Contrary Compact: 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 U.S. federal safety legislation. Automotive historian Michael Lamm called this car 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. WARNING: The article contains an animated GIF.

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 dimensions of 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, with those countries’ displacement-based taxable horsepower rules. 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, albeit 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, then the head of Chevrolet’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, using an early version of what is now known as MacPherson strut suspension both front and rear. 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, frustrating 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. Some of 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 from Northamptonshire, England (Lumix) (CC BY 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: “Ford Consul Mk 1 1955” © 2010 Mick from Northamptonshire, England (Lumix); resized and 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 Aero Willys 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 milking cows and building and selling radio kits. 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 design engineer 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 to almost 2,900 employees. 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 light tank © 2007 Stan Shebs (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
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. This made 500 gross horsepower (373 kW), giving the 25-ton Walker Bulldog a top road speed of about 45 mph (72 km/h). (Photo: “M41 Walker Bulldog at Overton 4” © 2007 Stan Shebs; resized and 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) or 180 hp (134 kW) with the optional four-barrel carburetor and dual exhausts.

In the mid-fifties, each GM division still handled much of its own research and development work. In 1955, Cole ordered Chevrolet R&D director Maurice Olley to compare the merits of various layouts and powertrain configurations, including front-engine/rear-drive (FR), front-engine/front-wheel-drive (FF), and rear-engine/rear-drive (RR). The FR configuration was abandoned early on, 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, often balky steering of most contemporary FF cars was deemed unacceptable.

The rear-engine, rear-drive (RR) layout, then used by Volkswagen, Renault, and Fiat, among others, offered packaging, weight, and traction advantages as well as the prospect of lighter steering. This was in keeping with Cole’s own thoughts on the matter; 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. For example, the rear-engine layout 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, even assigning Holden part numbers to the new components and using Holden stationery and purchase order forms. (In the fifties, Chevrolet regularly did R&D work for both Holden and Opel, so this was a reasonably plausible cover story.) 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, so their effectiveness was largely a fortuitous accident.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the new car’s design was the engine. Cole, Olley, and project engineers Al Kolbe and Robert Benzinger decided that water cooling was impractical with the RR layout, so the car would need an all-new air-cooled engine. Kolbe and Benzinger quickly concluded that the engine needed to be a six; a four would have been simpler, cheaper, and more economical, but wouldn’t be smooth enough for American tastes. For packaging reasons, the project engineers also eschewed inline sixes in favor of a horizontally opposed “boxer” 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 — despite the objections of Alfred Sloan, then on GM’s advisory committee — in early 1923. The engine was both difficult to assemble and disastrously unreliable, so 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 (unlikely) 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; the engine of a third car 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 Porsche would later build successful air-cooled sixes for more than 30 years, the first six-cylinder 911 was still seven years in the future when the Chevrolet project began. Air-cooled twins and fours were common enough in motorcycles and small European cars and Tatra had a 2,472 cc (151 cu. in.) air-cooled V8, but at that time, air-cooled flat sixes were mostly found in aircraft, tanks, or industrial applications, all of which had manufacturing requirements and operating characteristics too different from those of mass market passenger car engines to offer much in the way of useful precedent.

An additional challenge was weight. To keep weight distribution to manageable proportions, the engine’s target weight was only 288 lb (131 kg). To achieve that, Cole proposed making the engine all-aluminum and casting it in symmetrical top and bottom halves, joined at the horizontal centerline. To obviate the need for separate cylinder liners, he also wanted to use a special high-silicon aluminum alloy (akin to the A390 alloy later used in the engine of the Chevrolet Vega). Both of these ideas proved to be well beyond Chevrolet’s practical manufacturing capabilities, so the final engine design ended up with detachable cast-iron cylinder barrels, a two-piece aluminum crankcase, and detachable aluminum cylinder heads with integral intake manifolds. In final form, the 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 still over its original design target.

Valve actuation was via pushrods and rocker arms (pivoted on rocker studs like those of Chevrolet’s contemporary small block V8) driven by a single gear-driven camshaft, carried in the crankcase below the crank. Unlike most European engines of the time, the engine used hydraulic lifters, which were an engineering headache, but eliminated the need for routine valve adjustments. Valve diameters were small and valve timing was deliberately mild, trading breathing capability and ultimate power for low-end torque. The same was true of the standard carburetion setup, which used one single-venturi Rochester carburetor for each cylinder bank.

Engine cooling was provided by an 11-inch (279mm) 24-blade engine-driven fan. For packaging reasons, the fan was mounted horizontally, driven by a torturous-looking “mule drive” belt that also operated the generator. There was also a thermostatically controlled oil-to-air oil cooler, mounted adjacent to the oil pump.

1960 Chevrolet Corvair Powerglide shifter
Chevrolet’s original plan was for all Corvairs to have Powerglide as standard equipment, but the sales organization balked at the effect on the list price, 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 was the standard stick shift. The Corvair Powerglide had no parking pawl, however; automatic Corvairs had to rely on the handbrake.

The engine’s position precluded the use of the live axle rear suspension common to all fifties Chevrolets (including the Corvette), so the rear-engine car had swing-arm rear suspension, using the axle halfshafts as control arms. Robert Schilling, who in early 1956 replaced Maurice Olley as director of research, attempted to counteract some of the oversteer inherent to swing-axle designs by supplementing the halfshafts with semi-trailing arms, but as we’ll see, this was not entirely successful.

THE RIGHT TIME, THE RIGHT PLACE

In September 1957, shortly after Ned Nickles’ team had completed the first full-size clay models of the rear-engine “Holden,” Ed Cole finally revealed the full-size clay model to GM president Harlow Curtice and explained the entire project. Curtice was extremely skeptical, but Cole had prepared answers for every question, including logistical issues like production facilities and raw materials.

By then, the U.S. economy was skidding into recession, sending buyers in search of more economical cars. Volkswagen was rapidly emerging as a serious threat, with a growing, well-organized service and sales operation (even before the advent of the brilliant and now legendary marketing campaign later devised by Doyle Dane Bernbach). The time was ripe for a Big Three compact and Cole argued that Ford and Chrysler were sure to jump on the opportunity whether Chevrolet did or not. (At that point, he was probably not specifically aware of Ford and Chrysler’s own compact car projects, which were then in a very early stage of development, but it was a logical supposition and, as things turned out, wholly correct.)

With Curtice’s tentative support, Cole made his formal pitch to the corporate Engineering Policy Committee about three months later, not long after the first prototype flat sixes started dyno testing. GM’s 1958 models had debuted some weeks earlier to generally dismal response and the 1958 model year was shaping up to be the corporation’s worst in recent memory. In that uncomfortable climate, Cole won approval for his compact, rear engine and all.

1960 Chevrolet Corvair Chevrolet badge
Chevrolet produced the Corvair’s unitized bodies at Willow Run, the massive one-time bomber plant that GM had bought from Kaiser-Frazer in 1953. Corvair engines were manufactured in the Chevrolet plant in Tonawanda, New York. Because Chevrolet had little practical experience with aluminum engines in those days, the division had to enlist a German firm, Karl Schmidt Metallschmelzwerk, to help develop molds and foundry procedures.

The first running prototype, still badged as a Holden, was ready by the summer of 1958. It was still theoretically secret, although that September, Motor Life published a detailed preview of the new car, allegedly based on studying Chevrolet’s parts and tooling orders. Chevrolet officially announced the new car in May 1959. It took its name from a 1954 show car: Chevrolet Corvair.

CHEAP, BUT NOT CHEERFUL

By mid-1958, it was clear that the domestic compact market, which had looked rather vacant when the Corvair’s development began, was about to become very crowded indeed. As Cole had anticipated, that spring, Ford had approved the Falcon, and Chrysler the compact Valiant. Studebaker was busily preparing its compact Lark for 1959, beating the Corvair by a full year. The Rambler Six and Rambler American, meanwhile, were posting record sales.

