By on April 17, 2007

buickbombsiteorg2.jpgFifty years ago, GM’s engineers and designers worked overtime to create a radical new economy or “compact” car. Its mission: take on the VW Beetle and a host of European imports flooding the U.S. market. The 1960 Chevrolet Corvair flopped in its intended role. Nevertheless, it went on to become one of the single most influential American cars ever made. Its legacy can still be seen around the world.

The Chevrolet Corvair was a space efficient, low-slung compact with a six-cylinder air-cooled engine. The rear engine promised a low center of gravity, light unassisted steering, superb traction and balanced braking– all the same qualities that Porsche had been cultivating successfully for years. Budget-minded American driving enthusiasts were thrilled.

ralph.jpgUnfortunately, the design came with intrinsic liabilities: poor heating, a complex (read: expensive) alloy engine, oil leaks and distinctly un-American handling qualities (read: oversteer). It was the last quality that attracted the attention of a consumer crusader named Ralph Nader, who highlighted the Corvair in his seminal tome “Unsafe at any speed.”

The Corvair was not intrinsically unsafe. As long as owners maintained the eleven pound differential between its front (15/19lbs) and rear (26/30lbs) tires, the Corvair’s handling remained friendly and innocuous. But Americans were (and are) not known for monitoring their vehicle’s tire pressure. Gas station attendants of the time had a mantra: “24 pounds all around.” They became unwitting co-conspirators in the Corvair’s fall (spin) from grace.

calconnectcom22.jpgWith incorrect tire pressures, a rapidly cornering Corvair driver could easily find the vehicle’s back end heading towards the front. The average US driver was simply not prepared to handle that eventuality. Could GM have done more to avoid the oversteer stigma? Yes. GM saved six dollars per car by not making the front anti-sway bar standard. And who knows how much (little) the effective rear camber-compensating spring adopted in 1964 cost.

In 1972, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a report exonerating the Corvair from Nader’s accusations. It arrived too late. Chevrolet had deep-sixed the Corvair seven years earlier. Even without the safety controversy, Chevy knew Ford’s highly conventional Falcon was about to eat their lunch. What’s more, GM’s beancounters had proclaimed that the Corvair was too expensive to make profitably (setting a pattern for small car thinking that continues to this day).

In the fall of 1959, Chevrolet was already cooking up Plan B: the 1962 Chevy II. Utterly conventional (and boring), the bigger Nova was the real anti-Falcon, and the route to compact-car profits. Which left a question: what to do with the Corvair?

hubcapcafe.jpgThe answer was the Corvair’s enduring U.S. legacy: the sporty Monza coupe. The model debuted at the 1960 New York Auto Show, complete with bucket seats, a higher output engine and a four-speed manual transmission. The Monza was an unexpected home run. In 1960, Chevy hastily assembled 14k Monzas. By 1961, the Monza dominated the Corvair line-up, and single-handedly created the market for popular-priced American-made performance cars.

But creating a market is not the same as exploiting it. Lee Iacocca’s seminal Mustang did that. Turbocharging and quad-carb induction couldn’t overcome the little six’s limitations against cheap V8 power. The Chevrolet Camaro was quickly pressed into action.

Meanwhile, the clean, elegant and highly-original 1960 Corvair initiated a styling revolution. In fact, it would be difficult to overstate the Corvair’s impact on European automotive design. Before the Monza, Europe was overdue for a new design lexicon. Even the conceptually-revolutionary 1959 Mini still wore the styling language of the early/mid fifties. The Corvair’s influence on subsequent European small and mid-size cars was unrivaled and unprecedented.

nsuprinz.jpgSome were blatant rip-offs: the NSU Prinz/1000, Hillman/Sunbeam Imp, Simca 1000, ZAZ-966, Panhard Dyna Coupe. Others were merely profoundly influenced: Fiat 1500, Lancia Fulvia, VW 1600 L Coupe (“the German Monza”) and a host of other early-mid sixties cars around the globe.

Yes, most of these models were narrower and taller than the Corvair. But the Corvair’s strong, high belt-line crease, its clean and inward curving lower flanks, airy green-house, under-cut front and strong rectilinear lines make its influence easily identifiable– even today.

Take a look a BMW 5-Series. That strong horizontal crease-line running unbroken from front to rear has long been BMW DNA, but it’s a genetic transplant from the Corvair. BMW’s renaissance (and styling DNA) is based on their mid-sixties sedans and coupes, including the popular 2002. Their design elements scream “Corvair”.

shoreynet2.jpgThe timelessly elegant, superb handling 1965 Chevrolet Corvair was built past the Camaro’s 1967 intro– just so General Motors would not be seen to be buckling-in to Nader and other detractors. But tightening emission and safety standards had sealed its fate; the Corvair died a quiet death in 1969.

Mustangs, Camaros, BMW’s. Not a bad legacy, for such a star-crossed little car.

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71 Comments on “In Defense of: The Chevrolet Corvair...”

  • avatar

    Thank you.

    An article like this is long overdue, and a reminder of the days when the American auto industry could create anything they could dream of, and the first signs of the dreaded beancounters screwing up anything an engineer could design.

