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The Corvair rose and fell during the sixties. It was a causality of the car wars between Ford and Chevrolet. Casual observers of the wars tend to attribute the Corvair’s demise to Ralph Nader. Serious Corvair fans tend to blame a mix of factors.
Corvair fans acknowledge that Ralph Nader didn't help the Corvair with his 1965-released Unsafe At Any Speed book and subsequent follow-up attacks. After giving Ralph his due, Corvair fans list the Mustang, horsepower, manufacturing costs, and cheap gas as the main reasons for the Corvair’s end. In a strange twist, some Corvair fans believe that Ralph Nader actually prolonged the life of the Corvair because General Motors didn’t want to give the impression that Nader had won. Let's look at the production numbers of the competing cars to see how these theories play out.
The Corvair and Falcon started out as competitors in the 1960 model year in the new American compact market. In this initial battle for dominance of the compact market, the Falcon was a clear winner as shown in the above graph. The Falcon wracked up the most successful sales debut in car history. Chevrolet decided to build the Chevy II to compete with the Falcon. Then, almost by accident, Chevrolet discovered the sporty car market.
In 1960, Chevrolet added bucket seats and a fancier interior to a Corvair coupe for an auto show. Ed Cole, the father of the Corvair, saw the result and immediately decided to put it into production. The result was the Corvair Monza. The sporty Monza was a winner with the American car buyers. It accounted for 50 % of the 1961 Corvair car sales. At its peak in 1962, the Monza accounted for 75 % of the Corvair car sales. The Corvair Monza also caught the attention of Ford Motor Company.
Over at Ford, Lee Iacocca, who had taken over Ford’s top spot from the bean-counting Robert McNamara, wanted to introduce something hot to capitalize on the baby boomer market. Ford product planning manager Donald Frey mentions that the best inspiration for the Mustang came from the Monza: “We started watching registrations of the Corvair which was a dog. I guess in desperation they put bucket seats in the thing, called it the Monza, and it started to sell. We got the idea that there must be something to it. And that’s how it all started – watching Monzas.” (1, 18)
The Corvair Monza had a short monopoly on the American sporty car market until the Ford Mustang was introduced in April 1964 with a huge marketing campaign. The new Mustang was an instant success. It also defined a new car breed – the pony car. The Mustang set a new sales record. It also hurt sales of the new model Corvair and the Falcon, which is apparent when you look at the first full sales year, 1965, in the graph.
1965 was a significant year for the Corvair. Chevrolet introduced the second generation Corvair with a beautiful new style, and an excellent new independent rear suspension. The new 1965 Corvair received rave reviews. Car and Driver magazine wrote, “it is undoubtedly the sexiest-looking American car of the new crop and possibly one of the most handsome cars in the world.” The Corvair might have been sexy, but so was the Mustang, and the Mustang had the horsepower.
If you get hold of the October 1964 issue of Car and Driver and the January 1965 issue of Motor Trend, you will find road tests of the Corvair, Mustang, and Barracuda. These tests featured the best performing models of the three cars. The handling of the Corvair was judged to be far superior to the Mustang and Barracuda. However in straight line acceleration, torque triumphed. The following 0 to 60 performance summary table is telling.
The Corvair’s turbo charged flat-six engine, while still quick, couldn’t compete with a high performance V8. Additionally, Ford could easily drop bigger V8s into the Mustang. As Ed Cole noted, Chevrolet would have to perform a major and costly redesign of the Corvair engine to keep up with the market performance demands. (2,7) While technically possible, this re-design approach would have required the Corvair to pursue Porsche-like engineering avenues that would have increased the production costs and required repositioning of the Corvair into a different and smaller market. V8 power was cheap and easy. V8 power won the sporty car war.
The close of 1965, which is the start of the 1966 model year, saw the release of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe At Any Speed. This book, with the resultant publicity, didn’t help the Corvair sales even though the book targeted the 1960-1963 Corvair design. The 56% drop in Corvair sales from 1965 to 1966 cannot be solely attributed to the Mustang because the Mustang was already on the market for two model years. Both Nader and the Mustang took their bites.
At the close of 1965, the Corvair was an orphan in the market. The Falcon competed with the Chevy II. Chevrolet was rushing to build the Camaro to compete with the Mustang in the pony car market. While the 1965 Corvair was truly a "poor man's Porsche" in terms of outstanding handling, unique engineering, and a gorgeous style, the Porsche market was, and still is, a niche at best. The Corvair was the odd man out. Corvair historians say that Chevrolet sent out the word to stop future development work on the Corvair in April 1965, well before Nader’s book arrived. (3,85) (4,5)
If you only look at the graph, which tells what happened, not why, you can conclude that Ford consistently trumped Chevrolet during the sixties, first with the boring Falcon and second, with the stylish but technically traditional Mustang. The Corvair’s continuation from 1967 into 1969 is inexplicable from a number’s perspective. The Corvair's blue bar almost disappears into the graph's x-axis. These small production numbers support the theory that General Motors carried on the Corvair to avoid the appearance of yielding to Ralph Nader.
Hidden beneath these numbers is the story of the Corvair’s run in the sun in the early Monza days before Ford fired back. Also hidden is the emerging story of the Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto that were under development as the Corvair rode into the sunset. The Vega/Pinto story, which is also interesting and full of controversy, is for someone else to tell. As a final note, the Ford Falcon didn't last much longer than the Corvair. It was dropped in 1970 and replaced by the Ford Maverick.
(1) Mike Mueller, Mustang, (MBI Publishing Company, 2000)
(2) Ludvigsen et al, Corvair by Chevrolet, (Iconographix, 2001)
(3) Tony Fiore, The Corvair Decade, (Corvair Society of America, 1980)
(4) John Wipff, Compleat History of Corvair for the Compleat Corvair Nut, (Clark's Corvair Parts, Inc)