As the Corvair moved closer to production, the project engineers began to clash with the sales organization over production costs. With so much competition, the Corvair’s starting price was going to be crucial. The result was a last-minute de-contenting program. The trim of the base model was downgraded significantly and features that were intended to be standard were moved to the options list or deleted entirely. Some of those omissions would turn out to have unintended consequences.

1961 Chevrolet Corvair 700 sedan rear 3q
The first Chevrolet Corvair was 180 inches (4,572 mm) long on a 108-inch (2,743 mm) wheelbase, standing only 51.5 inches (1,308 mm) high. A 700 sedan with Powerglide weighed about 2,480 lb (1,125 kg). This 700 sedan is actually a 1961 model. Although it looks much like the first-year car on the outside, there were extensive detail changes, so the 1960 Corvair was in some ways a one-year model.

The Corvair went on sale on Friday, October 2, 1959, about a week before the Falcon and nearly a month before the Valiant. The Corvair was initially available only as a four-door sedan with a base price of $2,038. That was $137 less than the cheapest full-size Chevy Biscayne, but over $120 more than the cheapest Falcon.

The Corvair’s performance was much better than that of most European or Japanese imports of its era. It was capable of 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in a bit under 18 seconds and a top speed of around 85 mph (137 km/h) — not outstanding, but adequate for American traffic and not far behind most six-cylinder full-size cars. Fuel economy averaged about 20 mpg (11.8 L/100 km) in urban driving, reaching perhaps 25 mpg (9.4 L/100 km) on the road. Most of the imports could do better, but the Corvair could seat six adults in only moderate discomfort, something few contemporary European sedans could boast. The Corvair rode well and its steering, although rather slow, was light enough that power assistance was neither necessary nor available.

1960 Chevrolet Corvair front
When the Corvair debuted, it was one of a very few American cars without a grille. Chevrolet stylists had to settle for minor variations in front-end trim to distinguish each successive model year. The 1960 models, like this 700 coupe, carried their spare tires up front, reducing usable cargo space. In 1961, the spare moved to the engine compartment to free up room in the ‘trunk.’

All that was commendable, but the other domestic compacts offered similar performance and accommodations despite their comparatively mundane engineering. Despite the low-slung roof, the Corvair’s flat floor provided somewhat better passenger space than did the Falcon or Valiant, but the Corvair had less than half their luggage space. The cost-cutting had also left the basic Corvair 500 with a rather downmarket interior. Not only was it missing some essential features, like windshield washers, some popular extra-cost accessories weren’t widely available until months after launch.

The Corvair was well received by the motoring press, which had long bemoaned the oppressive sameness of Detroit engineering. The air-cooled Chevrolet also made a strong impression on manufacturers overseas. Its styling directly influenced at least half a dozen later European cars. American buyers, however, were less easily convinced. For shoppers looking for straightforward basic transportation, a Rambler or a Falcon seemed like a safer bet.

1960 Chevrolet Corvair back seat
To make up for the Corvair’s lack of luggage space compared to front-engine rivals, Chevrolet offered a fold-down rear seat, which was standard on coupes, a $32.50 option on sedans. Chevrolet claimed it added 13.3 cu. ft. (377 liters) of cargo room.

To Chevrolet’s undoubted dismay, the Falcon quickly emerged as the best-selling domestic compact, followed by the Rambler Six. The Corvair did outsell the peculiarly styled Valiant, but for a Chevrolet to fail to beat its direct Ford rival was a reversal of the usual order of things. In December 1959, barely two months after the Corvair’s debut, Ed Cole ordered a crash program to develop a conventionally engineered Falcon-fighter, the 1962 Chevy II.

CORVAIR MONZA

With the decision to develop the Chevy II, the question became what to do with the Corvair. Although it had fallen short of Chevrolet’s optimistic projections, it was hardly a sales disaster. Furthermore, its development and tooling costs had been substantial and a host of minor revisions had already been made for the ’61 models. There would be no dumping unsold cars in the lake this time. What the Corvair needed was a new direction.

1960 Chevrolet Corvair front 3q
The Corvair coupe arrived in May 1960, at the same time as the Monza. All 1960 Monzas were coupes, but not all coupes were Monzas — the two-door was available in all three trim series. Since the coupe was slightly cheaper than a comparable sedan, it quickly became the best-selling body style.

Chevrolet found its answer in a new model called Monza. Introduced at the Chicago Auto Show in February 1960, the Monza was a sleek pillared coupe with a sporty trim package that included bucket seats, wire wheels, and a sunroof. The Monza was originally just an auto show confection, created to promote interest in the new coupe body style, but public response was so strong that Chevrolet hastened to develop a production version, which bowed in May.

The Monza, which cost $189 more than a Corvair 700, was basically a trim package, but to bolster its sporty pretensions, Chevrolet added an optional “Super Turbo-Air” engine with a hotter cam and 95 gross horsepower (71 kW). A Monza with the Super Turbo-Air engine was less tractable than the base car, with a noticeably lumpier idle, but was capable of reaching 60 mph (97 km/h) almost 4 seconds quicker than the standard car with very little sacrifice in fuel economy. A four-speed manual gearbox, cleverly engineered from the existing three-speed, was announced around the same time, but didn’t actually become available on production cars until the introduction of the 1961 models later that year.

1960 Chevrolet Corvair rear 3q
The early Corvair had drum brakes of 9.0-inch (229mm) diameter. Although the rear weight bias provided good braking control, the lining area was not generous, so fade resistance wasn’t outstanding. Metallic linings became optional in 1962, and the 1964 model got finned rear drums for better heat dissipation. The Corvair didn’t get self-adjusting brakes until 1963. Forward Controls, which had bigger, 11-inch (279mm) drums, didn’t receive self-adjustment until 1964.

Despite its late introduction, the Monza sold almost 12,000 units in the last five months of the model year. In 1961, the Monza became the best-selling Corvair model by a margin of nearly two to one. The Monza line was expanded to include a four-door sedan in March 1961, followed in 1962 by a convertible and even a wagon. Thanks to the Monza, Corvair sales climbed from about 250,000 units in 1960 to almost 330,000 in both 1961 and 1962.

The Monza soon emerged as one of the most influential American cars of this era, revealing a healthy market for inexpensive, reasonably practical cars with a sporty flair. Aside from its direct imitators, which included the Falcon Futura, Lark Daytona, and Valiant Signet, the Monza’s success led to the emergence of the Ford Mustang, Plymouth Barracuda, and other “pony cars.” It also spawned a thriving aftermarket accessory business, offering everything from sport wheels to complete tuned cars like racing driver John Fitch’s Corvair Sprint.

SIDEBAR: Forward Control

The Monza was not the only novel derivative of the early Corvair. In September 1960, Chevrolet introduced the FC95 series, a line of commercial vehicles modeled on and presumably inspired by Volkswagen’s popular Type 2 Transporter. The FC95 line including the Greenbrier Sportwagon passenger van; a cargo van, dubbed “Corvan”; and two pickup trucks, the Loadside (with a rear tailgate) and the Rampside (with a side-opening load ramp). All rode a shortened version of the Corvair sedan platform with a 95-inch (2,413 mm) wheelbase and various modifications to suit the FCs’ load-hauling role. All were powered by a special heavy-duty version of the standard Corvair engine, although 1964-65 Greenbriers could be also ordered with the 110 hp (82 kW) engine optional in other Corvairs.

1962 Chevrolet Corvair Rampside front 3q
With its unusual and useful load ramp, the Rampside truck outsold the more conventional Loadside by a significant margin. Many Rampsides were sold to Bell Telephones for use by repair and installation crews.

The Forward Control Corvairs were sold mostly to commercial customers, not as part of the regular Corvair line, but starting in 1961, there was also a conventional station wagon, the Corvair Lakewood. Available in either 500 or 700 trim (and briefly as a Monza in 1962), it was not a strong seller and it was discontinued in April 1962. The FC95 series did better, but it was quickly outmatched by the much cheaper Ford Econoline, so sales dropped off rapidly after the first year. The Loadside lasted only only two years while the others survived through 1964. About 1,500 Greenbriers were sold as 1965 models, but they were still based on the first-generation Corvair; sales didn’t justify developing a new version based on the second-generation model. Some of the Forward Controls are very rare, making survivors quite collectible today.

