Rebel Yell: The Life and Death of the Chevrolet Corvair

There is no American automobile more controversial than this one. It’s the car that launched the career of Ralph Nader and led directly to the passage of the first federal safety legislation. Automotive writer Michael Lamm called it a martyr; others said it should never have been built at all. It was flawed, at least in its original iteration, but it was also one of the most daring cars GM has ever built. We’re talking about the Chevrolet Corvair.

Author’s Note: The original version of this article was written in 2007. It has been extensively revised and expanded, adding new information and correcting various factual errors.

1960 Chevrolet Corvair badge

THE WRECK OF THE CADET

Once upon a time, Chevrolet, Ford, and Plymouth were known collectively as “The Low-Priced Three.” That did not, however, mean that their cars were particularly small by the standards of the rest of the world. In 1934, for example, a Chevrolet Master Six was 175 inches (4,445 mm) long on a 112-inch (2,845mm) wheelbase; the contemporary Ford and Plymouth were very similar. The Chevrolet weighed perhaps 3,200 lb (1,450 kg) at the curb and was powered by a 207 cu. in. (3,389 cc) six, which would have made it a very expensive proposition in England, France, or Italy. Furthermore, the car and its engine would grow progressively bigger. Thanks to the pressures of the annual model change and the constant one-upmanship of its key rivals, the 1942 Chevrolets — the last available before America entered World War II — were more than a foot and a half (527 mm) longer than their 1934 ancestors. With the greater size came greater weight, more power, and a steady erosion of fuel economy.

Deploring that trend, some Chevrolet engineers had pushed for a smaller compact model as early as the mid-1930s, with very little success. The primary obstacle was profit. Small cars cost almost as much to build as large ones, but larger models could be sold for higher prices. As a result, the division’s management and salesmen had little enthusiasm for compact cars. During the war, however, Chevrolet general manager Marvin E. Coyne became concerned about the prospects of a postwar recession like the one that had followed the Great War. As a potential stopgap, he asked engineer Earle S. MacPherson, head of Chevy’s Experimental engineering unit, to devise an inexpensive compact car to supplement the division’s full-size models.

In early 1945, MacPherson’s group started work on a compact “Light Car,” subsequently christened “Cadet.” The Cadet was a smallish four-door sedan, riding a 108-inch (2,743mm) wheelbase. Its target weight was about 2,200 lb (1,000 kg) and the intended engine was a 133 cu. in. (2,173 cc) OHV six making about 65 hp (48 kW). The Cadet was modestly sized, frugal, and reasonably nimble, with an early version of what is now known as MacPherson strut suspension. Its target price was just under $1,000, or about 10% cheaper than the least-expensive full-size Chevy.

GM announced its intention to build the Cadet in May 1945, but the car’s internal support was limited. Corporate chairman Alfred P. Sloan opposed it, as did Chevrolet chief engineer James Crawford and much of the Chevrolet sales organization. To make matters worse, the Cadet was running well over its cost targets, crushing Coyne’s hopes of a sub-$1,000 price tag. When Coyne departed to become vice president of the car and truck group in June 1946, the project began to lose momentum. In September, GM announced that production plans for the Cadet had been suspended. In May 1947, the Light Car was transferred from Chevrolet to the central Engineering staff to continue as a pure research project. MacPherson resigned that September and went to Ford.

Compact projects at Ford and Chrysler met a similar fate for many of the same reasons. Ford’s own Light Car was eventually sold to Ford SAF to become the 1949 French Ford Vedette, while Chrysler’s four-cylinder A-106 was simply canceled. Earle MacPherson’s ideas for the Cadet found their way into the English Ford Consul and Zephyr in 1950, but Ford’s first postwar U.S. designs were standard-size cars.

