Neither the Corvair controversy nor Ralph Nader’s crusade hurt Ed Cole’s career. In October 1967, the GM board appointed him to succeed Jim Roche as GM’s president and chief operating officer. In that role, Cole oversaw the development of the Chevrolet Vega, a new subcompact car that was, in its way, almost as ill-starred (pun intended) as the Corvair. Cole remained president until reaching GM’s mandatory retirement age in September 1974, when he was replaced by E.M. (Pete) Estes. After leaving GM, Cole became chairman of the Checker Motor Corporation. He died in a crash of his private plane in May 1977.
Few of the 150 or so lawsuits filed by Corvair owners made it to trial and GM won most of the handful that did. The large majority were settled out of court. In 1971, responding to pressure from Ralph Nader, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) ran extensive tests on a 1963 Corvair. The NHTSA’s 134-page report, published in July 1972, concluded that the early Corvair’s handling, stability, and rollover risk were no worse than those of the early Ford Falcon or Plymouth Valiant and were actually somewhat better than the contemporary Renault Dauphine or Volkswagen Beetle. The NHTSA then hired three independent engineers to conduct a follow-up study, which returned similar results. In August 1972, the NHTSA sent a letter to all Corvair owners declaring the agency’s conclusion that the early cars were not defective.
In 1974, Chevrolet executives told historian Michael Lamm that Nader’s charges had no real effect on the Corvair’s fate. Even if Unsafe at Any Speed had never been published, GM had already decided to let the second-generation car die a natural death. Many observers have wondered if Nader’s attacks led GM to keep the Corvair alive longer than it otherwise would have just to spite the critics, although everyone Lamm interviewed insisted that wasn’t true. Nonetheless, GM was sufficiently embarrassed by the whole affair that the Corvair virtually disappeared from its official company histories for several years.
More than 40 years after its birth, the Corvair remains controversial. The original model still pops up on lists of the worst cars ever built; as Ralph Nader pointed out in 1965, even some of the journalists who originally praised the Corvair savaged it once it was gone. Some historians call the Corvair a failure, a sentiment that must be carefully qualified. After all, it’s difficult to describe a car that sells 1.8 million units as a flop, and the Monza was a genre-defining success. From a public relations standpoint, however, the Corvair was a debacle, casting a pall that neither the car nor GM has ever fully overcome. Fans will insist that the NHTSA reports exonerated the Corvair, but few engineers have ever really disputed the nature of the early cars’ handling peculiarities, only their severity and whether or not they were unreasonably hazardous. Since most modern Corvair owners know what to expect from their cars, it’s become a moot point.
Surviving Corvairs are moderately collectible, although less so than early Mustangs or Camaros. As with the Porsche 914 and other cars maligned in their day, aficionados staunchly defend the Corvair’s virtues (although there are distinct early- and late-model factions) while taking advantage of its modest prices.
The Corvair was ahead of its time in many respects: monocoque construction, aluminum engines, and independent rear suspensions are now ubiquitous and rear engines have begun to reappear on microcars like the smart fortwo and Tata Nano. On the other hand, you could fairly question whether all the technological fuss was worth the effort. For all its engineering novelty, the Corvair’s performance was little better than that of a contemporary Falcon, a Valiant or, for that matter, Chevrolet’s own Chevy II.
If the Corvair had a singular advantage, it was that was different. Indeed, by the standards of early-sixties domestic sedans, it was positively contrary. If it was flawed, it also had character where the Chevy II was merely anonymous. The Corvair was one of a tiny handful of American cars of this era that dared to break the mold, and perhaps that is itself worthy of celebration. There are still thousands of enthusiastic Corvair fans who would agree wholeheartedly.
The author greatly appreciates the comments and wisdom of Corvair enthusiasts Bob Nichols, Mark Fernandez, Greg Vargas, and the members of South Coast CORSA. Special thanks to Kathy Adelson of the GM Media Archives for providing the archival photo of Ed Cole.
