Gorgeous at any speed. History of the Chevrolet Corvair
Gorgeous at any speed. History of the Chevrolet Corvair

Gorgeous at any speed. History of the Chevrolet Corvair

The Chevrolet Corvair stands out as one of the most likely candidates for the title of “the most controversial American car of the 1960s. “Unsafe at any speed,” was the branding attached to this unusual car by journalists. Actually, it was not so. More precisely, absolutely not so.

New times, new ideas

It was an interesting time, a creative time. After the war, the American public finally had its full freedom. Including financial freedom. Everyone could afford to buy a car and change it almost every year for a new one. Manufacturers were quick to capitalize on this, offering ever newer, more powerful, and ever more unusual cars.

Chevrolet Corvair
The hero of our story today, the legendary Chevrolet Corvair

In this new creative era, creators experimented with all sorts of new ideas. British automaker Rover was instrumental in developing the jet engine and gas turbine, and did a lot of work in developing and testing gas turbine technology for passenger cars.

We remember that this was the era of the supersonic Concorde and the era of the space race. American automakers Ford and Chrysler tried gas turbines on trucks, and Chrysler became known as the car that could run on tequila.

Manufacturers considered not only alternative engine types for cars, but also new design concepts. Before the outbreak of World War II, the Germans embarked on a project that would allow every German family to have a “folk car”. The design work was done by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche in collaboration with the Austrian Hans Ledwinka. We wrote about this dark story more than once.

Chevrolet Corvair
The same German People’s Car of Porsche and Ledwinkie. Also rear-engined.

The history lessons that GM skipped

Both Porsche and Ledwinka were interested in the idea of a four-seat car with a rear-mounted air-cooled engine, and the “KDF Wagen” which later became known as the “Volkswagen” was built on its basis. This design concept was also used by other German automakers in the 1930s, such as Mercedes. The use of this design, which had some inherent limitations, was in all likelihood done at the behest of Adolf Hitler himself, who was very interested in cars, although he was never seen behind the wheel.

Both Volkswagen and Hans Ledwinka designed the Czechoslovak Tatra 77 and then the Tatra 87 using a rear engine with independent rear suspension using oscillating half axles. The Tatra 77 and 87 didn’t just hang a lightweight boxer opposition engine behind the center of the rear axle.  This Tatras received a 3.0-3.4 liter V8 block.

Chevrolet Corvair
Rear-engined Tatra 77 with V-8 engine

These large Tatra V8 cars were produced from 1934 and became quite popular with some of Hitler’s senior officers until it was discovered that the rear-mounted V8 engine in combination with the swinging axles tended to make wild oversteer during high-speed maneuvers, resulting in the car often losing trajectory or flipping over.

This often led to accidents involving the most ardent Nazi officers, and as a result many of them were commissaried by the lady with the scythe. Therefore the car was nicknamed the “Czech secret weapon” and Hitler forbade senior officers to approach the Tatras with the V-8 engine at a single gunshot.

Chevrolet Corvair
Tatra 87, 1940 Czech V-8 secret weapon

Our point is that the inherent problems associated with a rear-mounted engine using a sway half-axle suspension were well known by the time General Motors decided to build a small rear-engine car using sway half-axles.

An alien on the Chevrolet assembly line

While some may wonder, “What were they thinking?” when General Motors decided to create a new car with a rear-mounted engine, we should realize that by the late 1950s both Volkswagen and the Porsche 356 with a rear-mounted engine had gained an excellent reputation and that Tatra had also achieved considerable success in motorsports with the Tatra 603, a greatly improved successor to the Tatra 77 and 87 that proved so adept at killing Nazis.

The rear-mounted engine was also ideal for buses and gave the possibility to arrange a completely flat floor in the passenger compartment, which can be achieved by either front engine with front-wheel drive, which would later be implemented in the Motorhome GMC.


Chevrolet Corvair
Chevrolet Corvair layout

Or use an engine at the front, but with a fixed driveline to transmit torque to the rear wheels, which would have used an independent rear suspension (i.e. the 1947 Chevrolet Cadet concept car). But the simplest version was a rear-engine layout with rear-wheel drive. General Motors decided to use a scheme that proved phenomenally successful for Volkswagen and Porsche.

General Motors was an international company and already owned Vauxhall in Britain, Opel in Germany, and Holden in Australia. All three of these markets required production in the United States of so-called compact cars, but these compact cars, such as the Australian GM Holden models of the 1940s and 1950s, were six-seaters.

So GM already had models they could produce in the U.S. or import to provide a compact class model for the U.S. market. But Ed Cole, who was vice president of General Motors and general manager of Chevrolet, wanted to create a new and unique model to fill the compact car market segment.