    My dad was a Chevy dealer back then, and I remember (illegally of course, as I didn’t turn 16 until the summer of ’66 by which time he was out of the business) driving a number of Monza coupes that he’d bring home at lunchtime or overnight. Amazing how he never seemed to notice.

    The Corvair’s “failure” heralded the downfall of the American auto industry by showing management that you didn’t have to design something wonderful when cheap and vanilla would sell better – thus the Falcon and Chevy II. Once that slippery slope was reached there was no turning back, and the accountant reigned supreme.

  • avatar

    Hah, now I’ll have to make it a point to defend all those cars that rip off BMW.

    The Corvair’s is easily my favorite design from that entire era. But if a product isn’t designed around the maintenance habits of its users, it’s simply not well engineered. Especially when that front anti-sway bar was all it really needed – just imagine if all Ford Explorers have had ESC, what a difference that would’ve made to its reputation.

  • avatar

    Here here, Paul.

    As you mention, by 1965 the Corvair went to fully independent suspension and its quirky handling characteristics were cured. Unfortunately by then, it was too late to turn back the clock.

    Not only was the Corvair and its controversies the harbinger of things to come from the beancounter end, it was also the beginnings of the consumer movement in the auto industry which has dominated it since, for better and worse.

  • avatar

    interesting article. had a girlfriend back in the late 1960s who drove a lt blue corvair convertible equipped with a manual 4-speed transmission and i enjoyed getting behind the wheel whenever we were together.

    perhaps someone can confirm whether or not the following is accurate: i was told, back in the 60s by my porsche dealer, that porsche had actually had some sort of involvement with gm regarding the initial design of this car – and that the only compensation the porsche factory wanted, or received, was a single example from the production run of each model year the corvair was available.

  • avatar

    Corvair is and was the cool GM car. I still want one. Too bad GM did not then nor do they now have the long term constant improvement mantra that Toyota and Honda seem to master. Although the corvair was largely fixed, GM dumped this to go to Vega? Come on Bring back a retro style corvair and Id buy that in a heartbeat.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    philpwitak: “Porsche had some sort of involvement” (with the development of the Corvair).

    No, it wouldn’t have been GM’s style (at least then). That story probably comes from the fact that at least one or more Porsche 356’s was used as an engine test mule for the Corvair engine.

  • avatar

    Ah, Corvair. Now it can be said that it’s the car that ended up indirectly influencing the 2000 US presidential elections, resulting in the, uh, interesting times we live in now.

  • avatar

    I don’t know if I agree that the Corvair influenced the Simca 1000. But the rest of those cars–I never woudl have thought of that, and it definitely makes me smile. Yes, the Corvair does have a little bit of Panhard in it, or is it vice versa. And the BMW does seem slightly derivative. And now I have a whole new way to see the NSU Prinz.

    To me, the second gen Corvair still looks up to date–perhaps considerably better than up to date, and if I collected cars it would be very high on my list.

  • avatar

    I’ve seen and ridden in a corvair pickup truck. the engine was under the bed. Totally bizarre vehicle. I also saw a Corvair van, I thought it was a VW but no, it was a Corvair.

    These were groundbreaking vehicles that today would not be attemped. GM is lacking in those kind of thinkers these days.

  • avatar

    Don Hambly campaigned a Corvair Monza Spyder in Canadian rallies in the 60s and I ran against him. Pretty formidable opposition.

    Nice car to drive over wet gravel roads!

    Porsches were worse handling cars than Corvairs in those days. I guess Nader never went after them because GM was vulnerable and an easy target.

  • avatar

    I need to avoid repeating what was said on the “Autobiography” column over the weekend, and I will try to hold my tongue regarding Ralph. The fact is that the Corvair was very unique, arguably the closest thing that Detroit ever made to a ‘European’ car, and certainly one the finest handling vehicles (at least in its’ post ’64 modes) that GM ever built. The car was a joy to drive (keeping in mind where the engine was), the 4 speed while long and loose, easy to drive, and it sipped gas at a modest pace. Of the first 5 cars I owned three were rear engined, the delightful ’62 Vair, an abominable Bug, and the woefully underpowered FIAT 850. But, they were all easy to work on, even in parking lots (hmm, personal experience I think), could go anywhere thanks to their light weight and rear engines, and extremely economical. It is frustrating to watch all my fellow baby boomers paying huge dollars for late sixties Pony cars these days, all of which had braking and cornering capabilities not dissimilar to a ’54 DeSota, while the only true forward looking car of the era is long forgot. I owned a big V-8 ‘Bird, trust me my 85hp Vair would run rings around in it on any sort of challenging road. I have never quite figured out who to hate more, Ralph for his mangling of statistics, or GM for their ham-handed and short visioned response. Oh well, an early life lesson on being careful around would be muckrakers and populists, and the myopia of big time corporate managements.

  • avatar

    I have never quite figured out who to hate more, Ralph for his mangling of statistics, or GM for their ham-handed and short visioned response.

