The Corvair was one of the most unlikely American cars ever, and it is instructive to read the following interview given by Ed Cole in 1970 shortly after the discontinuation of production, but not published until his death following his retirement from General Motors.
The common wisdom is that success has many eagerly claiming fatherhood, but that failure has few claiming that same fatherhood. The Corvair is one of those examples, for some, a success, for others a failure. Ultimately aircooled engines became an evolutionary dead end, one that even Porsche had to accept about 25 years after the demise of the Corvair.
Ed Cole is an interesting man and engineer who was involved with GM’s early high compression engine engineering during World War 2 leading to the introduction and production of the successful 1949 relatively high compression first generation OHV Cadillac V8. Then Ed Cole pushed through the engineering and design of arguably the most successful production engine of all time: The Small Block Chevy V8 of 1955, the legendary SBC, a second generation American V8.
The Vega 2300 and the GM rotary engine projects led by Ed Cole were ultimately far less successful, even failures, some would say.
Ed Cole and his GM engineering staff were also responsible for GM’s and the auto industry’s adoption of catalytic converters for automotive emissions and the simultaneous elimination of noxious, deadly octane enhancing lead products from our automotive fuels.
So, not a bad record, batting more than 0.500, in baseball that would make him a superstar.
Now read and enjoy his interview thoughts on the Corvair published in Automobile Quarterly, Volume XX, #3, 3rd Quarter, 1982.
Here Ed Cole answered a frequently recurring question regarding whether Porsche designed the Corvair 6 cylinder air cooled engine. The answer is that GM didn’t talk to anyone at Porsche, so the implicit answer is No, that Porsche didn’t design the Corvair engine. On the other hand, it is likely that Porsche investigated the Corvair 6 cylinder engine on Porsche’s path to designing the 6 cylinder Porsche 901/911 engine introduced in 1965.
These ads show the repositioning to the Corvair as a sporty car, with kinship to the Corvette. Not an econobox here, but a car showing the path to a new market niche.
Interestingly with GM’s sudden urgency to compete with the explosive sales of the Mustang introduced in April 1964, and despite having the much improved 1965 Corvair with its improved rear suspension, GM essentially abandoned the rear engine 6 cylinder sporty car niche to the the Porsche 901/911 also introduced in 1965. Interestingly Porsche didn’t have a rear suspension design using coil springs and wishbone elements functionally comparable to the 2nd generation Corvair rear suspension until the introduction of the Porsche 993 in January 1994, almost 30 years later.
Cole shows a couple of blind spots in the article.
First, he was fixated on copying the VW. There’s no mention of Rambler, the real competitive threat. AMC was uncool, and GM didn’t condescend to answer uncool questions.
Second, he says that the low trunk lid forced a horizontal cooling fan. Nope. The flat air-cooled engines in the first decade of auto development often had a vertical cooling fan mounted on the crankshaft.
Chevy’s own air-cooled inline 6 in 1923 had a vertical cooling fan on the camshaft.
The same fan moved down to the crankshaft on a boxer would clear the trunk lid. With a little modern airflow engineering, it could be even lower. There was no reason for the suicidal serpentine belt except the fetish for imitating VW’s suicidal design.
That would have been 100% correct, had the powertrain only been used in the sedans. In my ‘63, there was enough space between the top of the engine and the rear decklid to allow the spare to be stored, so it was a good five or six inches. Plenty of room to mount a fan vertically.
But the design parameters for the “Unipack” powertrain called for an ultra-low profile, to allow its placement in vans, pickups and wagons. That may have led to the decision to only have one fan placement and belt routing for all Corvairs.
After the first year or so of production, the Corvair’s serpentine belt was far from ”suicidal,” due to improvements in the pulley design and belt profile.
The belt issue gets blown out of proportion. I’ve owned a ’64 Corvair for several years and drive it regularly, and it has never flipped the belt off. Most Corvair owners I know also have not lost a belt. Get a good belt and adjust it properly, and you’re fine.
I believe you when you say your Corvair has never thrown the belt. I suspect that might be a result of today’s belts being considerably better than the ones available in the Corvair’s day, rather than a vast conspiracy to smear the Corvair’s good name.
Chevrolet changed from a steel to magnesium cooling fan. The reduced mass and therefore inertia eliminated belt problems.
VW, however, used a fan mounted directly on the crankshaft for “pancake” Type 3 and Type 4 engines.
I am well familiar with the limited air flow and ultimate marginal air cooling of the crankshaft mounted axial fans of the “pancake engines” of the type 3 VW (really a pancake configuration of the type 1 VW engine) and of the VW Type 4 engines. Even with additional supplemental oil coolers augmenting the native, engine attached, oil cooler, the pancake type Type 1 and the later VW Type 4 engines tended to run typically hot in Southern California and in the deserts of the southwest. I15 from LA to Las Vegas tended to especially hard on air cooled engines.
