Don’t you hate it when the wrong person is the fall guy? I mean, an individual not necessarily devoid of guilt, but someone like the getaway driver or bag man that gets the brunt of the punishment for the crime they were really only tangentially involved in? It’s actually happened in the automotive world, and with a car itself.
In the sixties, a young lawyer named Ralph Nader went after the auto industry for knowingly selling dangerous products to the public. He wasn’t wrong; car companies were indeed peddling gargantuan three-ton objects with steel daggers on the fronts to transport unrestrained passengers in front of sharp, pointed chrome trim dashboard with little regard for safety. He published a book and, to prove his point, Ralph was going to kill a car. However, his automobile of choice seemed a bit odd- the Chevy Corvair. This bathtub-shaped car was GM’s first real compact when it debuted for 1960, with an air cooled flat six-cylinder engine mounted in back of the car. It was far less conventional than competitive products like the Ford Falcon, and even offered advancements like an optional turbocharger.
source: Wikipedia/Stephen Foskett, Wikipedia/ Greg Gjerdingen, and Wikipedia/SFoskett
At the time when Nader released his book, Unsafe At Any Speed, the Corvair was indeed the subject of over one hundred lawsuits. This litigation stemmed from accidents caused by the snap oversteer that a rear-engined car equipped with a swing axle suspension (like the Corvair) can produce when the outside wheel ‘tucks under’.
Still, besides the swing axle, the car was hardly the killer jukebox-on-wheels Nader seemed to rightfully go after. The Corvair was a very restrained, practical and almost austere design, like something that a French or German company would make (in fact, NSU famously copied the first generation Corvair for one of Torch’s favorite rides, the NSU Prinz). What’s worse is that this identical drivetrain and suspension layout was used by thousands of other European cars, many of which were sold in the United States at the same time, including the vaunted Volkswagen Beetle and Porsche 356.
It’s sadly almost a moot point that the Corvair being sold at the time of Unsafe At Any Speed’s 1965 release was a vastly different car from the one the book chose to skewer. Under the second generation car’s beautiful exterior (it’s really an underrated sixties design) was a trailing arm independent rear suspension that exhibited none of the swing axle’s tendencies. Still, in typical GM fashion, the improvements to the later models (like with the Allante and the Fiero) didn’t bring back buyers turned off by the perceived issues of the original car. The damage to the Corvair name was done. The writing was on the wall for the car and it finally met its death in 1969, paving the way for the much more conventional (yet worse) Vega compact.
source: Wikipedia/Robert Spinello , and Wikipedia/crwpitman
Admittedly, at the time of the Corvair’s demise there were many front wheel drive small cars being introduced, but one could argue that final mainstream examples of rear engined family cars (like the VW 411/412) did not take advantage of all the benefits that the design could provide.
What if Ralph Nader had not chosen the Corvair as his victim? Maybe the sales of the Corvair reasonably strong, and people at GM that really wanted to keep the design going? Welcome to the first in the series of the Corvair Chronicles, were we look at that scenario not just for a single generation after the last real one left the production line, but also if the general rear engine design stuck around until even later.
The Third Generation
If all had gone well, by around 1969 or 1970 it would have been time to release the third generation of this innovative compact car. Obviously, it would need to have a new look, but what functional improvements could be made?
The styling of the car would almost certainly be dictated by the brand language of Chevrolet and GM in general around 1970. The fastback, ‘Coke bottle shaped’ style was used almost unaltered on Chevy cars from the little Nova through the Chevelle and up to the big Impala to the point of being almost homogeneous. You know what I dislike about this aesthetic? Absolutely nothing. I’m aware that these things are overpriced Boomer magnets now, but a nice-looking car is a nice-looking car and this was pretty much an entire lineup of lookers. Isn’t it sad to think what the Chevy lineup looked like around a decade later with Cavaliers and Celebrities? Yikes.
sources: Mecum, Streetside Classis, Mecum, and Mecum
Our 1970 Corvair takes its looks from the Chevy cars shown, but also manages to add in a lot from overseas GM cars like the Opel Manta and especially the HQ Holden Monaro, which I used as the basic underlay but tweaked the shape (the Holden is within a few inches of the size of the Generation II Corvair, and again WHAT did Australians do to deserve General Motors models so much cooler that ours?). The Generation II Corvair and (fake) Generation III are seen below:
source image: (feature/for sale listing) and classiccars (car for sale)
In back, there’s a bit of C3 ‘Vette with the rear ‘sail’ panels on the rear quarters. If there’s anything I don’t like about the lovely Generation II Corvair it’s that the coupe’s rear deck seems a bit large, and sail panels would help to hide that vast space. The black grille for engine cooling is at the base of the rear window (almost Tatra 613-like, according to Jason).
source image: (feature/for sale listing)
Up front there’s no need for a grille, but we can have an indication of one just as is done on many current electric cars to add some definition to the area. General Motors seems to have often been conscious of the presence of front license plates and could make a recessed area to cleanly accommodate it on the Corvair (maybe offering a filler panel for those that don’t need a front plate like they did on later Corvettes). You could certainly go full-smooth with the nose but keeping some conventionality will help to not alienate buyers cross shopping more traditional competitors. Plus, you get that face-within-a-face thing that was so fetching around 1970. The laid back headlights and the protruding ‘grille’ area like add a ‘European’ look to set it apart from the larger Chevies.
