Genius Design or Deathtrap: The Chevrolet Corvair

Genius Design or Deathtrap: The Chevrolet Corvair

by Devin Purcell - 05/03/2023

Can you imagine a vehicle so unsafe that it deserved the moniker, death trap? Or a vehicle that was so unsafe that Congress felt they had to intervene? The Chevrolet Corvair may have been that vehicle. 

In the 1950s American auto manufacturers were producing vehicles that were large and spacious. The term compact car was foreign to them. After all, they were producing vehicles that Americans demanded. The Nash Rambler, released in 1950 started the creation of a new segment all of its own. Along with European vehicles such as Fiat, Renault, and Volkswagen which were showing signs of success, the compact car market was created. 

Because of its status as a small car maker, AMC, the manufacturer of the Nash Rambler became the third largest manufacturer of automobiles. This success forced the big three manufacturers to join the “compact car” segment.

Genius Design or Deathtrap: The Chevrolet Corvair

Ed Cole became the General Manager of Chevrolet in 1956, he was responsible for the design and introduction of the Chevrolet Corvair. The rear-placed air-cooled engine would turn heads everywhere when the Corvair was released. The engine was not the only unique feature the Corvair had to offer. The placement of the engine in the rear allowed engineers to use a transaxle to provide power to the rear wheels instead of a conventional differential. To allow drivers a smoother ride, the Corvair was equipped with a four-wheel independent suspension. This may have been the biggest downfall of its design.

The trend for the exterior design of vehicles at the time was how large can the fins be on the rear of the vehicle. Designers threw this trend out and came up with unique exterior styling that everyone loved. The vehicle was on the cover of Time magazine and won the 1960 Motor Trend Car of the Year award.  Unheard of today in today's modern vehicle market, the Corvair came in multiple configurations. These were not just different trim packages like you would see today. The Corvair came in a “normal” configuration, like a 2 door coupe, and a station wagon. 

Genius Design or Deathtrap: The Chevrolet Corvair

However, you could also purchase the Corvair as a passenger van and even a pickup truck. The pickup truck had 2 tailgates resulting in one of the coolest truck features of all time. A side-loading tailgate. Or….maybe, a sidegate? I like sidegate. We are going to stick with the sidegate. The truck had a freakin 'tailgate and a sidegate. Awesome!

All of these configurations proved to be popular with the public. The sales of the Corvair were through the roof. The initial 6 years of production would see the Corvair selling more than 200,000 units per year. Total production between 1960 and 1969 would end up seeing more than 1.8 million Corvairs sold. 

1965 would start to see the beginning of the end for the Corvair. The concept of the Ford Mustang, a v-8 rear-wheel drive vehicle was taking customers by storm. The General Manager, John DeLorean at this time would also lose interest and a lack of advertising would prove this. In its last year of production, the Chevrolet Corvair would sell only 6000 units, a far cry from the 200,000 units per year it started with. 

Genius Design or Deathtrap: The Chevrolet Corvair

This loss of sales wasn't just because of General Motors' loss of interest in the vehicle. The unique rear suspension had some flaws which caused oversteer during high-speed cornering. It was worse in the earlier years of the car which did not feature an anti-roll sway bar. Later years would see this offered as an option and later as standard equipment. 

This suspension issue was highlighted in a book called Unsafe at Any Speed. At the time there were over 100 different lawsuits from Corvair crashes. Many of these pointed to the faulty suspension system design as the cause. Congressional hearings would later refer to the vehicle as one of the unsafest cars ever made. Later some would argue the lack of understanding of automotive engineering placed undeserved blame on the Corvair. 

Despite its reputation as a vehicle that is hard to handle and unsafe to drive. The Chevrolet Corvair holds its place in the hearts of automotive enthusiasts to this day. At the time of this article, there are currently 107 chapters of the Corvair Society of America. I think this is great proof of a vehicle that will hold its place in history, and should never be forgotten. 

About the Author: Devin Purcell is an automotive professional with over 20 years of industry experience. He currently spends his time educating tomorrow's automotive professionals and sharing his automotive opinions at