“The sporty Corvair: the ‘one-car’ accident”

Click to view the entire catalog in the Hagley Digital Archives.

Designed as a competitor to the Ford Falcon and the Plymouth Valiant, Chevrolet announced its 1960 Corvair in the fall of 1959. Motor Trend named it the 1960 “Car of the Year.” The Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1976 describes the Corvair as “a wholly unconventional automobile.” They go on to describe it as follows:

It measured a tight 180 inches in overall length and it sat on a compact 108-inch wheelbase. An aluminum, air-cooled, horizontally-opposed six-cylinder engine was rear-mounted, as in the popular German Volkswagen. The fully independent suspension system used coil springs all around and swing axles in the rear. An oddly shaped trunk was up front, where the engine was on all other American cars.

The handling capabilities of the 1960-1963 models inspired Ralph Nader’s 1965 best-seller Unsafe at Any Speed. His first chapter is titled: “The sporty Corvair: the ‘one-car’ accident.” It highlights the tendencies of the car to spin out of control.

Click to view the entire catalog in the Hagley Digital Archives.

Modifications to the 1964 models to improve handling were not enough to overcome the bad publicity from Nader’s book. Corvair sales plummeted in 1966 and would never recover. It lingered, largely unsuccessfully, in the Chevrolet lineup until the production of the last Corvair in 1969. A 1972 congressional investigation cleared Chevrolet and the Corvair of any safety flaws, but clearly, this came too late. The report contributes much of the steering difficulty to improper inflation of tires, disregarding the recommendation of 15 psi front and 26 psi rear (to compensate for the weight of the engine being in the rear of the car).

The Corvair’s reputation of infamy remains to this day. It ranked number seventeen on Time’s “50 Worst Cars of All Time.” A February 2012 episode of Top Gear (USA) featured a battle to identify the most dangerous car. (The Corvair competed alongside the Ford Pinto and Suzuki Samurai for this distinction, but you’ll have to check out the episode for yourself to see who won.)

In 2011-2012, Chevy once again found itself under fire for one of its models – the electric Chevrolet Volt. Claims surfaced that a defect caused these cars to burst into flames. However, at the end of January 2012, the NHTSA reported that there is “no discernible defect trend.” They go on to report that “Based on the available data, NHTSA does not believe that Chevy Volts or other electric vehicles pose a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles.”

This situation has many similarities to the 1960s and the Corvair. However, this time around, the role of Ralph Nader is being played by Rush Limbaugh, who has denounced GM as the “corporation that’s trying to kill its customers.”

As of March 6th, the Washington Post reported that GM would halt production of the Volt for five weeks, from March 19th until April 23rd. The article also points out that the potential scare about fires might not even be the factor that is keeping consumers from embracing the Volt, but instead its hefty $39,125 price tag.

Just as Chevy is trying to put to rest any concerns about its Chevy Volt, an April 1st USA Today article announced that Chevrolet is now investigating fires in their 2011 Chevy Cruzes (the article also states that the Jeep Wrangler is under investigation as well).

Only time will tell if the Volt’s PR problems will linger long enough to squelch its potential and lead it to fade into the pages of history with the Corvair.

Click here to see all the Corvair materials available in the Hagley Digital Archives.


Auto Editors of Consumer Guide. “How Chevrolet Corvair Works.” How Stuff Works. http://auto.howstuffworks.com/chevrolet-corvair.htm (accessed March 8, 2012).

“Chevy Volt: Why Production Was Halted and What It Means,” Washington Post, March 6, 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/chevy-volt-why-production-was-halted-and-what-it-means/2012/03/06/gIQAfNILvR_story.html (accessed March 8, 2012).

Healey, James R. “Feds Probes Fires in Chevy Cruze, Jeep Wrangler,” USA Today, April 2, 2012. http://content.usatoday.com/communities/driveon/post/2012/04/fires-chevy-cruze-jeep-wrangler-government-probe/1?fb_ref=.T3jqHQ0M2Po.like&fb_source=timeline#.T337LNWDmSq (accessed April 5, 2012).

Kimes, Beverly Rae. Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1946-1975. 4th ed. Edited by Ron Kowalke. Iola, WI.: Krause Pubns Inc, 1997.

Limbaugh, Rush. “Regime Covered up Chevy Volt Dangers.” The Rush Limbaugh Show. http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/daily/2011/12/06/regime_covered_up_chevy_volt_dangers (accessed March 9, 2012).

Motor Trend. Bar Talk: 1960 Car of the Year. December 2009. http://www.motortrend.com/features/consumer/112_1001_1960_car_of_the_year/ (accessed March 8, 2012).

Muller, Joann. “Government Ends Probe Into Chevy Volt Fires.” Forbes, January 20, 2012. http://www.forbes.com/sites/joannmuller/2012/01/20/government-ends-probe-into-chevy-volt-fires/ (accessed March 8, 2012).

Nader, Ralph. Unsafe at Any Speed. New York: Pocket Books, 1966.

Plumer, Brad, “What’s Ailing the Chevy Volt?” Washington Post, March 4, 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/whats-ailing-the-chevy-volt/2012/03/04/gIQAW6HrqR_blog.html (accessed March 8, 2012).

Top Gear: “Dangerous Cars.” (2012). The History Channel website. Retrieved 10:40, March 1, 2012, from http://www.history.com/videos/top-gear-dangerous-cars.

Emily Cottle is the Project Archivist/Cataloger for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

One thought on ““The sporty Corvair: the ‘one-car’ accident”

  1. I bought one of the last Corvairs made in 1969. It was a 140 hp Monza convertible, silver with a manual top and a 4-speed manual transmission. It was an OK car, went well in snow, but followed truck ruts left on sunbaked 213 going down to the Eastern Shore. My Corvair was light in the front end and the ruts took over directional guidance of the car at one surprising moment. The major issue with the car was its engine. It burned out its exhaust valve guides. They were replaced. When they started to go again, I sold the car. The car used only premium gasoline. I had burned Amoco’s high octane fuel, but was told later by a dealer that I should have Sunoco 260. GM had been silent on that point. GM did give us 1969 Corvair buyers a check for $1,000 off if we bought another GM car. I did.

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