tone down their ingenuity, but between DeLorean, Knudsen and everyone else at GM that told Ed Cole that it was a bad idea, you have to wonder what it would have taken Cole to actually listen to some advice. Surely, there could have been some compromise. The Corvair was definetely one of GM’s deadliest sins, because the fact that GM had tested the cars and found the same problems that ended up injuring and killing people–and still went ahead with it–is a tremendously bad idea.
I enjoyed reading his (again), Paul–a nice synthesis of the known backstory with your wide-vision take on things in hindsight.
The end of production (May ’69) before the end of the model year–and the offering of a discount voucher to purchasers of that handful of ’69 Corvairs–brings to mind the 1960 Edsel (though killed off much earlier in its model year); and GM’s coupon seems like kind of an admission of failure. Are there any other cars that got their plug pulled “early” like that (with a corresponding financial incentive from the maker)?
So many interesting viewpoints! How many other cars inspire such passion in the commentariat?
I didn’t realize Bunkie Knudsen forced the “14th Floor” to relent and spend $15 per car (that’s about $100 in today’s money) to improve the rear suspension on the 1964s.
I’ve never driven a Corvair, but hope to one day. I was lucky to have the chance to drive a 68 Beetle two years ago.
GM, indeed most automakers, domestic as well as foreign, did take shortcuts, like undersized tires, drum brakes, flimsy construction, 2-speed automatics, sub-par cooling systems, no rust-proofing, and more. It’s easy to say, “if only they spent a few dollars more”. A few here, a few there, it adds up.
IMO, during the 1960s thru the early 1970s, the only “honest” cars that did not take short cuts were Mercedes and Volvo. And their prices reflected that fact–you paid more for “less”. Less room, less power, and less “bling” (in the form of power assists and creature comforts). How many people would, could, be willing to pay for cars like that from the big three, or VW, or Toyota? Not many. And when the dollar dropped in the early 1970s, the prices of Benzes and Volvo skyrocketed in the US, yet their sales rose as their reputations pushed more Americans, though still a tiny sliver of the market, toward “quality” vs “quantity”.
Mercedes/Volvo handled well and drove competently.
Παν μετρον αριστον. All good things in moderation. These were moderately sized cars that did everything important well—they were that era’s excellent cars. They were not affordable for most.
Thanks to the Corvair, and Ralph Nader, and the Federal Govt, today any car sold in the US drives compentently and is reasonably well constructed. But those of us who like simpler cars have to eat the cost of all the excess weight and complexity required.
While I’ve always liked the styling of the first generation Corvair lineup, and it’s a shame that Chevrolet wanted to discontinue it when they did, I like the second generation “Improved” suspension, and I’ve never understood why Chevrolet never used the suspension set up on the first generation Corvair.
The one car that would have been an affordable “good car”—the anti-Corvair AND anti-Detroit ‘glitz’ could have been a…..
69 Plymouth Valiant with some changes:
Change the tires from rubber bands to FR70 on 15 inch rims. Due to the weight of the iron six, the bigger tires would require power steering standard.
Change the brakes for base drums to disk/drum or 4-wheel disc. Again, mass of car would dictate use of power brakes
Add a few bits and tweaks to make the body more crashworthy.
Replace the leaf springs with coils, a la GM, as a minimum (or put independent rear suspension)
Put stabilizer bars on both ends of car.
The boxy body had room for 5 or 6. The slant six was a good, torquey engine, worked will with the excellent torque-flite. OR, offer a smooth shifting 4 on the floor (vs the Detroit rock crunchers), with a smooth clutch
Spruce up the interior trim, rather than the base interior, which looked cheap in order to entice people to buy bigger cars with nicer interiors.
Chrysler could have manufactured this for considerably less, IMO, than a Mercedes 200 or Volvo 122/144 of that era.
But even so, it would cost more. Would if have sold?
I’ve always liked the 1967-72 Plymouth Valiant. I’m not being anti-Corvair. I just like the styling over the later model Corvair. I would’ve gone for the 3.7 litre slant six engine, disc brakes, and LSD rear differential, Torqueflite automatic transmission.
