The Uber Beetle

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Most people who’ve heard about the Chevy Corvair (1960-1969) heard about it courtesy of Ralph Nader – the self-appointed “consumer advocate” who wrote the book, Unsafe at Any Speed. The book forever associated “unsafe” with Corvair, though the association is of a piece with the “plague of the unvaccinated.”

Well, what about it?

The Corvair was not so much unsafe as some of the people who drove them were not hip. Some were irresponsible. They failed to heed tire pressure recommendations, which were very important for a rear-engined car – which has most of the weight of its drivetrain over the rear wheels, which also propelled the car. The front end of the Corvair was thus light and there was no compensating weight transfer via application of power (as can be done with a front-engined, rear-drive car).

Like other rear-engined, rear-drive cars – such as the old VW Beetle and the Porsche 911 – the Corvair was inclined to lift-throttle rear oversteer. What that means is that if you suddenly let off the gas in the middle of a high-speed turn, the tendency was for the rear end of the car to lift and the tail to swing out. The potential for loss of control was exacerbated by incorrectly inflated tires – and a driver who liked to go fast but lacked the skill to do so competently in a curve.

The Beetle wasn’t powerful enough to get into much trouble even if you tried to – and most people who bought them didn’t want to go fast anyhow. The Porsche was powerful enough, but the people who could afford to buy them them generally knew how to drive them fast. The Corvair was affordable – and in many ways, not unlike the Porsche. It has an air-cooled six cylinder boxer engine (the VW’s was a four) that made a lot more power than the Beetle’s. The little air-cooled, ass-engined Chevy was meant to be an economical car but it also attracted buyers who wanted a car like a Porsche but couldn’t afford one. Many of these had yet to learn how to drive a fast rear-engined, rear-drive car safely. As by keeping on the gas in the curves. And by making sure the tires were properly inflated before they did.

Anyhow, the Corvair’s supposed dangers made Nader famous and – far worse – gave him (and those like him) credibility. Also this ugsome business of “consumer advocates” being accepted as legitimate proxy representatives of “consumers” when in fact they were (and are) simply advocates for a certain point-of-view.

Theirs.

In the case of Nader that meant someone who hates cars and regards driving them as a kind of sin – one that must be expiated and atoned for. His career was never about “safety.” It was about using “safety” to get his point-of-view enshrined in law (and regulation, which might as well be law).

The attack upon this car was an attack upon cars, generally – though few saw it clearly at the time. It wasn’t just The End for the Corvair. It was the beginning of the end for cars that we wanted – as opposed to the ones “consumer advocates” wanted to force on us. More than 50 years after Nader killed the Corvair, his inheritors are this close to killing off what’s left by turning them all into battery powered devices. Driving, meanwhile, has become a kind of expensive bore-fest, which accounts for the fact that so many young people would rather just buy a new smartphone than get a driver’s license.

This is not accidental or coincidental. It is exactly what Nader, et al, hoped for and worked for and which they have almost – at last – achieved.

The death – the murder – of the Corvair was the start of it all. It was a terrible tragedy for us all, too. And for the Corvair itself, of course.

It was in many ways the Uber Beetle – a car similar to the famous VW almost everyone loves (and at one, time the car almost everyone had owned for a time) but better.

For openers, it had two more cylinders, as mentioned already. Its six cylinder engine was powerful enough to enable the Corvair to keep up with American traffic; the Beetle was designed for Europe and its original top speed was around 65 MPH. The Corvair could comfortably maintain 70 MPH. A Beetle was tapped out by that speed – on a flat road. If you were driving uphill, the Beetle sometimes had trouble sustaining 50. Merging with traffic was a test of mettle.

The Corvair was roomy. It had three-across bench seats up front and in back; five people could ride in one comfortably. The Beetle had buckets up front and a pinched bench seat in back that might take two, if they were comfortable being very cozy with one another.

Another thing the Corvair had was a lot of trunk.

It was up front – just the same as a Beetle’s – but the shape was more like a conventional  car’s (long and flat and wide) rather than abbreviated and rounded, like a Beetle’s. There wasn’t much room in the Beetle’s trunk for more than spare tire. The Corvair’s trunk was big enough for a person to fit in there. This made the Corvair – which was also available with four doors (the Beetle was never available with more than two) a viable family car, rather than just a commuter car.

Above all, the Corvair had a heater that produced warmth.

Both it and the Beetle used the heat of the engine (via a blower fan and ductwork) to direct heated air into the passenger compartment. But the Beetle’s was infamous for not working well once the car had been in service for awhile. The Corvair’s was better-thought-out (having the advantage of being designed in the late 1950s rather than the mid-1930s) and the six just made more heat.

The cabin heated rapidly – and the defroster worked, too.

It was a very well-received car, at first. Chevy sold hundreds of thousands of them. Then along came Ralph and – to be fair – the 1964 Mustang and its emulators, which sold even more. The take-home point isn’t so much that Nader helped kill the Corvair. It is that he helped kill off cars like it. Interesting cars. Innovative ones. Cars that took risks. We haven’t seen many of them in a very long time.

