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Unappreciated at Any Speed 

Seventy Bay Area enthusiasts -- and thousands more across the nation -- don't care what Ralph Nader says. They want their Corvairs.

Wednesday, Aug 20 1997
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The first thing a visitor sees upon entering Dave Newell's apartment in El Sobrante is the red-and-white vinyl front bench seat from a 1964 truck. But this is no ordinary seat, Newell explains earnestly. It's a talking seat from one of the Chevy auto shows. When what Chevy designers dubbed the "a-point" of someone in need of rest hits the seat, a recorded message is activated. The message extols the comfort and styling of Chevy seats.

The seat goes perfectly with the decor of Newell's apartment -- decor that might be described as "all-Corvair." Corvair mementos cover the apartment walls; there are neon dealer signs, performance trophies, and an award that Corvair television ads won in 1962.

A display case opposite the seat contains promotional items that Chevy dealers would give to prospective Corvair buyers -- tiny crown-shaped bottles of Prince Matchabelli perfume in pouches imprinted with the Chevrolet logo, potholders bearing the Corvair insignia, even a Chevrolet fly swatter.

Another cabinet holds more -- a tie bar shaped like the tail end of a Corvair Monza and a musical lighter that plays Chevy's jingle "See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet" when you flip the top open.

A self-described Corvair historian, Newell began collecting Corvair items in 1967, when he was 15. He makes his living selling Chevrolet memorabilia -- the shelves of boxes and binders that stand floor to ceiling on the other side of the apartment -- but his true passion is the Corvair.

Among other things, Newell owns what looks like an overgrown green-and-white bumblebee (it is actually a fishing lure made in the approximate likeness of a Corvair Greenbrier van) and the watch that Chevy engineer Al Kolbe was wearing when he designed the first Corvair engine. Lining the walls of the library are filing cabinets and shelves full of carefully ordered Corvair documents -- everything from photos and blueprints of Corvair prototypes to the training kits Chevy would send to every dealership. And there is more than memorabilia.

In the 1970s, Newell would sometimes come across Corvairs that had died on the roadside. With the help of a friend in the Highway Patrol he would contact the owners. In most cases, they would give him the cars, or sell them for a meager price. Occasionally, he smiles, one would be good enough to drive.

He owns only one Corvair now, a 1961 Lakewood station wagon that he drives occasionally and stores at his parents' house in Hayward. But over the years, he has owned at least 25 of these, the most reviled autos in history, the initial vehicular victims of Ralph Nader -- Chevrolet Corvairs. "They come and go like lost children," he says affectionately

In the last days of September 1959, Chevrolet dealers prepared for the automotive event of the decade -- the unveiling of the brand-new, rear-engine Corvair, the first of a new generation of American compact cars.

Dealership windows were quickly opaqued with multiple coats of Glasswax. Up went signs: "Coming, FRIDAY, OCT 2." All the major newspapers ran bold-face ads: "You've got a thrill coming! Corvair, new compact car by Chevrolet."

It was a time when annual model changes were exciting news. New cars arrived at dealerships cloaked in canvas, shrouded in mystique. Dealers heralded the introduction of the latest models with searchlights and streamers. Families would pack showrooms during "announcement week," eager to see what Detroit had come up with now.

Information about the Corvair -- they took the name from a 1954 experimental Corvette -- had been carefully leaked to the public for over a year. The new car had been hyped in the automobile trade publications; Motor Trend even went so far as to speculate what the Corvair would look like.

So on Oct. 2, 1959, a Friday, crowds flooded dealerships everywhere, eager to lay eyes on Chevy's new compact. They made their way past the familiar models, past the conservative Bel Air and the flashy Impala. Even the Corvette, usually a guaranteed attention-getter, seemed like old hat.

And then -- there it was. Low, smooth, and relatively small, the Corvair was ... surprisingly plain. It hardly looked like the news of the year.

But the Corvair certainly was different. It was an engineering marvel -- the first mass-produced American car with an air-cooled rear engine. Almost everything about it was new, from the lightweight aluminum engine and unit-body construction (the Corvair body was welded in one piece, not mounted on a separate chassis, as was the case with other American cars) to the independently suspended rear axles.

The Corvair was lighter and smaller than its predecessors, yet it was much roomier than the popular VW and other European compacts. Because of its rear engine, the Corvair had more passenger space: There was no transmission hump taking up room in the front seating area. The air-cooled, six-cylinder engine promised good fuel economy in all weather, without the hassles of antifreeze.

At first the car did not sell as well as expected. The ultrabasic Ford Falcon, introduced that same fall, outsold the Corvair by a wide margin.

Then in May 1960, Chevy introduced the Monza, an upgraded version of the basic Corvair. It came with sporty bucket seats and luxury touches, including chrome trim on the armrests and a folding rear seat. Sales took off.

The Monza (named after a famous raceway in Italy) quickly became the top-selling Corvair. Over the next few years, General Motors created a full fleet of Corvairs, including the popular four-speed, turbo-charged Spyder and the practical Rampside truck, which had a loading ramp that dropped to the ground from the right side of the truck.