1955 Ford Consul Mk I front 3q © 2010 Mick/Lumix CCBY 2.0 Generic
The first production car to use MacPherson strut front suspension was the Mk 1 Ford Consul, sold from 1951 to 1956; this is a 1955 fordor sedan. (Photo © 2010 mick / Lumix; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

As the 1950s dawned, only American’s smaller independent automakers still seemed interested in compacts. As we have previously seen, Nash unveiled its compact Rambler in April 1950, followed that fall by Kaiser-Frazer‘s Henry J. Initial sales were promising and the Rambler and Henry J were soon joined by the Willys Aero and the Hudson Jet. Unfortunately, the U.S. market was not yet prepared to absorb more than about 150,000 compacts a year, a volume insufficient to sustain so many competitors. By the 1956 model year, the Rambler and the tiny <Nash Metropolitan were the only survivors and even their volume was trivial by Ford or Chevrolet standards.

The swift collapse of the domestic compacts validated the prejudices of Big Three executives, most of whom disdained the very idea of smaller cars. It would take both passion and desperation to convince the big Detroit automakers to enter that market.

THE PASSIONS OF ED COLE

Edward Nicholas Cole was born in the tiny Michigan farming village of Marne on September 17, 1909. From an early age, he displayed a fascination with machinery and by the time he was 16, he owned two cars — wrecks that he bought and rebuilt himself, with money he earned building and repairing radios. Although he studied pre-law at Grand Rapids Junior College, Cole enrolled in the General Motors Institute (GMI, now Kettering University) in 1930, spending half his time in class, the other half working for Cadillac. He secured a permanent position at Cadillac in 1933.

1949 Cadillac Series 62 Club Coupe front
Cadillac’s pioneering OHV V8, introduced for the 1949 model year, was developed by Ed Cole and Cadillac staff engineer Harry F. Barr. Although the V8 was physically smaller and 188 lb (85 kg) lighter than its L-head predecessor and had a smaller displacement, the new engine was more powerful and had lower specific fuel consumption. Cadillac used variations of this engine through the 1962 model year and a revamped, second-generation version survived through 1967.

In 1941, Cole adapted Cadillac’s L-head V8 engine for use in the Army’s M-5 Stuart light tank, a project that earned him a promotion to chief industrial designer in 1943. He became chief engineer of Cadillac in 1946 and subsequently led the development of Cadillac’s pioneering OHV V8, which along with the contemporary Oldsmobile Rocket V8 set the standard for almost all American engines of the fifties and sixties.

Shortly after the start of the Korean War, Cole was reassigned to run Cadillac’s Cleveland Tank Plant, a demanding and politically sensitive position. In June 1952, Chevrolet general manager Tom Keating brought him back to Detroit to become Chevrolet’s chief engineer, one of GM’s most important engineering jobs. Charged with breathing new life into Chevrolet’s conservative product line, Cole shepherded the development of the first Corvette, the small-block V8, and the much-beloved ’55 Chevy. Cole dramatically increased the size and power of Chevrolet’s engineering staff, expanding it from 851 employees to more than 2,900. He also brought in several of his old colleagues from Cadillac, including Kai Hansen and Harry Barr, who had managed the development of the Cadillac OHV V8.

M41 Walker Bulldog
One of the principal products of the Cleveland Tank Plant during Ed Cole’s tenure there was the M41 Walker Bulldog Light Tank, powered by a rear-mounted air-cooled flat six — a supercharged 895 cu. in. (14.7 L) Continental engine. It made 500 gross horsepower (373 kW), giving the 25-ton Walker Bulldog a top road speed of about 45 mph (72 km/h). (Photo © 2007 Stan Shebs; used under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Emboldened by the tremendous success of the 1955 Chevrolet, Cole began pondering the idea of a smaller companion model for Chevrolet along the lines of the old Cadet. The business case for such a car was still not strong, but despite the failure of the Kaiser, Willys, and Hudson compacts, the small car market was showing signs of life. Volkswagen, which had sold fewer than 300 cars in America in 1950, was beginning a period of spectacular growth. Its sales increased by a factor of ten from 1954 to 1955 and expanded almost five-fold for 1956. Moreover, sales of AMC’s Rambler, which now had the domestic compact market almost to itself, were beginning to rebound.

