As “Unsafe At Any Speed” marks 50 years, Corvair values hit all-time high

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed,” in which the young Harvard-trained lawyer/activist did a serious hatchet job on what was a very interesting and unconventional American car. But the Chevy Corvair is clearly having the last laugh. Ironically, as the book turns 50, Corvair prices have reached an all-time high.

Although most people have come to believe that “Unsafe at Any Speed” was almost solely about the Corvair, it was actually Nader’s indictment of the level of thought that went into automotive safety design at the time. Blind-o-matic shiny chrome dashboard trim, impale-o-matic steering-wheel horn rings and sharp protruding buttons were common at a time when consumerism and automotive gimmickry were understood far better than vehicle safety.

Nader singled out the 1960-63 rear-engine Corvair for the design of its rear suspension and its lack of a standard anti-roll bar or camber compensator. Because the Corvair employed a semi-independent, swing-axle design — which lacked a universal joint at the wheel/hub end of the axle — excessive camber change during very extreme cornering could cause the rear wheels to tuck under and trigger a spin. Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Triumph used a similar design but were not targeted by Nader (probably because giant General Motors made such a tasty target in his eyes).

GM changed the suspension design to a more advanced fully independent one when the car was restyled for 1965. Respected enthusiast publications thought the 1965-69 Corvair to be one of the best-styled and engineered post-war American cars, with Car and Driver magazine’s David E. Davis Jr. among the most enthusiastic. Jay Leno has had a red Corsa coupe in his collection for years, and the rest of the collecting world seems to be catching on.

The price for just about every sub-model of Corvair is at an all-time high. The ultra-desirable turbocharged Corsa convertible that in 2006 cost about $15,000 in excellent condition now goes for about $20,000. Ironically, the humble-but-cute 1961 Corvair Lakewood station wagon is up just as much; an example in excellent condition that would have cost you about $7,400 in 2006 will now set you back about $12,800. In addition to the fact that Corvairs are good first-collectible cars — attractive, interesting and fun to drive — they have cross-over appeal; European car aficionados tend to view them favorably, with some even comparing them to early Porsche 911s (another car that has skyrocketed in value).

Although it’s unlikely that Corvair prices will truly follow in the footsteps of the 911, the much-maligned cars are only going to go up as more people realize that they offer a great combination of good looks, technical interest and value. With a plentiful supply of parts and strong club support, it’s a great time to grab a good Corvair before prices rise even higher.

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