Collector Classics: Chevrolet Corvair

First car earned kudos but then Ralph Nader wrote his book, Unsafe at Any Speed

The Chevrolet Corvair is an important car in U.S automotive history, but one General Motors would probably rather forget.

True, the later models were good cars, but things didn’t start out that way. Production began in 1959 for the 1960 market.

The Corvair’s size, shape and design were radical departures from GM’s overly large, finned cars of the 1950s that were fitted with huge grilles dripping with chrome.

Because the Corvair used an air-cooled, flat-six engine, it did not require a front grille, which immediately set it apart from other vehicles.

It received a lot of attention during its first year. Time magazine featured it on its front cover, and Motor Trend named it Car of the Year for 1960.

The Corvair was the first mass produced GM car built by Fisher Body using a Uni-body construction — 1,786,243 were built. It was also one of the first mass-produced cars to use a turbocharger.

In 1965, a young lawyer named Ralph Nader wrote a bestselling book called Unsafe at Any Speed, in which he claimed the Corvair’s suspension caused it to have less than desirable handling characteristics, often causing the driver to lose control of the car, sometimes spinning out, and resulting in a rollover situation.

The combination of Nader’s book and the introduction of the sporty and inexpensive Ford Mustang was the beginning of the end for the Corvair.

It is a pity that the pictured Tom Tjaarda-designed Pininfarina Corvair Coupe, a sleek little beast which looked very similar to the 1959 Pininfarina Cadillac Jacqueline, never went into production.

Nader’s book resulted in a new era of government regulations and safety legislation that is still in place today.

Ironically, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which was created because of Nader’s role as a consumer-safety advocate, investigated the Corvair suspension complaint and issued a report in 1971 clearing the car of any problems — two years after the car went out of production.

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