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.

  • 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.