Beyond the marketing considerations, Cole was fascinated with the engineering possibilities of an all-new small car. Even while they were building tanks in Cleveland, Cole, Barr, and Hansen had spent their spare time brainstorming ideas for radical new cars. At the time, such talk had been only an intellectual exercise, but they now had the opportunity to explore those ideas more fully.

1955 Chevrolet Bel Air Nomad front 3q
Among the novelties of the all-new 1955 Chevrolet line was the sporty two-door Nomad wagon, part of the top-of-the-line Bel Air series. The Nomad listed for more than $300 more than a standard four-door wagon, so sales were limited, but Nomads are coveted by modern collectors. The old Stovebolt Six was standard, but most buyers opted for the new 265 cu. in. (4,344 cc) V8, which had 162 gross horsepower (121 kW); 180 hp (134 kW) with the optional four-barrel carburetor and dual exhausts.

In 1955, Cole asked Maurice Olley, Chevrolet’s director of research, to examine various powertrain configurations, including front-engine/rear-drive (FR), front-engine/front-wheel-drive (FF), and rear-engine/rear-drive (RR) layouts. The FR configuration was never seriously considered, mainly for packaging reasons; a conventional prop shaft and rear axle would have taken up too much space. Front-wheel drive was quickly discarded as well, in part because the very heavy steering of most contemporary FF cars was deemed unacceptable.

The rear-engine, rear-drive (RR) layout — used by Volkswagen, Renault, and Fiat, among others — offered packaging, weight, and traction advantages as well as the prospect of much easier steering. That dovetailed with Cole’s thinking. He had been interested in rear engines since at least 1941 and had even developed an experimental rear-engine Cadillac shortly after the war.

With that decision, other parameters for the new car began to take shape. Cole’s team quickly decided that water cooling was impractical with an RR layout, which would require a new air-cooled engine. The rear-engine layout, in turn, dictated the use of independent rear suspension, while weight and space considerations called for monocoque construction, a real departure for Chevrolet. Although GM’s European Vauxhall and Opel subsidiaries had adopted unitary construction in 1937, all of the corporation’s North American cars were body on frame. The upshot was that the new car would be truly all new — the closest Chevrolet had come to a clean sheet of paper since the ill-fated Cadet.

DOWN UNDER AND TO THE REAR

In July 1956, Ed Cole took Tom Keating’s place as vice president and general manager of Chevrolet, promoting Harry Barr to chief engineer. Cole could have taken that opportunity to propose the rear-engine compact idea to senior management, but he probably recognized that at that point, the corporation was unlikely to approve any compact car proposal, much less one as radical as Cole had in mind.

To keep senior management from learning of the rear-engine car before he was ready to make a formal presentation, Cole disguised it as a development program for Holden, GM’s Australian subsidiary. In the fifties, Chevrolet regularly did R&D work for both Holden and Opel, so it was a plausible cover story. Cole went so far as to order Holden stationery and purchase order forms and ensure that components developed for the compact car project carried Holden parts numbers. Even the styling development was assigned to Ned Nickles’ Experimental group, rather than the Chevrolet studio.

1960 Chevrolet Corvair engine vents
In an era of phony vents and faux scoops, the slots on the Corvair’s decklid were functional, playing a vital role in engine cooling. Even so, their placement was dictated by styling, not engineering. The fact that they happened to be positioned correctly for cooling purposes was a happy accident.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the new car’s design was the engine. Project engineers Al Kolbe and Robert Benzinger briefly considered a four-cylinder engine, but concluded that it would not be smooth enough for American tastes. For packaging reasons, they also eschewed inline sixes in favor of a horizontally opposed engine, which would offer good balance without the need for counterweights.

This was not Chevrolet’s first venture into air cooling. Back in the early 1920s, research boss Charles Kettering had developed a unique “copper-cooled” four, which was launched — against the advice and better judgment of Alfred P. Sloan, then on GM’s advisory committee — in early 1923. The engine was both difficult to assemble and disastrously unreliable, and fewer than 800 cars were built before the plug was pulled. Only about 100 of those cars were actually sold, all of them soon recalled. According to legend, many were dumped into Lake Erie, although a small handful have survived; one is at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, another is at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada, while the engine of another is part of GM’s Heritage Collection and the body of a fourth car is displayed in the Buick Gallery and Research Center at the Sloan Museum in Flint.

