Prior to 1960, Detroit offered cars in three sizes: large, larger, and largest. But Ed Cole took over Chevrolet in 1956. He advocated a true compact car, not one that was simply a smaller-scale version of the sedans of the day. The result was the air-cooled Corvair. Like the Volkswagen Beetle, the Corvair also had a rear-mounted engine. Along with the Nova, the Corvair was one of the first true compact cars.
The Corvair was noteworthy for another reason. In 1965, Ralph Nader published Unsafe At Any Speed, which was supposedly an expose about the Corvair’s dangers. Many of his claims may have been exaggerated. Regardless, the book marked a new chapter in automotive history. Every car thereafter had to be safety-conscious in addition to good-looking, powerful, fuel-efficient, and everything else.
First Generation (1960-64)
These economy cars had little standard equipment to keep the price under $2,000. Available options included a heater, AM radio, and 2-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. All Corvairs featured Quadri-Flex suspension and V6 engines. The innovative Corvair was the 1960 Car of the Year, according to Motor Trends.
Upscale Monza-trim Corvairs appeared in 1961. These vehicles really caught on with younger buyers, who sometimes referred to them as a “poor man’s Porsche.” These vehicles accounted for about half the Corvair sales in the first generation. Aftermarket add-ons were particularly popular.
By 1964, sales were dropping. The basic design was five years old and the Ford Mustang took a big bite out of the market. The Corvair badly needed a serious upgrade.
Second Generation (1965-69)
Even though these Corvairs still lacked V8 engines, they were very well-reviewed and quite popular. Some Corvairs included turbochargers, which partially solved the underpower problem. The engine parts were all extra durable, to withstand the rather reckless driving habits of many Corvair owners. Other improvements included a better dashboard display and heavier brakes.
Other Corvair models were not doing as well. Chevrolet soon dropped the low-selling Corvair station wagons, pickups, sedans, and panel vans.
Competition from the Mustang and other vehicles probably would not have been as debilitating if it were not for the Unsafe book. After all, the Corvair and Mustang were aimed at two different types of consumers.
Although the Corvair’s flaws may have been exaggerated, they were there. The rear-mounted engine increased the possibility of oversteering, especially when cornering at high speeds. A front-mounted roll bar could greatly reduce this risk, but GM elected not to go that route. Instead, engineers under-inflated the front tires. That fix solved the problem. But, it was also very easy for owners to over-inflate the front tires and therefore unintentionally remove this protection.
The oversteering issue remains controversial to this day. A 1971 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study concluded that Nader’s claims were over-inflated (pardon the pun). But former GM executive John DeLorean has said that his criticisms were valid.