Also, for kicks I made the fake grille black like they did with cars such as the early Tesla Model S. Note the ‘fake fog light’ turn signals. It’s also sort of the mini-Camaro that the first Vega had.
How is it better than the Generation II?
There seem to be two or three key functional areas that would have increased the usefulness of the Corvair and given it some clear advantages over competitors like the Ford Pinto, AMC Hornet, or the imports.
First, six cylinders seemed tiny when the Corvair was introduced, but four cylinders was the word of the day for compacts by the end of the decade for the option of maximum economy. Chevy would need to offer a version of their flat engine with two cylinders lopped off for lower level models. They could, however, keep the turbocharging option; people seem to forget that Chevy was doing this decades before Saab.
Also, air cooling would have to disappear; it’s loud, you’ll have a tough time dealing with emissions, and cabin heating was always an issue in cold climates if you didn’t utilize a gas-fired heater. This will require a radiator, of course, but we don’t necessarily have to put it at the front of the car with twenty feet of radiator hosing going to the motor. This one sits behind the rear seat, with Camaro-style side air intakes that are actually functional, while air (and heat) exits from that big vent slot below the rather vertical rear window (once the motor is warm, that window is NEVER gonna frost up, boy). I am thinking that we might possibly be able to get an engine powered cooling fan off of the back of the motor or from the transmission (I know that GM would prefer this to electric ones).
The last big functional change is something that seemed to be a missed opportunity for the earlier Corvairs. The VW Type 3 and 4 cars offered not only the typical rear engined car ‘frunk’ (where the spare tire resides) but also a trunk in the rear (the floor lifts/removes for engine service). This dual trunk capability is what is the real selling point of EVs today, and I certainly think it could have been a game changer for a little car fifty years ago and one of the reasons that GM would theoretically persist with the Corvair. I mean, the rival Pinto just had a single small trunk in the back..over the gas tank…next to some unshielded bolts…never mind.
Inside, we can take cues from other early seventies GM cars like the Malibu for the dashboard design. It’s V-shaped in profile with a padded top for ‘safety’ in a seventies way. With a flat floor, I am sure a bench seat and column shift could be available for VERY tight six passenger seating, but we’ll focus on the Monza coupe with a center console that continues the shape with space for extra gauges to clear up a tach space in the main cluster. Note the add-on turbo boost gauge that fits cleanly into the notch between the two main gauge binnacles.
Like the Generation II Corvair, there would be two and four door models offered, but the range would expand with a station wagon body style as well. Note that the floor in back would need to be relatively high to accommodate the engine and radiator, and in this application there would need to be heat exhausts along the bottom and leading edge of the rear quarter windows. Still, combined with the frunk, can you see how much cargo this relatively small car could hold?
I can see other versions as well. You could see Cosworth making a twin cam, fuel injected version of the engine (like the modifications they did for the Cosworth Vega) that would, with further modifications, cause headaches for a certain Stuttgart-built flat six car at Daytona and Sebring. Maybe.
source: Marc Rutherford
Full disclosure: I was pretty reluctant to do this one when it was requested by a reader since I figured there is no alternate reality where a rear engine made sense. Still, as I worked up the concepts I did start to warm to the idea and can see some real benefits to the layout. We also can’t forget that if the largest car company in the world chose to go in a certain direction, isn’t it likely that others might follow suit. Instead, GM decided to go the conventional route with a few ‘advanced’ twist like an aluminum engine with no cylinder liners. How did that work out for them?
For Part II of Corvair Chronicles, you’ll need to get out your polyester leisure suit and Pet Rock, since there would inevitably be a mid-cycle refresh for the disco era, and maybe even more body styles (remember there were initially Corvair vans and trucks). What could that possibly look like?
all illustrations by The Bishop
Our Daydreaming Designer Imagines Corvette Sedan And Wagon In 1978 – The Autopian
Watch Ford Use The Most Ridiculous Arguments To Prove That Its Falcon Is Better Than The Chevy Corvair – The Autopian
A Daydreaming Designer Imagines An AMC Sports Car Based On The Look Of The Pacer – The Autopian
A Trained Designer Imagines What American Motors Corporation Would Have Been Like If It Had Survived – The Autopian
Let’s Figure Out The Best ‘Worst Car’ From Those Stupid Lists Of ‘Worst Cars’ – The Autopian
Sweet, love the wagon idea. Poor man’s 1800 ES? I still wish I had kept my ’65 Corsa Turbo.
I suspect the Gen III wagons there would develop a reputation for overheating in hot climates, and for a warm passenger compartment, leading to stark differences in regional sales.