Hagerty.com

Will the Corvair Kill You?


#1

If automotive-safety advocate Ralph Nader is right, what I’m about do has an uncomfortably high percentage of ending in disaster. I’m in a 1960 Chevrolet Corvair, one with a manual transmission and just 39,672 miles on the clock. An expanse of wide concrete runway — a portion of Detroit’s Coleman Young Airport — stretches out ahead. My intention is to accelerate to a modest speed and then abruptly turn the wheel back and forth to see what the car will do.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.hagerty.com/articles-videos/articles/2017/11/15/will-the-corvair-kill-you

#2

Fast forward 25 years and you could write the same story about the Pontiac Fiero. I bought new, an 85 V6 SE and still own it. There was a problem with the 84 4-cylinder models which was solved by installing a heat shield. There had been a few fires and as a results the car had been deemed unsafe. To the best of my knowledge, the shield eliminated that potential issue but the reputation had already been compromised.


#3

I bought a1960 Corvair from my brother in law in 1967 for $250. The car put out 80 horsepower. He had rolled the car several times when he fell asleep at the wheel, ran off into a ditch and into a farmer’s field. He called a tow truck to set the car back on it’s wheels and drove it home. It suffered no broken window glass, just indentions to the roof and by the door handles. These were popped out and repaired by a body shop.
I did not feel any instability in driving the car at all. I felt more instability in driving a friend’s 66 911 Porsche.
I later owned a 1963 Corvair Spyder with the 150 HP factory turbo and felt no instability in it as well. It would do a 180 turn on a dime, with no sense of pending rollover at all. I would describe the handling as almost go cart like.
I also owned a 70 VW Beetle and felt it was very stable as well.
Ralph was nuts in my book. I believe the early Tempests had the same independent rear suspension as the Corvair, but much more horsepower. This was brought out in the “My Cousin Vinny” trial.


#4

Don’t forget that emissions were starting to become part of the vocabulary.
The air cooled engine was big on NOx, HC etc.

My '66 convertible was fun to drive, just wish it was a stick.


#5

Too bad a 1965 or newer Corvair wasn’t included for comparison. The addition of lower control arms in the 1965 and later models eliminated the “tuck under” deficiencies of the 1960 through 1964 models. Had Chevrolet done it right on the 1960 model, we might not be here discussing swing axles and camber today.


#6

A big problem only touched on is tire pressure. The author suggests “owners” did not maintain the proper tire pressure. Garage mechanics didn’t know either. The average owner took his car in for a lube, oil, filter change at the proper interval, and, while on the lift the mechanic put 32 lbs of air in all 4 tires. The unsuspecting owner had no knowledge of the matter.


#7

I was a claim rep in the 1960’s in WV where many roads had no berm. I had more claims for roll overs for 60-63 Corvairs then any other vehicle including PU’s & Jeeps. It’s the only thing on which Nader & I agreed . The highways had no berm, & most often had a drop onto gravel. As soon as the real wheels dropped off the blacktop, the real wheel tucked in & the car rolled over.


#8

One subtle distinction within the “earlies” (1960-64) is that for 1964 only, a leaf spring was added, extending from the differential outward to the ends of the half shafts in an effort to stabilize the handling prior to the 1965-69 (second gen) redesign. It wasn’t perfect, but it helped immensely IMHO. I’ve driven a 64 Vert for 15 years. Upgraded the wheels from 13 to 14", running 205 tires, it hugs the road quite nicely.


#9

I owned a '63 Corvair Monza Spyder which put 150 hp out of 145 c.i.
We put heavier gaskets in the engine, guides on the fan belt and stabilizers front and rear.
The entire cost was under $500.00 and the little car ran with the best at the time.
I believe that GM caved rather than doing the few things that could have improved the car.


#10

Thank you for this fair assessment of Nader and his book. I for one applaud Ralph Nader - I’d probably be dead if it weren’t for him - and I suspect that’s true for a lot of the enthusiasts who castigate him. In my case, my BMW 2002 featured an energy absorbing/collapsing steering column that could have/would have killed me when a truck on a side road blew a stop sign and rolled right into my path and the front end of the BMW was crushed rearwards. On another matter, as a foolish high school kid, I managed to roll a Simca 1000 (very similar to a Corvair when you look at it’s rear engine/suspension set up) in a parking lot at about 15 mph!


#11

The “unsafe” at any speed also dealt with the fact the heat for the inside heat in early models was taken from a shroud that covered the cast exhaust manifolds. Unfortunately the cylinders were aluminum and the manifold was not the same material and did not expand at the same rate…the results, exhaust fumes would leak into the shroud and then into the car’s interior. So even while idling one would be subjected to carbon monoxide. In only a few minutes of having the heater on it was obvious that it was unsafe. I finally disconnected the duct work from engine to car heater intake so I would not be tempted to use the heat. The other problem with my 64 was the drifting…any time there was any moisture on the road. On the other hand I was a college student and I loved the drifting. I bought a second exhaust system and created dual exhausts. There were no glasspacks available for the small exhaust system but the glasspack for the 454 Olds when turned around backwards were the perfect size and sounded great. Oh Yeah…Those were the days.


