The car that didn’t explode

By the end of the 1950s American car makers were losing market share to cheap European imports. Volkswagen’s Beetle, Renault’s Dauphine and the Fiat 600 were all cheaper, more fuel efficient and easier to park than full-sized American cars. By 1959 imports had captured almost 11% of the market. General Motors responded by building a small car of its own — the Chevrolet Corvair.

Like the some of the cheap European imports, the Corvair’s engine was mounted behind the rear wheels. Combined with its swing-axle rear suspension, this made the car difficult to control in some circumstances. As consumer activist Ralph Nader wrote: "What made them so dangerous was that an emergency steering maneuver caused the Corvair to suddenly and viciously oversteer (the rear tires would lose traction), and to jack up on one rear wheel. The car, which would then be traveling sideways, would often flip over."

Nader devoted an entire chapter of his 1965 book Unsafe at any Speed to the Corvair and its design flaws. Since then, Australian columnists have been getting the story confused. Earlier this week, Phillip Adams wrote:

When crusading against the "unsafe at any speed" cars produced by Detroit in the 1960s, the young Ralph Nader found that GM was already a basket case. Trying to find who was responsible for the highly flammable Chevrolet Corsair, Nader interviewed executives up and down the management chart. "No one in the company would admit to knowing anything," he told me at the time.

As some of his readers have pointed out, Adams not only misspells the car’s name, but he confuses it with another notorious car industry disaster story — the Ford Pinto. The Pinto’s problem was that it prone to exploding. When hit from behind — even at relatively low speeds — the car’s fuel tank could rupture. In some cases this led to a fire or explosion.

The Corvair suffered from a number of problems, but spontaneous combustion wasn’t one of them. The car was introduced in 1960 — the same time Ford introduced the Falcon and Chrysler introduced the Valiant. Criticism of the car’s design started almost immediately. According to a 1959 article in Time Magazine:

Ever since plans for the new compact cars got around Detroit, competitors of General Motors Corp. have been kicking at the rear engine G.M. will use in its Corvair. Chrysler Corp. President Lester Lum Colbert announced that Chrysler’s small-car offering, the Valiant, would have its engine "up front, where it belongs." Ford Motor Co., whose small Falcon will also have a front engine, launched TV commercials demonstrating that an arrow weighted at the back end will fly erratically and miss the target, but that a "properly weighted" (i.e., heavy at the front) arrow will go straight to the mark.

GM hit back, releasing advertisements boasting that Corvair came "with the engine in the rear where it belongs in a compact car". The ads claimed that the car had better handling and braking thanks to its rear-mounted engine. They even released a promotion film showing the Corvair being put through its paces on the test track (the part where the car spins 180 degrees isn’t exactly reassuring).

Although GM intended the Corvair as an economy car, it found its niche as sporty car — a kind of "poor man’s Porsche". Some of the most popular models were the coupes. For the high-performance models, getting the flat, air-cooled, six cylinder engine to produce more power was a challenge. GM’s engineers solved the problem by fitting a turbocharger. By 1965, GM had also sorted out the suspension issues — later models having a rear suspension set up similar to the Corvette.

In the end, the Corvair was driven out of its new niche by Ford’s Mustang. The Mustang combined sporty looks with conventional engineering and was an instant hit. GM followed with the Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird. By 1969 the Corvair was dead.

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