1961 Chevrolet Corvair Greenbrier front 3q
The Greenbrier Sportwagon was better trimmed than other FC95 Corvairs, with carpeting and two-tone paint. Deluxe models were appointed much like the 700 sedan. Greenbriers outsold the rest of the Forward Controls, with a total of 57,986 units in five years.

SPYDER TURBO

In April 1962, the Corvair achieved a new distinction: it became the world’s first gasoline-powered, turbocharged production car, narrowly beating Oldsmobile’s turbocharged F-85 Jetfire.

The popularity of the Corvair’s uprated Super Turbo-Air engine suggested that there would be a market for something even hotter. Bob Benzinger, who had become the Corvair’s chief engine designer in 1959, was no doubt aware that aftermarket suppliers were selling at least three different supercharger kits for the Corvair, so he assigned engineers James Brafford and Robert Thoreson to develop a production version.

Packaging and cost considerations quickly led Brafford and Thoreson to abandon belt-driven mechanical superchargers in favor of turbocharging, which also imposed less of a fuel economy penalty. Although the Corvair engine and clutch had to be beefed up considerably to survive the higher temperatures and pressures of forced induction, the turbo installation was very simple. It used a small TRW turbocharger with a maximum of 10 psi (0.69 bars) of boost, breathing through a single side-draft Carter carburetor; a crossover tube fed the pressurized mixture into intake ports on both sides of the engine. The turbocharger had neither an intercooler nor a wastegate; detonation was controlled by a lower compression ratio and a revised ignition curve that retarded the spark timing at mid-range engine speeds.

1962 Chevrolet Corvair Spyder turbocharged badge
The turbocharged engine was introduced as a Monza option package, dubbed Spyder, in April 1962. It was initially priced at $317.45, which didn’t include the mandatory four-speed gearbox, heavy-duty suspension, or metallic brakes. That fall, the Spyder became available with the three-speed stick, but the turbocharger was never offered with Powerglide. Chevrolet tested the combination, but found that with no wastegate, the momentary overboost when the transmission upshifted caused catastrophic engine damage.

The turbocharged Monza, dubbed Spyder, was rated at 150 gross horsepower (112 kW) and 210 lb-ft (284 N-m) of torque. A four-speed Monza Spyder was capable of reaching 60 mph (97 km/h) in 11 seconds or less and had a top speed of well over 100 mph (161 km/h), although extracting that performance in the real world could be frustrating. There was considerable turbo lag below 2,800 rpm, boost faded well short of the 5,300-rpm tachometer redline, and the four-speed’s ratios weren’t well matched to the turbo’s power curve. Nonetheless, the Spyder package made for a very sporty Corvair. In fact, its performance was similar to that of a Porsche 356 Super 90 at about half the price.

1960 Chevrolet Corvair dash
The standard Corvair had only a speedometer and a fuel gauge. The Spyder had a new dash with a round speedometer, a tachometer, a trip odometer, a manifold pressure gauge, and a cylinder-head temperature gauge. The latter was supplemented by a red warning light and buzzer that activated if the head temperature exceeded 575° F (302° C).

Even without the turbocharger, the Corvair was an attractively styled, reasonably priced car with sensible exterior dimensions and an appealing blend of performance and fuel economy. Like a classical Greek hero, however, those virtues would ultimately be overshadowed by a single tragic flaw.

THE CORVAIR’S FLAW

The Corvair’s tail-heavy, rear-engine layout had a number of effects on its performance, some good, some less so. With nearly 64% of the car’s static weight on the driving wheels, winter traction was excellent. The rear weight bias aided braking as well, although the early Corvair’s brakes still faded heavily in hard use. On the other side of the ledger, the Corvair was more sensitive to crosswinds than was a typical front-engine car. Also, in fast turns, the Corvair’s rear tires lost their grip first, sending the tail sliding toward the outside of the turn — a condition engineers describe as terminal oversteer.

1960 Chevrolet Corvair rear
The early Corvair’s rear suspension was a modified swing-axle design, carrying its rear wheel hubs on both diagonal semi-trailing arms and the axle half-shafts, which were connected to the transaxle with a single universal joint on each side. Because the trailing arms and swing axles pivoted on the same axis, however, the suspension was subject to the same extreme camber changes as a ‘pure’ swing-axle layout.

The Corvair’s oversteer was the product of both its weight distribution and its suspension design. With the engine behind the rear axle, the rear springs had to be quite stiff to support its weight. The rear coils of the early Corvair were more than twice as stiff as the rear springs of a contemporary full-size Chevrolet. As a result, the Corvair had very high rear roll stiffness, something that was exaggerated by the geometry of the rear suspension.

Body roll is in part a function of the distance between the center of gravity and the suspension’s roll center (the axis on which the car’s sprung mass rotates when lateral force is applied to it). Because of its swing axles, the Corvair’s rear suspension had a high static roll center, which effectively increased the rear roll stiffness even further. Roll stiffness reduces body lean in turns, but it also increases the slip angle of the outside wheel (the angle between the direction the tire is pointed and the direction it is actually rolling). Since the Corvair had much higher roll stiffness in the rear than in the front, the rear tires’ slip angles were higher than those of the fronts, resulting in oversteer.

Oversteer is not necessarily any more dangerous than understeer — either can put a car in the weeds. However, few American driver-education programs teach the techniques involved in correcting oversteer and many of an untrained driver’s knee-jerk responses will make the effect worse. For that reason, most automakers try to tune their cars for final understeer, which is easier for the average driver to manage.

The early Corvair’s real Achilles heel was not oversteer, but another side effect of the swing-axle rear suspension: jacking. In a hard turn, the halfshaft of the outside rear wheel would drop below the pivot point of its universal joint. As cornering forces increased, the halfshaft then acted as a lever, forcing the tail upward. As the tail rose, the outside rear wheel would “tuck under,” assuming an exaggerated positive camber angle that would weaken and eventually break the tire tread’s already-tenuous grip on the pavement.

The result of this progression was a sudden burst of non-linear oversteer. It was not always easy to predict at exactly what point the tail would break loose and catching it was not always easy. (This behavior was by no means exclusive to the Corvair. Most cars with swing-axle rear suspensions suffered it to one degree or another, the most notorious example being the Mercedes-Benz 300SL “gullwing” coupe. The early (1961–1962) Pontiac Tempest also behaved similarly for the same reasons.)

animated illustration of swing-axle jacking effect
This diagram illustrates the nature of the jacking effect. The actual degree of jacking depends on the specific geometry and roll stiffness of the rear suspension. The effect can be mitigated by body roll, which reduces the magnitude of the forces involved and transfers weight onto the outside wheel, thereby resisting the vertical component of those forces. However, early Corvairs had such high rear roll stiffness that there was little weight transfer and the geometry of the swing arms would basically allow the halfshaft to ‘lock’ against the U-joint and act as a lever. (Please note: the degree of motion in the above animation has been exaggerated for illustration purposes. This diagram does not reflect the actual geometry of the production Corvair suspension!)

Chevrolet engineers were well aware of these tendencies and took several measures to alleviate them. The semi-trailing arms caused some rear steering, changing the toe angles of the rear wheels to induce understeer in turns. The original design also specified a front anti-roll bar to increase front roll stiffness. The anti-roll bar wouldn’t have changed the rear suspension’s behavior, but by increasing the slip angles of the front wheels, it would have caused the front end to wash out well before the rear tires reached their limits of adhesion.