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NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included Gary Aubé, “Corvair Crosa,” (2000–2006, www.corvaircorsa. com, accessed 15 July 2010; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); “How Chevrolet Corvair Works” (14 June 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ chevrolet-corvair.htm, accessed 14 July 2010); “1960-1962 Plymouth Valiant” (28 August 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.how stuffworks. com/ 1960-1962-plymouth-valiant.htm, accessed 15 July 2010), “1962-1967 Chevrolet Chevy II” (2 November 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1962-1967-chevrolet-chevy-ii.htm, accessed 14 July 2010), and Cars That Never Were: The Prototypes (Skokie, IL: Publications International, 1981); “AUTOS: Something of a Victory,” TIME 20 January 1967, www.time. com, accessed 17 July 2010; “AUTOS: The New Generation,” TIME 5 October 1959, www.time. com, accessed 14 July 2010; Patrick Bedard, “If the Corvair Was the Answer, What Was the Question?,” Car and Driver Vol. 24, No. 11 (May 1979), pp. 88-92; Robert P. Benzinger, remarks made at the CORSA National Convention, Seattle, WA, 26 July 1975 (transcribed by Bob Helt and reproduced on the web at www.vv.corvair. org/ Library/ benzinger.htm; accessed 20 July 2010); Ray T. Bohacz, “The Winds of Change: The 1960 air-cooled Chevrolet Corvair,” Special Interest Autos #198 (December 2003), pp. 54–56, and “Under Pressure: The 1963 Corvair Turbocharged Engine,” Hemmings Classic Car #26 (November 2006), pp. 86–89; “Business: The U.S.’s Toughest Customer,” TIME 12 December 1969, www.time. com, accessed 17 July 2010; Bill Carroll, “Inside Pontiac’s Terrific Tempest!” Sports Cars Illustrated October 1960 and “Pontiac Tempest Road Research Report,” Sports Cars Illustrated March 1961, reprinted in Car and Driver on Pontiac 1961–1975, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1986), pp. 5-16; Chevrolet Motor Division of General Motors Corporation, “Corvair by Chevrolet: The Prestige Car in Its Class” [1960 brochure], 1959; “Cole, Edward N.” (n.d., GM Heritage Center, history.gmheritagecenter. com, accessed 14 July 2010); Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, 2nd ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Robert Cumberford, “Who Killed the Corvair?” Car and Driver Vol. 15, No. 2 (August 1969) pp. 34-35, 73; Rad Davis, “Forward Control Corvair Primer” (2005, rad_davis.sent. com/ fc1.html, accessed 14 July 2010); Jim Donnelly, “Corvair Connoisseurs,” Hemmings Classic Car #35 (August 2007) 14–23; Jim Donnelly, “Edward N. Cole,” Hemmings Classic Car #32 (May 2007), p. 76; Robert Gross, “Air-Cooled Authority,” Special Interest Autos #180 (November-December 2000), pp. 12–18; David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Crest Books, 1973), and The Reckoning (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986); Bob Helt, “Government Tests Prove the Corvair Does Not Have a Handling or Stability Problem” (n.d., CorvairCorsa, www.corvaircorsa. com, accessed 17 July 2010), and The Classic Corvair (N.p.: Bob Helt, 2001); Maurice Hendry, Cadillac: Standard of the World: The Complete History (Fourth Edition update by David R. Holls) (Princeton, NJ: Automobile Quarterly, 1990); “How Safe at Any Speed? A critical look