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Corvair: Why Did the Car Fail?

Updated on October 5, 2009

 Although the Chevrolet Corvair had been produced for 10 years, with over 1.3 million cars sold during that time, by some standards, some may feel the car had failed due to bad press and Ralph Nader's book, which pointed out some issues detrimental to it. Others feel that Corvair had simply run its course and Chevrolet was moving on.

With regards to Nader's book, only Chapter 1 dealt with the car. Nader's criticism about the Corvair handling focused only on the 1960-63 models, which did have an issue if the car was pushed. Nader's book was not published until 1965, five years into Corvair's life span. Early on, press accounts favored the car a lot, it got Car of the Year awards, it was featured in major automotive magazines. The 1965-69 models had a totally different suspension different than what Nader called a hazard. The car continued to receive good press and awards.

Nader's book did not give the car a "death" blow, as some think, it stained its image but the 65-66 models sold very well at $2500 each. So what happened?

It was a combination of events that slowly murdered the car. Even today, there are two groups of people who know about the car: those who hate it and those who love it.  Those in the "hate it" group had a bad experience with the car from a mechanical point of view. They will say it was "temperamental", "always leaked oil", "there was something always wrong" or "too costly to maintain". You will hear about how exhaust fumes ended up in the compartment when the heater was on, or the smell of oil and smoke coming from the engine vents at a stop light.

The haters of the Corvair had legitimate issues. Unlike other Chevy's, the Corvair was aircooled and aluminum engine, it was a unique design and required proper maintenance on a regular basis, correct tire inflation. It was not a car that you "forget" about. If you did, it would cause problems more frequently. So, it was temperamental if not maintained. The carburetors tended to clog more often due to the tiny, tiny gas outlet holes. This would affect your idle and acceleration.

So, word of mouth and hearsay from former owners had a definite negative impact on sales. Another killer of the Corvair were the times. 1965 was the start of the American muscle car, meaning 427 Hp engines, the Ford Mustang Fastback, Chevy Malibu SS, Barracuda and many more. Gas was only 25 cents a gallon, so these gas guzzlers had their appeal for the same price. The Corvair was never meant to be this kind of car, even its Corsa, only had up to 180 Hp. Because the car was so "racy" looking, consumers thought and expected it to be just that, when it was not. This is not to say that the car was not superior to many in handling a racetrack, it was, but as many have said, it was a "poor man's porsche".

Thus, the Corvair had stiff competition from others for the same consumer dollar. Another killer might have been Chevy themselves. They released Camaro in 1967 to compete with the Mustang, this did not help Corvair. But Chevy also from 65-69, made few real changes to the car but for trim. There were no more major body changes, so a 65 looks like a 69. Gas economy cars like the Corvair were seen as "not needed" then either when gas was so cheap. Had the car been sold when gas economy was important (70s), it might have survived longer.

All of the above contributed to its demise. Many still think it remains one of America's best designed cars from the 60s.


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    • daveyboy1957 profile image

      David W. Braddock 5 years ago from Lake Villa, Illinois

      when Ford introduced the Mustang, Chevrolet considered the Corvair to be their competitor in the segment. Their "backup plan" was of course the ChevyII/Nova. With the Chevy II becoming aged and the Corvair only appealing to the "Euro-buyers" they then turned attention to the Camaro as their champion.