#12

I had the 4 door with the gasoline heater and was in a roll-over in a two door.

  1. The handling of the 4 door was much better, almost predictive vs the 2 door especially with 4 young adult passengers inside.
  2. The gas heater was good at reducing fuel mileage, giving parking lot heat and freezing you on the highway in 20 degree weather.
    Oh, I almost forgot, it was great of road in the snow, took it to a large park after about 6 inches of snow, went off road, around the swings, drifting all around for 360 tour of the 4 seat swing set. Occasionally got stuck, just backed up in the tracks and dozed forward until back on shallower snow. You could look back and see the depression and wheel tracks. Good to be young, invincible and lucky.

#13

Driven on perfectly level and smooth surfaces it naturally isn’t likely to roll but take it over a bump while on a curve and all bets are off according to several friends back then who rolled them. One guy described it as being like a giant had grabbed the back end and flipped the car. The VW beetles weren’t much better in that regard since they also had swing axles.


#14

It’s a shame the Corvair has such a negative reputation to this day. The car was revolutionary in so many ways. Regarding the suspension, it was very similar to many cars of the era. Swing axle was indeed considered to be a pretty conventional rear suspension for sporty cars in general. Everything from Beetles and Spitfires to Mercedes used swing axle rear suspension.

I autocross my 69 (not a swing axle car) here in SoCal every month and it’s a blast around the track!


#15

In 1966, I frequented several junk yards attempting to find parts for my 12 year old car. As a 19 year old male, I was briefly fascinated to look into smashed cars…the repeated image is burned into my mind now, --it consists of several distorted steering wheels… the center steering column clearly having brutally smashed the innocent torsos of the victims of a car that had its rigid steering column mounted behind a thin steel bumper. Ralph Nader’s crusade saved so many innocents from gratuitous death.


#16

I had a 60 2-door coupe. In many ways a great little car and I wish I still had it. However, compared to any other car I’ve ever owned it had a far far higher likelihood of getting someone into trouble without warning. It would go thru axle deep mud, door deep water and cruize easily all the way from phx to LA. What it wouldn’t do was safely make quick turns. I almost wrapped it around a telephone pole because I was going too fast and came oh so close to it spinning into the pole. In another case I waggled the steering wheel back and forth on a dirt road and after the third waggle the rear end swapped with the front in a huge cloud of dust. On the highway if there was the slightest crosswind it required an endless series of steering corrections to stay in it’s lane. And as the article noted, any significant turn of the steering resulted in immediate oversteer and you had to back off to keep it on the desired arc. I also had a 66 Monza which had none of those problems and was a very nice inexpensive sports car.


#17

In 1960 while in High School I was driving a 2dr 1960 Corvair 90mph when a truck made a left turn in front of me. I closed my eyes hit the brakes did a 180 degree turn and missed the truck. I believe because of the Corvair’s low ride it saved my life.


#18

I bought a new 1965 Corvair ConvertiblejMasda 110…Turquoise with white interior and top…3 speed. Drove it from Little Rock AFB back to Peoria Ill…kept it for three years and drove it a lot. Never had a problem. The no trin on the windows did catch my cheek once or twice as I was use to some trim on windows in other cars, but no major problem. Learned to avoid the window getting in an out…no big deal. It was said that since the engine was in the back that a front end collision would drive the steering wheel into the drivers chest…Never had a collision so don’t know about that. Did hear later on that manufacture corrected that problem in future cars. Under normal driving conditions in snow, rain, etc…never had a handling problem…it was an awesome car. Earlier corvairs had a fan belt problem as in it would fly off…but in 1965 models they added a small bracket that kept the belt from slipping off…Wish I would have kept it…but traded it to buy a new 1968 Pontiac Lemans…Oh well.


#19

Although I never owned a Corvair I presently own a 1967 M 151A1 military Jeep, it has the same rear suspension as the early Corvairs. Because of roll overs the rear suspension was redesigned and it became the M151A2.
Like the author I have a number of years of dirt track racing experience and I can detect its propensity for oversteer especially on the hard military offroad tires. I keep three forty five pound sand bags in the bed and that tends to reduce the twitchiness in the rear end.


#20

I believe the two door and four door have the same wheelbase, so the only difference in handling would be the extra weight of the four door.

One of the popular accessories for the early cars was the “EMPI Camber Compensator” which limited the drop of the rear wheels.
http://corvaircenter.com/phorum/read.php?1,766491,767072

It would have been interesting to have seen both a two and four door tested as well as one with the compensator.

I always thought Nader went after GM for the deep pockets, as many other cars: VW, Triumph, etc. all had the same swing axle design.