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.