‘Unsafe at Any Speed’ hits 50 years; targeted Corvair dangers, sparked consumerism and cost me a ride

The 1960 Chevy Corvair was innovative but unsafe, according to Ralph Nader | ClassicCars.com photos
The 1960 Chevy Corvair was innovative but unsafe, according to Ralph Nader | ClassicCars.com photos

As the book Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader’s seminal assault on the Chevrolet Corvair and a complacent U.S. auto industry, marks its 50th anniversary this year, I can’t help but recall how it not only had a profound effect on the future of automobiles but also on my own automotive aspirations.

Like most teenage boys, my favorite part of the newspaper was the used-car classified ads (that was before they pretty much all went online), which I would scan intently every afternoon, looking for great, cheap heaps that I possibly could afford.

I soon discovered that just a few years after Nader’s attack, used Corvairs had hit bottom in values. I thought they were cool so I began saving up for one.

But no. When mom got wind of my plan, she had a fit and absolutely forbade me from having anything to do with those rear-engine death traps. She was a voracious reader and quite familiar with Unsafe at Any Speed. Arguing was futile, so I moved on to other heaps.

The redesigned second-gen Corvair addressed handling concerns
The redesigned second-gen Corvair addressed handling concerns

Nader’s book was a revelation for most people when it hit the shelves with a bang in 1965. Although the activist lawyer targeted Corvair for its safety failings – mainly regarding its swing-axle rear suspension that created deadly handling deficiencies – Unsafe at Any Speed took the entire industry to task for what Nader considered a total disregard for passenger safety.

Automotive styling and performance were the big draws for new cars while safety ranked low among consumer concerns. A steady annual death rate of 10s of thousands of people did not seem to have much of an impact.

This was when interiors had chromed steel handles and protruding buttons that would gouge and tear in a crash, hard-surface dashboards that would bash heads, and stiff steering columns aimed directly at the driver’s sternum. Modest drum brakes would fade when hot and slip when wet, roofs would collapse in a rollover, and there was a blasé attitude toward such basic safety features as seat belts. Crumple zones? Ha.

Corvair convertibles are popular collector cars
Corvair convertibles are popular collector cars

Many people felt the innovative Corvair was unfairly targeted by Nader, that they were no more dangerous than plenty of other cars on the road. And after all, Volkswagen Beetles had swing axles (eventually changed to add universal joints). As did the Porsche 356 sports cars, which experienced so much success on the race track. So, too, did another racing stalwart, the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing.

But Corvair was different because of the heavy six-cylinder engine nestled behind its rear axle. Designed to emulate the VWs and Porsches, Corvair sought to boost performance by upping the size of its air-cooled powerplant. But the extreme rear weight bias combined with the swing axles proved to be a bad combination; the outside rear wheel could tuck under during hard cornering, resulting in possible loss of control.

There were other complaints that targeted Corvair’s general handling because of the heavy rear and lightly loaded front wheels. There was talk about the car’s heat exchangers that provided warm air to the interior; they could rust and perforate, allowing engine exhaust to enter the passenger compartment.

The Corvair pickup was built on the same chassis as the passemger car
The Corvair pickup was built on the same chassis as the passemger car

Chevrolet redesigned Corvair for 1965 with fully independent rear suspension that was a vast improvement over the swing axles, as well as making other fixes. That came perhaps in reaction to the Nader complaints or just as part of product development. But despite the new car’s advancement and lauds from the press and public, sales never recovered and Corvair was axed after the 1969 model year.

Nader’s book had a huge effect, launching a major safety push for automobiles that continues today with all kinds of advanced testing of every production vehicle to mitigate the dangers of traveling in them. Multiple airbags, three-point seatbelts, hardened passenger compartments and electronic controls have helped raise the survivability rate in even the worst crashes.

Unsafe at Any Speed also sparked a movement we know as consumerism, exemplified by such publications as Consumer Reports, and a pervasive awareness of safety and reliability in all sorts of products, from washing machines to baby food.

Corvairs these days are recognized as collector cars, maybe not terribly valuable but they do have a strong following. Performance models such as the Monza and turbocharged Corsa, as well as the funky station wagon and the van and pickup versions, are gaining interest among collectors who appreciate their inherent value as uniquely styled and fun-driving cars, even if they’re not the safest cars on the road.