1960 Chevrolet Corvair engine
The Corvair’s engine, which Chevrolet dubbed “Turbo-Air,” initially had a displacement of 140 cu. in. (2,287 cc), making 80 gross horsepower (60 kW) and 125 lb-ft (169 N-m) of torque with two single-throat carburetors. For 1961, the flat six was bored 1/16th of an inch (1.59 mm), bringing displacement to 145 cu. in. (2,373 cc), presumably to give it nominal superiority over the 144 cu. in. (2,365 cc) engine in Ford’s Falcon; its rated output did not change. Note the “mule-drive” V-belt. Early cars tended to throw their fan belts above 4,000 rpm, but this was resolved midway through the 1960 model year by the use of deeper pulleys.

With an air-cooled flat six, however, Chevrolet was in largely uncharted territory. Although air-cooled twos and fours were common enough in motorcycles and European cars, flat sixes were very rare; Porsche’s six-cylinder 911 was still years away. Kolbe and Benzinger soon found that an air-cooled flat six was a very different proposition than a flat four, with unique cooling and exhaust requirements. They studied contemporary six-cylinder aviation engines, but they found few useful precedents for mass-production automobiles.

To keep the engine’s weight under control, Ed Cole wanted it to be all-aluminum, cast in two mirrored halves with a high-silicon alloy (akin to the A390 alloy later used in the Chevrolet Vega) that would obviate the need for cylinder liners. That proved beyond Chevrolet’s manufacturing capabilities, so the final design had detachable cast-iron cylinder barrels, an aluminum crankcase, and aluminum heads with cast-in intake manifolds. Unlike most European engines of the time, the six had hydraulic lifters. To keep overall height as low as possible, the engine used a big horizontal cooling fan, driven by a ‘mule-drive’ fan belt. In production form, the complete engine weighed 294 lb (133 kg) with automatic transmission flex plate and torque converter housing, 332 lb (151 kg) with clutch and flywheel — light compared to most contemporary inline sixes, but 78 lb (35 kg) over its original design target.

1960 Chevrolet Corvair Powerglide shifter
Originally, all Corvairs were to have Powerglide as standard equipment, but the sales organization balked at the expense, which led to the hasty development of a manual clutch and flywheel and a three-speed manual transaxle. Surprisingly, Powerglide was no particular handicap to performance — Road & Track found that an automatic Corvair was slightly quicker than a three-speed car to 60 mph (97 km/h) — and was more pleasant to drive than the standard stick shift. The Corvair Powerglide had no Park position, however; automatic Corvairs had to rely on the handbrake.

The engine’s position precluded the use of a live axle rear suspension, common to all fifties Chevrolets, including the Corvette. Robert Schilling, who replaced Maurice Olley as director of research in early 1956, developed a modified swing-axle suspension, adding semi-trailing arms to counteract some of the swing axles’ inherent oversteer. The goal was to preserve the advantages of a swing-axle suspension (simplicity and low cost), while mitigating some of its drawbacks. As we’ll see, it was not entirely successful.

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  1. Yeah, to all intents and purposes the prototype Chev Cadet became our beloved Holden 48/215 or sometimes referred to as the “FX”.

    1. Well, sort of. The 195-Y-15 prototype that became the basis of the Holden FX was a predecessor of the Cadet, built well before the war. It had a few general similarities to the Cadet (including unibody construction and a smaller version of the Stovebolt Six), but it was quite different in packaging and dimensions. (Notably, it did not have strut suspension.) It’s probably fairer to say the Cadet would have been a cousin of the Holden FX; they have a common ancestor, but they followed different paths. Also, the Holden was well along in its development when the Cadet was canceled, so it wasn’t shipped off, the way Ford sent its Light Car to become the French Ford Vedette.