This piece is as fair and balanced an article on the Corvair as I have ever read. The genesis of the Corvair Deadly Sin is when Ed Cole imperiously insisted on a radically new rear engine car as GM’s entry into the compact market. When it wound up being more expensive to build that the conventional Falcon, costs had to be trimmed and GM management wouldn’t even approve a $15 spring that would have put the handling issue to rest. The result was a flawed car not really suitable for the average American driver. It didn’t achieve its original goal of competing with other compacts and when it later shifted its focus to a sporty car, was blown away by the Mustang. Add in the hiring of detectives to dig up dirt on Nader, the congressional hearings, etc. and the fiasco was completed.
I put this Deadly Sin square on the shoulders of Ed Cole. In his hubris he plowed ahead with a pet, flawed project, steamrolling more prudent types who dared question its feasibility, cost and implementation. Cole was in many aspects an automotive genius, but history has shown that brilliant men are not infallible, something Robert McNamara, Cole’s equally brilliant colleague over at Ford, would soon learn as he grappled with managing the Vietnam war.
Yeah, GM’s Deadly Sin was not so much with the Corvair, but the man behind it. Not only did the Corvair not meet expectations and get killed in the marketplace, not once (Falcon), but twice (Mustang) by a couple of much more cheaply built (and more profitable) Fords, it really altered who GM put in charge.
For decades after Cole, the men at the helm of GM weren’t visionaries (at least in a positive sense) but bland, conservative, finance guys, indirectly leading to some of the worst cars ever produced by the domestic auto industry (and allowed the Japanese to get a foothold in the market). And that’s why there’s a valid argument for the Corvair being the biggest GM Deadly Sin of them all.
That’s for damn sure. The last time GM did anything remotely interesting was the Corvair. It may have had faults that should’ve been dealt with, it was something different and interesting.
I suppose that one has to wonder how much more time and money were needed for R&D for innovative cars like this. I think that the Pontiac Fiero was much along the same lines…..economy minded sporty car (as opposed to a big brute with a V8), with an engine that deviates from the traditional front mounted setup. I’m not the foremost Fiero expert, but with the parts bin sharing, quality control issues/ gremlins and some crash issues and being underpowered, the Fiero suffered a miserable fate, as well……and just as it was getting good, just like the Corvair. I’d imagine that the Corvair would have done much better if they had a V8 option from the beginning.
Same thing with the Pacer–originally, it was supposed to have a rotary engine, but that fell through, so AMC was left really with their only practical option being a much underpowered V6 for the heavy (for its class) Pacer. Same thing–sold well at the beginning, but sales declined drastically as its legend got out. The only new, off the lot car that my parents had bought was a 1976 Pacer, and it was the worst quality of a car that they’d ever owned. Things were always breaking down on it.
The rule really becomes that no matter how revolutionary the vehicle is, it’s only as good as its quality control. It’s always going to be a tough sell from there on in. But I suppose that there has to be the golden example of what not to do, so that others never follow in those footsteps again. It’s ultra ironic, then, that DeLorean turned down the Pontiac version of the Corvair, only to build the flawed (and way underpowered) DMC. His ideas were great, but again, the cost to implement something to its full fruition will always cost more than you bargained for. If I were a vehicle builder looking to do something revolutionary, I’d have to have the money to lose a ton of cash for the first few years of said revolutionary car’s existence. Even then, there’s no guarantee that the sales and cost recouping would ever materialize.
I forgot the Pontiac Fiero. Thanks for reminding me. I remember when it premiered. I was more than impressed with its styling and engineering. It’s a shame that it was discontinued when it was. It would’ve given the Toyota MR2, another Mid engined, rear-wheel drive sports car, a run for its money. It had its problems, but had it been fixed before it was released to the public, I believe it would still be offered today.
I thought the AMC Pacer was powered by a straight six engine, not a V6.
No prob! I may be in the minority, but I think that the Fiero is an incredible concept that could have evolved into something truly outstanding, had it been given more time and a better selection of its own engines instead of parts bin sharing and having to cut costs to make a niche car into a decent selling vehicle. The regretful thing about each of GM’s divisions losing their own engine choices in the early 80’s, is that some of the individual brands lost what made them unique, only to be homogenized by the corporate fist.
One of my two cars is a ’91 Thunderbird Super Coupe–which I feel is an incredibly underrated car–luxury, comfort, sportiness, power, aerodynamics (.31 drag coefficient), handling, suspension (IRS, electronic adjustable factory Tokico shocks), fuel economy (17.5 to 18 mpg in regular traffic) limited slip with 3.27’s…..everything. Those cars are a couple of bolt-ons and pulley swaps away from well over 300 ft lbs of torque at the rear wheels. If nobody else writes a CC entry on why those cars are as great as it is, then I will have to do it. 🙂 Ford lost money on it, and after it won the car of the year award from Motor Trend, Ford didn’t promote the guy who designed it–they fired him (or he stepped down). It ended up weighing more and costing more than they wanted it to.
