Who Killed The Corvair?
Article by Mark Trotta
The Chevy Corvair was once one of the best selling automobiles in America. Both sporty and economical, it featured an air-cooled rear-engine design with an innovative unibody construction. After a ten-model year run, with a total of 1,786,243 built, the Corvair was discontinued in May of 1969.
Who killed the Corvair? Most people think that it was Ralph Nader and his book 'Unsafe at Any Speed'. The truth is, there were a number of factors contributing to the model's 96% drop in sales from 1965 to the last 1969 models.
Early Safety Issues
Nader came to prominence in 1965 with the publication of his book 'Unsafe at Any Speed', a critique on the lack of safety of American-made cars. Although just one of the book's eight chapters covers the Corvair, the 1960-1963 Corvair received most of the attention.
Unlike today, the Corvair was made in an era when cars were imperfect. Early-year models had been involved in accidents involving spins and rollovers. More than 100 lawsuits were pending against GM related to accidents involving the popular compact car, which subsequently became the initial material for Nader's investigations. The accidents all stemmed from the rear suspension of the 1960-63 Corvairs.
Corvair Tire Pressure
The Corvair relied on a staggered front to rear tire pressure differential (15psi front, 26psi rear when cold, 18 psi and 30psi when hot). If the tires were inflated equally, as was standard practice for all other cars at the time, the result was a dangerous oversteer. This condition was not always stated to Chevrolet salespeople and Corvair owners.
Front Sway Bar
An anti-sway bar, often referred to as a sway bar, keeps the wheels vertical as the car leans. Without them, the axles could move to the limits of their travel when cornering aggressively. The Corvair lacked this inexpensive part which would have helped enormously in cornering stability. Coupled with low tire pressure, the sidewall of the tire was known to break the bead, causing the tire to suddenly deflate.
The Corvair was probably a buyer's first encounter with a rear-engine car, and typical buyers were younger and probably more likely to drive aggressively. None of the issues Nader raised were problems among owners of the Porsche 911, which had the same layout and similar suspension.
In 1965, a totally redesigned four-link, independent rear suspension maintained a constant camber angle at the wheels. 1965-1969 Corvairs were not prone to the formerly characteristic tuck-under crashes. A front anti-sway bar was installed on all later models.
After Nader's accusations, General Motors made a tactical mistake. Rather than dispute the allegations, they attempted to discredit Nader himself. Because of the illegal investigations that GM launched trying to dig up dirt on him, they lost the lawsuit. It also made people tend to trust Nader more than they trusted GM.
One of the Corvair's overlooked virtues was its braking system. Like any rear-engine car, as rear weight shifts forwards, all four brakes are weighted evenly. This was in an era where most American-made cars were big and heavy and experienced nose-diving and brake fading under hard braking.
Properly maintained, a Corvair would handle better than most of the cars at the time. With the weight distribution favoring the drive wheels, it was a true bad-weather car. They were known to get through snow when more conventional cars were stranded. Unfortunately for the Corvair, it was beginning to build a reputation as being an unsafe car.
The Ford Falcon
The Chevy Corvair was introduced in 1960, the same year that saw the Rambler American, Plymouth Valiant, and Ford Falcon. In the fight for dominance in this new compact car market, the Falcon was the clear winner. Selling over 430,000 in the first year, the Falcon had one of the most successful sales debuts in car history.
The Chevy II
After the Corvair was outsold by the Ford Falcon in 1960, Chevrolet began work on a more conventional compact car. The Chevy II was just that - a straightforward car using semi-unibody construction (a bolt-on front section joined to a unitized cabin and trunk rear section). It could be had in a two-door coupe, four-door sedan, station wagon, or convertible. The Chevy II was released in the fall of 1961 as a 1962 model. They first came off the line in Willow Run, Michigan, along with Corvairs.
Read: Chevy II History
Looking to upgrade the Corvair, Chevrolet came up with a new, sportier model. The Monza featured bucket seats, a more powerful engine, and an available four-speed. The Monza went on to become Corvair's most popular model.
The Ford Mustang
One of the inspirations for the Ford Mustang came from the Corvair Monza. Ford product planning manager Donald Frey explains:
"We started watching registrations of the Corvair which was a dog. I guess in desperation they put bucket seats in the thing, called it the Monza, and it started to sell. We got the idea that there must be something to it. And that's how it all started - watching Monzas."
The highly publicized Ford Mustang arrived in mid-1964 and took the country by storm. Essentially a Falcon with a sporty body and a plethora of options, consumers easily related to the Mustang, with it's traditional liquid-cooled, front-mount engine and sporty long hood/short-trunk. The Mustang was offered with an optional V8 putting out 271 horsepower, compared to Corvair's 180 horsepower top powertrain. By 1966, Corvair sales dropped nearly 50%.
Muscle Car Era
Although the origins of the Muscle Car can be debated, there is no question that they ruled the streets from 1964 through 1970 (and a little beyond). Cheap gas and cheap horsepower was the order of the day. Few people were concerned with gas prices when premium was about 35 cents-a-gallon. For a few hundred dollars more than a Corvair, you could have a muscle car like the Pontiac GTO, Olds 4-4-2, or Chevy's own Chevelle.
The Chevy Camaro
The Camaro was built to compete with the Ford Mustang, but also took a bite out of Corvair sales. Other pony cars did as well, such as the Plymouth Barracuda and AMC Javelin.
Corvair sales fell from 220,000 in 1965 to 109,880 in 1966. By 1968 production fell to 14,800.
Cost Of Production
The Corvair was costly to produce due to the number of parts that were not shared with other models. Additionally, it did not command a premium price on the showroom floor. By 1969, the Corvair sold for about the same price as the Nova, but cost more to make.
New emissions standards proposed for 1972 were more stringent, and the Corvair engine needed to be modified to pass them. GM engineers were already having difficulties adapting the engine design to present emissions laws. With concerns of thermal loading added by the now-standard Air Injection Reactor ("smog pump"), air conditioning was dropped as an option because of the engine load added by an emissions air pump. This certainly hurt sales, as factory air was a popular option in all other cars.
Lack Of Interest
With demand for Novas growing and the demand for Corvairs shrinking, the decision was made in November 1968 to move Corvair assembly to an off-line area in the plant. Assembled bodies arrived from Fisher Body and awaited assembly in the off-line area. Most, if not all, late Corvairs were hand-built.
The economy car market was very small by 1969. An increasing lack of interest from GM, including Chevrolet's General Manager John DeLorean, saw a complete absence of Corvair advertising after 1967. The company's "by-request-only" 1969 Corvair brochure was just four pages long.
Early in 1968, GM's XP-892 project was shown as a full-size model, slated to be the third-generation Corvair. Although proposed for production in 1970, further development of a new Corvair was discontinued.
With the promise of more power while still meeting emission requirements, a small turbocharged engine showed promise. The Corvair had great potential, but its intended mission confused buyers. It started out as an economy car but most enthusiasts enjoyed it as a sports car.
"Who killed the Corvair" will be debated for years to come, but the Chevy Corvair will proudly take its place in classic car history as an innovative, rear-wheel drive, rear-engine American-made car.
National "Drive Your Corvair To Work Day" is in October
In 1972, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a press release after studying the handling of the 1963 Corvair and four contemporary cars. The review panel concluded that:
"The 1960-63 Corvair compares favorably with contemporary vehicles used in the tests...the handling and stability performance of the 1960-63 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover, and it is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles both foreign and domestic."
Read: 1960-1964 Corvair History
Read: 1965-1969 Corvair History