On long upgrades, it was necessary to downshift (and simultaneously pray) to increase axial fan airflow on these engines. Even with supplemental oil cooling summertime oil temperatures would run 230-235 F, if you were lucky. At oil temperatures of 245-250 F, your engine would be cooked in short order. The margin of safety for the pancake Type 1 and subsequent type IV engine was narrow especially in the deserts of the US.
Trust me, there is no fun chronically watching oil temperature gauges during a desert crossing while balancing throttle position.
For racing type IV engines additional supplementary high mounted vertical fans with horizontal shafts with improved engine shrouds were developed by Type IV experts like Jake Raby. Even a horizontal Corvair-like fan with a vertical shaft and a Corvair-like belt drive was developed by others, like the system sold by Tangerine Racing.
As higher and higher power outputs were achieved, air cooling alone wasn’t enough to provide the cooling necessary to reject unwanted engine heat, especially during racing.
Larger and larger oil coolers were limited by the inferior thermal absorption of engine heat by oil compared to water and ethylene glycol coolants. Even Porsche developed water based cooled cylinder heads for its racers to supplement the air cooling of the finned cylinders. Ultimately even Porsche was forced to abandon air cooling for water cooled engines with it 996 production model.
So the conclusions; 1.) crankshaft mounted axial cooling fans weren’t the solution and 2.) Automotive Air cooled Engines were an evolutionary dead end.
100% Agree that air cooled engines were an evolutionary dead end. Even in light aircraft, automotive-based liquid cooled diesels are just starting to be produced, after a few false starts.
At low specific power outputs they were OK. I never had a problem with my 1972 VW bus with a stock 1700cc dual carb Type IV engine in Southern California. I think having high numerical final drive gearing and having to keep high rpms anyway to keep up with traffic helped.
Don’t take that curve too quickly Dad or those kiddies will go right overboard!
Ha! When people at car shows would ask me if my ‘63 convertible was safe, I’d pull out the brochure and show them that photo, saying, “Of course it’s safe! It’s so safe that GM even showed how you could drive your kids around without seatbelts!”
Many years of experience and fun with Corvairs of stripes! I’ve found them to be cheap reliable fun cars. Heaters were a bit of a problem here in Minnesota. I think the writing was on the wall for them as emission standards tightened beyond what was then possible for air cooled engines. The Nova and Camaro were selling wildly and I’m sure the people in production looked enviously at the underutilized Corvair plants. They developed cult status almost immediately, and they retain it to this day.
Was anything that Ed Cole did, other than the small block Chevy, a success? Can there be any doubt that the Vega and aborted Wankel were failures? Even almost 50 years after the Vega rusted and smoked its way to an early grave, it’s still a byword for abysmal quality and failure pulled from the jaws of success. The Wankel was an enormous waste of money and the only way it would have been worse would if it had actually been produced.
I’ll be daring and say the corvair was a massive failure as well. Although Nader was probably going to come along anyway, and the safety and emissions requirements he championed mean a minor fender bender isn’t fatal and cars are much cleaner and better today than without his work, if he hadn’t had the corvair to focus on his work would not have had the impact it did. The corvair was unique, expensive to produce, and the ideas the corvair represented would have been better implemented in a more expensive and profitable car. The falcon and valiant were made out of the same technology as dirt and the falcon outsold the corvair, was more profitable, turned into the mustang, and went on for 20 years in various guides culminating in the Granada. The corvair was an expensive technological dead end, like almost all of GM’s 60s technological innovations. Can anyone think of a 60s GM technological innovation which was successful? The aluminum v8 was so bad Rover wanted it. Turbochargers came and went. Rope drive came and went. Fwd toronado style didn’t really have any advantages over rwd and didn’t go any further.
I deleted much of my comment here because talking Nader is a politically- charged trap. But cars are safer and cleaner partly because of his efforts and he should get props for that.
HA! You win the internet for today.
Not quite, though that is something of a popular myth due in part to an article in one of the Hemmings magazines some years back, poorly researched and slantedly written, apparently by a very ardent GM fan.
GM were just about singlehandedly responsible for the existence, proliferation, and persistence of leaded gasoline in the first place—number one.
Number two, GM floundered and fumbled and stumbled in their catalytic converter research. “Monolithic converter – $millions wasted”, wrote John DeLorean in On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors (or was it “$billions”? I’ll have to dig up my copy) and eventually wound up with a product significantly inferior to that put out by the likes of Engelhard and used by other automakers.
Cole was instrumental in deciding to go forward with converters on GM vehicles, and given GM’s market share at the time that certainly went a long way in terms of the on-road fleet as a whole, but a quote attributed to him, to the effect of ~”give me unleaded fuel and I’ll put catalysts on the cars”, when taken out of context, makes it sound like he was the crucial go/no-go decider on the matter for the whole industry. And that’s just not how it happened.