    Ham-handed? That puts it mildly. GM hired PI’s to tap Nader’s phone, dug through his past, and even hired prostitutes to try to entrap him in embarassing situations. GM’s president was forced to apologize to a Senate committee for the campaign.

    Unsafe at Any Speed has 8 chapters, only one of which is on the Corvair, incidentally.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    David Holzman: I agree that the Simca belongs in the “profoundly influenced” category more than the “blatant rip-offs”; but look at the way the line across the front, above the headlights, drops down in the middle section. Pure Corvair.

    Take a look at the early BMW 1500/1800/2000 sedan, and especially the 2000CS Coupe. I’m not talking “blatant rip-off, but the styling influence is very deeply and profoundly Corvair.

    The European auto press and manufacturers were quite blown away by the 1960 Corvair; it was the sensation of the European Auto Show circuit. And within two to three years, very few new smaller cars weren’t sporting some degree of Corvair influence.

    The point is that the Corvair’s styling really didn’t have much lasting influence in the US; but it sure did in Europe.

  • avatar

    My coworker’s family loves Corvairs, and has 5 of them (running…more as spares). They’re really quite unique for the time, and kind of fun.

    And who could forget the Corvair motorhome, the Ultra Van?

    Ever try and picture what current small GM car will inspire such dedication through it’s innovation 40 years from now?

  • avatar

    It’s a shame that GM didn’t build and market the Corvair in Europe. It could have been the beginning of a lasting friendship.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Gottleib: It would have been too expensive (exchange ratio then), and it was too big and thirsty to be a practical medium sized car. The German knock-off of the Corvair (NSU Prinz) had 600cc and 1000cc, and was a lot more compact.

    • 0 avatar

      Corvairs were actually assembled in Belgium and Switzerland. The Corvair Kid has researched this. Google it if you’re interested.

      Yup, yup, I know this article is seven years old now.

  • avatar

    Great article, I long for the days when car manufacturers were willing to be innovative and take risks.

    I remember reading somewhere that diehard Monza enthusiasts were able to rip out the rear seats, and squeeze in a Chevy V8, creating a mid-engine supercar sleeper. Imagine if GM had produced them in factory? Renualt does this from time to time with their V6 Clios.

  • avatar

    Good article,I fell in love with the Corvair when the new “coke bottle” style came out(65 I believe)I almost got a 1961 for my first car in 1977, perhaps I was lucky it didn’t work out.I learned of the potential problem years later, and the attitude of GM. No less an authority than Zora Arkus-Duntov had a brush with death on the test track in a Corvair. At that point someone in GM should have been able to over-rule the bean counters.As the article points out, even the original design was relatively safe after GM relented and added a few dollars worth of parts.

  • avatar

    Out of the Navy in ’66 and back home to finish college, I spent a month looking for a decent condition MG, TR, or AH. All were rusted and overpriced. I then found a ’64 Monza coupe w/4-spd. Drove it until graduation and loved it. Liked the design of the ’65-69s better but never owned one.

    They use to say there are only two kinds of people, those that loved Corvairs and those who hate them. I loved Corvairs!

  • avatar

    In a long-running defense of Detroit’s idiocies, imagine what they might have produced had the Corvair become quietly successful rather than controversial. I’ve never considered it to be over the top hyperbole to say that the death of the Corvair was the death of Detroit.

    The car became controversial, while those running the company immediately noticed that those dull little under engineered boxes (Falcon, Chevy II, and yes, the Mustang) both sold well and engendered no legal turmoil. At which point the die was (permanently?) cast: Forget innovation and engineering, it can come back and bite you on the ass if you don’t do it perfectly. Vinyl roofs, wood grain dashboards and opera windows are a lot safer to the corporate legal department, and cast iron engines with rear wheel drive a lot easier to defend in court.

    You really HAVE to be in your fifties, at least, to really gut understand how things changed over the Corvair. Back then, European designs were neat, whimsical, and fascinating, American designs were stodgy and powerful. By the early 70’s that all was changing, and quite frankly foreign cars are now just as boring to this American as American cars have always been.

    There is no circle of hell deep enough for Ralph Nader to rot in for all eternity. GM was way too subtle with the prostitutes, etc. They should have just hired someone to take him out in a back alley and shoot him. The country would have been a better place – and I speak based on his last 40+ years activity, not just the Corvair.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    sykerocker: Sticking to Nader’s impact on the fall of the Corvair, my opinion is that it was actually negligable. “Unsafe at any Speed” didn’t come out until 1965; by that time the Corvair’s days were numbered.

    It never was the sucessful VW-import fighter it was meant to be, and its reincarnation as a sporty car was doomed by the Mustang, Camaro, etc.

  • avatar

    There seems to be big fans of the corvair engines. What happened to that technology, was it dumped with the cars?

    Lastly, we are watching the same thing happening with global warming as we did with the corvair. A bunch of idiots who want press and power more than solutions are going to end up spoiling the world for everyone.

  • avatar

    I always liked the styling of the Corvair, especially from the mid-60s on. They were beautiful European styled cars. With a few minor changes, they would still fit into today’s auto scene.