  2. I’m a big Corvair fan, and own 5 Corvairs. 3 Early ‘verts, including a Spyder, and a ’66 Fitch Sprint and a ’62 Rampside.
    I read your piece top to bottom, and enjoyed being reminded of the facts. Thank you, Corvairwild

  3. I just want to thank you for your fantastic effort in documenting the inner workings of the car industry, always informative and always entertaining! In each article I learn things I even did not know that I wanted to learn… :)

    It is great to learn the “American” (as in U.S.A.) automotive history since I have only an European perspective – and I can not wait until You take a look at similar cases concerning the Japanese and Korean car manufacturers! ;-D

    Cheers, Niclas

    1. We have done a couple of Japanese cars — the Datsun 510 and 240/260/280-Z, the Lexus LS400, and the Lexus SC/Toyota Soarer — and there will be more in the future. (I’d love to tackle the Mazda RX-7 and Subaru SVX at some point, the Honda Civic CRX is likely, and there will most definitely be an NSX article.) The Korean automakers are probably not going to be popping up any time soon, but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.

  4. In the article, you mention that early Corvairs had rear swing axle suspension. I think early VWs and Triumph Spitfire had a similar arrangement. Did any (other) cars of the late 1940s or 1950s have a more sophisticated independent rear suspension arrangement (Jaguar, Tucker or others)? Thanks

    1. That’s a good question. Some race cars adopted true double-wishbone suspensions, but I don’t know of any forties or fifties production cars that used that set-up, mainly for cost reasons. Jaguar’s independent rear suspension was developed contemporaneously with the Corvair, but it didn’t appear in production until the debut of the E-Type in 1961.

      The three major alternatives to swing axles in the late fifties and early sixties were the de Dion axle, “low-pivot” swing axles, and trailing arms. The de Dion, which was popular for racing, but used only sporadically on production cars, was not really an independent suspension; it mounted the differential on the frame or monocoque, so it didn’t contribute to unsprung weight, but connected the wheels with a sort of telescoping beam axle. It worked reasonably well on front-engine cars, providing low unsprung weight without radical camber changes, but the axle made it impractical for rear-engine designs.

      Mercedes adopted the low-pivot swing axle approach, which it called [i]Eingelenkpendelachse[/i]; VW came up with something similar in the late sixties. The low-pivot design, as the name implies, arranges the axle half-shafts so the geometric center of their arc of motion is a single point [i]below[/i] the differential, rather than having each axle pivot at the side of the diff. Doing that has two effects. First, it lowers the roll center, which reduces jacking. Second, it causes the swing axles to act as if they’re much longer than they actually are. By increasing the radius of the arc they transcribe, the change in wheel camber is only a few degrees, rather than 15 or more.

      A pure trailing arm suspension is in some ways the opposite of swing axles. The wheels are carried on an arm that hinges to the body ahead of the axle line. The trailing arm allows the wheel to move vertically, but not to change its camber relative to the angle of the body. (As the car leans, the wheel camber still changes, because the arm itself is attached to the body.) Trailing arms don’t induce oversteer, but they tend to produce massive roll understeer instead. With a rear-drive car, however, the axle half-shafts will still influence wheel location unless you have a universal joint on each end of each half-shaft.

      That’s essentially what Jaguar and Chevrolet did for the E-Type and Corvette suspensions (and the second-generation Corvair), although they also added additional lateral links to allow camber gain in turns. It worked much better than swing axles (even the low-pivot variety), but it was more expensive, which is why it was slow to catch on.

      Incidentally, if Chevy had built the Cadet as Earle MacPherson originally wanted, it would have had independent suspension via struts — like a modern Camry — in 1947. The only reason it didn’t happen was (unsurprisingly) cost.

  5. What a great piece of history. As a long time, if somewhat casual, fan of the Corvair Id like to say thanks for the well researched and written article.

  6. Lancia used semi trailing arms on the Aurelia when it was introduced in 1950. They switched to a DeDion set up in ’54.

