Was the Corvair as Bad as Ralph Nader Claimed?
In 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.
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.
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.
You’re correct that the Camaro wheels would have fit if you have a 5 lug Corvair, but I’m afraid you’re lug spacing is off a bit. Corvairs that came with 5 lug wheels, as well as most RWD GM passenger cars including those Camaros and even their S10 truck range, had 5 on 4¾ lug spacing. The 5 on 5 pattern was used on their ½ ton full size trucks such as the C-10 pick-ups.
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
There didn’t have to be a Corvair manufactured in the 70’s for him to own one in the 70″s.
I owned a beautiful one in the early 2000’s and well.. *see above
Stay Keen Javier
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.
UNSAFE AT ANY SPEED!
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.
Maybe driving lessons would of helped you pilot the car better?
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.
I loved my 4 door Corvair Monza, the engine was in the back it handled nicely. I was in high school when my father bought the car for me. The shifter was on the dasboard. I used to race all over with this car and I mean race. My father wanted me to take a 2 door Mustang but I didnt like the Mustang it was to small, I wanted a 4 door car..
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.
Interesting comments. I’ve owned a number of Corvairs in the past. 61s thru 66. To this day,the
most fun-tp-drive car I’ve ever owned was a ’64 Monza with a “slightly” modified 140 HP engine.
The engine had been meticulously balanced and had a 4-barrel carburator. It put out an estimated
250 horses. One night, on a deserted highway, I decided to see what it would do…..I backed off the
accelerator at 115MPH, but there was plenty left. At that speed it was unbelievably smooth and was
“glued to the road”. Never had any handling problems with any of my Corvairs.
Thank you Henry
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!
I had a 1983 Mustang GT 5 speed and was driving in the mountains buzzing along, it started to drizzle and I came around a corner and almost lost my azz from loss of control. The front end of the car was so heavy and with no stabilization in the back, a slower reaction could have been disastrous. I believe they adjusted it the same way as the corvair so auto makers still were making the mistakes and still are, so ONE car is not to blame. Money hungry companies are always going to be around. They will never cease the need to be monitored.
A bit of RESEARCH would reveal that the Corvair was thouroughly investigated by the NHTSA – National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.
“In September 1970 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administra tion (NHTSA), Department of Transportation, began an evaluation of the handling and stability characteristics of the 1960-1963 Corvair vehicle, beginning with review of General Motors Corporation documents and test data. The existence of some of this information has been called to the Government’s attention by Mr. Ralph Nader. Analysis of General Motors documents, technical literature, and all available accident data was followed by a concentrated program of Government testing of the Corvair and contemporary vehicles during the spring and summer of 1971. Input-response type dynamic tests which could provide qualitative data, were selected for this comparative test program. Support for the tests, conducted at College Station, Texas was provided by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTl). Texas A&M Research Foundation. Testing was completed by July 15, 1971. Test data were reduced by TTl during the late summer and fall of 1971, and NHTSA analyzed the data as it became available. Evaluation of the extensive data obtained from General Motors and from other sources, analysis of the NHTSA input-response vehicle test data, and recommendations from the Advisory Panel emlployed in this case indicate that: The 1960-1963 Corvair understeers in the same manner as conventional passenger cars up to about 0.4g lateral acceleration, makes a transition from understeer, through neutral steer, to oversteer in a range from about 0.4g to 0.5g lateral acceleration. This transition does not result in abnormal potential for loss of control. The limited accident data available indicates that the rollover rate of the 1960-1963 Corvair is comparable to other light domestic cars. The 1960-1963 Corvair compared favorably with the other contemporary vehicles used in the NHTSA Input Response Tests. The handling and stability performance of the 1960-1963 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover and it is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles both foreign and domestic.”
United States. Evaluation of the 1960-1963 Corvair Handling and Stability. Washington, D.C.: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 1972.
The Corvair was completely EXHONERATED of all of the false accusations claimed by attorney R. Nader.
From what I have been able to determine the Corvair was said to be unsafe because if it was turned suddenly to be perpendicular to the path of travel it could roll over. On the other hand, so would most any car. What made the Corvair different was that it was actually capable of such a rapid turn-in (as are likely most automobiles today). So, if your driving skills were minimal you could get yourself into trouble.The typical American Car of the period had such slow steering and so much weight up between the front wheels (big v8s) that it probably was not, in the hands of an ordinary driver, capable of such a rapid turn. Understeer was so pronounced in such vehicles they would likely just plow ahead with minimal or slow change of direction if you tried this. A film clip often seen showed a Corvair being driven down a hill, turned sidewise suddenly and tolling over spectacularly. Pretty much any car would do that if driven that way. So, if you didn’t drive it stupidly you would likely not have a problem. I certainly didn’t. It was in many ways an advanced vehicle for the day, more like a Porsche actually than any other American car.
