CC Video Review: “Will The Corvair Kill You?” It All Depends

My Youtube channel thought I might be interested in this new video on a very old and beaten-to-death topic. The title was not encouraging. Very few “journalists” have been able to present the Corvair, its good and bad qualities, and its relationship to Ralph Nader objectively or at least with some nuance. But I gave it a shot.

Watch it first, then make the jump to my reactions.

Near the beginning, the narrator tries to give the Corvair a pass because it was cheap, implying that any intrinsic negative qualities and short-cuts in its design and suspension were the inevitable result of making it affordable. That’s obviously dead wrong, as Ford and Chrysler built similarly priced front engine compacts that of course had none of the Corvair’s handling vices. Those were strictly the result of Ed Cole’s bull-headed determination to make the Corvair rear engined, despite the objections of many of GM’s key engineers and the extensive history of rear engined cars that had shown for decades that they had tricky handling at the limit, and that tended to increase disproportionately with the weight of the engine. The Corvair’s engine turned out to weigh 78lbs more than intended, and it was by far the heaviest engine on a mass-produced rear engined car.

Chevrolet could have built the equivalent of the Chevy II in 1960 for the same price, or less, actually, as the Corvair was more expensive to build than the Falcon. And because it was more expensive to build, GM decided to leave out a $4 roll bar, or a $7 rear anti-camber compensating spring (until 1964).

The whole “Ralph Nader Killed the Corvair” line is of course a total crock. Nader’s book, “Unsafe at Any Speed” (which we covered here),  was about automobile safety in general, and had only one chapter in the book on the Corvair. The book didn’t arrive until December 1965, by which time the Corvair was as good as dead, GM having seen the writing on the wall after the Mustang arrived. In fact, GM only kept the Corvair in production past 1967 just to show that Nader’s book was not the cause of its demise.

The interview with Peter Koehler, a former GM engineer who owns this and 15 other Corvairs, is fascinating. He bad-mouths Nader, claiming Nader pilloried the Corvair just to drum up sales of his book (absurd). But after trying to shoo away any notion that the Corvair’s handling was intrinsically more problematic, he the essentially reverses himself and says this:

“…the way it’s operated, it’s different from other cars; if you don’t know the differences, you could cause yourself to be in a situation that’s hard to recover from. Is that the fault of the engineers, the company that built the car and sold it, or is it just somebody that forgot to follow the rules?”

What rules?!?  Did the Corvair come with rules? Where? I never saw any in the owner’s manual of my ’62 Monza. There was no sticker on the dash. In this statement, Koehler effectively agrees with Nader 100% that the Corvair had very different handling characteristics, one which Americans were not at all familiar with, and that these could easily be “hard to recover from”. Or in other words, could kill you.

And as to who’s at fault for this? Of course it’s Ed Cole, the engineers and the company they worked for. There was never any public education effort by GM regarding snap oversteer and how to react to it. Of course if there had been, everyone would have been scared away from the Corvair. Which all goes back to support the supposition that a rear engine car with a large, powerful engine was not suitable to be a family car for Americans, unless its suspension had been developed further (like it was for 1965).

The rest of the video of the experience driver pushing the Corvair on a flat runway makes for interesting watching, because it shows its oversteering handling very clearly. I used to do this on empty parking lots, both dry and snow-covered. In the right hands, that is fun and mostly safe. But in the wrong hands, or if the road surface is uneven, or if the highly-stressed rear tire pops off the rim (as often happened in the deadly Corvair accidents), or if the driver is simply overwhelmed, and can’t respond quickly enough or doesn’t know how to appropriately, it’s really not that hard to flip a Corvair. The driver in the video knew exactly what to do to avoid that.

Chevrolet proved that with numerous tests it conducted on the Corvair, and this video is a ten minute compilation of the numerous hours of video like this that have been posted on Youtube. Makes for fascinating watching.

So will the Corvair kill you? Yes, if you let it.

Oh, and the last bit, about the Corvair avoiding the ball in the street while an Impala wouldn’t is of course wild conjecture. And a missed opportunity, as rear engine cars like the Corvair intrinsically have better braking balance than front engine cars, and thus would more likely have been able to come to a faster stop to avoid the ball/kid in the street.

P.S.  The Monza sedan is said to be “Ralph Nader’s Corvair”, which is utterly misleading. It was donated to his museum, but since the museum already had  better one, this one went into storage and was recently sold to Koehler.

P.S.S.  Thanks for using our tag line “Every Car Has a Story”.

My in-depth look at the Corvair’s history of killing its occupants is here: 1960-1963 Corvair – GM’s Deadliest Sin?