Chevrolet Corvair: Technical Triumph or Transportation Tragedy?

50 years after its demise experts still argue about America's answer to the Volkswagen Beetle

by | May 24, 2019 | Car Profiles

Lead Photo: Courtesy General Motors

Chevrolet Corvair: Technical Triumph or Transportation Tragedy?

50 years after its demise experts still argue about America's answer to the Volkswagen Beetle

by | May 24, 2019 | Car Profiles

Lead Photo: Courtesy General Motors

The first reborn Toyota Supra, the new 2020 model, fetched an eye-popping $2.1 million at January’s Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale, Ariz.  But across the country, at the Mecum auction in Kissimmee, Fla., the $220,000 paid for a 1966 Chevrolet Corvair was even more astounding.

Okay, this was no ordinary Corvair. It was a “Yenko Stinger Corvair,” named for a late Pennsylvania racer and car dealer who turned ordinary Chevies into hot rods. It was modified with a 220-horsepower engine, about double the power of the original. The price “is an indicator of the respect Corvairs are attaining in certain quarters,” wrote Corvair enthusiast Al Lacki in The Fanbelt, a Corvair magazine.  

Modern as a jet fighter: the 1960 Chevrolet Corvair Deluxe 700 Series 4-Door Sedan. Photo: Chevrolet Media Archives

Respect isn’t a word usually associated with the Chevrolet Corvair. The car inspired Ralph Nader’s landmark 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, which made its author famous, made the Corvair infamous and made its legacy ubiquitous. Most car collectors, save for a few folks like Lacki, either disdain or ignore the Corvair. But the car arguably had more impact than any other vehicle on American life, except for Henry Ford’s Model T.

The Corvair-safety controversy launched the consumer movement. It helped to inspire America’s modern regulatory state. Above all else, it shaped product-liability law and thus created one of the great growth “industries” of late 20th Century America: litigation. And long after its death the car’s legacy also helped determine the outcome of America’s “hanging-chads” presidential election of 2000 that put George W. Bush in the White House.

By its cancellation in 1969 the Corvair had matured into a sophisticated small car. Photo: General Motors

The Corvair met its demise 50 years ago this year — on May 14, 1969 — when the last one rolled off General Motors’ Willow Run assembly line in Ypsilanti, Mich. So it’s timely to revisit the car’s history and impact.

“The Model T put Americans on wheels,” said Robert Marlow, a Corvair enthusiast and former vice president of the Corvair Society of America.  “The Corvair put us in the hands of lawyers.” What makes the tale especially compelling is the out-sized personalities of the two protagonists in the Corvair saga: Ralph Nader, now age 85 and still going strong, and the late General Motors president Ed Cole, the father of the Corvair.      

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The October 5, 1959 cover of Time magazine featured a grinning Ed Cole, the boss at GM’s Chevrolet division, and a fawning story.

“Out from Detroit and into 7,200 Chevrolet showrooms this week rolled the radically designed Corvair…like no other model ever mass-produced in the U.S.; its engine is made of aluminum and cooled by air, and it is mounted in the rear. To Chevrolet’s folksy, brilliant General Manager Edward N. Cole, 50, the new car marks the fulfillment of a 15-year dream.  Says Ed Cole jubilantly: “If I felt any better about our Chevy Corvair, I think I’d blow up.”

Shades of “Mad Men:” A GM publicity still of the 1960 Chevrolet Corvair 500 4-Door Sedan. Photo: Chevrolet Media Archives

The irony of those words wouldn’t be apparent for a few years. Meanwhile, at its introduction, the Corvair was hailed as an example of far-thinking innovation. Unlike the also-new Ford Falcon and Plymouth Valiant, which were conventional in engineering and design, the Corvair was so different that Cole, who had developed the hugely successful 1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air, had hidden it from the GM bureaucracy until it was a fait accompli.

