What Really Finished The Corvair


According to popular lore, consumer advocate Ralph Nader put the Corvair out of business. But Nader didn’t do it. So who or what did? We could say it was an inside job.

There’s a familiar narrative in the car enthusiast community that goes like this: When Ralph Nader published his book Unsafe at any Speed, which included, among other things, a damning indictment of the Chevrolet Corvair, it unfairly turned the American car-buying public against the sporty compact, defaming its image and sealing its fate. Curse you, Ralph Nader.

It’s not true, of course. By the time Nader’s book appeared in the fall of 1965, the Corvair was already a thoroughly controversial vehicle, mainly due to complaints about its pronounced oversteer and quirky swing-axle behavior. There were multiple lawsuits in play and a number of well-publicized accidents, including the fatal 1962 crash of popular TV comedian Ernie Kovacs.

Meanwhile, Nader and his book did not find national fame until early 1966, when he appeared before Connecticut Senator Abe Ribicoff’s hearings on auto safety.. Soon it was revealed that General Motors had hired a clumsy private detective named Vincent Gillen to manufacture dirt on the abstemious activist. As much as anyone, GM made Nader a household name. Another irony: By that time, the handling defect described in Nader’s book had already been totally corrected by GM with a rear camber compensator in 1964 and a revised rear suspension in 1965.

These are all remarkable events, for sure, but they don’t directly relate to the Corvair’s demise. The truth is that by then, the car was already on its way out. In April of 1965, nearly a year earlier, GM management issued a memo declaring that the Corvair was effectively frozen in place. There would be no further engineering or styling development performed except to meet future government regulations. While the Corvair remained in production into 1969, it was the lame duck in the Chevrolet lineup. To study how that decision was made, we could back up to the Corvair’s introduction in October of 1959.

With its transaxle, independent suspension, and rear-mounted, air-cooled engine, the Corvair was an expensive car to manufacture, overrunning its cost targets. To keep the price competitive at launch, Chevrolet stripped the car to the bone with a plain interior and minimum standard equipment. In this form the car was not terribly popular or profitable, prompting two quick responses from the division: first, a crash program to develop the more conventionally engineered Chevy II, and the introduction of a dressed-up, higher-margin Corvair model called the Monza.

Introduced in April of 1960, the Monza featured bucket seats, deep-twist carpeting, full wheel covers, and other deluxe trimmings designed to appeal to a younger, sportier  audience. It was an instant success, quickly becoming the most popular Corvair model, accounting for nearly half the volume. The Monza was so successful, in fact, that it caught the attention of the Ford Motor Company and product man Lee Iacocca, who could see a market segment emerging that the Monza barely tapped. Ford immediately went to work developing the Mustang, and according to Iacocca himself in his autobiography, the Monza was its direct inspiration.

A runaway hit from its introduction on April 17, 1964, the Mustang broke every sales  record in the Motor City. Naturally, Chevrolet had to craft a response and in August, Chevrolet started work on its Mustang competitor, initially designated the XP-836 and finalized in November of ’64—not long before the Corvair memo. Just as the Corvair Monza begat the Mustang, the Mustang begat a Chevrolet pony car, and now there was no longer any clear place or purpose for the Corvair in the Chevrolet lineup. Announced on June 28, 1966 and officially introduced on  September 26, below is the car that killed the Corvair: the 1967 Camaro.

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