Was the Corvair as Bad as Ralph Nader Claimed?

1962 CorvairIn his book “Unsafe at Any Speed”, the famous and often outspoken political activist Ralph Nader claimed that the Chevrolet Corvair was the most dangerous automobile on the road in the 1960s. While Ralph Nader certainly made some valid points in his most popular book, the Corvair may not have been as bad as he claimed.

Nader’s Arguments

In the first chapter of “Unsafe at Any Speed”, Nader fired a barrage of criticisms at the American automobile industry by stating that the Corvair was a “one-car accident”. While Nader viewed most automobiles to be dangerous, he targeted the Chevrolet Corvair due to its unconventional design. Unlike many other vehicles, the Corvair utilized a swing-axle suspension system. This specific system on the Corvair caused tire pressure requirements that were not in line with existing industry standards. These unregulated requirements were often not filled by the owners of Corvairs. While this was a major problem of the original Corvair, a larger problem developed from the vehicle’s inability to bear heavy loads without handling issues developing. Over-steering issues were also caused by the absence of an anti-sway bar in the Corvair. While these are real issues, it is important to note that many drivers of Corvairs did not experience any problems with handling.

The Actual Problem

Nader may have had a point when he discussed the Corvair’s issues, but he clearly had an agenda that was a disservice to car enthusiasts. Nader seemed to miss the point that the rear engine may have also been a contributing factor that lead to many accidents. The rear engine placement in the Corvair caused a weight imbalance that resulted in poor handling. As a performance vehicle, many people enjoyed driving the Corvair at high speeds. When combined with poor handling, high speeds can lead to an accident when the driver attempts to correct a steering error. Another issue with the Corvair occurred after the initial accident. Due to the weak hinges that connected the hood to the frame of the car, the hood often became a dangerous projectile that caused many fatalities.

Not All Corvairs Are Dangerous

These design errors only apply to original unaltered Corvairs from 1962. After the problems of the Corvairs were realized by third-party manufacturers and mechanics, aftermarket parts that made the vehicle safer became rather common. One of the most common solutions employed by mechanics involved attaching brackets to the chassis of the Corvair. This reduced the pressure placed on the front of the vehicle and handling improved. By 1964, these aftermarket repairs were no longer necessary; Chevrolet implemented safer designs for all new Corvairs.

While the 1962 Corvair may have been as bad as Ralph Nader claimed, its situation was not unusual. Errors and regular improvements in response to those errors are necessary for people to enjoy better and safer automobiles.

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  • Hi there, I owned a Chevy Corvair in W Germany (late seventies) and resolved the handling issue by chucking a bag of sand in the boot (trunk) over the front axle. The sand was from St Tropez, which I thought added a touch of class to a vehicle which, on a bad day, I found hard to distinguish the front from the rear of …
    Most of these cars were imported by U.S servicemen and subsequently found themselves embedded in the columns of autobahn bridges or flyovers. This caused the local population to dub them “umgluckswagen”.

    • Does it matter what year you bought?
      I’m thinking of buying one.

      • absolutely!!,,, 2nd generation(65and up) is sexy looking. it is known that is was the offspring of a one nightstand between a bel air & a corvette. these corvair(65-69) line went on to inspire (or was the father) the camaro(they have the same lines). i personally dont like anything about the camaro except rims options just because my corvair came with the same size bolt pattern(5ON5)FIVE INCH bolt pattern(iroc-z rims fit right on like a glove). Collectors most desireable year is the 66 and motor is the corsa 140.

    • there were no corvairs made in 70’s. last year made was1969. first year of 2nd generation was 1965(thats my favorite year) and that was the only half year production replaced with the nova II

  • The first chapter in “Us Safe at Any Speed” was devoted to the Corvair. The remainder of book discussed problems with every other auto made. The first chapter was so boring that many never read further in his book.

  • The Corvair was introduced on October 1, 1959. I bought mine on October 2. List price $2,195 with an automatic transmission and a gas heater. Standard transmission models were not initially available. My stripped down model did not even have arm rests on the doors or an AM radio. Within the fist month or so after I bought the car, it was recalled to totally replace the emergency brake which was a faulty design. I subsequently drove my ’60 Corvair cross county and in Canada in the winter. Nader was totally correct. it was a death trap. Highly unstable on snow and ice. The lack of an anti-sway bar made the car unacceptably unstable. I traded my Corvair for a 1961 Chevy Biscayne equipped with a 283 with a three on a tree and positraction. It was like driving a real car after driving an engineering joke.