 

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33 thoughts on “‘Unsafe at Any Speed’ hits 50 years; targeted Corvair dangers, sparked consumerism and cost me a ride”

  1. In the end it was not Nader that killed the Corvair (although it did not help) but the Ford Mustang 1964 with a bullett!, which was aimed at the same demographic and was much sexier, that did it in.

  2. She probably saved you some agony. My first car was a 62 Monza. Bought it in College with family approval. Pumped a lot of oil but otherwise was fun. So when I bought the 912 and later the Gullwing, I was already used to a swing axle!

  3. If the tires, especially the rear, were kept at proper pressure the first generation Corvair was OK. The 2nd generation had greatly improved rear suspension.

  4. I personally own a 1961 Corvair 95 Rampside pickup truck AND a 1962 Porsche 356B coupe…………………I love them both and so does anyone that sees them. Nader was a scheister lawyer and made his fortune from crying wolf………………..yesteryear’s Michael Moore.

  5. In college I drove a ’63 Monza convertible 120K miles without incident including a rear blowout at highway speed. Tire pressure is very important. I now own a ’63 Spyder convertible and love it.

  6. I drove a Vair as an only car for 7 years in Montana and in upstate N.Y….loved the handling in the snow but did have to put a 40 lbs bag of cement mix in the front in the winter to insure steering response. Other convential folks put their weight in the trunk in the rear, so what’s the diff. In 150,000 miles I nor my wife never spun it nor had any unacceptable handling response in any weather conditions. Loved the extra gas burning heater too. Hot air out in about 15 or 20 seconds and melting your clothes off, and the ice off the glass in a few minutes.
    Used to run snow tires with spikes on the read and street tread with spikes on the fronts for icy road traction. Those were the days…those tires would shower sparks when on a cleaned snow and iceless road at night.

  7. I owned a Corvair back in those days also owned a Triumph Spitfire,same swingy axle that they call independent rear suspension, truth is in those days the cars that did come with IRS all did the same thing. However a rear engine car does need to be driven differently ask any Porsche 911 driver. I do currently own a 63 Corvair turbo Spyder & love it.

  8. I had a 65 Corsa “back in the day.” It was called the “poor man’s Porsche.’ The ’65 had essentially the same suspension as the Corvette, and could beat any standard Mustang off the line. After seeing Jay Leno’s video on the one he bought, with his high accolades, I sought a replacement. By the time I looked the price had jumped from about $1500 to $4000 and more for a Corsa. Now, 3 years later, my Corsa remains one of the most fun cars I’ve owned. And it doesn’t break the bank fixing it up. I love my “poor man’s Porsche !”

  9. I had a ’63 / bought it new for $2,271/ incredibly reliable/ good gas mileage and fun to drive/fit and finish was head and shoulders above ’64-65 mustang at that time

    Used for 3 years and sold when ivwent to law school and bought a junket

    The attack in the corvair was bs and all rear wheel drive (VW) cars had similar limitations and potential handling issues if tire wear and inflation was neglected

    My first new car and still one of the best.

    John Faro (formerly Boston) now in Florida / new favorite new car is a 1978 Lincoln Mark V / gets about half the gas mileage as the Corvair and is real head turner

  10. Nadr is a complete A-hole. Those Corvairs were solid great cars. Get this. I was booting my 58 TR3 around a large radius 90 degree corner with slight banking at 80 MPH and a 64 Corvair Spyder, A beautiful black convertible, passed me like I was parked. I had immediate respect for the car. Nadar couldn`t drive and I`m sure if he could master it, he wouldn`t from fear. A complete Dick.
    I bought my wife a 65 hardtop. Great car.

  11. Was an insurance claim rep. in WV & nearby mountain areas in the 60’s. Had more single car roll overs of the first generation Corvairs then any other vehicle of any type.It’s the only thing Nader & I agreed on. .