at ten years’ progress in car safety,” Autocar 28 February 1976, pp. 8–12; Wick Humble, “1961 Pontiac Tempest: But cars aren’t supposed to have curved driveshafts,” Special Interest Autos #48 (November-December 1978), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Pontiacs: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 74–86; Roger Huntington, “Science and the Chassis Part II: Fundamentals of Suspension,” Car Life Vol. 10, No. 2 (March 1963), pp. 42–45; Lee Iacocca, Iacocca: An Autobiography (New York: Bantam Books, 1984); “Investigations: The Spies Who Were Caught Cold,” TIME 1 April 1966, www.time. com, accessed 17 July 2010; Don Keefe, “1967 Chevy Astro I,” Hemmings Classic Car #15 (December 2005), pp. 64–67; Beverly Rae Kimes, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942, 2nd ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, Inc., 1989); Mike King, “The Corvair’s Granddaddy,” Motor Trend Vol. 16, No. 8 (August 1964), pp. 84-85; David LaChance, “According to Plan: The 1960 Corvair, built with economy in mind,” Hemmings Classic Car #35 (August 2007), pp. 24–29, “Collector Buyer’s Guide: 1961-1962 Corvair Station Wagon,” Hemmings Classic Car #53 (February 2009), pp. 70–75, “The Connecticut Corvair,” Hemmings Classic Car #77 (February 2011), pp. 40–43, and “Vibrant ‘Vairs,” Hemmings Classic Car #35 (August 2007), pp. 14–23; Michael Lamm, “1948 & 1949 Cadillac Fastbacks: Two Very Important Cars!” Special Interest Autos #11 (June-July 1972), pp. 10-17, 56, and “Martyr,” Special Interest Autos #22 (May 1974), reprinted in Corvair Performance Portfolio 1959-1969, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1998), pp. 132-140; Richard Langworth, “Corvairs for the ’70s: What Chevy Might Have Built,” Special Interest Autos #68 (April 1982), pp. 20-27; Karl Ludvigsen’s “The Truth About Chevy’s Cashiered Cadet,” Special Interest Autos #20 (January-February 1974), pp. 16-19; Karl Ludvigsen, “SCI Analyzes Ed Cole’s CORVAIR,” Sports Cars Illustrated November 1959, reprinted in Corvair Performance Portfolio 1959-1969, pp. 5–13, 17; George Mattar, “Cornering Corvair,” Hemmings Muscle Machines #20 (May 2005); Mark J. McCourt, “1965-1966 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa Turbo,” Hemmings Muscle Machines #11 (August 2004), and “Timeline: Chevrolet Corvair, 1960–1969,” Special Interest Autos #198 (December 2003), pp. 22–23; Ralph Nader, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1965); Paul Niedermeyer, “Automotive History: How the 1960 Corvair Started a Global Design Revolution,” Curbside Classic, 15 August 2011, www.curbsideclassic. com/ automotive-histories/ automotive-history-how-the-1960-corvair-started-a-global-design- revolution/, accessed 15 August 2011; the Old Car Brochures website (oldcarbrochures.org); Stuart Shepard, et al, Corvair Basics (N.p.: CORSA, 2003), pp. 59-60; Rich Taylor, “Boss Kett’s Dog: 1923 Chevrolet Copper-Cooled,” Special Interest Autos #30 (September-October 1975), pp. 44-51; “3 Station Buses,” Car Life September 1961, pp. 20–25; J. Patrick Wright, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors: John Z. DeLorean’s Look Inside the Automotive Giant (Chicago, IL: Avon Books, 1980); and Anthony Young and Mike Mueller, Classic Chevy Hot Ones: 1955–1957 2nd ed. (Ann Arbor, MI: Lowe & B. Hould Publishers, 2002).