    The Corvair was also one GM’s first 90% cars — more like a 80% car. It wasn’t quite all there.

    To understand the failure known as Corvair, you need to understand the arrogance of GM’s management.

    Back in the 1950’s, the US auto makers realized that they could no longer ignore the success of the imports — imports meaning the VW Beatle.

    Ford, to their credit, undertook a scientific survey of import owners. Ford wanted to know what attracted import buyers. The answers: low purchase price, low maintenance costs, low operating costs, reliability, good space utilization, competent handling. No one said anything about rear, air-cooled engines.

    Ford’s answer was the Falcon. A dull, but solid, little car. The Falcon was entirely conventional in the way it was built. Many of the Falcon bits were shared with other Ford models, and no special tooling or training was required to build them.

    The Falcon sold like crack-laced hotcakes. Until the advent of the Mustang — a re-bodied Falcon — the Falcon held the record for most first model year sales.

    Since the Falcon was so easy and cheap for Ford to build, it made huge piles of cash for Ford. The Falcon went on to spawn the Comet, Mustang/Cougar, Maverick, Granada/Monarch and the Lincoln Versailles. In addition, the Falcon was manufactured and sold in South America and Australia. You could buy a brand new 1960s body Falcon in South America until 1995!

    GM, on the other hand, didn’t need no stinkin’ scientific surveys. Their VW fighter was going to be a buff corn-fed cousin of the old-world original. There were some problems however. Since the Corvair shared almost nothing with other GM models, the manufacturing costs started to skyrocket. GM’s marketing people soon realized that the American consumer WOULD NOT pay a premium for the Corvair. If the Corvair was going to sell, it had to be priced with the Falcon/Valiant/Rambler/VW. At that price level, the car was a money loser as designed. So, they called in the ax man. Results: East European style rear suspension, oil leaks, no interior heat, etc.

    The great American car design of the 1960’s was not the Corvair, it was the Falcon — probably the greatest ROI of any car ever built.

  • avatar

    Paul, you are not really helping me with my budget. First, I find an almost mint 66 Corvair Monza (with fresh paint and chrome!) for 5g’s Canadian. And then you come along and remind me why I want one. Darn you.

  • avatar

    Paul Niedermeyer: Take a look at the early BMW 1500/1800/2000 sedan, and especially the 2000CS Coupe. I’m not talking “blatant rip-off, but the styling influence is very deeply and profoundly Corvair.

    I agree with you completely on this. And I never thought of it before. The Simca, yeah, I guess you have a point. I think I’m reacting to the fact that the face doesn’t look anything like a Corvair face.

  • avatar

    Does anyone know who was responsible for the styling of the Corvair, both the first and second gen?

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    David H:

    It would take some historical digging to know who came up with it, but it was under Bill Mitchell’s oversight.

    Obviously, the 4-door (1960) roofline was straight off the 1959 big GM cars. But that aprticularly strong belt-line and smooth lower body? I can’t find any precedent. It’s fairly rare to see such a distinctly original design. Most desigh is intrinsically derivative.

    The 1965: Obviously the Coke bottle theme mirrors the big ’65’s, but so delicately and graceful. What is hardly ever mentioned is the ’65 4-door hardtop (not very common). It seems like it should work, but it just doesn’t at all for me. Looks too much like a 7/8th scale ’66 Chevelle, without a grille.

    As graceful as the 1965 on Corvair coupe is, I find the distinctly original 60-64 4-door strangely compelling. Of course, I had one as my first car, so..

  • avatar

    Old joke: Ford ‘s going to bring out a new car called the Douche – for all those people who got a Falcon last year.

  • avatar

    It is about time someone gave this car it’s just desserts. The only problem with this car it was 10-15 years ahead of it’s time.

  • avatar

    Yes, a seminal car. Fascinating review of the disemination of its design dna. Another car with similarly influential styling – the German Ford Taunus from the 60’s. Thanks for a great piece.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    But of course, lest we forget, it rusted. And being of unibody construction, when rotten, it fell apart.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Interesting political anecdotes connected to these cars.

    As noted above, Corvair made Nader made GW Bush (in a lopsided way…). And the Falcon made Bob MacNamara, who made Vietnam and lost Johnson, which (in turn) made Nixon. Who, it could be argued, was the 1970s version of Bush.

    In a way, one can be glad that the auto industry is less important than it used to be — otherwise we might have gone through the experience of a President Ioccoca or a Secretary of Defence Bob Lutz.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Hold on….before y’all drown in your tears while waxing nostalgic, keep in mind that GM CHOSE to sell the Corvair half-baked, just like they’ve done time and again. Fiero, anyone?

    While the Corvair may have been tremendously innovative for it’s time, after so many incredible engineering victories post-WWII, this may have been the first evidence of the future for GM. If I’m not mistaken, the Tempest of this era started as a platform for innovation, soon to be abandoned for the same old, same old.

    45 years later and they still haven’t learned their lesson…..

  • avatar

    The original Corvair was an outstanding car in terms of styling; I remember them well. The ’65 redesign made them look even better. I have never driven one, but have ridden in at least a couple that I can recall.