Innnovation is a bitch.
I know. Good ideas, but not very good execution. Kind of like the Corvair. I like the rear-engine design of the Vair, and the swing axle would’ve worked, had stabilizers and other things been done to make it safer to drive. While I like the boxer engine, I would’ve offered a water-cooled engine, rather than the air-cooled boxer engine that was used.
When the Corvair came out, Dad was agin’ it because of where the engine was, and not for handling’s sake. He was also anti-VW, believing you were safer with an engine between you and the thing you might crash into.
I totally agree. That’s like saying that people of the 1950s didn’t care about their own safety. I refuse to believe that that’s true. One would have to be suicidal, or homicidal, to not be concerned about one’s safety. I’m certain that 90% of the car drivers and vehicle operators did care for their own safety and for others’ safety.
I was always confused by the Corvair. They wanted a compact car, but with room for six people. The ads talk about its superior off road traction, but it was low to the ground. Millions were spent designing unique motors, suspensions, heaters and bodies, but 4 dollar sway bars are too expensive. It seems the Corvair and GM were always running at cross purposes. I always thought the rampside pickup was really a clever idea.
What’s always bothered me is how a $million corporation, a business that has buco bucks, can’t afford to install such simple safety features that would ultimately make a car easier and safer to drive.
In the Summer of 1966,I purchased my first car, a baby blue 1960 Corvair coupe, for $15. The previous owner had warned me not to attempt to drive the vehicle at any speed greater than 25 mph and not to turn on the heater without having the windows open. I was to learn why later. One unique feature I noted as soon as I opened the driver’s side door was a 12″ x 16″ piece of 1/8″ sheet metal which was covering a hole in the floor approximately the size of a shoe. Undeterred, I inserted the ignition key and turned it to engage the engine after giving two mandatory pumps to the gas pedal. Unfortunately the result was a series of moans, high pitched squeals and finally a series of backfires accompanied by black smoke once I got the key to the off position. Having no formal or informal training in auto mechanics, I did what every young man in similar circumstances-I got out and lifted the hood which in this circumstance was the trunk and began to search for the source of the problem. As if inspired by some revelation from on High I remembered that this vehicle had a manual choke but when I attempted to move it found it was stuck- so it was back to the trunk. Fortunately, the car had been parked in a brickyard so I had plenty of ‘tools’ available to perform the needed repair so that after a couple of generous swats at the cable it was freed. Climbing back into the cockpit and pumping the gas a couple more times the engine came to life albeit with a bit of smoke. Next I sped off proudly into traffic not exceeding the recommended 25 mph which was not difficult to do in urban traffic. I then found that the two of the car’s most vital features functioned properly- the brakes although they screeched rather loudly and most importantly the AM radio which I learned later had been a $54 option.
Much has been said about the car’s handling characteristics but due to the speeds I went it was not a challenge and I have to admit that it served as a utilitarian means of transport during my Sophomore year at university as I carried myself and classmates around. As Winter approached my luck began to run out. First I decided to go beyond the 25 mph ceiling- tooling down an interstate at a speed of almost 50 mph. I heard a loud ‘thump’ and almost immediately all the warning lights took on a bright red glow and billows of black smoke issued forth from my rear end. I slowed down to 25 mph again but the lights stayed on and the smoke kept coming and I took the first available exit and pulling into a service station ( in those day they would actually provide service). The attendant pointed me to a bay and I switched off the motor and the smoke finally stopped. After waiting about fifteen minutes for things to cool down, the repairman opened the trunk. At that point I thought the whole engine was toast, instead I was informed that I had simply had the fan belt fall off and for $10 he would put in back in place and tighten it but recommended that given its unusual ninety degree design keeping under 30 mph would be a good idea. The second problem occurred during a cold spell and snowstorm. Even though I was able to remove snow from the front window with the wipers, it was almost completely fogged and non usable because I was fearful of turning on the heater/defroster thereby exposing myself to CO. Instead I drove with my head sticking out the window to see and when I finally stopped I was completely encrusted with ice and snow.