Ed Cole was involved in building tanks during World War II, but in 1950, when he was in charge of producing the M41 Walker Bulldog tank, he probably started thinking about using an air-cooled engine for a passenger car.

Chevrolet Corvair
A cross-section of the Chevrolet Corvair opposition engine

The M41 Walker Bulldog was powered by a Continental air-cooled six-cylinder opposition engine. Ed Cole had also actively flown a Beechcraft Bonanza equipped with a Continental air-cooled engine, so he had great respect for the reliability and unpretentiousness of these engines.

M41 Walker Bulldog
M41 Walker Bulldog air-cooled engine tank designed by Ed Cowell

The idea for the new Chevrolet for the new era was to have the same air-cooled airplane-opposed motor, made of aircraft-grade aluminum alloy, mounted in the rear with the gearbox and differential as a single integrated “Unipack” unit.

Chevrolet Corvair
Monoblock engine and transmission construction

The vehicle had to have a very low seating position in order to lower the center of gravity as much as possible and to give the sports car minimal aerodynamic drag. Ed Cole wanted a Chevy that would stand out from the competition with European handling, increased reliability, and a flat floor in the passenger compartment. It seems he envisioned something like an American Porsche six-seater.

Chevrolet Corvair, first-generation, 1960-1964

Ed Cole’s vision may have worked perfectly, but for the fact that the Corvair was originally designed as an inexpensive compact car like the Chevrolet “Volkswagen,” but offered a much more roomy interior than the Volkswagen.

Chevrolet Corvair

However, making the car inexpensive meant that costs had to be kept to a minimum, and so for early cars, some of the engineering solutions that should have been implemented were not. But this was more than covered by the stylish body design, which made it “look like a million dollars,” as one reviewer noted.

Initially, a four-cylinder engine with a highly siliconized aluminum cylinder block was prepared for the Corvair. This configuration would have reduced weight, but it was decided that a four-cylinder engine was not as powerful as a six-cylinder engine, so a six-cylinder engine was preferred.

Chevrolet Corvair

This led to an increase in weight behind the center of the rear axle. The high-silicon aluminum cylinder blocks were also replaced by cast-iron ones, adding even more weight. The result was an engine weight of 151 kg, 35 kg more than originally anticipated.

To alleviate this problem, Chevrolet put a spare tire in the front of the car, and they also installed a fuel tank in the trunk. They decided not to put the battery in the front to distribute the weight more evenly, instead installing it in the back.

Chevrolet Corvair

Americans were used to cars with very soft suspension, cars that made you feel like you were floating on the road. To that end, the Corvair was designed with fully independent suspension front and rear. At the front were conventional wishbones with shock absorbers and coil springs, and at the rear they installed two independently oscillating arms. The brakes were hydraulically actuated drums and the power steering was a roller/worm pair.

To keep costs down, GM decided not to use a front anti-roll bar and, more importantly, decided not to use a bend-compensating rear transverse leaf spring, which would have been bolted to the transmission and suspension arms on both sides.

Chevrolet Corvair

This kind of stabilizer was a popular aftermarket accessory for Volkswagen and Porsche, and later became basic to reduce the tendency of the sway axle to “bend” in corners, especially during corner braking. It didn’t take long for EMPI to start making such a kit for the Corvair as well.

The Chevrolet Corvair was supposed to use a cross-car body and was the first such car made by Fisher. The styling was deliberately European with no pronounced fins or similar stylistic devices. The car was made in four body types. First the four-door sedan was produced, followed by the two-door Monza coupe, the Lakewood station wagon, and then, in 1962, the convertible.


People who bought a Corvair were unlikely to want to test the limits of the car’s capabilities. Most customers were people whose driving style was far from sporty and who were unlikely to encounter sudden and severe extreme oversteer. Except in emergency situations: performing emergency braking in a corner at speed to avoid hitting sudden obstacles.

Indeed, in the 1950s and 1960s, drivers didn’t really get into the technical features that could make a car safer at all: the main thing in a car that made it safe was the driver, and so it was. Thus, the Corvair, driven competently, was safe enough for most people. This was still an era when drum brakes were almost ubiquitous and disc brakes were a relative rarity, just beginning to be installed on sports cars.

Similarly, the three-point seat belt was invented in 1959 by Niels Bolin of Volvo and then offered to the world for free by the company without any patents or licenses. Although it took more than a decade for three-point seat belts to become the standard passenger safety device to convince the public to use them.

Chevrolet Corvair

The options available on the standard Corvair 579 were impressive: a dual-mode Powerglide automatic suspension, a gasoline heater and an AM tube radio (transistors were still a novelty in 1960). A folding rear seat became standard in 1960 to increase luggage carrying capacity.