    But GM should have made the front stabilizer bar and rear transverse leaf spring standard from the beginning — incredibly stupid omissions. And expecting owners to maintain an 11-pound psi difference between the front and rear tires was just naive in a time when drivers still trusted their local gas station attendant.

    I agree with Paul that GM had to know the Corvair was doomed well before Nader’s book appeared. What other reason could there have been for GM introducing the me-too Chevy II only 2 model years after the Falcon?

  • avatar

    Dave M said….”While the Corvair may have been tremendously innovative for it’s time, after so many incredible engineering victories post-WWII, this may have been the first evidence of the future for GM. If I’m not mistaken, the Tempest of this era started as a platform for innovation, soon to be abandoned for the same old, same old.

    45 years later and they still haven’t learned their lesson….. ”

    Sadly I believe they did learn their lesson and that is why the great engineering marvels most of like and admire and not being built by GM, Ford or Chrysler. Likewise the engineering marvels of Citroen, Jaguar, Volvo, Saab and others also ended with those companies being acquired by companies that were making bread and butter cars and trucks. And the Japanese, well they do make good reliable cars but not the ones that cause our blood to boil . Anyway you look at it, in the end auto manufacturers make the most money not with engineering marvels but with cars and trucks reasonably priced, readily available and useful to the masses. Making money is what the auto companies are made to do, building collectible and enjoyable automobiles is their hobby.

  • avatar

    One of my bigger surprises when I moved from MI to CA was the extent to which Nader was seen as a hero. That seems equally hard to reconcile with the self-centered role he’s played in the last several years. However, at the time I listened rather than talked, and I think the reaction has to be seen in its context.

    Several posters have pointed to GM mistakes with the Corvair…relying upon an 11 PSI tire pressure differential that no reasonable person would expect an average motorist to maintain, and failing to include as standard equipment items required for safe handling.

    This happened in a context where largely automobile caused pollution was becoming a huge problem in CA. I moved to the SF area in 1987 and even since then I’ve seen dramatic improvement in the air. Even on the worst days it’s clear the Bay sits in a valley, that wasn’t so then. I’m told that the 1980s were an enormous improvement over the ’60s and early ’70s. As for the LA area…there is an 11,000 foot mountain rising over Pomona with one of the steepest vertical reliefs in the US. When I drove by the area in fair late May weather in the early 1990s one would have never known the place had mountains. Flying into the LA area now, it’s mountains are often obvious even below the marine inversion.

    GM led Detroit’s fight against efforts to clean this up tooth and nail, and the fight was heating up through the 1960s.

    I wonder if the Corvair may have been collateral damage because GM had done things with the car which fit into a larger picture of outrage.

  • avatar

    GM considered badge-engineered Corvairs for Pontiac and Olds. There were proposals for a Pontiac Polaris and Olds 66, and even a Buick version:

    There’s a better site that has pics of the Buick version and rear views that show the proposed Pontiac’s oval taillights, but it’s temporarily offline.

  • avatar

    I am no GM cheerleader, but to give Nader any credit whatsoever in what was a driver-ignorance problem is simply ludicrous. The 911 continues to this day with a tremendous inclination to oversteer, as well it might with 60% of the weight over the driving wheels (the proper REAR driving wheels). Even though the 993 and later 911 models have been much more driver-friendly, earlier models demanded, and deserved the driver’s full attention.

    The bane of our existence is the rolling barca lounge we call the modern car. It allows people to pilot a lethal weapon while being largely ignorant of any of the dynamics involved. SUV rollovers? Only a moron would buy one and not learn that the higher center of gravity requires greater skill, and greater attention on the part of the driver. Unfortunately, we allow any idiot who can marginally parallel park to get a driver’s license, and had Ralph Nader gone after this jewel, we might now kill only half of those who die on the highway every year.

    Great article on the Corvair, Justin. This car, and the GM of 1960 deserve some credit for real innovation. Light alloy V8’s (imperfect, but a start), turbochargers, independent rear suspension, overhead cam engines – all mass market introductions GM brought to the U.S. market in the early 60’s while Ford and Chrysler dawdled on with the same ol’ crap.

    For those of us who would criticize the GM of the last 30 years, much of it comes out of the knowledge that they HAD the engineers, but let the accountants run the company.

  • avatar

    Ah! Found a pic showing the rear view:

    What if…?

  • avatar

    Excellent article, Mr. Niedermeyer.
    In some ways the Corvair was a great design. A friend’s father owned a TV/appliance store. Their ‘vair pickup, with its curbside gate/loading ramp, made a nifty delivery truck for him. My brother owned a Monza and later a van that I put a few hundred miles on. It had its virtues, but driving in crosswinds was scary.
    I agree that the Mustang, and then the Camaro, killed the Corvair. In the mid 60’s practically every red-blooded young guy wanted a husky V8. Economy-minded customers passed up the Corvair because it was too exotic for a US-made car. A Falcon had a regular trunk and a simple, familiar design that made repairs easy and cheap.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    I gota chime in.

    One, and only one chapter of “Unsafe at Any Speed” dealt with the Corvair.

