Wednesday, December 8, 2010

“Unsafe at Any Speed” – 1962 Chevrolet Corvair

Look at this adorable little car.

It's kind of hard to imagine this cute little Chevy played a pivotal role, not just in automotive history, but American history.

In the early ‘60s some Americans were developing a taste for small European cars, particularly Volkswagens. GM, to its credit, saw an opportunity. Although the Corvair was arguably better looking, it was essentially a Volkswagen Beetle.

Like the VW, it was nimble, lightweight, easy on gas - and fun. Like the Beetle, its engine was in the back, and air-cooled. And like the Beetle, it had an independent rear suspension.

That “swing axle” rear suspension - and the failure of GM to adequately damp the tendency of wheels at the end of said suspension to “tuck under” - was the topic of Chapter One in Ralph Nader’s book, “Unsafe at any Speed”. On national TV (remember that?) Nader solemnly told the U.S. Congress that the Corvair was the “leading candidate for the un-safest-car title”. What a killjoy.

Long story short, GM stalked Nader trying to catch him having fun, got busted, built the Corvair for a couple more years apparently just to spite him, and climbed back into the box where they built ever-larger, heavier cars until… well, until further notice. The whole "foreign" car thing eventually caught on.

Nader’s book convinced the America public of a couple of things. First, that they needed federal protection from the auto industry. (Four decades later, GM would need the feds to save them from the American public.)

And, that bigger cars are just better.

Nader rode (he never drove) his consumer crusader image into a three-way race in the 2000 presidential election, possibly careening George “W” Bush into office.

Jim, seen here, is from a Chevy family, and bought this Corvair because he wanted “something different.” Looking past the vastly more popular Camaros and Corvettes, Jim decided the Corvair was just more fun.

He tells me his nine-year old daughter was embarrassed to ride in “the old car” until people started smiling and waving. Now she gets it.

All contents copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2010

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  1. Awesome! I love Corvairs, especially the ultra-rare Corvair station wagon. I remember reading that the Corvair owners club had a meet years ago and Ralph Nader was the guest of honor! He sat in one but wouldn't ride in one.

  2. Hey G&S -

    The station wagon is cool, but what about the pickup truck, with the side ramp?!

  3. Well-told and beautifully-photographed slice of history, Jeff. I learn something new from you every day.


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