Not long after that event, the Corvair came to its final resting place, a main avenue in Cleveland after hitting a 3″ deep chuck hole which resulted in the two front wheels ‘falling off.’ I sold the ‘remains’ that lay in the road to one of the workmen who had created the rut for $45 but only after I removed the AM radio. I can’t really say that my Corvair experience was positive but have to admit it was memorable.
My mother was killed in a Corvair station wagon, about a year and half after this picture was taken. She had left work one night, took off from an intersection, lost control and hit a telephone pole and that’s all I know…
That’s tragic. I’m so sorry.
I have enjoyed, for the most part, all the differing opinions, some factual, some from hearsay or from memories good and bad. Fair enough and to each his own. For me, I was amazed at a very early age of this thing called a “Corvair”. Our next door neighbor had an early coupe. I was born in ’60, so I was an early model as well. But the engine is where? Way cool! My dad flew B-17’s in the war and then went on to fly DC-10s for National Airlines in Miami. I never got into flying, a chicken shit really when it comes to flying, so I suppose looking back, I somehow subconsciously extrapolated driving a Corvair was my attempt to stay in good graces with my memory of my old man. Regardless, I completely forgot about Corvair’s until many moons later, I happened to see one for sale in some guys parking lot whilst tooling on down the road. The guy selling the car was a douche, as he lied about the work done on the car and that it was a “Spyder”. A ’65 Spyder? I don’t think so. So I went on to find one elsewhere. And did. And then, the “bug” bit. So, now I have welts in the form of a ’60 700 sedan, had two, but sold one to Englands #1 classic car magazine “Practical Classics” top editor “Sam Glover”, (he loves the car by the way). Next, a ’62 Lakewood (wife’s), a ’64 Monza coupe, a”64 Fitch, then there’s the ’65 Corsa. A just scored ’66 Monza “Sport” Sedan and finally a ’62 Monza 900 coupe, all tagged and driving. Not to brag about the herd I have corralled , but only to offer that my experience with these cars has all been very good to darnn right great! No “tossed” fan belts, no rear wheels clicking it’s heels and not once have I spun the rear to front! That being said, it cannot be compared to todays cars in the realm of safety. No car of that era can as far as I’m concerned. Does the Corvair have issues? Sure! And so what. But if you respect and know it’s strengths and weaknesses, you’ll surely not have problems to the degree as some haters say. The car was revolutionary in many respects. But I will refrain from naming them as I have wondered way long on this here keyboard, enough for some of you to wake yourselves from snoring. My apologies. My point is, arguments at this point are in fact moot. To me anyway. Split hairs, or just offer a “crew cut” to the bugger. Revel or deride, it makes no difference to me. I own and drive them, quite often I might add. They’re fun and bring, 99% of the time, smiles and endless questions, musings and past memories of the folks who stop me or flag me down to bend my happy ear. I dig the car. Plain and simple. If mr. John Fitch dug ’em, well that’s pretty cool too. Thanks John. And thanks for listening.
By the way, I am sure there are plenty of miss appropriations of the English language, it’s spellings and compositions for all to see on this post…my apologies. I’m Tsalagi, English is still hard for me. Wa-do!
I know this is really about the Corvair, but also Nader. I remember reading his book in the mid/late 70s and thinking, this guy doesn’t know anything about cars. Not that Corvairs were perfect, but Ralph was a lawyer, not an engineer. I think his heart was in the right place, but he just didn’t know what he was talking about.
i have not had the time to actually read the full story. I glanced through and perused. What I have noticed is that the majority of the “design flaw” talk is about the handling of the car. I have seen very little written regarding the most deadly design flaw of this car. That being the gas tank in front and its explosive effects. Growing up fatherless due to this explosive effect, Ii wonder why this topic is not discussed as the major design flaw. Anyone care to comment.
Two reasons come to mind: the booby-trap handling was probably a much more frequent cause of Corvair crashes (…injuries, deaths…) than the gas tank, and fuel systems on all American-market cars were uncrashworthy (fire-prone) prior to the 1977 advent of Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 301.
One of Ford’s LP-record-plus-filmstrip creations for its salesmen here pointing up Falcon advantages vs Corvair: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShBoZt71pbs
And then there’s Chevy’s presentation taking the opposite side: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3UE5UOjpXA
Ford even brings up the unusual tire pressure thing (image below):