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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.