And now you know the genesis of that.

. . .

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43 COMMENTS

  1. Eric, I can’t believe you forgot the best part of the Corvair history, the Yenko Stinger!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L37cTyfQJ2I

    Also, the Non-Licensed, Non-Driving Nader-Hole had a personal grudge against the Corvair due to the death of his ‘personal friend’, Lenny Bruce, who died at the wheel of one. I believe this was the real cause for his vendetta. Apparently, if Nader & his ‘friends’ are incompetent at something most people can do safely, no one else should have the opportunity to exercise their freedom to do so.

  2. Now all GM does is advertise about the cars it used to make.

    Nadar started GM down the road to being a ward of the state.

  3. Also, new smog rules started in CA in 1966 and Federally in 1968, with ever-tightening standards in subsequent years, meant the doom of the air-cooled engine for passenger vehicles.

  4. The Corvair would have been discontinued even if no one published Nader’s screed. Chevrolet already competed with it, in-division, with the Chevy Ii/Nova as the “econobox” starting in 1962. The “suits” never liked the Corvair, being that it required a unique engine, transaxle, and suspension. Shame, because like the VW, there was a van and a pickup based on it, and even a wagon, which VW didn’t have, and even then, “sorta”, with the Type 4 in 1971. Chevy redid the Corvair as more a “Eurosport” roadster, which positioned it for limited sales, and the “muscle car” versions of the Nova, the Chevelle, and the Camaro by ’67 made it unneeded

  5. Where is Ralph Nader, or his replacement, these days with all those EV fires? Certainly, there should be a public discussion with statistics like these at tesla-fire site

    Total Tesla Fires as of : 204 confirmed cases | Fatalities Involving a Tesla Car Fire Count: 71

    https://www.tesla-fire.com/

    Scroll down and read the summary of tesla fires, which has burned many a virtue signalling dupe alive, truly gruesome stats.
    —————–
    Now if you want to hear something funny, especially coming from serious minded Wolf Richter:

    The Collapse of the EV SPACs: Another One Goes Bankrupt, Others on the Verge
    by Wolf Richter • Aug 9, 2023
    “The SPAC boom will surely go down in history as one of the biggest stock-market heists ever, made possible by Consensual Hallucination.”

    LOL What did I just read? Lending money to a startup EV company is a “Consensual Hallucination”.

    investopedia – “A special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) is a company without commercial operations and is formed strictly to raise capital through an initial public offering (IPO) for the purpose of acquiring or merging with an existing company.

    Also known as blank check companies, SPACs have existed for decades, but their popularity has soared in recent years. In 2020, 247 SPACs were created with $80 billion invested, and in 2021, there were a record 613 SPAC IPOs. By comparison, only 59 SPACs came to market in 2019.”

    This chart is not to be missed:

    https://wolfstreet.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/us-stocks-proterra-2023-08-08.png

    wiki – “Proterra Inc is an American automotive and company based in Burlingame, California. The company designs and manufactures battery electric transit buses, battery systems for other heavy-duty vehicle builders and charging systems for fleets of heavy-duty vehicles. Founded in 2004, it became a public company in June 2021. The company delivered 199 new transit buses and battery systems for 1,229 vehicles in 2022. In August 2023, Proterra filed for bankruptcy protection. ”
    ———–

    IMO soon to be followed by many more EV companies. The history of car companies is littered with new startups and big dreams of the future, and what it will look like, and the need to create an illusion to sucker investors to hand over millions (if not billions) based on an idea alone.

    Someday the cultural EV delusion, which itself is being driven by an even bigger delusion, the CO2 driven “klimate katastrophe”, will be revealed as two great hoaxes of the early 21st century.

    Just in case you don’t know, we are still in the ice age, just in a temporary respite called an interglacial, and CO2 doesn’t warm the planet. If you think a slight change in a trace gas can cause uncontrolled warming and the end of the world you should hang out with Greta Thunderborg and her team of deluded teenage idiots caught in a hurricane of faulty emotions from a media driven chicken little consensual hallucination.

    • Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at any speed” could be remade aimed at EVs. Unsafe to park anywhere. Eric ought to write a book about the rise and fall of EVs, and I am sure it would be a best seller, because the world knows that Eric knows cars like none other. And as sure as God made little green apples, the electric car industry has started a huge shakeout.

      —————

      How much you wanna bet that SPACs are ripe with fraud, just like cryptos, you can raise billions based on words, no product, just ideas floated in cyberspace – and it was all made possible by the Federal Reserve “free money” policies when interest rates were lowered to zero with ZIRP policies. That free money ended up in the stock market IPOs, SPACs, cryptos, art, collectibles and created a boom bigger than the 1920s – and with interest rates going up – the shakeout has started – and the bust should also be magnitudes bigger.

      If you want a visual of how big the boom has been, then purview this chart, and try to find the 1929 boom and bust:

      https://i.ibb.co/B6VKVKY/FED-BUBBLE-CHART-100-YEARS-DJIA-EXPONENTIAL-RISE.png

      If you understand the implications of that chart, then you will understand how bad we are screwed.