Unfortunately, the anti-roll bar became a casualty of the last-minute cost-cutting program. As a cheaper stopgap, Chevrolet specified unequal tire pressures: 15 psi (1.03 bars) in front, 26 psi (1.79 bars) in back. The lower pressures reduced the grip of the front tires, effectively promoting understeer. It was at best a half-measure and the lower pressures served to reduce the load capacity of the front tires by 40%, which meant that a full load of passengers and luggage would strain the load capacity of the 13-inch tires. In any event, few owners observed the recommended pressures and even Chevrolet dealers offered differing opinions about the best settings.

In normal driving, neither the oversteer nor the jacking was usually an issue. Many owners drove their Corvairs for years without noticing anything unusual about the handling. A sudden maneuver taken at too high a speed on an unfamiliar road, however, could provoke an unexpectedly severe response. Since many Corvair owners had never owned a swing-axle car before, the effect was not unlike a normally docile family dog suddenly going for its owner’s throat. Even knowledgeable drivers could be caught off-guard; John DeLorean later claimed that Chevrolet engineer Frank Winchell actually flipped a Corvair prototype at the GM proving grounds in Milford, Michigan.

Early (1960–1963) Corvairs were involved in a number of serious, occasionally fatal single-car accidents, including the crash that killed comedian Ernie Kovacs in January 1962. Some of those accidents struck very close to home. The Corvair was very popular as a personal car for GM employees and their families and at least two children of senior executives died in accidents involving Corvairs. According to DeLorean, the niece of Pontiac’s Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen was injured in a similar crash.

Some owners filed civil lawsuits against General Motors, charging that the Corvair was unsafe. By 1965, there were more than 100 such suits. GM strenuously denied any mechanical fault, blaming the accidents on driver error or road conditions, but Chevrolet, perhaps stung by the accusations, developed an optional handling package to rectify the problem, followed in 1964 by an extensive revamp of the standard suspension (see sidebar below). Nonetheless, the accusations and lawsuits would eventually do serious damage to the Corvair’s reputation.

SIDEBAR: Taking the Sting out of the Swing Axle

The aftermarket offered a variety of handling fixes for the Corvair, including anti-roll bars, decambering kits, and camber compensators. Chevrolet followed suited in the fall of 1961, introducing an optional heavy-duty suspension package, RPO 696. Priced at only $10.80, it restored the front anti-roll bar that had been eliminated from the original design and added limiter straps for the rear swing axle, stiffer shocks, and stiffer springs. The latter were actually shorter than the stock rear springs, which served to decamber the rear wheels, trading the stock Corvair’s slight positive camber (wheels bowed outward at the top) for a few degrees of static negative camber (wheels bowed slightly inward).

The optional suspension had several effects. First, it increased the roll stiffness of the front suspension, adding more understeer to balance the rear suspension’s inherent oversteer. (This also served to reduce the Corvair’s tendency to wander in crosswinds, a useful side effect.) Second, the limiter straps and decambered rear springs lowered the rear suspension’s static roll center. Although that actually served to increase rear roll stiffness, the new geometry reduced the jacking effect. The static negative camber and limiter straps also prevented the rear wheels from reaching the same extremes of positive camber as the standard suspension, discouraging tuck-under. Contemporary testers found that these change made the Corvair much more predictable in fast cornering; a Corvair with the H-D suspension still tended to oversteer, but the previous erratic behavior was largely tamed.

swing axle camber animated gif
In a swing-axle suspension, there is only one universal joint on each side of the differential. As a result, the wheel hub must always remain perpendicular to the axle half-shaft, resulting in substantial camber changes as the wheel moves from jounce to rebound. Radical camber changes can dramatically reduce traction; a tire has the most grip with a camber angle of zero (i.e., completely vertical). In 1962–1963, the Corvair’s optional H-D suspension included limiter straps to restrict the motion of the swing arms. (Please note that the degree of camber change has been exaggerated for illustration purposes. The diagram is NOT to scale and does NOT reflect the actual geometry of the production Corvair suspension.)

While the suspension kit improved handling, it had several negative consequences that may have discouraged Chevrolet from making the revisions standard equipment. First, heavy loads would further increase the negative camber of the rear wheels, enough to cause exaggerated and uneven tire wear. Second, the stiffer springs and limiter straps also produced a much knobbier ride, which Chevrolet feared not all customers would accept. As for the anti-roll bar, DeLorean insisted that it came down to cost.

(We should note that there was not universal agreement about the value of the anti-roll bar. John Fitch settled for decambering the rear wheels of his Corvair Sprint. Unless the customer requested otherwise, Fitch actually removed the anti-roll bar from cars so equipped, deeming it unnecessary. Period testers claimed that the Sprint handled as well as if not better than the factory H-D kit, although the Fitch modifications’ effects on tire wear were not recorded.)

1964 Chevrolet Corvair 110 engine © 2005 Stephen Foskett (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
Along with a revised suspension, the 1964 Corvair got a bigger “Turbo-Air” engine: A stroke increase from 2.60 inches (66 mm) to 2.94 inches (74.6 mm), increasing displacement to 164 cu. in. (2,685 cc). The base engine now had 95 gross horsepower (71 kW), but many cars, including this one, had the optional 110 hp (82 kW) version. (Note that despite the “Turbo-Air” trade name, this engine is not turbocharged; the gross horsepower rating is printed on a decal on the air cleaner.) Both engines carried over into the second-generation Corvair in 1965. (Photo: “Chevrolet Corvair 164 Turbo engine” © 2005 Stephen Foskett; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

When Knudsen became general manager of Chevrolet in 1961, he lobbied for more extensive changes to the suspensions of all Corvairs. DeLorean later alleged that Knudsen had to threaten to resign before the Executive Committee would authorize the cost of redesigning the suspension; we have not been able to verify that claim in other sources.

In any case, the front anti-roll bar finally became standard across the line for the 1964 model year. At the same time, the rear coil springs were softened considerably and a transverse leaf spring was added to the rear suspension. The auxiliary spring, broadly similar to the “camber compensators” offered by the aftermarket, supported part of the weight of the rear end and resisted deflection of the swing axles, but was mounted in such a way that it would not resist body roll. Combined with the softer rear coils, the 1964 Corvair had greatly reduced rear roll stiffness, reducing both jacking and radical camber changes. It also had a much softer ride than the previous heavy-duty suspension. Many critics felt Chevrolet should have adopted the 1964 approach from the start.

The second-generation Corvair, introduced in 1965, had a completely different multilink rear suspension that mitigated most of these issues. The new suspension still had some jacking — a side effect of using the half-shafts as control arms — but a lower roll center and softer rear springs reduced its magnitude. The double-jointed half-shafts (with U-joints on both ends of the half-shafts) also provided a much longer effective swing-arm length, greatly reducing the original layout’s radical camber changes.

CORVAIR MK 2

In 1961, Ed Cole was promoted to group vice president of the car and truck group, ceding the management of Chevrolet to Bunkie Knudsen. Under Knudsen’s leadership, Chevrolet began work on the second-generation Corvair, which arrived for the 1965 model year.

The new Corvair, designed by Henry Haga’s Chevrolet 2 studio, under the supervision of Chevrolet chief stylist Ron Hill, was one of the prettiest cars to come out of GM in this era. The new Corvair retained some of the basic themes of the first-generation car, but was sleeker and more curvaceous, with new hardtop roof lines for both two- and four-door models.

1966 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa front 3q © 2009 Staffan Vilcans/Liftarn (CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic)
The second-generation Chevrolet Corvair is longer and wider than the first-generation car, 183.3 inches (4,656 mm) long and 69.7 inches (1,770 mm) wide. Although it doesn’t look it, the coupe is slightly taller and about 50 lb (23 kg) heavier than its predecessor. Aside from the new suspension, other useful additions for the second generation included bigger brakes (9.5-inch/241mm drums borrowed from the Chevelle) and five-lug hubs, which allowed the use of bigger wheels from other Chevrolets. (Photo: “Chevrolet Corvair” © 2009 Staffan Vilcans (Liftarn); used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)

Under the skin, the swing axles and semi-trailing arms were gone, replaced by an entirely new three-link rear suspension. Developed by Frank Winchell and Zora Arkus-Duntov, the new layout was based on the rear suspension of the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray. The wheel hubs were now carried on long trailing arms with small lateral links to adjust toe-in. The wheel hubs were now carried on long trailing arms with small lateral links to adjust toe-in. The half-shafts, now pivoted at both ends, acted as upper control arms while two lateral links acted as lower arms. Unlike the Sting Ray, the Corvair used rear coil springs. The 1964 Corvair’s additional transverse leaf spring was deleted as it was no longer necessary.