I’m (slowly) working on a CC post on the subject, with at least one hell of a good info source.
I’m looking forward to your post. GM’s introduction of lead into gasoline was a horror show.
Thank you for your comments. I accept being corrected and am willing to learn from you. Please by all means finish your future pending post so that we can learn more from you about the elimination of leaded fuels, the introduction of catalytic emission controls, and computerized engine management for increased fuel efficiencies and exhaust emissions reduction. I look forward to reading your future post.
Heaters were a problem. I don’t know exactly when VW switched from engine-heated air to manifold heater boxes–early 60s–but GM never did on the Corvair. A leak on one of the six manifold donut gaskets and carbon monoxide is getting pumped into the cabin. Heaters were the only legitimate Corvair complaint of Nader’s.
Those air-cooled, rear engines definitely seem like fair-weather friends. While they run okay in the cold outside, they freeze-out their occupants. Then, when it’s hot, the engine can get dangerously overheated without any kind of coolant. Might not be as much of a problem with today’s synthetic oils that can withstand those ultra-high temps but, back in the day, dramatically shortening oil life would be an issue.
Add not much room for future development, the inherent difference in driving dynamics compared to front-engine designs, tough to add accessories (like A/C and power steering), and the difficulty in meeting any kind of emissions requirements and, well, it’s just not much of a mystery why the Corvair ended up dying on the vine. Still, it would have been interesting if the Falcon, then Mustang, hadn’t taken all the steam out of the Corvair’s potential (what there was of it).
Er-ruhh…I don’t…I mean that’s not actually…
…y’know what? Never mind. You do you. :^)
Cole must have been one seriously persuasive guy. Through 1959, Chevrolet’s response to cheapskates was to sell them the same car everyone else was buying, but strip it out until nothing was left but an engine, tires, brakes, and a seat. Heater? Optional. Two-speed wipers? Optional. Etc, etc.
Somehow, Cole convinced the bigwigs at GM to not only build a smaller car, but to invest seriously large sums of cash into entirely new design and technology.
And in the big picture, all that investment was lost. Very little of what was developed for the Corvair made it to other GM products.
And yet he kept his job somehow. Must have been one very charming guy.
He not only kept his job but was promoted to president of GM. That job he managed to keep years after it became clear that the Vegas aluminum 2300 engine that he championed was utter crap. Charming indeed.
I own a Corvair and have done so since 2006. It is OK; it looks cool but is not much fun (Powerglide).
Here is my thinking about Ed Cole: he was a bad pilot and made bad decisions.
He crashed his Beagle B.206 (a very limited production British twin) at Kalamazoo, Michigan and killed himself. He flew VFR into thunderstorms. Fortunately, he was alone.
A rich, retired engineer should have owned a Beechcraft and flown only IFR in such weather. He destroyed his credibility when he flew his last flight. Airplane registration was N500KR.
Sounds like a tail number Carroll Shelby should have had.
I remember the Chevrolet line-up so clearly …… the names all had a family resemblance. The last of these came much later — Chevette.
To this 10-year-old, there was more security in the Chevys than in my own family:
No wonder my 1st car was a ’65 Impala coupe in 1972)
I admire the styling but seats six and only 80-95hp? Four wheel drum brakes? No thanks…
Where the specs for a contemporary Ford Falcon or Rambler American (90hp each) any different? At least Valiant had 101hp.
And those power figures are gross numbers! Expect 15-20% less at the rear wheels..
The Falcon/Rambler are also weak. I wouldn’t want to drive them in the traffic around here…
the most recent issue of Road & Track has a piece by Bob Lutz on his favorite car of all the many he’s owned. It was his ’62 Corvair sedan, bought to carry around his young family. He tells of hot rodding it, even rallying it. He concludes: “not the best car I ever had, but my favorite.”
“So not a bad record, batting more than 0.500, in baseball that would make him a superstar.”
In baseball perhaps, but most business executives whose every other decision was a failure would soon be sent packing. Cole was no doubt a brilliant engineer, but exhibited the “look what we can do” hubris setting in at GM at the time. For all of those millions spent on development costs, the Corvair was always going to be at a disadvantage with its competitors (Falcon in its early econobox period, then Mustang in its sporty phase). More expensive, less space efficient, poor heater and all the other limitations of the air cooled, rear engine layout. Different yes, smarter no. In an industry where good ideas are soon copied, it’s no surprise that neither Ford nor Chrysler ever touched a rear engine/air cooled design. Mighty GM may have just brushed off this hiccup at this time, but the start of its decline may very well have begun here.
