It’s a standard misconception among the general public that Ralph Nader killed the Corvair, but the reality is that Ralph simply kicked a dead horse. Before examining who was actually responsible for the Corvair’s demise, let’s look at it’s gestation.
In contrast to the European automotive market, in 1950s America there was (with the exception of the Corvette and Thunderbird) but one size of car offered by domestic manufacturers: big. There was also extreme homogeneity in design; virtually all U.S. cars had a water-cooled front engine and rear-wheel drive, nearly always a V8 or inline six, and a solid rear axle.
Around the midpoint of the decade, automotive executives began to see smaller imports take ever-increasing market share until they were finally prodded to begin developing new Compact cars to battle increasingly popular imports. Among the Big Three, the Chevrolet division of GM was to take the boldest approach with their new Corvair.
Borrowing cues from many imports, the popular VW in particular, the Corvair would feature a rear engine, rear drive layout, air-cooling and independent suspension front and rear. The rear engine location allowed for better traction in inclement weather and allowed a completely flat cabin floor.
In small front-engine, rear-drive cars the engine was usually mounted as far forward as possible to maximize interior space, leaving a lopsided weight distribution detrimental to slippery road traction. Having a flat floor was a big plus as it was planned at the outset that most Corvairs, although smaller than standard-size U.S. cars, would be built and sold as six-passenger cars with wide front and rear bench seats. An air-cooled flat-six was selected as the powerplant.
While Chevrolet was developing their Corvair, rival Ford was at work laying the groundwork for their own compact, the Falcon. In contrast to the Corvair, the Falcon was created as a strictly standard U.S. design, reduced in size and built as inexpensively as possible with an all-iron pushrod inline six, rear-drive and a live rear axle on leaf springs. The Falcon engine was brand new and designed to be built as inexpensively as possible with just four main bearings and an intake manifold cast into the cylinder head. In contrast, the Corvair with its costly air-cooled Turbo-Air engine and independent suspension all around was a much more expensive car to build.
The Falcon engine was basically two pieces of cast iron that needed minimal machining before being bolted together, while the Corvair had a three-piece crankcase and two cylinder heads, all cast of high-priced aluminium, as well as a six individual cylinder barrels and a dozen pushrod tubes. All had to be precisely machined, assembled and gasketed together. Because they were aluminium, the cylinder heads required hardened valve guides and seats to be installed (the Falcon, in common with many U.S. cars used neither.) Here is a look at a basic bill of materials for the two engines:
Manufacturing an air-cooled engine is a costly undertaking. VW got away with it through economies of scale by building millions of them. From 1960 through 1967, one single engine (in various displacements and cooling fan layouts) powered every Beetle, Ghia, Type III, Bus, Transporter and pickup that Volkswagen built. At the time the Corvair was introduced, VW was already manufacturing 700,000 air-cooled engines annually. Chevrolet was never to reach half that volume.
The Corvair (and its archrival Ford Falcon) debuted in showrooms across America in the fall of 1959. With a three-inch lower height, half-inch wider tires and steering that was lighter and 13% faster than the Falcon, the Corvair was a much sportier proposition.
Nevertheless, the American pubic wasn’t as interested in sport as they were in inexpensive basic transportation. In the first year of battle Falcon outsold Corvair 1.7 to 1. For Chevrolet, who (with two exceptions) routinely outsold Ford since the 1930s, this was untenable. Once the disheartening sales figures came in, it became obvious that GM would never be able to scale up to the point that they could build the expensive compact and still enjoy a reasonable profit.
In February of 1960; less than six months after the Corvair’s debut, a crash program was initiated at GM to develop a new back-to-basics Falcon-fighter; the very conventional and inexpensive to manufacture Chevy II.
A few months later, GM introduced the sportier new Corvair Monza, a coupe with bucket seats, and began promoting the more sporting virtues of Corvair. This strategy was a good one and the Monza became quite popular.
Unfortunately in September of 1961, just two years after the Corvair’s splashy introduction, the Chevy II hit the showroom, promoted as a car with “Honest-to-goodness elegance matched with plenty of pep and plenty of room in a down-to-earth practical automobile.” The broad Chevy II lineup even included a two-door Hardtop Coupe, a very popular style in the U.S. that would not be available on Corvair until the ’65 models. Now Corvair faced direct competition on it’s own turf.
Meanwhile another new hurdle presented itself. In addition to the cost disadvantage of the Corvair power unit, it turned out that not enough room for expansion had been designed into the engine to accommodate the public’s increasing taste for power. The original Corvair was equipped with 140 and 145 cubic inch engines, while the Falcon had a comparable 144 cubic inch displacement. Later on Falcon offered a larger 170 cubic inch option while Corvair countered with 164 cubic inches (2.7 litres). That rather modest 17% displacement increase was lamentably as big as GM thought the engine should reliably go. As a comparison, VW’s all-new air-cooled 1961 engine was eventually expanded by 33%.