With the new suspension, the second-generation Corvair’s ride and handling impressed even British critics, who tended to regard the road manners of American cars with dismay. The new Corvair could still be made to oversteer (as could most front-engine domestic sedans of the era), but it had none of its predecessor’s eccentricities. The second-generation Corvair handled and stopped as well as many contemporary sports cars. With the optional 140 hp (104 kW) normally aspirated engine and four-speed gearbox, it could also go from 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in less than 12 seconds and reach a top speed of perhaps 105 mph (169 km/h), while returning better than 20 mpg (11.8 L/100 km). Few cars of the mid-sixties could offer all of those qualities simultaneously, particularly for a price under $3,000.

1966 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa © 2009 Staffan Vilcans/Liftarn (CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic)
The top-of-the-line Corvair Corsa, available only in coupe or convertible form, was distinguished from lesser Corvairs by the silver paint in the rear ‘cove’ and a unique dash. The Corsa came standard with the 140 hp (104 kW) four-carb engine; the turbocharged engine was optional. (Photo: “Chevrolet Corvair” © 2009 Staffan Vilcans (Liftarn); used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)

HORSE WHIPPED

If the second-generation Corvair had arrived a year earlier, it probably would have been a great hit, but by the time it appeared in the fall of 1964, it faced a formidable new rival: the Ford Mustang.

Even before the new Corvair debuted, it had largely relinquished its economy-car role to the Chevy II. You could still buy a stripped Corvair 500 coupe, but people generally bought Corvairs because they were sporty, not because they were sensible. Most buyers who could afford it generally chose the Monza with the hotter normally aspirated engine. The new Mustang, therefore, was aimed directly at the fattest part of the Corvair’s market.

Second-generation Chevrolet Corvair four-door hardtop rear 3q © 2010 Aaron Severson
All second-generation Corvairs, whether two-door or four-door, were pillarless. Buyers preferred the hardtop coupe or the convertible. The four-door now accounted for less than a quarter of production and was dropped entirely after the 1967 model year.

1965 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa engine
All second-generation Corvairs used the 164 cu. in. (2,680 cc) engine introduced in 1964. The turbocharged engine was now rated at 180 gross horsepower (134 kW) and 232 lb-ft (313 N-m) of torque, which some contemporary reviewers suspected was overly generous. The turbo was available only in the new Corsa, which replaced the Spyder for 1965.

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.

1966 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa dash
Like the dash of the discontinued Spyder, the Corsa instrument panel featured a tachometer, a manifold pressure gauge, and a cylinder-head temperature gauge. The 140 mph (225 km/h) speedometer was wishful thinking even with the turbocharged engine. With standard gearing, the top speed of the turbo Corsa was perhaps 115 mph (185 km/h).

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.

1966 Chevrolet Corvair Monza rear
Ralph Nader acknowledged (openly if not loudly) that the second-generation Corvair (and the 1964 models, the last of the first generation) had a much-improved suspension. His outrage stemmed from GM’s failure to adopt those improvements from the start. Greg Vargas, the owner of this 1966 Monza coupe, owns an autographed copy of Unsafe at Any Speed that he displays on the rear package shelf at car shows. When Nader signed the book, Vargas told him he was a Corvair owner, a revelation that Nader reportedly received with good-natured bemusement.

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.

1966 Chevrolet Corvair Monza engine
This 1966 Chevrolet Corvair Monza coupe has the optional 140 hp (104 kW) engine. That engine shared the 110 hp (82 kW) six’s 9.25:1 compression ratio and hotter cam, but added bigger valves and four single-throat carburetors. The four-carb and turbo engines were discontinued in 1967, but popular demand revived the former later in the model year.

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. 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 when Corvair development was frozen, but Cole revived it in June 1966, now under the auspices of the corporate styling studios and central Engineering Staff rather than Chevrolet.

The XP-849 doesn’t appear to have ever been a production project and was shelved again in June 1967, 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, 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.

1969 Chevrolet Corvair Monza convertible front 3q © 2007 Vegavairbob at en.wikipedia (Robert Spinello) (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
The first Corvair convertible was added in April 1962. Unlike the coupe, it was offered only in Monza (and, in 1965–1966, Corsa) trim. This 1969 Chevrolet Corvair Monza is a very rare car. Only 521 convertibles were built in the Corvair’s final year. (Photo: “’69 Corvair Monza” © 2007 Vegavairbob at en.wikipedia (Robert Spinello); resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

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.

CONTRARIAN TENDENCIES

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.

Ed Cole photograph POR-COLEEDW-0006 Copyright 2010 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive. (GMMA 141571)
Ed Cole was president of General Motors from October 30, 1967 to September 30, 1974. (Copyright 2010 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.)

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.

1961 Chevrolet Corvair Monza badge
The lawsuits and the damaging publicity of Nader’s book left the Corvair with a rather shabby image. To move the final unsold 1969 models, Chevrolet resorted to offering a $150 voucher good toward the purchase of another new Chevrolet.

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.

# # #

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

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).


83 Comments

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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.

      1. So both the 195-Y-15 / Holden FX and GM Cadet basically used a smaller version of the (2nd gen?) Chevrolet Straight-6 that formed the basis of the Holden Straight-6 engine?

        Guess it would partly explain why the Holden Straight-6 was never able to grow beyond a displacement of 3.3-litres to a size closer to 4-litres.

        1. The engine intended for the Chevrolet Cadet was NOT the Holden Grey Motor used in the Holden 48/215. Where the Grey Motor was largely a scaled-down Chevrolet six, the Cadet engine had a variety of experimental features, including front and rear flywheels, and different bore/stroke dimensions. The similarity in displacement is coincidental; the Cadet engine was oversquare, with a short 3-inch (76.2mm) stroke, where the Holden was undersquare, with a 3 1/8th-inch (79.4mm) stroke. I don’t think they had the same bore spacing, although the Cadet’s was altered during development at least once.

          I don’t have sufficiently detailed specs for the Cadet engine to judge how much of its basic architecture was miniaturized Stovebolt; my guess is “some” (the gear-driven cam, for instance), though not all.

          The limiting factor on the Holden engine’s displacement was probably the bore spacing, which as best I can find was 3.75 inches (95.3mm) for the Grey and 4.05 (102.7mm) for the Red.

          1. Understand.

            Interested to know whether the Bedford / Vauxhall Straight-6 shares any relation to the Chevrolet Straight-6, though have heard it is significantly different to the Holden Straight-6 engine.

            Could a production Chevrolet Cadet have helped GM in other respects regardless of whether it is actually a success or not? Potentially even butterflying away the Corvair in favor of a more conventional layout?

          2. I’m not terribly familiar with the Velox six. I believe it does share the same bore spacing as the Holden Grey Motor, although not necessarily a whole lot else.

            The Cadet would probably not have done Chevrolet any particular commercial favors at the time. I don’t think the Chevrolet sales organization knew (or was interested in figuring out) how to sell it to postwar American buyers whose interest in smaller cars was, at that point, driven more by sticker shock more than anything else. From a technological standpoint, I don’t know that it was substantially more conventional or less eccentric than the later Corvair except in having a FR layout. Some of its advanced features seem not so much prescient as just odd — for instance, the dual flywheels were intended to reduce driveline intrusion by allowing the rear flywheel to be smaller in diameter, which seems an expensive approach to a fairly incremental gain. MacPherson’s original strut suspension layout wasn’t as tidy or cost-effective as the later version (developed after he left for Ford and of course now very common.)