    The other chapters talked about things like seat belts, shatter-proof glass, padded dash boards, steel door-insert beams, collapsable steering columns — you know the stuff that if you have been in a serious accident in the last 40 years would have killed you dead.

    And how ALL major manufacturers were saying it would hurt the economy if they were forced to implement these safety items because no one would be able to afford a car.

    Dead customers apparently buy more cars than the living…

  • avatar

    I don’t want to wander off thread, but:

    I am curious as to what other cars people consider died a premature death and which, had they survived or simply been more successful, could have been turning points?

    To me the Studebaker Avanti springs to mind, but I am hopelessly biased in favour of it. Maybe the Chrysler Airflow?

  • avatar

    I miss the days when GM had the courage to innovate. I guess that the closest thing in modern times is the OnStar system where GM remains well ahead of the pack. Unfortunately GM is well behind in making integrated in-car GPS navigation systems readily available. Honda offers a well designed navigation system in just about everything except the Fit.

    Another sad fact is that over the years many of GM’s engineering innovations were released to the market before being properly developed and/or with foolish cost cutting built in which underminded them. Corvairs handling issues, the old Copper Cooled Chevrolet disaster (1923, they recalled all of them!), the Vega linerless aluminum block, the buggy original Cadillac V4-6-8 (which was the first displacement on demand engine), the horrible V-8 diesel of the the 1980s and so on. Why such a large company with so many talented people has such a long history of releasing almost but not quite there products on the market should be a business case study in itself.

    Styling wise GM was a real leader in the 1960s. Many of the other vehicles from that era look just horrible, but GM made some of the nicest looking cars ever then. The Corvair will always be a classic design. The regret is that GM didn’t really get it quite right the first time. Counting on underinflated front tires to force a car into understeer is hardly great engineering.

    Of course history was repeated with the Fiero many years later, which in V-6 form was also one tail happy beast. In my nearly 30 years of driving only one car ever got away from me, and that was a Fiero which I had borrowed while my car was in the shop. Damp road, slight curve, bump in the road while accelerating from a stop (though still under the speed limit) and whoosh, spin city. Nobody was hurt, but the car was nearly a total loss.

  • avatar

    Great article!
    As I was reaching the end, I said to myself “I’m sure he’s going to mention the BMW 2002. He’s got to mention the 2002.”

    And you did. The Corvair and that BMW are brother and sister.

    Doesn’t it say it all, though? Penny pinching did in a potentially great car, which was both a styling revolution and carried the promise of building a wall against foreign small cars.
    The majors are going to have to get off their false assumptions about what kind of cars people really want — which means they are going to have to get rid of their fuddy-duddy keepers of the flame.

  • avatar

    maybe Ronald McDonald was right, take care of the customers, and the business will take care of itself. but it may refer only to primitive burger flipping business, not serious industries. In car industry it should be paraphrased- take care of the car creation, and the sales will take care of themselves.Why american car industry could proliferate in those old golden days? because the demands for gap tolerances where different, the demands for car`s weight and gizmo- awareness were different. and the engineering amount was much smaller and less precise than digital screen for honda civic is more complex than the whole Corvair.there is limit for some countries, or companies as to which precision and complexity level they are able to be challenged. today`s ultraprecise engines, actuators, engine blocks etc, are to complex to be managed by big 2,5. it was not necessary in late those it was enough to pour chrome and red leather, make big blocks and two black stripes behind your ohv rear live axle wheelspin. what the hell is a g-force , people might have asked then. not today. try selling some 0,85g ferrari! sorry, to match japanese, you have to learn how to be more precise, manage complex tasks and how to make them tangible.

  • avatar

    My father had a 65 as the second family car. It was a fun little car. Its a shame a girl ran a stop sign and totaled it.

  • avatar

    The Corvair was a fine machine. But for us less sophisticated youngsters at the time, the 327 Chevy II was no slouch. I bought one new in 67 – the poor man’s GTO – albeit with some wheel, tire, and suspension upgrades.

  • avatar


    The 327 Chevy II was, and remains, one of the most underrated muscle cars ever built. Great power-to-weight ratio, decent handling (in a 1960’s sense), and reasonably priced.

    I had a 1963 Chevy II as my first car. Unfortunately, no V-8. 230 CID inline-6 and a Powerglide.

    Bulletproof car. Drove the wheels off that thing.

    Now to link that car with Ralph Nader: It had a steel dashboard, drum brakes, and NO seatbelts (They were optional). The “good” old days…

  • avatar

    Recently, I drove my ’65 Monza coupe to the local grocery store and two young ladies (20?) asked me who makes that car? I told them Chevrolet and they asked which dealer had it. I told them since it was 40 years old, none of them. They couldn’t believe it was that old!! Corvairs rule!!

  • avatar

    I’m not at all surprised by tampatexan’s anecdote. If GM wouild bring back the second gen Corvair, it would be the coolest car available. I was sorely tempted by second gen Corvairs, and actually started looking for them on Ebay. But then I was told they’re a bitch to get repaired. (I never did more than tune my own cars). Is that true?

