At first, Bunkie Knudsen wasn’t worried. A year earlier, he had watched Ford stumble with the V8-powered Falcon Sprint, which was a commercial flop. Although the Mustang had a six-month head start, Knudsen was certain that the Corvair would blow it out of the water. The Corvair was far more sophisticated, arguably better-looking, and offered superior handling, all for a similar price.
The public felt otherwise. For one, the base Mustang had more power than most Corvairs and the Ford’s optional V8 offered 200 or more horsepower (149+ kW) with less fuss than a turbocharged Corsa. (A Corsa turbo was actually about as fast as a Mustang with the base 289 cu. in. (4,728 cc) V8, but that wasn’t obvious to casual shoppers.) Moreover, the Mustang’s blunt, long-hood/short-deck styling seemed to appeal to a broader spectrum of buyers than the Corvair’s Italianate curves. The result was 1960 all over again: The 1965 Corvair soundly trumped Plymouth’s ungainly new Barracuda, but the Mustang outsold the Chevrolet by nearly two to one.
As had happened five years earlier, Chevrolet decided to follow Ford’s lead, developing a conventional, front-engine Mustang rival, based on the Chevy II: the Panther, later renamed Camaro.
That decision once again left the role of the Corvair in doubt. It couldn’t match the Mustang as a sporty car and the Chevy II had more appeal as basic transportation. In April 1965, GM management decided to freeze the Corvair’s engineering development. Styling work on a second-generation “Corvair II” continued for a few more months, but later in the year, it was transferred from the regular Chevrolet styling studio to the research studios. The Corvair was not canceled — it would remain in production as long as there were buyers — but there would be no more design or engineering changes except to meet regulatory requirements. It was the beginning of the end.
UNSAFE AT ANY SPEED
Any hopes of the Corvair fading into a graceful retirement were shattered in the fall of 1965. Just as the 1966 models went on sale, The Nation published “The Corvair Story,” the first chapter of a new book entitled Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile. Written by a young attorney named Ralph Nader, the chapter was an exposé of complaints about the early Corvair’s handling. Nader asserted that Chevrolet engineers had known the Corvair was flawed, but consciously decided not to redesign it — even deleting features that would have helped, like the anti-roll bar — in order to save a few dollars per car.
The Corvair was just the tip of the iceberg. Unsafe at Any Speed was an impassioned indictment of what Nader saw as Detroit’s callous attitude toward safety. His criticism was not limited to the domestic industry; the Volkswagen Beetle received a similar excoriation.
The book’s effect was incendiary. Nader did not invent the safety debate; advocates like Dr. William Haddon, Jr., head of the New York Department of Public Health, had been making similar charges for years. Nader also didn’t invent the charges against the Corvair, most of which came from the previously filed lawsuits. Nonetheless, he soon became the safety movement’s most visible and vocal spokesman.
GM itself inadvertently aided the crusade by arranging to hire private detective Vincent Gillen to follow Nader, hoping to uncover some compromising information to use against him. That effort was in vain and quickly backfired. In March 1966, GM president James Roche was forced to admit the surveillance and make an embarrassing public apology in front of Senator Abe Ribicoff’s subcommittee on traffic safety. Roche’s admission infuriated Congress and validated Nader’s public image as a modern-day David fighting a corporate Goliath. The furor surrounding Roche’s admission, the book, and Nader’s testimony before the Ribicoff committee all played a major role in the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act later that year.
The effect on Corvair sales was predictable. While Nader’s book made clear that his complaints were directed at the 1960–1963 cars, not the much-improved 1964 or totally redesigned 1965 Corvair, the newspaper headlines seldom made that distinction. All the public usually heard was that the Corvair was unsafe. Sales plummeted from more than 237,000 in 1965 to fewer than 104,000 in 1966. For 1967, the Corvair also had new in-house competition from the Camaro, which had conventional engineering and optional V8 power. Corvair sales fell to fewer than 30,000.
THE FINAL DAYS
Despite the Corvair’s tarnished reputation, Ed Cole, who became GM’s executive vice president in July 1965, had not lost interest in the basic concept. Some styling work had already been done on a third-generation Corvair and one version of it, coded XP-849, had reached the full-size model stage by June 1965. Badged “Corvair II,” it bore little resemblance to the second-generation car and was somewhat smaller. (Interestingly, some of the later XP-849 styling studies carry “Viva GT” identification, suggesting some mechanical kinship with the subcompact Vauxhall Viva from GM’s English subsidiary.) This project went on the shelf after Corvair development was frozen, but Cole revived the project in June 1966, now under the auspices of the corporate styling studios and central Engineering Staff rather than Chevrolet.
The revived XP-849, which had a new nose treatment, doesn’t appear to have ever been a production project and was shelved again in June 1967 in favor of a front-engined coupe concept, coded XP-873, but throughout the year, GM exhibited a wild-looking rear-engine concept car dubbed Astro I, ostensibly powered by a bored-out 176 cu. in. (2,879 cc) version of the Corvair’s flat six with new overhead-cam heads and a pair of unusual three-barrel carburetors. Designed by Larry Shinoda, the Astro I was clearly not intended for production — it was not a ‘runner’ and the exotic engine was never actually fitted — but it indicated that GM engineers and stylists still had some interest in the rear-engine layout.
In January 1968, Clare MacKichan’s Advanced studio began one last round of rear-engine concepts, coded XP-892. Although it still had a rear engine, the XP-892 was planned around the Chevy II’s water-cooled 153 cu. in. (2,512 cc) four rather than the Corvair’s air-cooled six. The XP-892 reached the full-size clay model stage by May, but the design apparently failed to impress Cole, who terminated the project for good at the end of June. Cole, by then GM’s president and CEO, turned his attention instead to the corporate XP-887 project, which emerged in 1970 as the Chevrolet Vega.
Meanwhile, the second-generation Corvair stumbled into 1968 with only minor running changes. The slow-selling four-door body style was discontinued, leaving the coupe, in 500 or Monza trim, and the Monza convertible. Sales totaled only about 15,000. The few testers who tried those late-model Corvairs found assembly quality poor, another sign of the car’s imminent extinction.
The Corvair sold only 6,000 units in 1969, which would be its final year. Production ended on May 14. The final car built, a gold two-door hardtop, was the 1,786,243rd Corvair.
Ironically, within a year of the Corvair’s demise, sales of the Mustang and its ilk declined sharply as buyers turned away from the increasingly bloated pony cars in search of cheaper, more frugal compacts. By the time of the 1973 OPEC embargo, Ed Cole lamented that if it were still in production, Chevrolet could have sold all the Corvairs it could build.