            The configuration of the Corvair seems to have been dictated in large part by the fact that Ed Cole thought it would be neat and had been toying with similar ideas since around the time the Cadet was developed. There was a rationale to some of it (the desire to have low-effort manual steering, for instance), but not necessarily a compelling one compared to the advantages of a conventional smaller car, as quickly evidenced not only by the Falcon, but also by Chevrolet’s own Chevy II.

            So, whether the Cadet would have had an influence would have really depended a lot on how long it was around and how well it had done. If Chevrolet had done well enough with it to justify keeping it around until 1957, when the Corvair was developed, it would have made the rationale for building the Corvair and the latter would have probably remained an engineering exercise. If the Cadet had eked out a few years before being canceled (or foisted on Holden, Opel, or Vauxhall), it may not have made any difference, especially if the tooling were gone by then.

            One possible effect might have been to get Chevrolet to continue developing strut-type suspension, although how that might have played out is hard to judge and would depend a lot on how broadly it was adopted. A first-generation Corvair with all-strut suspension might have been spared most of the actual car’s handling oddities, so there’s that.

  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. The 55 nomad had a 265CID not a 262

    1. Whoops, that’s a typo. Fixed.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

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

  8. 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.

    1. Both of my Corvairs (a ’61 van and a ’62 sedan) have a stock gasoline heater in front of the passenger firewall. The combustion happens outside the cabin and is exhausted under the vehicle. No fumes, no vapors. It heats a lot faster, too.

    2. So don’t heat exchangers exist NOW, that could be placed on all extant corvairs via recall, so NO possibility of monoxide-poisoning could occur?

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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.

    1. Thanks for the correction — I’ve amended the text.

  12. [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…

  13. [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.

  14. 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.

  15. These come to mind for me:

    NSU 1000
    Hillman Imp
    Karmann-Ghia Type 34

    What were the other ones you were thinking of?

    1. Mazda Luce coupe, almost a 1:1 copy.

    2. …Meaning cars whose styling was clearly influenced by the Corvair? I would add:

      ZAZ Zaporozhets 966/968
      Fiat 1300/1500
      Panhard 24
      BMW 2000 CS

      Few Amercian cars had more impact on automotive styling in the 60s. What other car influenced the Soviets, the French, the Italians, the Brits, the Japanese and the Germans?

      1. The Luce Rotary Coupe was styled by Bertone rather than Mazda’s in-house, but if I dug around I’m sure I could find other Japanese cars that show a Corvair influence.

  16. 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…

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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!

  21. I have one and luv it.

    Its a fun car to drive and always get complements.

  22. 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).

  23. Excellent article! I’ve known the story for many years yet your piece added texture and background I haven’t seen before. One comment: You mention that ’65 Greenbriers were “left over” ’64s. I don’t think this is the case there are more than a few differences in the engine and trim that indicate continued development and of course production dates fall in the ’65 model year. In my understanding, the commercial version of the ChevyVan replacement was ready for the ’64 model year but the passenger version, the SportVan was not. Chevrolet decided to keep the Greenbriar (but not the Corvan or Rampside) in production until the SportVan was ready later in the model year.

    1. You’re likely correct on the ’65s. There was also a surprising number of year-to-year engineering changes on the late Corvair passenger cars, particularly considering that development had theoretically ceased. One would assume that after ’65, the cars would all be pretty much the same except for safety and emissions modifications, but in talking to people restoring the second-gen Corvairs, that’s not the case (although a lot of those changes are not reflected in the shop manual!).

  24. Excellent article! Two notes:

    The last engine pictured in the article does not in fact have air conditioning. Air conditioned Corvairs had the usual GM 6-cylinder swashplate A/C compressor mounted in the position of the alternator. The alternator was swapped to the opposite side, replacing the idler pulley. Interesting trivia: the compressor was built to run in the opposite direction for the Corvair, and such units were painted green rather than black to distinguish them. Speaking of which, a big advantage of the Gen II Corvair over the ’65-66 Mustang was the fact that the Corvair A/C was completely integrated into the instrument panel, rather than being a hang-on unit. Unfortunately it was not possible to get A/C on the turbocharged Corsa.

    One bit of forgotten history you may want to add: The 1966 Corvair was the first production car ever fitted with a front chin spoiler. I wrote about it here:

    autouniversum.wordpress.com/ 2013/11/21/ advent-of-the-downforce-inducing-aerodynamic-appendage/

    The wind-wander problem associated with rear-engine cars of the period was not actually a direct result of the rear engine location; all cars of the era had huge amounts of aerodynamic lift at the front. However, having a big heavy engine up in the nose largely mitigated the problem. The 1966 Corvair solved the issue by addressing the root cause.

  25. All Corvair generators and alternators were mounted on the driver’s side of the engine. The a/c compressors were always mounted on the passenger’s side.

    1. The a/c compressors were driven by a belt directly off of the crank pulley.

  26. I had three Corvairs when I was young: a ’62 Spider (turbocharged) that I bought for a song because its turbo had ceased, a ’65 Powerglide sedan that was an acceptable car, and a ’66 Corsa convertible (4 carb) on which I installed Michelin radials, short steering arms (for fast steering), and copper sinterred brake linings. It was like a poor man’s Porsche. The car was very reliable and great fun to drive. I almost bought a similar one on e-bay recently (I think the owner wanted about $12 grand for it) but decided on a TR8 instead. The ’66 had a number of detailed improvements over the ’65.

    1. Almost every year of the Corvair’s run had some significant detail improvements, which can be a little confounding.

  27. You did not mention that Ralph Nader finally got NHTSA to conduct a defect investigation into the first generation Corvair handling and stability. The initial finding, based on testing a fully loaded Corvair found no problem. In fact, according to its first report, the NHTSA engineers could not get the car to roll over. Only later did one of the engineers test a lightly loaded Corvair which immediately rolled. The second report discussed the fact that the primary safety problem with the Corvair was that it understeered up to a lateral acceleration of about 0.3 g, but then changed to violent oversteer in less than 3/4 second — faster than most driver’s reaction time. With the oversteer, the Corvair slid so that it was sideways to its direction of travel, and would easily roll over as its outboard rear wheel tucked under. Unfortunately, there were no good crash statistics at the time that would have documented the number of rollovers that resulted. There is extensive documentation of this story in a Senate report published around 1974.

    1. The NHTSA investigation is indeed mentioned in the article — look at the paragraph below the photo of Ed Cole. I have not read the subsequent Senate report, though, which would be worth a look. Do you have any more details on it?

  28. Along with the having the anti-roll bar as standard from the outset, would the Chevrolet Corvair have benefited from the all-alloy BOP 215 V8 to better equip it against the Ford Mustang V8s (similar to the rear-engined V8s in Tatras)?

    1. I’m going to say probably not. First, while people have certainly installed V-8s (including the Buick 215), the Corvair wasn’t designed for a V-8 or a water-cooled engine and installing one is a pretty elaborate exercise. (The Crown Corvair, q.v., is a fun toy, but not long on practicality.) A production V-8 Corvair would have been cumbersome (and thus expensive) to build and would probably have sacrificed a lot of mechanical commonality with the standard car. On top of that, the aluminum 215 was itself wasn’t cheap to build and Chevrolet would have had to buy the engines from Buick at a markup, making it even more expensive. (That’s one reason Pontiac was so reluctant to use the aluminum 215.)

      If you put all that together, it would have been hard for Chevrolet to keep the price down, which would have made the car a tough sell against the Mustang, whose mechanical stuff was all pretty much off-the-shelf. Keep in mind that this is sixties GM, which considered anything under 100,000 units a year to be small beer.

  29. You say that the Doyle Dane Bernbach ad campaign for Volkswagen was a factor in green-lighting the Corvair project in September 1957 but Doyle Dane Bernbach did not get the Volkswagen account until 1959.

