The very first sentence in Unsafe at Any Speed, written over 50 years ago, doesn’t mince its words. “For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people.” The book, penned by a then young lawyer-in-the-making Ralph Nader, changed the auto industry. It came at a time when most cars didn’t have airbags, antilock brakes or even seatbelts. Nader accused automakers of failing to make their vehicles safe and although he had a point, he could have made an example of literally any brand at the time. He chose to devote a chapter on the Corvair, General Motors’ latest compact, and the damage was done. A hard-hitting book such as this would, naturally, attract attention (powerful legislators certainly took note of the 1966 best-seller) and it destroyed the Chevy’s reputation.
The new model, initiated in 1956 and lead by Chevy’s chief engineer Edward N. Cole, arrived in 1960 during an economic recession in the US, but it was seen as the answer to the growing popularity of small imported cars and would compete with the Rambler American, Ford Falcon, and Chrysler’s new Valiant. Unlike its competitors however, it featured loads of innovations such as a six-cylinder rear mounted air-cooled engine and an all coil front suspension with semi-trailing swing axles in the rear. The lack of anti-sway bars negatively affected handling; if the recommended tyre pressures were not maintained, it would oversteer (but it wasn’t as bad as later lawsuits would claim). Produced until 1969, several body styles were made available (first came the four-door saloon in the 500 series and the higher trim level 700 series) but the pick of the bunch was the 1962 Monza convertible.
The Corvair was redesigned in 1965 and its poor suspension was improved but coupled with Nader’s book and the arrival of the Ford Mustang (which took over the segment that the Chevy created) lead to the model’s downfall.
In spite of the bad press it has always received, now would be a good time to buy one what with the average prices from any year reaching an all-time high.
And thanks to the passing of time, Corvairs are far better understood today than they ever were.
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