A project I did for school in case any want to read it. (~1600 words)

Chevrolet introduced the Corvair in 1959 for the 1960 model year as a compact car to compete in the booming compact car segment, along with the Ford Falcon, Rambler American, and VW Beetle, among others, and ceased production in 1969. The car began development under Chevrolet’s general manager, Edward Cole, who was well renowned for his part in developing the Small Block Chevy V8, which was a massive success and remained in production for many years after it was introduced into Chevrolet’s product line. Cole had envisioned a compact car that could seat 6 comfortably, and had been experimenting with rear-engined designs since the end of WWII. Cole’s stubbornness to stay with the rear-engined design coupled with cost-cutting and minimal government mandated safety regulations led to many unforeseen consequences, at the expense of the Corvair, although the changes that were brought into the North American automotive industry at the time remain very well at large and for the overall benefit of the automotive consumer.

Shortly after the unveil of the Corvair, it won Motor Trend’s 1960 car of the year, due to the aluminum, air-cooled, rear-engined design, and all around independent suspension, a rare feature on American mass-produced cars even to this day. While most cars of the era had solid rear axles (in which bumps affecting one wheel will affect the other, creating somewhat more adverse handling characteristics), an independent rear suspension allows both wheels to act on forces separate from each other, which results in a smoother, more controllable ride. While this design choice sounds good on paper, the swing axle type of design that was chosen by the manufacturer was rudimentary and only amplified the drawbacks to a rear wheel drive, rear-engined platform. This suspension design, along with other unsafe and negligent design choices, made the Corvair a target for Ralph Nader in his book Unsafe at any Speed, in his determination to implement government regulated safety standards in automotive design. This new design with the engine behind the rear axles meant that the weight distribution was biased towards the rear. Up to sixty-three percent of the weight of the car is placed upon the rear axle, and nearly all the weight in the rear (except for unsprung weight such as wheels, brake assemblies, etc.) is handled by the swing axle suspension. This kind of weight distribution is highly unorthodox among cars sold at the time, as most had the engine placed in the front. Even the Beetle with the engine behind the rear axle wasn’t as oversteer-prone because of its overall lighter weight and smaller, less powerful engine. Cars with rear wheel drive are likely to oversteer, and even more so with more weight in the rear. Engineers at Chevrolet compensated for this by giving the car a large difference between the front and rear tire pressures. The problem with relying on tire pressures to ensure a proper handling vehicle is that the general public cannot be relied on to confirm that their front tire pressure is 15 psi and the rear tire is at 26 psi. (Nader, 1965).

Nader was a law student from Harvard who became instrumental in the push for the requirement (as opposed to the recommendations) for safety by the government in automotive production. While most of the consumer market saw a revolutionary new design, Nader saw the Corvair as a death trap with no airbags, no seatbelts and a suspension that not only looked strange when the car steered in either direction, but was only updated by GM for the 1964 model year, 4 years after the original (See appendix 1). The swing axle design on the original suspension, according to Charles Rubly, a Chevrolet engineer, was chosen based on: “(1) Lower cost, (2) ease of assembly, (3) ease of service, (4) simplicity of design… Mr. Rubly’s four reasons could be reduced to one: lower cost.” (Nader, 1965). The consequence of this design allowed the rear wheels to gain too much positive camber, and the bottom of the wheel could tuck under during a slide and flip the car (See appendix 2). The suspension design was updated, not so coincidentally, after the high-profile accident that killed famous television personality Ernie Kovac while driving his Corvair in the rain, as well as a woman who lost her arm after her Corvair reportedly flipped while only travelling 35 miles per hour (approximately 55 kilometers per hour). Chevrolet updated the 1964 suspension with a factory installed option that was offered on all Corvair models since 1961 (although not advertised), and through multiple aftermarket options, including a rear axle stabilizer bar which reduced tuck-under as well as a front stabilizer bar, before completely redesigning the rear suspension for the 1965 model year, which took much of the design from the Corvette Sting Ray. Car Life magazine, in their 1965 review of the Corvair, had noted that “Before 1965, the [Corvair] was probably the worst riding, worst all-around handling car available to the American public…”. (Nader, 1965). Here the American concept of the automobile, as a means of profit, can be easily applied to the cost-cutting measure of the suspension design of early model Corvairs, which plagued them with poor and unusual handling characteristics.

The social environment of the United States took a massive toll on the reputation of the Corvair. The Corvair was the first of many cars mentioned in Nader’s book, which was published in 1965, the same year the Chevrolet sold 235,528 Corvairs. 1,124,076 were sold before the suspension update in 1964. By 1968, Unsafe at any Speed had nearly completely abolished the award-winning reputation of the Corvair, so much so that only 15, 399 units were sold in 1968. Nader and his criticisms of not only the Corvair, but the entire auto industry ushered in a new era of consumers who became conscious of the design choices made by automakers of the time. These large corporations now had to abide by social and ethical responsibilities, not just by law, but also in response to more than one hundred lawsuits over the alleged handling issues of the first generation Corvair. While General Motors managed to win most cases on account of driver carelessness, they never released any information on testing/performance results. (Eckermann, 2001) (Nader, 1965)

While Corvair sales would begin to drop by approximately fifty percent in 1966, Nader had noticed unusual behaviour around him, such as being trailed, random encounters with women, late night phone calls, and eventually General Motors had acknowledged that they had employed “a routine investigation by a reputable law firm to determine whether Ralph Nader was acting on behalf of litigants or their attorneys in Corvair design cases… It did not include any of the alleged harassment or intimidation recently reported in the press.” (Ingrassia 2012). Nader sued for millions against General Motors for an invasion against privacy, and his suit was settled for $425,000 in 1970, all while sales dramatically continued to decrease (even with a complete rear suspension redesign for the second-generation model in 1965), while Ford’s direct competition, the Mustang, began to take over the market, until production of the Corvair ended with the 1969 model year. Chevrolet continued to compete in the market with the Camaro.

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While the initial sales figures and high praise of the Corvair looked promising, the poor design decisions made by General Motors came at a critical turning point of American culture where large corporations began to be questioned and held accountable for their actions, and as the public became more aware of the negligence by automotive manufacturers in automotive design. In 1966, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was enacted which forced automobile manufacturers to establish safety standards in the design of their products. Cars designed at the time of the Corvair had minimal safety features and the safety of the driver and passengers were merely an afterthought. A safety engineer working for General Motors in 1965 described his job as “’walking into a room in which there are a bunch of ping-pong balls on the floor. Then you throw another ball in the middle and try to keep track of what happens.’ That last ping-pong ball was safety.” (Nader, 1965). Cars had become popular enough to become the leading death of Americans under the age of 44. (Branch, n.d.). After Nader had settled with GM in 1970, he began his own work on establishing a non-governmental organization that investigates companies and governments, ushering in a new era of lawyers, lawsuits, and protests from a distrusting American public, all while ensuring the protection of those who choose to put their life at risk by getting behind the wheel of a car that is built by a large corporation that builds vehicles for profit.

Nader and his book had helped shine the light on the danger and amount of death caused by the negligence of automobile manufacturers, and within the next decade, collapsible steering columns, seatbelts, and many other safety-oriented inventions we take for granted today have saved hundreds of thousands of drivers and passengers. (Branch n.d.).

[SIDE NOTE: The Appendix and and Reference list aren’t formatting properly so oh well.]