    1. Eek, thanks for the correction! I’ve amended the text and am kicking myself for not having caught that before.

  30. SECOND COMMENT: The Corvair 4-speed manual transmission would not take a lot of abuse. Pontiac used a similar transmission for their 4-cylinder Tempest, however they wouldn’t install it behind the aluminum 215″ V-8, nor the 326″ which was optional in 1963. V-8 Tempests had the choice of 3-speed manual or Tempestorque automatic (which was similar to the ‘Vair Powerglide).

    1. The four-speed was originally a low-cost adaptation of the original three-speed, so that’s not surprising. My understanding was that even the Tempest three-speed, which I assume was beefed up a bit for 1963, was marginal with the 326. I recall that Car Life broke a gear of theirs, which if I’m remembering correctly was behind a modestly hopped-up Royal Bobcat 326. Looking at the comparative torque figures, it seems like it was just more than the Corvair transmission was ever designed to take.

      1. I had a friend with a 1964 Corvair (110-hp?) which was supercharged with a Paxton blower, 4-speed transmission and 3.55 Positraction gears. Also, the ‘Vair was fitted with Michelin X steel-belted radial tires. This guy swore it could lift the front wheels off the pavement on acceleration.

        The gauntlet was tossed (and I believe money wagered). Our proud Corvair owner nailed the throttle and dumped the clutch…

        Next trip was on the back of a tow-truck to the local Chevrolet dealer, being the clutch, pressure-plate, two synchros in the tranny, ring & pinion and Positraction unit were damaged. The service department put everything back together (customer pay).

        The fool tried the stunt a second time, with similar results; and I don’t believe the front wheels left the ground THAT time either.

        (Methinks the Chevy service department named him a star customer. And I’m not aware of a third attempt.

        1. That’s very funny. You’d think after the first time, he would have learned an important lesson, like considering, “Even if I win this bet, will it be enough to pay for rebuilding the entire drivetrain again?”

          1. The guy was a bit on the strange side. Had some money behind him. Thought the Corvair was: “…the most superior car on the road.” (Then-1966) everyone is entitled to their own opinions. I guess he never drove a Corsa.

            They were interesting cars and I “wrenched” on a few as a mechanic; but no desire to own one. Aside from tricky handling (60-64) the steering box was right behind the front bumper and a serious crash would displace the steering mechanism and wheel up and back 18″. Not an indictment on the Corvair as several other makes also placed the box and un-collapse able steering column in the same location.

  31. A major Corvette enthusiast related Chevrolet’s experiments with a mid-engine platform. I believe it had a 327 hooked to an early Pontiac Tempest transaxle. They used the automatic version knowing the 4-speed wouldn’t handle the torque of a 327.

    1. That would make sense, since the 327 had nearly three times the torque of the Corvair engine and over 50% more than the slant-four Tempest, which is a lot to ask of an unmodified or even lightly modified manual transaxle. I assume TempesTorque was more forgiving in that regard, since the direct clutch (which seems like the most obvious failure point) could be beefed up without an extensive transmission makeover. It’s conceivable that TempesTorque also had a higher torque capacity to begin with — I’ve never seen any factory figures for the transaxles — since Pontiac didn’t offer most of the hotter engine options with the three-speed.

  32. ANOTHER FUNNY ‘VAIR STORY: I had a customer with a really cherry ’64 Monza Convertible. Even though it was 10-years-old it was in “like new” condition.

    One day he called me up complaining that it was almost impossible to start in the mornings. We arranged for it to sit overnight and I went to work. Long story short, I found a bad electrical connection (they lived near the ocean) and there was no 12-volt “kick” to the coil in the start mode. I finished the tune-up and it instantly started at the first turn of the key.

    A couple of weeks later and I happened to run into the owner, with the standard question; “How is your Corvair running?”

    Owner replied that I f*cked up… Being I prided myself on quality work, what the???

    Seems right after I worked on it it was stolen right out of his garage in the dead of night. It was never recovered. (Methinks it was cut up and made into a dune buggy:-(

  33. CORVAIR OIL LEAKS: I worked in the service department of a large Chevrolet dealer in the late 1960’s. Common places of Corvair oil leaks were 1) push rod tube seals. (Later cured by improved sealing materials). 2) Valve covers. (Cured in ’65 with wider retaining brackets instead of washers and proper torquing.) 3) Oil filler cap and sealing surface on the filler tube becoming distorted by the constant pressure of engine oil whipped up by the crankshaft. 4) Oil pressure switch failure. (This, however, is not limited to Corvairs as many domestics of the era used the same design).

    With many years and thousands of miles, heat and vibration can cause many other opportunities for leakage today.

    I also remember complaints of burned valves (the Spyder used upgraded (stellite) valves.) Also hydraulic lifter issues. Part of the lifter issues may be due to the oil available then. Today’s lubricants, for the most part, are superior. 93 octane (if available) and a lead additive may help with the valve issues.

    I posted this previously but it may have been lost in cyberspace. My apologies on repeating myself.

  34. “claimed that Chevrolet engineer Frank Winchell actually flipped a Corvair prototype”

    Flipping is end over end and very difficult to accomplish, rolling is a sideways motion.

    Are you sure you meant flip and not roll?

    1. DeLorean described it as a flip. Lacking more details, or photos/videos, of the alleged incident, I’m loath to second-guess it further. However, the idea that “flipping” can only refer to one specific direction of motion strikes me as unhelpfully and unnecessarily prescriptive. I can envision a variety of scenarios that the average person (and I) would likely describe as flipping sideways or flipping diagonally and that are clearly distinct from a roll. Short of some kind of formal engineering paper or research study where you’re defining very specific categories for some statistical or analytic purpose, that seems a perfectly reasonable colloquial description.

  35. When I was 16 years old I owned a 4 speed 63 Monza 110 HP coupe in 66 that was my first car. It cost about $850 dollard used with less that 35,000 miles on it. I loved it and drove it every where in the Tampa bay area. I would load all my buddies in it and we would chip in and drive to Clearwater beach and all over the Gulf beaches for $3 dollars worth of gas from the north Tampa Area near Bush gardens. We would road race our buddies around the University of South Florida’s roads which were not built up and sparsely populated back in the mid 60’s. It was defiantly my Poor Mans Porsche. I loved to drive it fast and broad slide it on the many dirt roads that still existed then and even through the many Orange Groves in the area. There was this dirt oval of sorts around this pond in the woods near the USF area that we called the Duck Pond that people would bring their old stock cars, dune buggies and jeeps out to race each other. It was wild, the police never bothered us and I cant believe no one ever got hurt to my knowledge. I let one of my close friends drive my prized Corvair around the Duck Pond oval going faster and faster until he went the wrong way around this dead tree that was just past one corner that had a ditch across the path that bottomed the suspension and shoved the engine back into the cross member behind the crank pully snapping off the oil filter housing and dumping oil all over the engine and the dirt track that we were racing on. so now I am broke down out in the middle of these woods with no oil in my engine and how am I going to have to tell my dad that this happened ? I got towed home by one of my friends who was also there and the next day I bought a new oil filter housing piece from Dempsey Chevrolet in Tampa for about $4 dollars and changed it out.
    I kept it until 1969 when I traded it in for a brand new $2500 dollar Opel Cadet Rallye because the Corvair had a screwed up starter gear on the engine that ate up the gear on the starter in no time that required pulling the engine and replacing the clutch and pressure plate that the starter ring gear was attached to. I had to push start that car or park it on inclines and let it roll backward and start it in reverse or roll it going forward. I had few tools then and my mom hated me working on my car in our car port where we lived so I traded it for the Opel. It cost me $65 dollars a month to finance back in 1969. Some day I will write about the 66 4 door power glide hard top that was given to me about 20 years later when I was doing car repairs that I moved away and left behind at my old place because I had no help and way to move it to my new shop after having moved about a dozen other cars of mine that did not drive but ran that I had some help with moving. I still miss both of them more than about any other cars that I have ever owned.