Also, Cole is quick to mention the Corvair’s critics and all those pesky lawsuits among the reasons for its discontinuance. However he makes no mention of the car’s early year swing axle quirks and GM’s failure to spend the $18 to mitigate them. This alone makes this car a deadly sin, in more ways than one.
This post was a recognition of Paul’s love of the Corvair, as he termed it, the most European of American cars. A loved albeit dead-end branch of automotive evolution.
I’m glad you recognized my tongue-in-cheek way of damning Ed Cole with “faint praise”. I couldn’t agree with you more that the concept of being an athletic “superstar” at a 0.500 record is an extremely poor measure of actual performance success in the real world.
Would you want an Ophthalmologist Surgeon whose failure rate at cataract surgery was 50%, or a thoracic surgeon whose cardiac surgical procedures were only 50% successful, or that the post cardiac surgical mortality was 50%. Would you want a Radiologist interpreting diagnostic imagery at a 50% miss rate. No, of course not. no reasonable person would accept what we seemingly accept in sports as well overpaid, “superstar” performance.
Cole was frequently referred to by the GM Board as “The Chief Engineer”, and he along with the board after Sloan’s retirement made multiple, repeated, poor decisions that led GM down the path of the “deadly sins” so well cataloged by Paul Neidermeyer here on CC.
Regarding decisions on technology and its implementation on a long term basis for the advancement of GM, using this metric, Cole was a failure. He was lucky with the SBC, an amazing serendipity of design and manufacturing engineering leading to the ultimate hubris of the dead end technology of the Corvair, later the questionable rushed development of the disastrous for GM Vega, and then the stillborn GM rotary engine project.
Regarding the Corvair and production rear engine production cars, no-one, excepting Porsche (which is in some way like Morgan, capitalizing on a quaint niche) uses rear engine technology in mass produced cars any longer. Even mid engine cars represent only a tiny,sexy, market niche–even Porsche makes most of its profit from SUV production and sales.
Cole and GM failed repeatedly to see and understand the flow of developing worldwide automotive technology, witnessed by the dead-end Corvair and then the Vega, despite having the parallel development and production of viable alternatives by GM in Germany, i.e. the Opels. Think of the comparative excellence of the Opel (Ascona, Manta, etc) in the 1970’s compared to the Vega introduced in the USA. Cole was in the position of “Chief Engineer” and failed in recognizing the potential manufacturing/marketing successes developed in house by GM Germany for application in the USA.
We decry the Ford Falcon as a meager car regarding technology compared to the Corvair and even the Valiant, but an important foundry technology used in the Falcon 144 c.i.d 6 cylinder engine was “thin-wall” iron casting allowing the significant lightening of iron block engines–a technique even used later by GM.
Given his ultimate track record, if Cole had been a physician, then he would have been likely, and successfully sued on multiple occasions for poor judgement and malpractice based on outcomes.
Cole is a great example of the famous Peter Principle (everyone rises to the level of his incompetence). Cole was very, very good when he was involved in the engineering work for V8 engines in the 40s and 50s. But as was increasingly happening at GM, he rose in power and influence from those early successes and reached a point where he failed to see that some great engineering ideas don’t necessarily make for successful cars. His power and influence was also seen in the neutering of engineering role of the traditional Divisions and the creeping centralization that eventually killed GM (or turned it into Chrysler circa 1960).
GM leadership – including the board – wanted greater centralization. I doubt that Cole fought very hard against that plan.
If anything, I can see him going along with that long-term plan, as long as he was allowed to pursue pet projects such as the Vega. Some have claimed that Cole gave his full support to turning over an increasing number of plants to the control of the General Motors Assembly Division (GMAD).
I recall a comment by someone in GM leadership after Ed Cole had risen to the top – “Nobody is in charge of GM. Ed Cole is just the chief engineer.”
Most interesting. It would be easy to assume the Corvair was simply from the template of the VW, but Cole explains that the car was the result of a considered series of choices over time. A side-detail I have never known was the one about the (relative) thermal inefficiency of an air-cooled engine.
But Cole is not a man of great insight. High achievers rarely have much room for self-reflection. The criticisms of the Corvair were entirely legitimate. Yet he replies with intended irony that “the critic is always right”.
Regardless of one’s view of Nader politically, certain criticisms of his original book could only be from those who have not read it. (As CC has pointed out before, the Corvair chapter from 1965 did not kill the car). He understood why enthusiasts – such as one like Cole himself – fancied the Corvair. His complaints about it as an ordinary commuter car were justified and proper. It is also beyond question that Nader changed the industry forever, and vastly for the better. That they would never have done so unprompted is amply reflected in the attitude of the man who was head of GM when interviewed here, a man still blind about criticism of a failed product. The most he allows is that they didn’t put enough bling in it. Oh, and that it was a bit overweight.