  • avatar

    Zarba: I had a 1963 Chevy II as my first car. Unfortunately, no V-8. 230 CID inline-6 and a Powerglide.
    Bulletproof car. Drove the wheels off that thing.

    That I find hard to believe. My parents had one that was six years old when I got my learner’s permit (w/ 3 on the tree). Clunky, POS.

  • avatar
    Justin Berkowitz

    Thank you, Paul, for this article. It’s top notch.

  • avatar

    Oh – And Corvair were built and sold in Europe, in Antwerp, Belgium. Just not very many. But there is an active Corvair Club in Paris, France.

  • avatar

    As an aside, I don’t think the oil leaks were an intrinsic shortcoming of the car. It was due more to North America mechanics lack of familiarity with aluminum blocks. They frequently overtightened bolts, stripping threads, leading to oil leaks.

    I am going to look at a Corvair Monza this weekend. I will report back.

  • avatar
    ma bagnole

    Ahh the ’64 Corsa. I drove one stock, stuck a small block in the rear and flipped the tranny for a mid engined Corv-8 and build a Fiber Fab “Amonte” with the Corvair Corsa 6 turning backwards with a cam from Dave Crower. I put the motor together with RTV and it never lost a drop of oil. Started it and it ratteled like hell. Forgot to rotate the pistons 180 to compensate for thrust. Ran that motor for 200K! Best darn car GM ever built! Drove a Panhard “Tiger” in France, but that’s another story.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Corvair oil leaks: GM made a poor choice of the material to make the push-rod seals. They almost all failed, and leaked oil, including mine. But replacements were better, and the later years may have solved the problem.

  • avatar

    It’s so easy to get cheap applause with all the usual terminology and PC axioms of the retrograde automotive press – terms like “bean counters,” disparaging safety and environmental progress, etc. Because of course real men don’t bother with any of those prissy things.

    My sense is that if the U.S. manufacturers came out with the equivalent of the Corvair today, they’d be instantly condemned for building such an an ugly, gutless car.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer


    You’ve mixed up several issues in your comment. I disparage the GM bean counters for leaving off the safety enhancing suspension fixes. And I don’t disparage Nader per se; the corporate world always needs Naders as a counterbalance to greed and shortcuts. I tweak him slightly on the Corvair issue because he relied on Ford PR films for his condemnation of the Corvair, and his book came out after GM had fixed the problems.

    If by “equivalent”, you mean a reproduction Corvair, you’re mostly right, and of course it could never be built.

    But if you mean by “equivalent impact” in its time, it would be hard to imagine what that would be today. The whole point of my article is the huge impact and lasting legacy the Corvair made in its time. It was advanced, sophisticated, beautiful, and like most things in that simpler time, imperfect. I can’t easily imagine an equivalent today.

  • avatar


    ^ Why do people connect the Corvair to the 2002 is beyond me. Well maybe not but…

    If you want to know were the BMW line up was influenced try Italy.

    Michelotti, Bertone and Frua who were in charge and/or infuenced BMW design.

    And they also worked with Alfa Romeo, Maserati and
    so on and so on.
    And some of the cars they designed or studied had Corvair-esque design feature before the Corvair existed.

    As for Europe, we didn’t have just the Mini, but also the Citroen DS, Alfa Romeo Giulietta, MB 300 SL and Ferrari 250, all finalists for the Car Of The Century.

  • avatar

    To philipwitak:: Porsche was used as a consultant by GM for the Corvair, and as part of that agreement they did receive a new Corvair every year. Ferry Porsche was seen driving it around in Europe on occasion. I read this in a book from Petersen Publishers devoted to the Corvair, published in the 1970’s. I wish I could find that book now.

  • avatar

    @ Paul Niedermeyer
    “You’ve mixed up several issues in your comment. I disparage the GM bean counters for leaving off the safety enhancing suspension fixes. And I don’t disparage Nader per se; the corporate world always needs Naders as a counterbalance to greed and shortcuts. I tweak him slightly on the Corvair issue because he relied on Ford PR films for his condemnation of the Corvair, and his book came out after GM had fixed the problems.”

    It’s clear that you don’t understand why the Corvair failed. Actually, most motor-heads have no clue as to how business operates, hence it’s alway those pesky “bean-counters” that keep getting the blame for failure. Just how did this species of Homo-Beancounterus evolve, and how did they takeover the the US auto makers?

    In reality, the Corvair failed because it was a victim of poor planing right from the start. The Corvair only needed to copy the Beetle’s qualities, not it’s engineering. By the time GM finished trying to make the Corvair more of a Beetle than the Beetle, IT COST TOO MUCH MONEY TO BE COMPETITIVE IN IT’S TARGET MARKET.

  • avatar

    Even the conceptually-revolutionary 1959 Mini still wore the styling language of the early/mid fifties

    The Mini was never styled, the 1100 (1962) was.

  • avatar

    Neither the Mini nor the 1100/1300 were styled. Their style was the lack of style.
    Witch worked for them, but the bigger Maxi, 1800/2200 and Austin 3 litre all bombed.
    Issigonis was THE anti-stylist.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    “the Mini was never styled”

    It was styled. Every car is, to one extent or another. Look at the front “face” of the Mini; it’s a miniature version of the styling language of most cars of the fifties: the headlights protruding from the rounded fenders, the curved-down hood leading edge, the lower grill., etc.