  36. What is the story behind Peter Brock’s Isetta (later Beetle) challenging rear-engined 2-seater 1956 GM Cadet concept and the potential role it played in the development of the Chevrolet Corvair?

    The 1956 Cadet concept featured a 67-inch wheelbase, was to be powered by theoretical an air-cooled 2-cylinder (not sure it is was an Inline or Boxer layout) and priced at $1000, being similar to the BMW 700 yet slightly smaller with a lengthened (possibly 4-seater?) version being considered at one point as a challenger for the VW Beetle and Renault Dauphine.

    GM rejected the project, only to later resurrect it with the project eventually evolving into the Corvair.

    Also where can I find out more about the Chrysler A-106 project?

    1. According to the account on Brock’s company website, the rear-engine Cadet was a styling exercise Brock did with encouragement from Harley Earl (whose name the BRE website curiously misspells). While a full-size model was built — there’s a photo of Brock sitting in it — I don’t know that it had any powertrain in other than a hypothetical sense. Since the project came from Styling (and I think one of the corporate Advanced studios at that), I doubt it.

      I think its connection to the Corvair was probably close to nil. Chevrolet’s advanced engineering group was already pursuing the air-cooled/rear-engine layout, and had been even when Styling first hired Brock; it was a pet project of Ed Cole’s. The Cadet concept doesn’t seem like anything Chevrolet would have seriously considered building in the mid-fifties, not least because the $1,000 price point was even less realistic than it had been for MacPherson’s Cadet project a decade earlier. The mini-Cadet was a cute concept, but I’m pretty sure that’s all it was.

      An important thing to remember about GM in that era is that it was enormous and had lots of largely autonomous divisions and departments that were really quite separate in an organizational and operational sense. Many of them were involved in various sorts of experimental projects, many of which were far removed from any immediate likelihood of production and which were in many cases separate from one another. Of course, some ideas and concepts did pass interdivisionally (the 1963 Buick Riviera is a good example), but many did not, and I think in a lot of cases, the left hand didn’t talk to the right. However, looking at it from outside and in retrospect, it’s easy to presume connections or cohesion that didn’t necessarily exist.

      1. I see. The mini-Cadet concept of 1956 immediately brought to mind the notion by some of GM at one point looking at a family of downscaled rear-engined versions of the Corvair concept, based on how the Corvair’s Flat-Six engine either was from the outset or became a modular design capable of spawning a Flat-Twin or Flat-Four at one end to a Flat-Ten or Flat-Twelve at the other end.

        Would a version of the small 1956 Cadet concept have been more suitable had it been produced in the UK or Germany, especially since Opel were developing a 700cc version of what became the Opel OHV engine?

        The closest equivalent that GM in Europe seemed to have looked at is the front-engined FWD Vauxhall XP-714 project after the Mini appeared.

        Do any images exist for the Chrysler A-106 prototype?

        1. Had the rear-engine Cadet been developed by or for Vauxhall or Opel, it might have had marginally more production potential, but it appears to just been a Styling experiment that Harley Earl happened to think was neat. (I’m not entirely clear what studio Brock was in during his brief stint at GM Styling, but I gather it was one of the experimental studios, which would make sense given his very young age and lack of experience or seniority. Production-track designs were something I think you had to sort of work up to doing.)

          The Corvair was not a corporate project, it was a Chevrolet project — a significant distinction in those days. Had it been the brainchild of one of the corporate Engineering Staff groups, they might have tried to make it a modular engine design, if only to see if there were patents they could secure in that realm. As far as I know, making a modular engine wasn’t part of the brief for what became the Corvair. Robert Benzinger, who did a lot of the engine development work, said that they settled on the flat-six layout pretty early on and had quite a struggle getting that to work. One very significant point Benzinger makes in that regard is that with an air-cooled automotive engine, the differences between an H-4 and an H-6, and presumably an H-6 and multi-cylinder variations, are not trivial and are a lot more involved than just adding or removing cylinders from a liquid-cooled inline engine.

          On the Chrysler A-106, I’ve been pondering that. I don’t specifically recall if I’ve seen any published photos of the earlier iterations. There may be some in the Collectible Automobile article on the early Valiant and thus in the HowStuffWorks.com article (many of their automotive articles are repackagings of earlier CA pieces).

          1. Managed to find some info on the Chrysler apparently it was to feature a Flat-4 engine of as yet unknown displacement and power.

            There was also the two Chrysler Cadet projects, the first developed in parallel to A-106 and the second during the early 50s though am not sure what engines were to feature in both projects.

          2. Both Ford and Chrysler wrestled with the question of whether to use a four or a six, eventually settling on the six. (Chevrolet apparently did as well, although it appears they settled on the air-cooled six for the Corvair very early on.) I’m sure from the standpoint of everywhere else in the world, it looked like complete madness: “We must economize! Absolutely NO more than 3 liters displacement!” It was not without reason — fuel wasn’t that expensive, only a few states used taxable horsepower-based registration fees, and Detroit assumed that Americans felt the same way about using the gearbox as they felt about visiting the dentist — but it does provide some hints about why U.S. automakers later struggled so badly coming up with decent C-segment cars.

  37. I can vouch for the improved ’64 rear suspension anti-camber spring. As a fearless (stupid) 17 year old I loved to hear the rear wheels (worn bias plies) squeal around long bends. Once…and only once, they did break loose and I found myself doing a 180, smashing flat against the curb and the passenger side rear tire/wheel smashing square on a steel sewer drain. The impact separated the tire from the rim but the spring/shock kept things from caving in and possibly tipping the car. The car landed (on all 4 wheels) up and over the curb, on the grass. All my graduation money went to fixing the car but I did learn something about the car’s limits.

  38. i have a 61 monza coupe here in australia,one of a dozen orso imported into australia for evaluation by g.m.holden from 1960 to 64.

  39. While rear-engined XP-892 was apparently designed around the 4-cylinder Chevrolet 153 engine, what engine would it have likely used had it been signed off for production?

    Seems any 6-cylinder let alone a flat-6 was completely out of the question for XP-892, which leaves either the Chevrolet 2300 (along with possible Cosworth Twin-Cam) or the stillborn Vega OHC L-10 (which was love to see specs of) and the 150 hp GM Rotary engines.

    1. I have no idea. The XP-892 was a corporate advanced project, not a divisional one, so while Dick Langworth describes the design as a production-ready one, I think that just means it was not a wild show car concept never intended for human occupation. My assumption is that it was mostly just a pet project for Ed Cole.

      1. Understand. Not sold on the Rotary (as others suggest it was intended for XP-892) though quite like the idea of XP-892 using the Chevrolet 2300 or Vega OHC L-10, especially if either utilized turbocharging.

        Would have been interesting though if GM were able to come to a deal with Rover / BL for supply or some of the intellectual rights of the all-alloy Rover V8 (e.g. permitted to revive the slightly different 215 Oldsmobile V8), if not able to buy back the Rover V8. However doubt it would have been able to fit into XP-892.

        Is it known whether XP-892 was a 2-seater or a 2+2?

        1. I’m not at all sure that GM would have needed to buy back the rights to the aluminum V-8 if they’d wanted to start using that engine again. They continued using direct derivatives of it, so barring some specific evidence to the contrary, I assume Rover bought a manufacturing license rather than sole rights. The reason GM never returned to it was that Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac decided it was too expensive and troublesome to be worth the bother; John Thornley said the GM execs he spoke with were always amazed that British Leyland were still interested in what GM considered a cast-off dead end.

          In any event, the XP-892 was definitely a 2+2 and is explicitly identified as such in some of the design studies.

  40. Page three reads “The half-shafts, now pivoted at both ends, acted as lower control arms while two lateral links acted as upper arms.”

    It should be “The half-shafts, now pivoted at both ends, acted as upper control arms while two lateral links acted as lower arms.”

    1. Whoops, you’re absolutely right. (I don’t know how I’ve kept missing that.) I’ve amended the text — thanks!

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