  7. Great retrospective. However, you missed one serious design issue on Corvairs. The heater. On both early and late models, the direct heater (which uses air that has circulated past the heated engine and exhaust manifold) is dangerous enough that the largest Corvair aftermarket vendor sells a CO2 monitor/warning alarm. Clearly an engineering concession to cost, this heater does not employ a heat exchanger which would keep potentially poisoned air OUT of the heating system. Nearly every engine blow-by seal can add fumes to the passenger compartment. More insidiously, however, is the possible introduction of combustion exhaust by way of exhaust packing failures and/or head gasket problems.
    While I think these cars are terrific, I cannot get past the absolute miserable design of the heating system.

  8. I owned a 66 Monza with the 110 and a Powerglide during the 1990′s. It was without a doubt the best driving and riding car I have ever owned and I regret selling it. I would like to buy another one, but this time I think I’ll get one with the 140 engine and maybe a manual transmission, though the Powerglide is not a bad transmission.

  9. Not all Corvairs used engine air for heat.

    My father and I both owned 1960 model Corvairs. In each vehicle, cabin heat was supplied by a Stewart Warner gasoline fueled heater mounted in the front trunk (even less room for luggage!). These were factory equipment items as evidenced by the their coverage in the official Corvair shop manual.

    My 1960 Corvair, my first car, lasted all of 2 months until I totalled it in a rollover. Without the benefit of seatbelts, I walked away with a sore arm from hitting the inside of the driver door.

    I later acquired a 1961 Corvair Loadside pickup which was built without a heater (of any kind). However, it was obvious provision had been made in the design for a gasoline heater to be mounted below the dash on the passenger side of the cab. I believe later models of the truck and van utilized engine heat via ducting.

    Subsequently, I owned a 1961 model Corvair with a 4 speed manual tranmission, a Corvair passenger van and a 1965 model convertible with the four carb 140 HP engine. All of these vehicles were enjoyable rides.

    Thanks for an informative and entertaining article!

  10. Nice article on one of my favorite cars! One small correction, the Astro 1 engine mounted two, three throat carburetors, one for each bank of the flat six. It was proposed in one of the Corvair histories that GM used in-house carb castings with Weber 40IDA3C internals. That carb was used on some Porsche 911s, the 914-6, and early Ferrari Berlinetta Boxers, I believe.

  11. [quote=Stuart Linderman]While I think these cars are terrific, I cannot get past the absolute miserable design of the heating system. [/quote]

    If the CO2 alarm goes off, your only recourse is to open the windows until you can fix the leak, right? Doesn’t make me want to run out and get a Corvair!

    At some point [i]Consumer Reports[/i] wrote about a man who had reached an out-of-court settlement with GM. He’d driven a Corvair van for some years in his business and suffered serious long-term harm from exhaust fumes. Part of the agreement was that he couldn’t comment publicly, so [i]Consumer Reports[/i] had nothing to report beyond that.

    [i]Road & Track[/i] had an article in the late 1960s, when the Corvair was still in production, about what the Corvair should have been, and still could have been if GM had had the corporate desire. This is from memory and therefore sketchy, but they said the Corvair had always been sloppily built, and burned and leaked oil. IIRC, they also suggested a carburetor setup and gave an estimate of the power it would have yielded–less than the turbo’s notional 180 hp, but a realistic rating, unlike the turbo’s.

    Some years ago I was flipping through a book for Corvair owners on the news stand, and it made a couple of points that interested me:

    1) The mule-drive fan belt was narrower than most fan belts. Owners were cautioned that if they put a generic fan belt on a Corvair, it would ride too high in the grooves and be thrown.

    2) In its lifetime a Corvair would leak or burn ~$120 worth of oil. There was no repair for $120 that would put a stop to it, so owners should top up the oil and take it philosophically. This was written before the advent of Viton seals.