But in April 1964, Ford introduced the Mustang. The public loved it. The first of what the auto trades dubbed the "pony cars," it was powerful but compact. The Mustang had power steering, power brakes, and a conventional, front-mounted V-8 engine. Corvair sales couldn't keep up.

Chevy hoped to surpass the Mustang with the completely redesigned 1965 Corvair -- it was longer and smoother, with an improved suspension system and a more powerful engine. But interest in the Corvair continued to erode.

And then came the November 1965 publication of Unsafe at Any Speed, which attacked the Corvair as the embodiment of the evils of the American automobile industry.

The author of the book, an ambitious young public interest lawyer named Ralph Nader, called the Corvair "the one-car accident." He alleged that the 1960 to 1963 models were inherently dangerous because the swing-axle suspension of the Corvair caused the rear wheels to tuck under and the car to lose control and overturn.

More than 100 lawsuits were filed across the country, many of them spurred by Nader's book. GM was not found responsible in any of the eight cases that went to trial. The company did extensive road tests and spent hundreds of thousands to defend the Corvair. But the bad buzz had begun, and it refused to stop.

By 1966, General Motors had effectively abandoned the Corvair. All bets were on the new Chevy Camaro as a competitor against the Mustang. The last Corvair rolled off the production line at Ypsilanti, Mich., on May 14, 1969.

Three years later, a U.S. Department of Transportation study exonerated the Corvair. The two-year examination concluded that the '60 to '63 Corvairs were at least as safe as comparable models of cars sold during the same period.

But by then, nobody really cared about the Corvair. Nobody, that is, except Corvair lovers.

On a recent Wednesday evening, a half-dozen Corvairs fill the parking lot behind the Orinda Public Library -- all 1966 models, all in fine condition. Members of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Corvair Society of America are here for their monthly meeting. In Corvair circles, the club is known by its acronym, CORSA, also the name of a Corvair model made in 1965 and '66. (No one knows how many of the 1.8 million Corvairs made between 1960 and 1969 remain in existence, but CORSA has about 6,000 members internationally and two chapters in the Bay Area. An affiliate, the Corvair Preservation Foundation, operates a museum of Corvair history in Richmond, Va.)

Hoods and trunks are popped open; a dozen Corvair fanciers wander from car to car, talking Corvair talk in the last of the day's light. Almost everybody has brought a car -- those who haven't gaze admiringly at the others, peering at engines, chrome, and bodywork.

Conversation suddenly stops. All attention shifts to the top of the driveway, as if a beautiful woman had just arrived. "She" glides down the slope, a shiny-sleek, newly painted dark blue 1966 turbo-charged Corsa convertible with a white top. Appreciative murmurs all around.

Most members present this evening are middle-aged or older, and all but one are male. They are an extremely mechanically inclined group -- many are weekend tinkerers and home garage inventors. These are the ultraenthusiasts. Many own multiple Corvairs -- extras supply spare parts -- and plan to restore some or all of them.

Club members agree that Corvair acquisitiveness is an addiction of sorts. Chris Rogers, a past president of the club, owns 12 Corvairs, including a 1960 two-door Corvair 700 that his great-grandmother bought new.

Another member, Richard Hall, has 10. His collection includes a rare, though somewhat homely, 1961 Lakewood station wagon (only 5,591 were ever made), which takes him on his 100-mile commute between Tracy and Fremont each day.

Why so many?
Hall just shrugs and smiles: "It's kind of like those potato chips, you know ... you can't just have one."

Mention Ralph Nader's name in the company of Corvair enthusiasts, and expect everything from dismissive laughter to disdain or anger. The word "asshole" tends to come up.

"The Mustang killed the Corvair -- not Nader," Dave Newell says firmly. "Nader's book just added a premature wound."

(Nader, who heads the Center for the Study of Responsible Law in Washington, D.C., initially expressed interest in being interviewed for this article; a spokesman later said the lawyer had no time to talk.)

Newell has been campaigning on behalf of the Corvair since he bought his very first, a 1962 station wagon, when he was a sophomore at Hayward's Mount Eden High School.

"I was always defending it. People would tease me all the time. They'd say things like 'Nader's nightmare' and 'unsafe,' " says Newell. "I even wrote a paper defending the Corvair against Nader's charges in my sophomore year. It was titled 'The Corvair: Fun or Fatal?' "

Like many enthusiasts, Newell is dedicated to vindicating the Corvair.
"The Corvair section of Nader's book is full of misinformation and insinuation," Newell says vehemently. "The Corvair made a convenient scapegoat because it was so different."

Even Corvair adherents acknowledge that the earlier Corvairs could be a challenge to drive. And everyone agrees that the rear suspension could have been more stable.

