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Corvair wasn't the turkey many remember

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By Larry Printz
Friday, Nov. 23, 2012, 4:40 p.m.

Among my earliest memories of riding in a car was riding in the rear seat of my grandmother's Chevrolet Corvair coupe — white with a red vinyl interior. I don't have any other memories of the car, be they good or bad. I was a mere toddler. On the other hand, my grandmother did.

But before I get to that, for those of you unfamiliar with the Corvair, a brief primer.

The car was initiated in 1956 by Chevrolet's chief engineer Edward Cole, the man behind the small-block Chevy V-8. He wanted an American response to the increasingly popular Volkswagen Beetle and other foreign economy cars gaining a foothold in the U.S. auto market.

So, like the Beetle, the Corvair had an air-cooled engine placed in the rear of the car. The engine used an aluminum block to save weight, yet still ended up 78 pounds heavier than anticipated. Ordinarily, this wouldn't have been much of an issue. But remember, the engine was in the rear.

Now consider that General Motors accountants, in an effort to save $4 a car, eliminated the rear anti-sway bar — which was needed given the car's overweight engine. This exacerbated the car's tendency to over-steer, a condition where the car's rear swings wide through corners.

Was it dangerous? Not if you kept the tires inflated to their proper pressure — 15 psi front, 26 rear. There's only one problem: Few drivers keep their tires properly inflated today, let alone in 1960.

GM changed the rear suspension design for 1964, but by then, lawyer Ralph Nader was making headlines with his book, “Unsafe at Any Speed.”

Nader may have demonized the car, but my grandmother loved it. After all, she lived in the hilly environs of Pittsburgh and my grandfather, a doctor, drove large, rear-drive Lincolns. Despite their alleged road-hugging weight, a popularly cited advantage of large cars back then, they weren't great for driving in the snow.

By contrast, the Corvair, with its engine over the drive wheels — just like a front-wheel-drive car — had great traction in the snow. She loved the fact that she could get around without fear of inclement weather. She never felt endangered by the car's handling.

But all things change.

When Mercury introduced its luxurious Cougar muscle car in 1967, the Corvair was gone; my grandmother liked to drive fast.

So, not long after Thanksgiving, I pose this question: Was the Corvair a turkey?

Yes, it did over-steer.

So did any rear-engine, rear-drive car. But it was a fun little beast to flog around, with styling that influenced small-car design around the world at the time.

Turkey? Not in that regard.

And most people forget that the Corvair employed aluminum engine blocks and turbocharging; common now, uncommon then.

Turkey? Not in that regard either.

And it launched the consumer movement, which gave us safer cars. Consider this: As the last Corvair rolled off the line, GM was putting the finishing touches on two new safety options for its large cars: air bags and traction control.

Turkey? I don't think so.

Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk;

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