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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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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.

About The Author

Tara Shioya

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