The Corvair’s air-cooled rear-mounted six-cylinder engine was inspired by the “flat-four” engine in the Volkswagen Beetle, earning it the nickname “America’s folks wagon.” While the Corvair was bigger than the Beetle, its lightweight design, sophisticated engine and the absence of engine-coolant helped the car get up to 29 miles a gallon, astounding for its day. Chevy launched the car in the fall of 1959 as a 1960 model, with an advertising blitz that the Toyota Prius might have used 40 years later.

Chevrolet offered a full line of Corvair models, including this station wagon. Photo: Karl Ludvigsen Photograph Collection, Revs Digital Library

“Traffic is jam-packed,” the newspaper ads declared. “Parking place is at a premium…People are living farther from their work, driving more miles on crowded streets.” A Chevy sales leaflet said the car was “more sure-footed than a polo pony.”

Except it wasn’t. Somewhere in the development process the front-to-rear weight ratio had gotten out of whack. The butt-heavy design, plus a suspect rear suspension system, made the Corvair prone to rear-end-first spinouts. Precise tire-pressure recommendations, which busy people often ignored, exacerbated the problem. In 1962 a leading TV comedian, Ernie Kovacs, was killed driving one home from a Hollywood party.

Still, the Corvair proved popular. For its initial model year General Motors produced more than 250,000 of them, and the car achieved similar numbers over the following five years. During that period GM expanded the Corvair from a single vehicle into an entire sub-brand that included a sporty coupe, the Corvair Rampside pickup truck and the Greenbrier van.  All the while, the number of accidents, some with maiming injuries or deaths, mounted. So did the number of lawsuits.

In many lawsuits, an expert witness was an obscure Washington lawyer named Ralph Nader who had become interested in auto safety while getting his law degree from Harvard. In 1965 he published Unsafe at Any Speed. Only the first chapter was about the Corvair, but it was damning.

The Corvair’s popularity grew and it transitioned from its first generation to its second for the 1965 model year even as complaints about its handling became more prevalent. Photo: Karl Ludvigsen Photo Collection, Revs Digital Library

Nader recounted the story of a California woman whose left arm was severed in 1961 when her Corvair, traveling at about 35 miles an hour, overturned.  He described how, in that same year, GM had begun selling an optional “stability enhancement kit” for the car, but had never advertised it. “The Corvair was a tragedy, not a blunder,” he wrote. “The tragedy was overwhelmingly the fault of cutting corners to shave costs.”

Though the book’s sales were sluggish, GM’s legal department wanted to know more about Nader. It hired an outside law firm to compile a dossier. The law firm hired a private detective agency, whose boss directed his field team to probe “his politics, marital status, his friends, his women, boys, etc.”  Things spun out of control, as many Corvairs were doing.

Unable to learn much about the bookish Nader, the detectives tailed him. A young woman approached him in a drugstore near his apartment, asking him to come to her place to “discuss foreign affairs.”

Nader described all this to a reporter at The New Republic magazine, which published an article. Then The New York Times picked up the story. The proverbial stuff hit the fanbelt.

Despite being criticized in the press for its handling, the Corvair was successfully raced by many like this 1965 model in the Mosport Player’s 200. Photo: Tom Burnside Photograph Collection, Revs Digital Library

A congressional committee summoned James M. Roche, president of GM, to testify about the corporate spying effort. “I want to apologize here and now,” declared Roche at the hearing on March 22, 1966, as the TV-network cameras whirred. Nader, ironically, missed Roche’s apology because he didn’t own a car and couldn’t catch a cab that morning. “I almost felt like going out and buying a Chevrolet,” he cracked when he arrived. The hearings catapulted Unsafe at Any Speed onto the best-seller list and made the unknown Nader a global celebrity.

It would be hard to overstate the impact of the Corvair scandal. It redefined product-liability law to include inherent design defects as opposed to just manufacturing miscues, greatly broadening the grounds for successful lawsuits. Governments established consumer-protection bureaus. The federal traffic-safety agency was established. So were federal regulations setting standards for everything from baby strollers to hot dogs.