Between 1972 and 1988, I owned four Corvairs that ranged (in order of purchase) from ’66 Custom, ’64 Monza, ’66 Monza to finally a ’65 Corsa. All had four speed manual transmissions except the Custom. The cars were blessed/cursed with a severe case of oversteering. That meant that at high speeds, you carefully pointed it in the direction you wanted to go and then gradually started turning the steering wheel back toward center even while still making that turn.
For years, I held the record top speed of 60MPH for taking a hair-pin turn leaving work. The rules required a passenger observed the speedometer and that you stayed in your lane at all times. Low profile Firestone 13 radials on the front and even lower profile 14s on the back helped a lot.
There was no such thing as a Corvair Custom…
I guess it was in 72 or 73 I was driving down Pacific hwy in San Diego going north bound. It was in the vicinity of
M C R D. You had to drive over an overpass. As i reached the apex and started down the otherside, I must have hit
a bump or something because the hood popped open and it was ripped off the car what seemed like a hurricane force.
Right over the back of car. Luckily there was no traffic behind me, and I kept control of my car. I had the car for two more
years until rolled it down the side of Mt. Helix. Walked Away. The Corvair was a 1964, Blue, owned it since 1968.
The suspension system used was the exact same type as the Volkswagen Beetle, as well as the Porsche 911. The NHTSA published a report in 1972 clearing the car of the accusations
The whole book was to rag on the American Motor Industry. Don’t blame the car because of stupid people. No more dangerous than any other car on the road at that time.
Perhaps the best answer would be “no, it wasn’t” The early cars had some quirks but any real handling problems were caused by failing to have the correct tire pressures. Like it’s VW Beetle competition, it was essential to have a significantly different tire pressure front to rear. With correct tire pressures, the Corvair, and the VW, handled pretty good.
Seems like this is a question that will go around forever and ever. People who know nothing about Corvairs, or air-cooled engines in general, will accuse it of problems, people who understand the cars and can drive them will come to the defense of the car, and on and on we go.
Personally I think saying the Corvair is dangerous is like saying an airplane is dangerous–yes! Especially if the pilot up front only has experience on trains and has no idea how to fly planes. If the guy can fly it’s no big deal and a nice ride. If he only knows how to be an engineer, it doesn’t matter how nice a plane it is, he’ll never get it off the ground. The Corvair was simply a beautiful airplane offered to the drivers of America, which failed because America only knew how to drive trains.
Owned Corvairs exclusively from 1962 thru 1975 and had very few adverse experiences that I didn’t also have with other cars. Spun out on ice a few times but did that just as often with front engine vehicles. Had one interesting moment that I remember. I was driving in a heavy rain and glanced at the speedometer. Speed indicated was dropping. My brain went into gear and I let off the gas. The speedometer drove from the left front wheel and it was hydroplaneing.
I thought my Corvair handled much better than most American cars of the period. The swing axle rear suspension of the pre 1965 models received a lot of criticism but other cars including VWs, Porsches and Mercedes had this type of suspension. It was a flat cornering car w/ very little body roll. The fact that the engine was aluminum and a “flat” 6 meant a fairly low center of gravity compared to the average tall cast iron v8 car. Rear engined cars do handle differently. The average American driver was accustomed to the very poor handling typical of front engined cars with a heavy v8 between the front wheels. The rear wheels of those cars would spin on wet pavement and the severe understeer would tend to cause them to plow off corners fairly predictively if pushed. Twice I watched (in my rear view mirror) people go off the road who were trying to follow me around a corner. They were simply used to that type of handling and I suppose it was their benchmark for “normal”.
That book was a joke as was Nader!!! What the book actually did is make the Corvair affordable to all that wanted one even to this day! AND>>I’ve read so much crap here in the comments to make me laugh till I die cause of some of the off the wall anti Corvair comments were so unrealistic and funny ( must be anti Chevy turds)!!! People actually believe that ALL CORVAIRS were included!!! LOOK AT THE DAMN DATE IN THE BOOK stupid!! Thanks for the laughs you anti Chevy guys LOL!!! Must be Ralphs grand children running around attempting to carry on the tradition of lying. Hows that self detonating Pinto gas tank doing for you fellers?? Anyway, enough of the BS’rs just blowing smoke… Maybe they are in try-outs for CNN, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, and all the rest fake news, satire type media sites. I own the 1964 Chevy Corvair Monza 900!!! I love that car. 100% rust free and well taken care of by the previous owner who mostly stored it with his collection.. He called me one day and asked if I wanted to buy it….. I said, ” OH NO, NOT A NADER CORVAIR……. LOL!!!!!!! Just kidding…. Anyway as a good friend would do for another, I handed him $3000 cash and drive it home!!!!! I cannot say enough good things about this car and 1964 was the year my dad started working for GM in Kalamazoo and he retired in 1995!!! I would take the 1964 or the 65 and up, any day!!! Too big of jump in looks!!! These cars are so universal!!!!! Mine is Ember Red and a 2 door club coupe 110 hp with the 2 speed auto powerglide trans. These cars are so damn cute!!!!!! My dad had the Ramp Side back when I was in my mid teens. I always wanted one. Ralph Nader is a dick BUT, he did us poor folk a favor LOL!!!!!!!!!!! Thanks Ralphie boy!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Thank you Horse Whisperer, I am a poor man too. I would like to drive this car.
