The controversial Chevrolet Corvair was supposed to be the best new compact car on the market—instead, it became embroiled in scandal. In 1960, General Motors worked hard to create a new compact (for the time) that could compete with the Volkswagen Beetle and a host of imports that were flooding into the States. The Chevrolet Corvair was sleek, crisp, and compact—and, somehow, this economy car was fun to drive. The Corvair had a rear-mounted air-cooled six-cylinders that gave the car a low center of gravity and superb traction complemented by light steering and balanced brakes. In one sense, it drove like a Porsche but was priced like a Beetle. It should have been the perfect car. But in 1965, the Corvair was deemed “unsafe at any speed.”
In 1965, Ralph Nader published a groundbreaking book, “Unsafe At Any Speed,” that criticized the automotive industry for their terrible safety record. In just one chapter he discussed the Chevrolet Corvair and its fatal flaw: oversteer. The car’s delicate balance required that owners keep an eleven-pound pressure difference between their front and rear tires. When the tires were pumped to the same pressure—standard for inexperienced or inattentive drivers and gas station attendants—the car suffered from potentially dangerous oversteer. GM knew about the problem and saved six dollars per car when they chose not to make the anti-sway bar standard rather than an added option. The resulting scandal devastated sales, and the standard Corvair was removed from production in 1969 and continued to sell the sporty Corvair Monza. In 1971, the NHTSA tested an older model and found it was no more dangerous than other cars at the time—ironically, the NHTSA had been founded in part as a response to Ralph Nader. Others disagreed, including Lee Iacocca who felt that the Corvair was especially dangerous for unsuspecting drivers. We should also keep in mind that Nader wanted all cars to be safer—not just the Corvair. Either way, the wonky little car inspired a host of stylistic and engineering imitators, including BMW. The Corvair lives on in our hearts.