Nader sued GM and used his settlement proceeds to establish public-advocacy groups to probe alleged corporate wrongdoing.  Just as the Vietnam War was eroding Americans’ confidence in government, so the Corvair scandal eroded faith in big business.

1969 marked the end of the line for the Chevrolet Corvair. Photo: General Motors

A federal investigation eventually cleared GM and the Corvair, partly because the company had made stability-improvements on latter-year models. But though GM won the battle, it had lost the war. Corvair sales plunged.  On December 12, 1969, 10 years after Ed Cole had graced the cover of Time, the magazine’s cover featured Ralph Nader, with the taillights of a Corvair receding into the distance. He “has become something of a folk hero,” wrote Time.

Meanwhile, in 1967, Ed Cole had become president of General Motors. In that role he championed the cause of unleaded gasoline, much to the consternation of the oil companies, his GM executive colleagues and the Nixon administration in Washington. But Cole’s determination prevailed. The father of the Corvair became, in a sense, America’s father of clean air.

In 1974, after he retired from GM, Cole and Nader debated on TV’s Phil Donohue show.  It was a feisty encounter, but backstage they shook hands and Nader told Cole: “You got the lead out of gasoline. Now how about getting the lead out of GM?” Three years later, at age 67, Cole died in a crash while piloting his own plane.

The Corvair’s legacy, however, didn’t die.  In America’s presidential election of 2000, pitting George W. Bush versus Al Gore, initial results showed Bush won Florida, and thus the Electoral College, by less than 2,000 votes.

For those who don’t remember, there was a third-party candidate on the Florida ballot: Ralph Nader. The man whom the Corvair made famous got more than  97,000 votes, the vast majority of which, political experts contend, would have gone to Gore without Nader on the ballot. After weeks of recounts and court challenges, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 537-vote margin for Bush.

Nader rejects the notion that he played a “spoiler” role that helped elect Bush, but political scientists largely accept it. Thus it can be safely said, at any speed, that 31 years after the Corvair’s demise, the car’s legacy helped to make George W. Bush the 43rd President of the United States.

There’s no doubt that Nader helped reshape the auto industry, bringing safety to the fore. In recognition of that, in 2016 Nader was inducted, amid some controversy, into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Detroit — taking his place alongside Walter Chrysler, Fred Duesenberg, Harley Earl and, yes, Ed Cole.

On the auction front, Mecum officials were stunned by the $220,000 price that the Yenko Stinger Corvair fetched in January. “We were thinking it might go in the $100,000 range,” said John Kraman, the lead television commentator for the Mecum auctions. But hopes that ordinary Corvairs will gain cachet, and value, among collectors are almost certainly misplaced, he added. The cars are, mostly, cheap collectibles.

Corvairs continue to inspire a cult following that celebrates their virtues as a landmark. Photo: General Motors

“For $10,000 to $12,000 you can get a very nice one,” Kraman said.  “For $20,000 you can get a show winner.” In a Corvairs-only show, of course.

Still, the Corvair retains a small but intensely loyal cadre of fans.  Many will gather at the annual Corvair Society of America convention July 23-17 in St. Charles, Ill., outside Chicago.  Just a few hours drive south, in Decatur, Ill., a new Corvair museum opened last year as an extension to an existing Chevrolet museum.  The Corvair collection houses the second-to-last Corvair ever built, with the 1969 serial number 5,999. The whereabouts of the last Corvair, serial number 6,000, are unknown. Conspiracy theories about its disappearance and whereabouts are favorite topics at Corvair conclaves.

Among the other museums where a Corvair is displayed is the American Museum of Tort Law, founded by Nader in his hometown of Winsted, Conn. The car has an honored place among exhibits that recount the Ford Pinto fires, the 1992 McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit, and a gift shop where visitors can buy copies of Unsafe at Any Speed.

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