    1. In fairness, a great many older cars leak and/or burn substantial amounts of oil, even when they’re in good mechanical health. Most of the Corvair owners to whom I’ve spoken acknowledge that the engine does leak oil, but as mechanical foibles go, it’s hardly egregious. A friend of mine, who is presently restoring a second-generation Corvair, notes philosophically that the oil seepage of his car did at least keep the engine trim from rusting…

  12. [quote=Administrator]The de Dion, which was popular for racing, but used only sporadically on production cars, was not really an independent suspension; it mounted the differential on the frame or monocoque, so it didn’t contribute to unsprung weight, but connected the wheels with a sort of telescoping beam axle.[/quote]

    In the early 1970s an issue of [i]Road & Track[/i] had a pull-out suspension supplement, bylined by then engineering editor Ron Wakefield, covering the various kinds of suspensions.

    According to the supplement, de Dion suspensions traditionally had a beam axle, but not a telescoping one. The half-shafts would be splined so the rear wheels maintained a constant track as the suspension worked. Wakefield went on to say that the splines (at least in years past) tended to bind, hence the telescoping axle (and no splines) on the Rover P6. Rover accepted the changing track, and some tire scrub, as the tradeoff. Wakefield also said that modern splines didn’t have the binding problem.

    The Alfetta of the 1970s was so named because its namesake racer had a de Dion suspension.

    1. That’s a good point — thanks for the clarification. What I was trying to get at was simply that the de Dion tube has to have some provision for limiting track changes.

  13. I read Unsafe At Any Speed many years ago, and the details that stay with me today are: 1) many people were hurt or killed when their ’60-63 Corvairs rolled over, 2) in some of these accidents, the outside rear tire would be pushed off the rim (“breaking the bead”), emptying it of air, and 3) sometimes the outside rear rim would [b]gouge[/b] the pavement. Apparently the outside rear half-shaft would briefly become vertical during a rollover! It all sounded much more dramatic than your very technical description. :-)

    stuart

    1. I have no statistics on Corvair crashes, so I don’t know if rollover fatalities were significantly more common than on other cars. (I don’t recall Nader providing such statistics; the incident you’re referring to was his description of a specific nonfatal crash in October 1960, in which a woman lost her arm when her car flipped over.)

      While the description of tire gouges in the pavement are dramatic, I don’t know that they’re revealing. In any situation where the tread separates from the rim while the vehicle is in motion, the likelihood of damage to the pavement, the wheel, or both is quite high — you have a relatively thin section of steel or aluminum alloy, backed by at least a ton and a quarter of weight and a great deal of kinetic energy. Furthermore, passenger car tires of that vintage were generally much less robust than modern tires, and were often operating near or above their maximum loads. It was possible for an average car or station wagon to suffer a blowout or tread separation simply from overloading/overheating, without any specific severe maneuver. If a 4,500-pound wagon suffered a tread separation at 70 mph, I would be surprised if its wheel [i]didn’t[/i] gouge the pavement.

      As for the half-shaft, it was connected to the differential by a universal joint, which gave it a fairly broad arc of motion. If the car were rolled or flipped by whatever means, it would seem likely that at some point in that motion, the half-shaft would be at least briefly vertical, simply as a result of its geometry.

      I’m not implying that the accident(s) described did not occur, or that wheel tuck-under could not cause the tire to lose pressure. However, even in that event, details like the gouged pavement or vertical half-shaft would be [i]results[/i] of a rollover, rather than the cause, and neither was necessarily specific to the Corvair.

      1. My 3rd Corvair was a ’65 Corsa convertable w/ the quad-carb 140hp engine and 4 speed manual. I got it seriously sideways at high speed yanking the wheel left to avoid an accident on a 2 lane highway. The heavy rear-engine swung us around into oncoming traffic with me frantically spinning the *slow* steering right-right-right. It eventually righted and we slid onto the left shoulder, more or less straight. As the dust was settling, we noted that BOTH wheel covers from the right side had popped off the rims and were rolling on down the road on their own. I can personally vouch for the suspension improvements in the later Corvairs.

