I’ve long thought that Chevelle, Camaro and Corvair are peculiar names. I’ve heard that Camaro is a made-up marketing word. Others claim that Camaro is the French word for comrad. I tend to believe that it’s a marketing invention. Chevelle, is obviously a cobbled together word comprising of the first syllable of Chevrolet pieced together with the suffix “elle”. Meantime Corvair is one of those made up 1950s space age words that evokes a contemporary flair. The name is actually a spin-off from the root word corvette. I like the name, even though I think it seems like a quaint, dated word.
My first encounter with Corvairs happened when I was just a couple of months away from my 8th birthday. Dad was considering the purchase of a replacement car. He trooped the whole family down to the Chevy dealer to have a look around. The only car he considered was a Corvair.
For the test drive, my two siblings and I were assigned to the back seat of a red 1960 Corvair 500 four door sedan, mom sat in the front passenger seat and dad drove. I thought it was a fun and interesting car and liked it better than other autos I’d yet seen. I was very disappointed when dad decided not to buy one.
Throughout my boyhood, I was more attracted to European import makes than the stodgy, conventional American cars. The only two American cars I liked were the Corvette and the Corvair. I imagined owning one or the other. I liked the Corvair because it seemed more like European cars I admired, especially the VWs. The Corvair was radically different from Plymouth Valiants and Ford Falcons due to its rear engine design.
The Corvair was more sleek and attractive than anything besides the Corvette. One of our neighbors owned a black 1963 Corvair Monza Spyder convertible. He kept it immaculately clean at all times. I often rode my bike past the neighbor’s driveway just to admire the car.
I often thought that General Motors might have intended for the Corvair to be a separate corporate division. Not only were there Corvair automobiles, but trucks were built with the Corvair insignia on them. A Corvair Greenbriar van and Corvan with rear engines were mildly popular in the 1960s. For a few years, a pickup truck, built on the Greenbriar’s platform, was available. It was unique because of a loading door on the right side of the truck that could be lowered to serve as a ramp.
The blush went off the rose in 1965 when Ralph Nader’s investigations into the safety of the Corvair, Unsafe At Any Speed was published. At the time, General Motors was dealing with more than 100 pending lawsuits in connection with traffic accidents involving the cars. Nader’s book described the crashes related to Corvair suspension. He revealed that the Chevrolet Division chose to save money so they removed the designed-in anti-sway bar that stabilizes steering. It was offered as an extra-cost option, instead.
The book also described how the Corvair’s “rear swing axle” design contributed to dangerous handling problems in the event of emergency maneuvering situations. The rear tires could undergo radical angular lift. That type of geometry could lead to loss of vehicle control and spinouts.
Because of the public’s tendency to “shoot the messenger”, Ralph Nader became the villain, in the eyes of Chevrolet devotees. During Congressional hearings, Nader said that the Corvair was the leading candidate for the un-safest car title.
For 1965, Chevrolet redesigned and restyled the Corvair. An articulated “independent” axle, similar to that of Corvette’s was utilized plus the anti-sway bar was standard equipment. The styling was updated to a more sleek, simple shape that I personally still find quite attractive.
Some researchers have discovered that GM had planned on phasing out the Corvair anyway despite Nader’s book. But higher ups didn’t want the public to think that Corvair was going away because the company was buckling to Nader’s pressure.
A combination of the introduction of a new Chevy Nova, the Camaro, plans for the Vega and general corporate apathy contributed to the demise of the Corvair. With the lack of corporate promotion, production of the car tapered off drastically.
The last Corvair was rolled out of the production room on May 14, 1969. A small group of corporate executives, press and Chevy fans were on hand to witness the car being brought to the lot where the new Chevy Novas were to be loaded onto railroad cars for dealer shipment. I was among those who were unhappy that the Corvair had been discontinued. I am still of the opinion that the decision to neglect and abandon the car line was a terrible mistake.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that the writer holds no malice towards Ralph Nader. He admires Nader for his gumption and spirit of inquiry.