Yes, Corvair drivers needed to read the owner's manual and mind their tire pressures, because of the extra weight on the rear wheels resulting from a rear-mounted engine. And yes, the car had a tendency to oversteer -- a phenomenon shared by all rear-engined autos, because their weight distributions cause their rear ends to swing wide in a curve.

But Nader and his supporters took an extreme view of the Corvair. They dismissed driver error and road conditions as possible causes of Corvair rollover crashes and alleged the car itself was dangerous -- and that GM knew it.

But there was never any proof that the Corvair was inherently dangerous.
By the time Unsafe at Any Speed appeared in November 1965, Chevy had already improved the rear suspension that made Nader so uneasy. In the 1964 Corvair, Chevy added a new front sway bar and and a new transverse leaf spring in the rear, which made it more stable. And in 1965, Chevy made further improvements. The completely redesigned Corvair had, along with its new sleek look, a new rear suspension that kept the rear wheels from tucking under.

Eventually, even the attorney who had led the legal crusade against the Corvair gave up the fight. David Harney, whose law partner had lost his son in a Corvair accident, began the crusade against the car in 1960. Eight cases went to trial; GM was not judged responsible in any of them. (In one, the company agreed to a $70,000 settlement to curtail the negative publicity that the case was generating.)

In 1967, Harney acknowledged that his firm could not prove that the Corvair was defectively designed. He dropped the other outstanding cases with GM, and settled for what he described only as a nominal sum of money.

Five years later, the federal government officially vindicated the Corvair. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration came to this conclusion: "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."

Nader has never retracted his allegations against the Corvair. He called the study a whitewash, and the moniker "unsafe at any speed" stuck to the Corvair like bare skin to a hot front seat.

Zaki Nadiri has been working on Chevrolet Corvairs since 1965, and owns Corvair Unlimited, a one-man garage in Hunters Point that specializes in repairing the automobile for which it is named.

"Most mechanics just don't dig the Corvair," Nadiri explains. "It's the kind of car where a mechanic needs to know how to work on it, and be prepared to do it again, because it may not take."

He likes to tell a story in which he replaces the fuel pump in a 1965 Corvair five times. Each new pump fails -- twice, Nadiri picks up the car and its owner. The last pump works beautifully.

Nadiri spends 10 hours a day at his garage, six days a week (he takes off Sundays and exceptionally fine days when the bass are biting). He works mostly on his beloved Corvairs, which, he estimates, make up 80 percent of his enterprise.

Though he suspects the total number of Corvairs on the road is declining, his business is steady. Many of Nadiri's customers have been coming to his shop since they bought their Corvairs, back in the '60s. He says he wants to keep those cars running for another 30 years, at least.

Nadiri started working on cars when he was 9 years old, helping his Uncle Red Cap at his garage in Paradis, La. As a young man, Nadiri worked as a mechanic in New Orleans and then joined the Air Force. When his active duty tour was up in 1964, he found himself looking for a job in San Francisco.

He started servicing the stock of a used-car lot. When that dealer's business declined, he began taking the overflow repair business from the big GM dealers. He opened his own garage a few years later, and decided then that he would specialize in the Corvair.

"It was a car that nobody wanted to work on," Nadiri recalls. "It was too technical to repair, and it took too much time."

He set to work learning everything he could about the car, poring over manuals and trade magazines. But even now, more than 30 years later, he admits the car is still a challenge. He says he has heard that the Corvair engine can leak in as many as 200 places.

Nadiri says a basic understanding of the Corvair is essential for mechanics and owners alike. The design of the Corvair didn't, of itself, make the car dangerous. But a poorly maintained car with bad shocks, tires, and springs would naturally be more inclined to oversteer.

People who took care of their Corvairs rarely had problems, says Nadiri, even over long distances. Successfully owning a Corvair is a matter of faith -- and good maintenance, of course.

"How far can you go in a Corvair?" Nadiri asks, quite rhetorically. "It'll take you as far as you want. Detroit. New York. Wherever."

To drive the Corvair is to defend the Corvair.
Bea Tom is a true defender. A diminutive woman who describes her age as "in her early 70s," Tom lives in a flat on lower Nob Hill with her sister and two cats. Since 1969, she has kept the books at the Buena Vista restaurant and bar at the end of Hyde Street.

Every weekday morning for the past 28 years, she has driven her red 1960 Corvair coupe to the Buena Vista. Her sister and a friend bought the car new from the Ellis Brooks Chevrolet dealership on Van Ness. The afternoon they bought it, they drove downtown to pick up Tom from work.

She recalls the first time she saw the car.
"I looked at it, and I thought, 'My God what a beautiful car!' It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen," says Tom. "The lines were so beautiful. It was streamlined."

When her sister decided she no longer wanted to drive, Tom took over the car payments and got her driver's license. That was in 1962.

Tom says nobody in her family -- none of her nieces or nephews -- wants the car. They keep urging her to sell it.

"They say, 'It's so ugly.' I tell them, 'It's my car, I love it, so just bug off,' " says Tom. "I don't care what Ralph Nader or anyone else says.

About The Author

Tara Shioya

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