        Side notes:

        The carburetor float axles were aligned with the longitudinal axis of the car. This meant that in hard cornering the floats would slosh closed or flood the engine. Several contemporary hot-rodding books address this problem including adding balance springs to the floats or rotating the carbs 90deg. I did a little autocrossing in the Corsa and never did get happy with that.

        The oil leak/heater thing could be solved with new exhaust gaskets and slathering the pre-viton pushrod tube ‘O’ rings with thick, aluminum based anti-seize compound. It carried away some heat so it couldn’t cook the rubber. Never had a problem with the heater after that.

        When I sold the 1st Corvair (a ’64 Monza Spyder, turbo) I took the prospective buyer across the San Mateo Bridge (SF Bay Area), hitting 130mph before the curved riser on the San Mateo end. It was still winding up. He bought it on the spot.

  14. I enjoy the thoroughness of your article and the facts.
    I own a 1960 in Bolivia that I have completely rebuilt, and I drive it daily through the mountains enjoying how well it handles.

    1. The Mountains of Bolivia? Wow. A 1960 Corvair would not be my car of choice to tackle the Camino de la Muerte…

  15. The National Automobile Museum in Reno, NV also has a copper-cooled four on display. I think they indicate it is one of only about two surviving in the wild.

  16. really enjoying your various topics you’ve written on.
    re- 1960 corvair 4 speeds. engineering did build and test 4 speed transmissions for 1960 corvairs, but it never became a regular production option for that model year, despite a published road test of a 4 speed car in one of the major enthusiast magazines, and many rumors in the press noting it ‘would be available soon’. production of the transmission was close enough that it is included in the 1960 assembly manuals, but is further noted as ‘option cancelled’, and chevrolet zone offices sent letters to dealers explaining "chevrolet central office has advised us that the 4 speed manual transmission for the corvair will not become available for the 1960 model year.’
    the 4 speed did go into regular production for the 1961 model year, now with cast iron case and 16 spline mainshaft that was used through the rest of corvair production.
    in the early 60′s, corvairs had a higher percentage of 4 speed installations than any other american car short of the corvette.

    The corvair society museum in Ypsilanti (part of the heritage trust museum) has a ’60 model prototype 4 speed on display.
    regards
    larry claypool
    technical editor
    corvair society of america

    1. Thanks for the information. I hadn’t assumed the four-speed was available until the start of the ’61 model year in the fall of 1960, but the way the article text was worded was misleading, so I edited it a bit.

  17. The swing axle was sometimes used in Europe and Britain as a cheap way of providing independent rear suspension but like any cost cutting option it had its drawbacks and was controversial over here as well as in America. My personal experience was with the Triumph Herald and Vitesse which handled very well up to a point but if that limit was exceeded the cars would become quite a handful to an experienced driver-the rear wheels would tuck themselves under and the oversteer was alarming and if you applied the brakes when cornering you were really asking for trouble.The Corvair also had the disadantage of the rear engine layout on top of the crude rear suspension.To a nation of people raised on conventional but safe handling cars the rear engined Chevy and its original cheap cost cutting suspension deserves its bad handling reputation.

  18. Corvair- what memories! My buddy’s parents owned a Corvair and a Lotus Elan (talk about contrast!)- mainly, I remember how, back in the day: 1. the motor of the Corvair was popular as a transplant into VW vans and 2. the motor leaked oil like a sieve, even when compared to contemporary vehicles. My brother has an Austin Healey: no oil leaks whatsover- imagine a BRITISH car engine making a US car motor look bad!

  19. FYI: A correction MUST be made about the Copper Cooled Chevy, there is a 1923 Copper Cooler body and cutaway motor (separate) in the Buick Gallery In Flint MI, USA. Please correct this soon.

    1. Fair enough. There are actually several survivors, although not many and not always in one piece. (There’s also an engine in the Heritage Center.)

      1. Thanks for the acknowledgement. If anyone at Flint’s Buick Gallery or any other owner (owner or institution) of a copper cooler (motor or car) reads this, I think they would probably be grateful for their acknowledgement (technically).

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