Media Watch: New York Times Writer Mangles The History Of GM’s Turbocharged Cars – 50% Right Isn’t Quite Good Enough

The NYT is on my daily reading list, but not for car-related stories, although their industry coverage by Neil Boudette is usually of a high caliber. I couldn’t help noticing this article on the front page the other day: “How GM’s First Turbo Engines Crashed and Burned”.  Really? Sure, the Olds Jetfire was a bomb, but the Corvair Spyder and turbo Corsa were quite successful and never had any real issues.

Essentially, the article got it half wrong, by claiming that the turbo Corvair was just as much of a stinker as the Jetfire. Not. I guess it makes good clickbait.

Here’s my takedown of the key parts:

The issues start with their image captions:

Wrong. It was the initial Corvair that was disguised as a Holden, back in 1958. The turbo project, which didn’t start until after the Corvair was already out, certainly didn’t need to be disguised.

The Olds F-85 Jetfire and the Chevy Corvair Monza Spyder were America’s first mass-produced turbocharged passenger cars, and they were such technological and commercial flops that Detroit would shun turbos for years to come.

True about the Olds Jetfire. And fewer than 4,000 of them were built. Not true for the Corvair Spyder/Corsa, which was built in significant numbers (tens of thousands in most years) and was not a “technological flop” at all. It worked quite well, given the crude technology of the time, and was also quite reliable. It certainly wasn’t a commercial flop either.

Not even the General Motors Heritage Center’s archives — with enough documents to stuff a file drawer nearly three miles long — hint at why not one but two turbocharger projects were greenlighted in the late 1950s. While carmakers then were engaged in a horsepower arms race, gas was cheap and Detroit’s maxim was: “There is no replacement for displacement.”

There’s no need to dig through GM’s archives to find out why. GM, along with Ford and Chrysler, saw the obvious need for compact cars for 1960, and once they had been developed, the interest in making higher performance versions was inherently compelling. Chrysler had its Hyper-Pak kit for the slant six, which turned it into quite the speedy compact. Ford came very close to introducing a three-carb hi-po version of the 144 six, which had been developed and ready to go. All three were engaged in the NASCAR compact series, and small, sporty cars were the hot new thing, inspired by the success of European sports/sporty cars and the sporty Monza that arrived in mid-year 1960. The horsepower race was not just limited to big cars. That would play itself out very obviously with the pony cars that arrived in 1964.

Each of the divisions had massive engineering budgets as well as a high degree of autonomy back then. But they also knew mostly what was being developed technically; the fact that Chevy and Olds took decidedly different approaches to dealing with the challenge of detonation strongly suggests that there was some coordination.

The concept of turbocharging is easy to understand. The turbo uses the exhaust gases from an engine to spin a tiny turbine, which in turn spins a second turbine. That second turbine sends a pressurized, concentrated mix of fuel and air into the cylinders for a more power-packed charge. It also burns more completely, which increases fuel efficiency.

There’s nothing about a turbo that makes the fuel charge “burn more completely”.

Even without a turbo, heat was a challenge for the Corvair’s air-cooled aluminum engine. But the issue intensified with turbocharging.

“The full output of the engine cannot be cooled!” Mr. Benzinger exclaimed. Chevy assumed “the driver would either run out of road or run out of guts before the engine overheated,” he added.

In tests, the turbo engine burned holes through the valves. The engine needed a belt-driven cooling fan, but belts failed at top revolutions per minute, owing to the weight of the fan. So Chevy worked with DuPont to make a lighter fan from a promising new plastic, Delrin, which caused an even worse problem.

After a trip from Detroit to Ohio, a test driver told Mr. Benzinger that as he accelerated from a tollbooth, “I started to choke, and my eyes started burning.”

A frantic search for the cause was begun, leading to a convoy of four Corvairs retracing the route, each with one engineer from Chevrolet and one from DuPont. Theories varied, postulating a problem with Toledo air or static electricity generated by the fan. They drove the route radioing back and forth, “Smell anything yet?”

In the Ohio cold, with the heater on full blast, so much current ran through the battery in the hot engine compartment that it essentially boiled. Vaporized battery acid reacted with the Delrin to make formaldehyde gas, which flooded the cabin. The potential casualties, Mr. Benzinger said, caused him to “shudder to this day.” A cast aluminum fan was substituted.

This whole section is essentially irrelevant and substantial parts are untrue. It appears different issues were mixed up. The 1962-1963 turbocharged Spyder did not have any cooling issues and used the exact same steel cooling fan as the non-turbo cars. In 1964, a new lighter magnesium fan replaced the steel one across the Corvair line, not because of a need for more cooling air but because it reduced the “flywheel effect” that tended to throw the belt that drove it. That was not a turbo-related issue. In fact, the turbo engine made its maximum power at the same 4,400 rpm as the 110 hp non-turbo engine.

GM may well have experimented with a plastic fan, but all of this has nothing to do with the Spyder’s turbocharging and the fact that it did not have any notable cooling issues.

The death of the Corvair was due not to the turbo but to Ralph Nader. His 1965 book, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” painted the Corvair as a deathtrap, ushered in an era of consumer activism and led to the founding of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The single biggest fallacy of the Corvair gets regurgitated endlessly: The Mustang killed the Corvair. Not. Nader’s book didn’t come out until late 1965. By then the Corvair’s handling issues were fully resolved, but the Mustang was outselling the Corvair by massive margins. As a consequence, Chevy was rushing the development of the Camaro. Nader’s book was essentially a postscript to the history of the Corvair.

There’s no point in repeating the article’s write-up on the Jetfire, as it was obviously terribly underdeveloped, and a technological flop—unlike the turbo Corvair, which was built in significant numbers from 1962 through 1966, and did not have any real issues other than some turbo lag, not surprisingly.

In 1978, the Saab 99 had offered the first turbo on a production car since G.M.’s misfires. “The very first Saab turbos were not reliable cars,” said Jim Smart, owner of the Saab specialist Smart Motors in Santa Fe, N.M. “To make it work really well needed advanced engine management.”

No, the first production turbo car after the Corvair and Jetfire was the 1965 International Scout, then the 1973 BMW 2002 Turbo and then the 1975 Porsche Turbo, which still beat the Saab to market by three years.

So much for automotive history at the Times; it’s just not their strong suit. Maybe they should stick to what they do well, which is a lot. Like this opinion piece by  Ezra Klein on Afghanistan which was as the single best article I’ve read on the subject yet. Highly recommendable.

is this article’s thrust just so much hot air?

CC’s (accurate) coverage of these two:  Olds Jetfire  and Corvair Spyder