  12. ralph nader was 100 % correct with the corvairs. i’m warner voelpert and on 1963 nov 17th my father lost his life in a corvair at 52 yrs old. hit a car parked on the merrit pky in trunbull ct 7pm no lites on in total darkness at aprox 45 mph. had no chance with absolutely no protection of a motor in front of him . he admitted to my mom this car is crap. he drove big old cady’s know as tanks. anyhow seat belt of no help. hit his chest on sterring post and head on windshield. fell to right side of seat and left small amount of blood. died quick. car manufactures don’t give a crap about safety and lives only the big buck’s in there pockets and congress warner voelpert shelton ct

  13. i had a 1967 Corvair Monza Conv. with a 195 H.P. Turbo engine that was an Auto-Cross winner every time I entered. I was doing all the mods. that I needed to do to get it ready to Race it in SCCA when the sponser (Washburn Chev. in Santa Monica) informed me that GM ordered them to “Get OUT of Racing” This left me high and dry with a car that I couldn’t drive on the street and one that I could not afford to race without a sponser. I wound up selling the car to a guy that had a shop at the Old Sears Point Raceway. Never did see the car again, would like to know what happened to it.

  14. Yes, swing axle, rear powered cars oversteer. Yes, Nader is a hack. Yes cars are safer now….and getting safer every year. And yes, the safety revolution would have happened with or without Nader. Yes, I love Corvairs, Porsches, Air Cooled VWs etc.

    Everything is safer now from baby cribs to vapes. Nothing bad about any of this!

  15. Early Corvairs could get away from you on fast corners but the 1965 and later models were much improved. I have a 1966 Corvair Corsa 140 4 speed today because of the many cars I’ve owned it is my favorite! It drives and handles better than most cars from the sixties.

  16. My first car was my Mom’s 61 Lakewood station wagon. Pea green and hated and laughed at by all at my high school. I put the mandatory bag of weight up front,(I used bags water softner salt)
    My friends and I would load up, 4 or 5 of us and run all over the hills above Santa Ana and Orange in so cal. Trabuco, Santiago canyons.Faster the better. Threw the car at every corner I could find, never stood it up on the rear wheel or came close to rolling it. Screw Nader was our rant. Buddies drove MGBs, a Triumph Herald with spitfire engine, and Vdubs.
    I stepped up to a yellow 63 turbo. Put JC Whitney quick steering arms on. Cut my rear coils down. That car was about a Lucky Strike pack off the ground in the rear. handled awesome. Yes, you do need to know how to drive with the weight in the rear.
    Then the rich kid showed up with the 914 glorified VW ha ha smoked em . Then when the 240z showed up beat him too.
    Big smiles every time I think of those cars. I would love to pick up one today.

  17. I heard a good story about the ”Nader test”. He was to meet at some test area and was running late. The 4 door was waiting and cause he was late the persons waiting for him did some testing on their own and broke an upper shock mount on the rear and that being the stabilizer for the axle and wheel it made it do just what Nader wrote about. He was told the car was not ready but insisted on a test drive and the rest is history. I now have owned a 1965 Corsa with a Crown Conversion V8 for many years and that is the car Chevrolet should have built. Corvette Lt1 with 440 hp, mid engine, perfect balance and just sitting in it makes you grin.

  18. jossef has the correct name!!!
    I knew the man. John was an inspiration to us all. I rallied a ’64 Corvair Monza Spyder in New Hampshire and western Mass. in the late 60’s. Great car.
    Nader was on a rant. He couldn’t drive so he blamed the car. He was a typical liberal lawyer of the time. He wanted his pound of flesh and he got it. Was some of it a good thing to have — Yes! Was some of it pure BS – Yes! He is still active in local politics in his home town of Winstead, CT. Anytime you’d like to her the same s— over again for the millionth time attend one of his lectures.

  19. Well said Gus. Years ago I read that Nader has a mansion in his sister’s name while he plays poor with an apt. in his own name. Where in NH did you rally the Spyder? I knew a guy in MD who built a 2nd generation Corvair with a 365 hp Vette engine in the middle. He used to take it out for high speed runs at night like the Bonsai Runners in CA. The legend goes that when he reached very high speed the rear window was sucked out of its frame.

    From N.NH.

  20. You all are right on. A friend of mine had a Corvair when a mid mounted 327. Excellent car. Even the factory 6 Monza Spyder was fantastic. I would buy one again in a moment.