Unfortunately, by 1964 Falcon was offering a yet again larger 200 cubic inch (3.3 litre) six and a 260 V8, while Chevrolet’s own Chevy II was available with a 230 cubic inch six and a 283 V8. Corvair offered a high-output turbocharged engine option, but that upped costs further. As the only turbocharged production car in the world (the Olds Jetfire was gone by ’64), the cost of the accordingly low-production TRW-sourced turbocharger unit alone was daunting.
After the body-blow administered by the Ford Falcon, the Chevy II and the engine displacement deficit hit the Corvair like a pair of well-timed left jabs. It was still standing, but staggering around the ring like a boxer waiting out the bell. Unfortunately the next round would prove fatal.
The U.S. automobile market was buffeted by a new entry that arrived in April of 1964. Mustang shook up the entire low and mid-range segments, and Corvair in particular suffered a devastating right hook, its 1964 sales dropping 25.4%.
Corvair sales did rally in ’65, rising 15% to 247,092 units as Ford struggled to produce enough Mustangs to meet demand.
Nevertheless, GM saw the handwriting on the wall and froze further development of the Corvair halfway through the model year in April of 1965, shifting the cash towards a new car to challenge the Mustang head-on: the Camaro.
It was seven months later, November 30th of ’65 that Unsafe At Any Speed was published. Written by a heretofore little-known attorney named Ralph Nader, the book examined the Designed-In Dangers Of The American Automobile. One of the books eight chapters investigated the unusually high incidence of single-car accidents involving Corvairs after Nader discovered that more than one hundred lawsuits alleging unstable handling had been filed against GM by Corvair owners across the country.
Rear engined autos, carrying the majority of their weight on the rear wheels, tend to adopt an oversteer condition when cornered beyond the tires limit of adhesion. To counter this tendency, engineers use a myriad of tools to increase the roll resistance at the front of the car thus forcing the front tires to absorb more lateral force. The most common approach is to add higher-rate springs or an anti-roll bar. Both the VW and Porsche had front anti-roll bars. The Corvair was meant to have one, but it was deleted shortly before the car entered production as a cost saving measure.
By most reports, early Corvairs could indeed get the best of an unskilled driver. Some of the most damning criticisms reiterated in Unsafe At Any Speed were in fact quoted from the automotive enthusiast press. In 1963 Denise McCluggage of Competition Press quipped that if one spied a Corvair with rear body damage it most likely occurred “while going backwards, and not in reverse gear either.” Car & Driver, while enthusing over the new 1965 Corvair and its completely revised rear suspension in the fall of ’64 stated that the earlier model was “one of the nastiest-handling cars ever built.”
In a bid to increase luggage space, Chevrolet moved the spare tire from the front luggage compartment into the rear engine bay on ’61 models, exacerbating the handling foibles by shifting weight distribution even further rearward.
The original Corvairs handling ills could be largely negated on ’62 and ’63 models by ordering the heavy-duty suspension that included the originally deleted front anti-roll bar. In 1964, Chevrolet finally made the front anti-roll bar standard equipment while also adding a supplementary rear leaf spring that de-coupled in hard cornering (shifting weight to the outside front wheel) similar to the centre-mounted third coil spring on the Mercedes-Benz single low-pivot swing axle system.
For the second-generation ’65 models, the swing axle rear suspension was replaced by a sophisticated new design of upper and lower transverse links with the drive shafts acting as upper links, a design shared with the Corvette Sting Ray and Jaguar E-Type. After testing the new model Road Test called the ’65 Corvair “one of the sweetest handling cars we have ever tested.”
Meanwhile David E. Davis of Car & Driver called the new Corvair “the most important new car of the entire crop of ’65 models.”
In second-generation guise, the Corvair matured into quite a sophisticated machine with its advanced new suspension system, a 180-horsepower turbocharged engine option, an available telescoping steering column and optional fully integrated air conditioning, an option the rival Mustang wouldn’t offer until 1967.
The new model generated a nice 15% sales boost for 1965, but it wasn’t quite enough to save the day and Chevrolet ceased budgeting for any further development of the Corvair. The top-line Corsa and the turbocharged engine disappeared for ’67 and Corvair advertising was halted. Four-door models were discontinued for ’68. In May of ’69 production ceased.
So who killed the Corvair? It was John Q. Public; they killed it by buying Falcons, Chevy IIs, Valiants and Mustangs instead of Corvairs. As a result GM never achieved the economies of scale necessary to lower the per-unit manufacturing cost of the Corvair enough to make it economically feasible, or generate enough profit to underwrite the cost of tooling up for a more competitive larger-displacement engine.