  • The very 1st Corvair I saw in fall 1959 was upside down off a 2 lane highway with a switch back curve. The driver did a quick left and then a quick right, resulting in the unlimited travel of the rear swing axles to “tricyle” in the rear with the weight of the rear engine causing it to flip to the left. Result, it flipped over a fence onto a farm field while rotating over on to it’s top, facing the opposite direction. The father and son were able to get out and were on the edge of the road when I stopped there. In the following years I knew people the that worked EMS and were called to many filliped Corvair and Volkswagan accidents. Both did not control the rear axles as done by Porsche. Sucessive Motor Trend magazines first were impressed by the protype they drove and recommeded it. A later issue, after a drive of the production version, retracted the recommedation and said not to but it because the “bean counters had the controls on the swing axles removed to save cost. Had GM/Chev kept the proto design, Ralph Nader would not have been able to write the book and become so famous.

  • Actually the Nader claims only applied to 1960 and 1961. By 1962 GM increased the spring rates to somewhat compensate for the rear wheel tuck problem. Even Ford Motor Company proved that 1960 Corvair rollover could only be accomplished by extremely intentional irradic driving with improper air pressure or by hitting a curb or running off the road while turning. A friend fell asleep while driving an early 4 door. It ran off the road and overturned. He awoke sleeping on the headliner, uninjured. A farmer helped him right the car so he could continue driving, albeit without a windshield.

    • I had a turbocharges1963 Corvair Spyder convertible. I had absolutely no problems with the handling in summer or winter even at high speed. Possibly the previous owner had made some modifications I was unaware of but I don’t think so. In my experience it was a good handling car. I can recall my room mate’s terrifying high speed driving down Boulder Canyon (Col.) in another Corvair (the landscape whipping by the windshield at a high rate) but the car behaved flawlessly. My experience was so unlike many of the comments I’ve heard or read over the years that I’ve come to wonder if these folks had ever driven one. There were some things that could have been improved like any American car of the period but in general it was a cut above most. My sense is that many people who don’t know what they are talking about like to repeat such statements as “unsafe at any speed” in order to make themselves sound knowledgeable but, in my estimation it is BS. Possibly if a car was not maintained properly, driven with deflated tires, they didn’t know how to drive a rear engined car……? I don’t know how else to explain the negative remarks. Its unfortunate that GM discontinued this car. The 1965 and onward models were further improved with full independent suspension and more power. The car was innovative and ahead of typical American cars of the period.

  • The Chevy Corvair is my favorite vehicle. I’ve had a ’64 for 40 years. I don’t give two hoots what Ralph Nader says. In my opinion it is the neatest car ever made and I’ve never experienced any “unsafe” issues with it. Of course I’m not STUPID enough to drive it at high speeds either. That would be an idiotic move with ANY vehicle.

    • I don’t think I drove mine at much over 100mph. No problems with the handling.
      Its ironic that it was described by some as prone to rollover since the engine was a “flat” horizontally opposed aluminum 6 cylinder. I would imagine this gave it a much lower center of gravity than the inline sixes and v8s typical of American cars of the period. It would be interesting to calculate the polar moment of inertia. Although it was rear engined rather than the more typical front engine located between the front wheels it may have a comparable number since the engine was rather light. The Porsche 911 of the period was also rear engined with a flat aircooled six. I’ve never heard anyone describe that as “unsafe at any speed”. About the only down side to the pre 65 Corvair was the fact that it had swing axles in the rear as did VWs and earlier Porsches. The 1965 and onward models replaced that with a truly independent rear suspension. Like other American cars of the period there was room for improvement but all-in-all, the Corvair was probably the most advanced American car of the period. The design of the engine, with its separate cylinder design lent itself to modularity. I think I read somewhere that GM had designed 2cyl, 4cyl, 8cyl, 10cyl, and 12cyl variants of this engine. According to an article I read somewhere they actually produced a flat 10cyl prototype for use in a front wheel drive configuration.
      Ralph Nader built his reputation dishonestly as regards the Corvair, in my opinion. He may have killed an entire generation of automotive innovation at GM. The demise of the Corvair speaks to the gullibility and naivete of the public.

  • I had a 1966 Corvair, automatic, and also worked for a store that had a Corvair Monza, as well as a Corvair vanboth 4 speed standard transmissions. I was just 17, a new driver, but thoroughly enjoyed driving all 3 vehicles, never experiencing any of the issues Nader lists as problems. The steering was very stable and all 3 vehicles handled well; much better than thee 1955 Chevy BelAir I first learned to drive inas the ’55 had no power steering or brakes. I’m not sure if the Corvair had power steering, or just handled better because there was less weight in the front. It was a great car for a frugal college student! With the front bench seat, it seated six. I had 5 college friends who rode with me to the university campus, daily. I charged $1.00/week, for each person, could keep my car filled with gas, and still had enough money left over for lunch, every day…LOL! All in all, I still think it was a great car, economical and needing few repairs, as opposed to the Chevy Opal, another GM compact that was an absolute lemon, from the day it came off the showroom floor!