  21. I had a ’64 Corvair Monza Spyder that I dearly loved. Found it for a whopping $125 c.1977. A good friend of mine, long since gone, loved Corvairs and had a nice collection. His adopted son sold off the collection when he died.

  22. i think my mind changed not because of Nader or his comments, it was because i saw a corvair on a lift in a garage being repaired because the heads had warped because they were exposed to water when it had been driven in the rain and had encountered a rather deep puddle which caused a problem because they are aluminum.

  23. Were these really that unsafe or was it just propaganda by other car companies trying to ruin what Ford was trying to do to themselves? I know the Pinto was considered a time bomb but I have never actually heard of either one of these going Boom. I know there were cases but I think Ford was just trying to give the Pinto some street creed…

  24. If cared for, Corvairs are not unsafe. Poor Mr Golfin. The tone of the article indicates his opinions were formed well before the article was written or researched, which appears to be from old hack jobs by unknowing folks. I’ve driven the Corvairs for 40 yrs and raced two in vintage racing since 1997. Street cars handle well, IF, a big IF, consumers inflated tires more or less correctly. But we know how that goes-see Firestone debacle on SUVs.. Now it is mandatory to tell drivers that their tires are low via in-dash displays.
    Disappointing article.

  25. Sean – Ford was selling the Falcon when the Corvair was in production. The Pinto was a complete other issue in car safety. Ford put out a Commercial in 1960 speaking of the rear engine. The phrase they used was “I shot an arrow into the air, it fell to earth tail first”. The Falcon was a shrunken Fairlane, the Corvair was a clean-sheet design, but still had to appeal to the BelAir buyers who couldn’t quite afford one. So it was delivered in pretty “cheap” trim. The Monza and Corsa models had nice trim (bucket seats) and sold well. They are still an inexpensive “collector” car, with great aftermarket support. As a project, they are much easier to restore today, than they were 20 years ago.

  26. Why not do some research on the actual test findings – as to the comparable handling traits of the car before (once again) passing on stale and erroneous hearsay? Iv’e owned many models of Corvair – early and late model, and the accused early models handle at least as good as the competition of the day. I would bet that the vast majority of the negative on the car was caused by owners NOT reading Chevrolet’ tire pressure requirements. Ralph Nader STILL gets a lot of undue publicity concerning Corvairs. Yes, a pioneer “Michael Moore”. Your article is nothing more than poor journalism.

  27. This article, as Chuck stated, is a disappointment. It’s little more than another swat at Corvairs in general, with the excuse that “2nd generation Corvairs were improved”. Hey… every following generation of car production is usually improved. I also noticed the author failed to mention that a congressional investigation cleared the Corvair of the “charges” Nader addressed. Evidently the author failed to research his article adequately. I’ve driven Corvairs for decades and I’ve heard every possible criticism from everyone imaginable. They are usually uneducated and unenlightened parroted remarks based on hearsay and rhetoric and tiresome after the first few seconds. They can say what they will… I know better.

  28. I’ve owned a 64 Corvair Spyder convertible for over 15 years as a collector. It is one of the finest vehicles GM put out in the 60’s. The power, ride, traction and control have been superb. Back in the early 60’s, people did not read their owners manuals, letting the service stations take care of the car. The manual states that the tire pressure must be 18 lbs for the front, 28 lbs for the back. You put 30lbs in the front tires, and you will have a bouncing front end when navigating the corners. Nader used false data on the Corvair and was heavily fined. You want a unsafe car from those decade, drive a Pinto from the early 70’s…

  29. Nader was proven to be a hack whose claim to fame is based on faulty and doctored data. The Corvair was no different than any other car of the era. The suspension on most 60s cars is terrible by today’s standards. The materials and manufacturing processes were totally different. My’65 Fairlane had terrible suspension compared to my ’13 Fusion. I have a 61 covair monza and it is a great car and fun to drive.

  30. I owned a Rampside, 95 van, 2dr and 4dr corvairs and only had 2 complaints – heaters and FAN BELTS. Although the fan belts were mostly my fault of neglect in proper tensioning. Never had a complaint about handling, but why was the military allowed to be driving around in jeeps (M-151) which had IRS swing axles if it was so unsafe?? Oh, make that 3 complaints – synchronizing the 4 carb setup was the pits.

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