  • avatar

    Personally I am totally in love with my Corvair. She's a heck of a cool car, drives like a Porsche, and beautiful to boot. I was told by many not to even think about purchasing one because of the whole Ralph Nader thing..I did years of research and came to the conclusion that he is a moron..though there were some issues these were taken care of rather swiftly and she was back and better than ever..but by then the Mustang and Camaro were coming out and my poor little baby was dead in the water before the improved model could be marketed. I am a sucker for the underdogs and under-appreciated…so I searched for years to find one in decent condition. I have a 66' Monza coupe now, and I even managed to find a NOS 1965 repair manual still in original packaging, a 66' supplement, and I have the original 66' plates as well. Now to find a mechanic that knows something about my car and I'm set…

  • avatar
    Bruce from DC

    Had a friend whose family had a 64 convertible that they allowed him to drive in 66. The car had to be driven with respect in the rain, although I don’t know if he observed the tire inflation protocol. The car certainly would have benefited from a set of Michelin-X radials (rather than the more common bias-plies) which, by then, were available. I always thought the 65 redesign was very attractive and that one came in two optional engine “flavors” a 140 HP multi-carb version and a 180 HP turbocharged version.

    Other rear-engined cars of the day had similar handling characteristics. A substantial number of VW Beetle drivers rolled their cars, and there was a great piece of film of a certain set of curves on the Washington DC beltway (since straightened and banked) showing car after car spinning out in the rain, including some VWs. Drivers who upgraded to the new, 6-cylinder Porsche 911 (which came out in 1966) found out the hard way that the worst way to deal with what appeared to be excessive speed in a curve was to drop the throttle or . . . heaven forbid, use the brakes. It’s predecessor, the 4-cylinder 356 did not have those characteristics to the same degree.

    However, nice the Corvair was or could have been, I have to agree with skor above, that it was a failure commercially because it wasn’t matched to its mission. It’s mission was a volume import-fighter, but it could not be brought in at the price required for that role without seriously compromising certain of its operational characteristics.

    As an enthusiast car — a “sports sedan” before the category existed — it might have been pretty interesting and good. But its price would have to have been higher and its sales volume would be correspondingly lower.

    The fact that it might appeal to a substantial minority of buyers today, 40+ years later does not mean that it would have had the same appeal in 1965.

    Finally, while its fashionable to condemn big pushrod V-8s with 4-barrel carburetors as “stone age,” the fact is, that without computerized engine management systems to make everything work, multi-carb motors, much less turbo’ed multi-carb motors required constant attention to work optimally. So, I have my doubts about the ultimate success of the high-output Corvair engine . . . even without the design flaws that it had.

  • avatar

    I was given a Corvair in 1962 as a college graduation present. Since it was my first car, I can’t compare it with others. However, it was a piece of crap. It wouldn’t start. The carburetor required a tuneup every 3,000 miles. The driver’s door was painted a different color than the rest of the car. The engine leaked oil. The heater failed. The body began to rust immediately. (Those are only the problems I remember.) After many, many conversations with GM, a foolish manager told me that they would take the car back if it ever broke down again. The following week I drove the car from Washington, DC to Harper’s Ferry, WV, where it broke down. I mailed the key and a map to the GM rep. My next car was a Beetle. Ran like a top.

    • 0 avatar

      One of the problems with the Corvairs was usually only one dealer technician had been trained on how to fix them. I know 2 of the original techs that went to Detroit in 1959 to learn how.
      Neoprene seals were the best technology that was available at the time for push rod tubes, oil cooler seals,bellhousing seal at crankshaft, etc. Today, we have VITON. My 65 2dr HT doesn’t leak a drop.
      The bottom line is the car was engineered about 20 years ahead of its time IMO. I have a Corvair Pickup, Van and the aforementioned Monza, and have been restoring them since 1987. I love to drive them. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had driving a car.
      I finished a 8 year total nut and bolt resto on my 65 Monza. Looks brand new (with a couple of upgrades), and what I have is a better than showroom new Monza for quite a bit less than 20K. Can’t buy ANY of the new cars I would like at that price.

  • avatar

    Great article. Corvair has always been near the top of my list of best looking cars. Effortlessly elegant.

    Interesting to learn that it was officially imported into Europe. I’ve always thought that of all the Detroit cars of the era, the Corvair was the one that would appeal the most to us Euros.

    @DarkOneForce: As I recall, the ADO16 (Austin/Morris 1100/1300) was styled by Pininfarina? I think the Mini was an Issigonis job though.

  • avatar

    I miss my 1961 Corvair Coupe ~ it was a base model , not even a radio although it had the two speed Slip ‘N Slide Powerglide transaxle .

    It’s engine was totally worn out but never leaked any oil after I replaced the crappy seals with Viton ones .

    You had to drive a Corvair to appreciate it’s good handling and fun drivability .


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