In the early 1960s, GM had a problem. There was a demand for a small economical car that was cheap to buy and cheap to maintain. GM had the cash to develop such a car and to compete with early European competition. Enter the Corvair. It was rear-engined (rare for the time) and it was fan-cooled which made it simple. Cars at the time were huge, heavy, and complicated. GM wanted to bring a little European simplicity to its cars. There was also a demand for a more economical car for gas mileage. The Corvair got 30 mpg which was tremendous for the time (it’s tremendous now). It seemed like the perfect, inexpensive, family car. They were popular too. GM debuted the model in 1960 and they sold very well. Until Ralph Nader decided that he didn’t like his Corvair.
The Beginning of the End of Corvair
The popular car came crashing down when Ralph Nader published a book “Unsafe At Any Speed” which was a harsh critique of automotive safety which later spurred many safety changes to cars including things like seat belts, padded dashes, and other safety measures. Nader even brought up smog from cars and started the conversation about emissions regulations.
However, the Corvair was a curious part of the book because he pointed to a flaw in the rear suspension that would cause the car to roll-over during abrupt maneuvers like dodging someone in the road or another object. Ralph Nader owned one himself, the one featured in this video:
If you watched the video, you know that the issue was around the rear suspension. When the car turned abruptly, the rear suspension would have to handle the weight of 80% of the car. Remember, the Corvair was rear-engined. The suspension was simple so that it would be easy to make and maintain leading to lower costs. Ralph Nader blamed the cheap suspension for the roll-over hazard and demanded GM improve
In the video, you can see in the driving demonstration how the wheels “crab” or slide as he turns. The tires also move under the body of the car in an extreme fashion. The video ultimately decides that the car wasn’t that bad and that it was really operator error.
Cars Did Get Safer
By 1969, despite a redesign, GM discontinued the Corvair. What would have happened if GM had entered the oil crisis with the Corvair still in the lineup? It could have radically changed how the Big 3 handled the oil crisis. Although it’s sad that Nader’s book killed the Corvair, the result was much safer cars. Eventually, cars had stronger roofs, better A-pillars, and airbags. Crumple zones were introduced and car accident survivability increased. Is the Corvair a bad car? Watching the video makes it seem unsafe. The oversteer is dramatic and even in the hands of a great driver, it does seem like the car has some problems. Simply blaming drivers with different skill sets doesn’t quite give confidence in the car. America faced the same conversation in the late 1990s when Ford faced the same roll-over worries with its best-selling SUV, the Ford Explorer. People blamed bad driving of SUVs and eventually, the blame ended up on Firestone tires. However, despite giving away free tires, Ford redesigned the SUV with a wider stance and slightly lower to the ground.
Ultimately, will the Corvair kill you? Maybe, maybe not.