Back in the 1960s, General Motor’s Chevrolet division produced a usual car called the Corvair. The Corvair was an economy car with a massive flat six cylinder, air-cooled rear mounted engine. It was unlike any car ever made by an American manufacturer and it had a lot of people scratching their heads. Why did GM make such a car when the norm for decades was water-cooled, front mounted designs? Fortunately we stumbled upon an classic car restorer at Mr. Ed in Scottsdale, AZ and he gave us the lowdown.
Volkswagen started it
In 1949, the first Volkswagens were imported into the United States. These Volkswagens were odd cars with rear-mounted, air-cooled engines and a curious dome-shaped body designs. However, like Henry Ford’s Model T, the “Beetle” seemed to be exactly what Americans wanted at the time. By the mid-1950s, Volkswagen was selling millions of them per year.
GM pays attention
General Motors, of course, was watching all this closely. Knowing that Volkswagen had developed a car that American’s seemed to love, they set about one-upping the Beetle. A rapidly assembled team analyzed the marketplace and decided that the best approach was to build a car that used similar technology but offered superior features.
Hitting the road in 1959 as a 1960 model, GM’s Volkswagen killer was the the Corvair. It had an 80-hp, air-cooled aluminum flat-six engine hanging off a rear-mounted transaxle. Like the Volkswagon, the car featured unit-body construction and swing-axle rear suspension. Along with cutting age styling for the day, the original four-door Corvair was soon spun into coupe, station wagon and van models. The were attractive cars and were superior to the Volkswagen Beetles in many regards.
Then along came Ralph Nader
In Nov. 30, 1965 Ralph Nader, a little-known lawyer from Hartford, CT, released his book, Unsafe at Any Speed. The first chapter was titled “The Sporty Corvair—The One-Car Accident.” It stated, in part, that the Corvair was a terribly dangerous car because of its lack of safety features. While Nader’s book did focus on the Corvair, the book was really an indictment of the entire automobile industry.
The book quickly became a bestseller but also prompted a vicious backlash from GM who attempted to discredit Nader by tapping his phone in an attempt to uncover unsavory information and, when that failed, actually hiring prostitutes in an attempt to document him in a compromising situation, one that could be publicized. GM was desperate and its actions were deplorable.
The end of the line
Despite immediate action by General Motors engineers and a pile of new safety features, Corvair sales never recovered. The Corvair offered more style, performance, refinement and, arguably, safety than ever before, but it was too late. The last Corvairs were shipped in 1969.