We also consulted the following period road tests: “Corvair: Away with the myths, up with an important and very sound new car (Road & Track Road Test 244),” Road & Track November 1959; “Corvair automatic transmission (Road & Track Road Test 235),” Road & Track February 1960; Floyd Clymer, “Road Test of the Corvair ‘Monza,'” Automobile Topics September 1960; “The Corvair 700 de luxe Sedan,” Car (South Africa) November 1960; “Corvair 4-Speed (Road & Track Road Test 266),” Road & Track November 1960; Jerry Titus, “Why Doesn’t the Corvair Handle?” Foreign Cars Illustrated November 1960, “Hot and Cold Running Monzas,” Sports Car Graphic June 1961, and “Driver’s Report: Corvair with RPOs,” Sports Car Graphic December 1961; “Corvair Among Coconuts,” Modern Motor September 1961; “Corvair,” Motor Life November 1961; “Monza Sprint,” Car and Driver December 1961; “Turbocharged Monza Spyder,” Car and Driver June 1962; “Corvair Monza Spyder,” Car (South Africa) July 1962; Harvey B. Janes, “Driving the Corvair Sprint,” Road & Track November 1962; “Car and Driver Road Test: Corvair Monza Spyder: Poor Man’s Porsche adds a ‘Super’ to the top of the line,” Car and Driver May 1963; “EMPI-Equipped Corvair Monza,” Car Life September 1963; “Corvair Monza,” Motor Sports Illustrated December 1963; “1964 Corvair Monza 4-speed, 110-bhp,” Car Life February 1964; “Corvair Sprint,” Road & Track July 1964; Jerry Titus, “’65 Corvairs: Although the changes aren’t sensational, they do make a great deal of difference!” Sports Car Graphic October 1964; John Ethridge, “Corvair Corsa Road Test,” Motor Trend January 1965; “Corvair Monza,” Track & Traffic February 1965; David Phipps, “The Chevrolet Corvair,” Sporting Motorist February 1965; “Corvair Sprint,” Car and Driver September 1965; “IECO Corvair,” Car Life September 1965; “Chevrolet Corvair,” Road Test November 1965; “Ram Induction for the Corvair,” Auto Topics June 1966; John Lawlor, “Corvair – All Washed Up?” Motorcade September 1966; “Chevrolet Corvair Corsa,” Motor 17 September 1966; Tom McCahill, “is the Corvair REALLY Unsafe?” Mechanix Illustrated March 1967; “Corvair Monza Sport Coupe,” Car Life January 1968; and “Retesting a Slow Corvair,” Car Life May 1968, all of which are reprinted in Corvair Performance Portfolio 1959-1969 (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1998); “Comparing Corvair, Falcon, and Valiant,” Motor Life December 1959, reprinted in Falcon Performance Portfolio 1960-1970, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1998); “Corvair Is Exciting to Drive, But Needs more Economy, say Owners,” Popular Mechanics March 1960, pp. 124–128, 272–276; Ken Fermoyle, “The Facts Behind Those Corvair Stories,” Popular Science May 1960, pp. 78–81, 217–218; Ken Fermoyle and Devon Francis, “New U.S. Small Cars,” Popular Science October 1959, pp. 108–121; Devon Francis, “New turbocharger makes Corvair 150 Horses Hot,” Popular Science April 1962, pp. 77–80, 243, and “What’s Coming in the 1963 Cars,” Popular Science July 1962, pp. 46–49; Jim Whipple, “Owners Find Nimble, Sporty Corvair a ‘Fun Car’ With a Few Rough Edges,” Popular Mechanics September 1961, pp. 106–109, 274–280, “Spotlight on the Turbocharged Olds F-85 and Corvair,” Popular Mechanics May 1962, pp. 60–62, and “The ’64s,” Popular Mechanics October 1963, pp. 90–103, 238–240.
Additional information on the mechanics of swing-axle and semi-trailing arm suspensions came from Herb Adams, Chassis Engineering HP1055 (New York: HPBooks, 1993); Johannes W. Rosenkrands, assignor to General Motors, “Swing Axle Rear Suspension,” U.S. Patent No. 3,020,061, applied 11 January 1960 and issued 6 February 1962; and Mark Wan, “Suspension Geometry” (2000, Autozine, www.autozine. org/ technical_school/ suspension/ tech_suspension2.htm, last accessed 14 July 2010).
Some additional background on the M-41 Light Tank came from The Editors of Publications International, “M-41 Walker Bulldog Light Tank” (17 November 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, science.howstuffworks. com/ m-41-walker-bulldog-light-tank.htm, accessed 16 July 2010).