The Chevrolet Corvair classic cars were the only American car with a rear mounted air-cooled engine ever mass produced in the United State. Within its short life of 1960 to 1969 it was both an innovative success and unforeseen failure.
The Corvair came about in response to the mid-sized cars produced by other manufacturers during the classic Car Era like the Dodge Dart, Ford Falcon and Studebaker Lark. However the Corvair stood out for its air cooled rear engine as well as its finless design and a host of innovative technical achievements.
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The Corvair was fathered by Ed Cole at General Motors (GM). Cole began his career as a student at the General Motors Institute where he stood out among his peers and was hired by GM before graduation. He rose from assisting with the design of the 1949 Cadillac V8 to being the chief engineer of the Chevrolet division in 1952, where he oversaw the development of the now famous small block V8 engine. That resulted in him being promoted to the general manager of Chevrolet four years later. From there he was given the credit for designing the radically new Corvair in 1959 and by 1967 was the president of GM.
The rear engine design put most of the vehicle weight on the rear wheels making the front end light enough to easily steer without power steering and the lack of a drive shaft was a welcome improvement for those who wanted more leg room. American drivers loved the classic Corvair and GM sold over 200,000 units for each of the first six years of production, and almost 1.8 million during its lifetime.
In 1960 the classic Corvair was selected as Motor Trend magazine's Car of the Year, which led basic two-door to convertible, four-door, station wagon, pickup truck and cargo van designs. It received a major redesign in 1965 which included a fully independent suspension system and garnished more allocates from Motor Trend magazine. However that same year Ralph Nader, a popular consumer advocate, wrote a scathing description of the potential handling problems of the Corvair in his book Unsafe at Any Speed and overnight sales plummeted 50 percent. Meanwhile, the Corvair was facing increased challenges from "pony cars" like the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and Chevy II and in 1969 GM halted production.
The Ralph Nader story was not unfounded. At the time of publication GM had over 100 lawsuits pending relating to accidents and Nader was able to point the finger at their decision to save money by removing the front sway bar as the cause. However, other independent studies found that the Corvair suspension was no different than what was used in the Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche and pointed the finger at the handling characteristics causing driver error. Nonetheless, GM decided to forego the rear engine design and the Chevy Nova became the Corvair's replacement.