The Chevrolet Corvair was an automotive litmus test. Liking it indicated that you belonged to the "car guy" elite, a group that prided itself on driving skill, mechanical knowledge and self-sufficiency. If you didn't like the Corvair, you were a killjoy, nanny-state safety drone who didn't know how to handle a car.
This division started with the 1965 publication of a book titled Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. Its author was Ralph Nader, a Washington lawyer and safety advocate who claimed that the Corvair's design made it prone to spinning, and that its steering wheel shaft could impale the driver in a crash, like a giant entomologist's pin.
But the hardcore car guys scoffed. What could a leftist scold like Nader possibly know about the art of driving or the mysteries of engineering? They saw Nader's book as a hateful screed that used misinformation and fear to advance a warped personal agenda: Nader had assassinated the Corvair to draw attention to himself and jump start his budding political career.
I instinctively sided with the car guys. I liked the Corvair's rear-engine design, and I had a young, hotshot driver's arrogance. So what if sixty per cent of its weight was over the back wheels? So what if the Corvair liked to spin? I could handle any car ever built. Or so I believed at the time.
I was about to get two major lessons: the first was on the Corvair's suspension design. The second was on the importance of maintaining an open mind.
My inaugural ride in a Corvair came when my mother bought a used one from someone who was moving overseas in the early 1980s. (I think her Corvair was a 1962 or '63.) A few friends remembered Nader's book and questioned my mom about the Corvair's safety, but I assured her there was nothing to worry about.
I took my mom's car for a drive, eager to prove just how wrong Nader had been. But within a few miles, I was questioning my own faith. The Corvair's steering wheel felt strangely light in my hands, as if the front of the car had been filled with helium. I stopped at a gas station and checked the tire pressures, setting them to the exact numbers specified in the manual. That helped a bit, but the Corvair still felt spooky and vague, like a horse that might have some mental health issues.
But I refused to believe that Nader could be right, so I suppressed my unease and accelerated hard into one of my favourite corners, a smooth right-hander. Uh-oh. I felt the Corvair's back end starting to swing, like a chuck wagon starting a fatal slew at the Calgary Stampede. With a sick feeling, I realized that I had set the stage for the kind of textbook crash that Nader had detailed in Unsafe at Any Speed.
With more than 60 per cent of its weight over the back wheels, and swing-axle rear suspension, the Corvair laid a trap for the unwary: If you went into a corner too fast, the disproportionate mass of the rear end acted as a pendulum, rotating the car. As the car pushed sideways, the back end began to rise on its suspension due to "axle jacking," an obscure technical term that gains sudden meaning when you are about to go off the road sideways at more than 100 kilometres an hour.
Your first instinct, of course, is to chop the throttle and slow down, but in this situation, that's like pulling the trigger on a loaded gun, since deceleration transfers weight forward, compounding the developing spin. Since I'd spent a lot of time in Volkswagen Beetles and early Porsches, which also had rear weight bias and swing-axles, I was programmed to keep my foot on the throttle, so I made it through the corner. But it was close, and I realized that I had just used up a few lives. I pulled over, sweating, and sat beside the road for a while, taking in the smell of the grass, the cerulean blue of the summer sky, and the trill of robins flitting through the trees that I had nearly wrapped myself around. That afternoon, I told my mom to sell the car.
The Corvair's problems were not insoluble. Other tail-heavy cars that have done well, such as the Lotus' Elise and Exige, and of course the modern iterations of Porsche's classic 911 Carrera. In its final years, the Corvair was given an improved rear suspension that made it more stable, and GM warned customers that tire pressures had to carefully maintained.
All of this helped, but the damage was done. Corvair sales dried up, and GM took the car off the market in 1969, just nine years after its first appearance. I drove a couple of the later models, and they were a big improvement over my mother's Corvair. But it was too late - the Corvair was fixed in the public's mind as an automotive El Diablo. With his book, Nader had taken the car out behind the barn and shot it.
So who was the real villain? There may have been a political angle to Nader's condemnation of the Corvair, but I had to admit that he was right about its stability. But the car guys, including myself, had instinctively leapt to the Corvair's defence, assuming that Nader's criticisms were just another below-the-belt punch from an over-ambitious safety nanny with designs on the White House.
But there was more to it than that. The early Corvair really was a flawed design. But even more flawed was the debate that surrounded it. Looking back, I can see that the discussion resembled the one that currently rages in the U.S. over gun control - camps were formed, ideology trumped logic, and truth became the first casualty in a ridiculous war of words.
Then I tried the Corvair for myself. And a lesson was learned.
Peter Cheney's memorable cars - the good and the bad