A similar thing happened in Australia in 1972 when a journalist wrote a column in his paper decrying the sale of high powered race cars as road cars to young drivers for the purposes of homologation for an annual production car motor race. MPs asked questions in Parliament and made noises about legislation and the three manufacturers who were in varying stages of development of their latest vehicles to vie for the glory of winning that race abandoned the projects in the face of the threat of legislation. Two of them had built cars, the other was just in the planning stage, Tthe sport’s ruling body drew up a new set of rules allowing substantial modifications to the standard vehicles, thus obviating the need to sell road-going race cars. The whole issue was highly exaggerated and over-hyped, just like Nader’s book.
Yes, its a shame. The Corvair represented innovation for the American car industry, feeling otherwise unjustifiably secure in its dominant market position. The last generation of Corvairs had fully independent rear suspension and disc brakes and was arguably superior in many ways to other American cars. The industry here went back to producing bloated cars with monster v8s between the front axles, with flexible chassis, drum brakes and live rear axles. Supposed performance cars such as the Mustang did not get standard fully independent suspensions for another 50 years. The price paid by the industry for its conservatism and crappy cars was huge market share loss to Japanese, Korean and European car makers.
I had a 1963 Corvair in New Mexico. After my initial trip, I began carrying my 75 lb toolbox in the front trunk. That turned it into an entirely different car. At that time, traffic was generally non-existent out of the major cities. On the road, my usual speed was 85 mph on the straights, and as high as was safe through the mountains. At no time, after the toolbox was added, did that car exhibit any handling issues. In fact, driving through the mountains was a blast– almost as much fun as driving them in a Corvette. Never had any mechanical breakdowns either. Nader was nuts!
One of the things I recall was moving the spare tire from its position in the engine compartment to the front trunk. Not 75 lbs but it helped balance the car a bit and opened up the engine compartment. I think a 50/50 weight distribution or something approaching that condition provides better handling but the usual American cars of the day were highly biased front to rear, more so I think, than the Corvair was biased toward the rear. I think my Corvair could take a corner appreciably faster than the typical front engined car of the day. I wonder if an owner of a Porsche 911 had removed or disconnected the shock absorbers and deflated the titres, as I think was done with the Corvair that was tested, would have also experienced the “Unsafe at Any Speed” characteristics Nader described?
That is a really uninformed and inaccurate article. Just plain dumb actually. It about made my head explode. You ever hear of the NTSB report that came out in the early 70’s that totally exonerated the corvair? Had same suspension as many other models widely used in the US and Europe (Ford Falcon, VW Beetle, Renault were a few) The NTSB concluded that “the 1960–63 Corvair compares favorably with contemporary vehicles used in the tests…the handling and stability performance of the 1960–63 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover, and it is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles both foreign and domestic.” Look it up in case you would like to actually fact check your story. Nader’s book was a 143 pages long and only a handful of pages of pages dealt with the corvair in the first chapter. I started driving a corvair when I was 16. That was 36 years ago. Still have the same corvair. never had issues with it. Do some research on how the “classic” mustangs were basically rolling bombs with the top of the gas tank also being the very thin floor of the interior. Guess Nader missed that one.
I owned a Corvairs during the 60s
One issue is never take into account in all this criticism about the Corvair: a car with rear engine, an automatic transmission of two or three gears and a torque converter that is always trying to ‘absorb’ the lack of torque at low rpm, can not perform the main way to deal with oversteering. With manual transmissions, VW, Porsche, Renault etc can handle oversteering with the driver counter steering AND keeping some throttle after curve apex, exactly as if it was drifting. But this will work only if one gear reduction has been made before the curve, to give some torque to rear wheels and, unfortunately, Powerglide has no way to do this.
Back in the 60’s i owned a 61 and then a 63. with all the talk about the corvair , i have only one thing to say , ralph nader in lower case letters was a retarded bozo making a name for himself. My 63 I drove coast to coast twice with never a problem.
Over the rocky mountains twice int ice storms . Used to go out and harrass corvets and such .traveled top speed at 90mph.If they still made them , I would still buy them. In competent drivers and ralph no nothing about cars. The said the engines would not last. At 100,000 Hade the heads pulled , the mechanic said it was a waist of time , there was nothing wrong.I could not kill it so after 125,000 I gave the car away.
Ralph Nader was beneficial in bringing safety awareness regarding auto safety. However, there was another killer car responsible for injuring many people and unfortunately it went unnoticed until it safety measures were incorporated after 1967.