The car was sold in standard 569 and 769 luxury versions. In 1960, the 527 and 727 coupe models were introduced, as well as the 900 Series Monza coupe with front bucket seats. By 1962, GM paid attention to customer and automotive press feedback about the Corvair’s handling and introduced an upgraded suspension options package for the Monza, Monza Spyder and four-door sedan models.

Chevrolet Corvair

This package included metallized brake pads, front anti-roll bar, rear axle travel restrictor belts, revised spring settings, and recalibrated shock absorbers. This went a long way toward alleviating steering problems and placating the criticism associated with it.

In 1964, the suspension of the production car was revised again, a front stabilizer bar was installed as standard, and that same transverse spring-compensating camber at the rear was also installed. The brakes were also upgraded by installing finned drums in the rear, because the front to rear braking ratio had to be 46% front to 54% rear to compensate for weight distribution.

A Work in Progress. Chevrolet Corvair, Second Generation, 1965-1969

The second-generation Chevrolet Corvair was released in 1965, the same year as Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed. The shortcomings of the first-generation Corvair were resolutely eliminated. Gone were the Volkswagen-type rear oscillating half-axles, which were to be replaced by double articulated driveshafts, they were already in use in the Corvette.

This ensured that the rear wheels would not “bend” during extreme corner braking. The difference between the first and new second-generation cars is summarized by David E. Davis, Jr. of Car and Driver magazine, writing in October 1964:

“And this is where we must officially declare that the Corvair is, in our opinion, the most important new car of all the ’65 models and the most beautiful car to appear in this country since the war. When the photographs of the ’65 Corvair arrived in our office, the man who opened the envelope let out a loud cry of delight and amazement at the first sight of the car, and thirty seconds later the whole newsroom was humming with delight.”

Suddenly the Corvair became the car Ed Cole had envisioned a decade earlier. It became a car that could compete with the Ford Thunderbird, especially in the Corvair Monza coupe format. The styling was new and much improved, with a sleeker but purposeful design.

Chevrolet Corvair

The car looked like a purebred Italian, and its performance was seriously improved not only by the new suspension, but also by upgrading the engine.

The engines for the new-generation Corvair still produced 95 and 110 hp from the previous generation for buyers looking to save money, but the Corsa had a new 140-hp version with four down-flow single-chamber carburetors, larger valves, and a dual exhaust system.

Chevrolet Corvair

Also available for the Corsa was a 180-horsepower turbocharged engine and the option to change from the standard three-speed manual transmission to a four-speed with synchromesh on all gears. All second-generation Corvair engines were improved with some of the more balanced internal components originally inherited from the turbocharged engines.

Chevrolet Corvair

The elite Corsa was also equipped with a Delcotron generator to greatly improve power to onboard electrical consumers, and was equipped with air conditioning as an option along with AM/FM radio, and a telescoping adjustable steering column with an optional steering gear with a lower gear ratio.

Chevrolet adjusted its model lineup by 1965. It was realized early on in production that the Corvair was not at its best, and would not be able to become a big American VW. So Chevrolet recognized the market need for a conventional compact car, which was called the Chevrolet II.

1964 Chevrolet Chevy II Nova 4-door Sedan
The most ordinary family sedan 1964 Chevrolet Chevy II Nova 4-door Sedan

The Chevy II was introduced in 1961, and it was everything compact car buyers wanted: it was ordinary, everyone knew how to fix and maintain it, and its handling was dull and predictable. The car was designed from scratch in a short eighteen months because it was necessary to compete with the new Ford Falcon, and the Corvair was too original to act as a counterbalance to the Falcon.

Chevrolet Corvair

The Corvair, however, was a car more appealing to customers who were looking for a sporty, no-nonsense driving style. Chevrolet recognized this and removed the station wagon and pickup bodies from the Corvair lineup. Instead there was the Monza and Corsa, interesting, very different and a bit exotic, being still homegrown Americans.

The second generation had many chances for success. And yet the model died. In fact, the killer of the car was not Ralph Nader’s book, which certainly did some damage. The killer was Ford’s new Mustang, which was introduced the same year as the second-generation Corvair.

Chevrolet Corvair

The Mustang immediately became an American legend, and its appearance in the car chase scene in the 1968 film Bullitt cemented the pony car as a “must have” American icon. Corvair sales plummeted, and General Motors struggled to produce its own Mustang, the Chevrolet Camaro. Corvair production ended quietly in 1969.

Chevrolet Corvair

With this history in mind, Chevrolet gradually moved on to building Corvair models for enthusiast drivers and selling the Corvair for that segment. With the introduction of the second generation cars in 1965, Chevrolet really achieved a safe and exciting car for the driver: an American car that provided a European style and a distinctive driving style.

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