      ————-

      We are still in the ice age and CO2 does not warm. How do I know that as a fact, well let me illustrate with charts:

      Ice age progression: long glacial periods, short interglacials:
      https://geology.utah.gov/wp-content/uploads/ice_ages2.gif

      CO2 levels in the ice age, CO2 oscillates from 180 to 280 ppm
      https://www.therightinsight.org/media/uploads/images/climate242-1%20Heating%20Effect%20of%20CO2.jpg

      Almost all of the CO2 warming effect is in the first 20ppm.
      Doubling or tripling CO2 from the start of the industrial revolution (280 ppm) will have virtually no effect, because CO2 attenuation of light is already saturated.

      Ice age starts at high CO2 and ends with low CO2 (which is opposite of the claim that CO2 warms)

      http://www.stallinga.org/Climate/Images/CO2CORLTdetail_col.png

      CO2 always follows temperature, it never forces temp. thus the whole premise behind global warming by anthropocentric CO2 is false, and so is the need for EVs to avert imminent klimate katastrophe.

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-apps/imrs.php?src=https://arc-anglerfish-washpost-prod-washpost.s3.amazonaws.com/public/RRPFOPX7A4I6VMHEGUHE4YGMSE.jpg&w=1440

    • ‘the CO2 driven “klimate katastrophe” ‘ — Yukon Jack

      Conscientious people can’t just stand by as the world burns. You and I should astroturf a Klimate Katastrophe Korps (KKK) to fight the [alleged] scourge of CO2.

      Meanwhile, under the cover afforded by our flowing white robes and tall pointy hats, we can prepare for the real catastrophe — the pending end of this unusually prolonged 14,000-year interglacial.

      A remorseless, advancing ice front does not discriminate based on race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. That said, let us note that the Nordics, the Rooskies and the Canuckastanis — wipepo all — will be on the meat-grinder front line of the initial glacial assault.

      Say comrade — can ye spare us a sack o’ flour?

    • Considering one uses the government as a ‘carbon credits’ scammer, and the other one uses the government as a vicarious anal probe, I really don’t care what happens to either of them.
      I will grant that Musk does do something productive. Nader is just an impotent, angry fudgepacker that uses the govt. to get his rocks off. I saw a photo 5 years ago of the two of them drinking champagne together at some millionaire’s ball, and all smiles. I suspect Nader hit on Musk and got rebuked, so now he has to get even.

  6. One of my sister-in-laws drove a Corvair during her college years. On the way back to the college town, she would stop half way for a break and some gas.

    The gas station denizens would say, “Here comes the girl with the cute behind.”

    Sexed up cars with reference to sexy women is a free advertisement, not that it is new or something. However, it is really very important. A picture is worth a thousand words.

    A car in the shape of a beached whale might not sell so well.

    Imagine all BEV’s in the shape of beached whales.

    It is that bad.

    • So many young women I.see who.are fat, dumpy, wear weird hairstyles and sport garish tattoos. Often seen behind the wheel of a “Pious” (Prius).

      I wouldn’t fuck any of them with YOUR dick.

  7. I have one in my collection – red 63 Monza just like the picture – once we sorted out the chokes it runs great – one of the few classic cars that will keep up with the new ones.

    I do always worry about the belt breaking (or coming off), so I keep a spare and a wrench in the car. Once the belt goes you need to pull over quick or she gets red hot.

    It’s a people pleaser – lots of folks (or their parents) had one.

  8. I’ve had lift throttle oversteer twice, both on Porsches. First was in ’82 when I sixteen and I’d had my DL for about a month. I asked my dad if I could drive his ’73 Carrera RS and he said sure. Surprisingly I didn’t do any damage to the car. The second time was my ’75 914 2.0 in about ’86 in Newport Beach along Bayview. I had balding tires and decided to race someone and lost it and did a 180. Unfortunately this time I banged my left front into a guard rail. It’s exciting to say the least and it happens quite suddenly. I think Nader was an opportunist and he crucified a good car, the Corvair. However, I don’t think his book killed off the car, I think that had more to do with the Pony Cars which had much more horsepower and sexiness to them even if the Corvair in the later years handled much better than the pony cars. Too bad Chevy didn’t put in a larger motor into the Corvair, it might have survived.

    • I also had the issue in a Porsche 924 which was front engine/rear transaxle with a nearly 50/50 weight distribution. I got enthusiastic on a rain slicked cloverleaf onramp, let off and got thoroughly unstuck. I did learn from the experience, and the Little Red Baron was unhurt.

    • I had ‘lift-throttle oversteer’ in a 80’s Civic CRX-Si FWD car that totaled it.
      I was starting to autocross and learned pretty fast I needed sticky rubber on the front, but couldn’t afford them on the back at the time, and the stockers were super hard.
      Got pissed at my girlfriend about something, went around a banked turn that rolled out into an off camber at speed, lifted…………. the rear came around. realized what i did wrong stepped on it, but too late, center punched a pole, moved engine back. done.
      And eric will like this, no seatbelt, knew I was in trouble, stiff armed the wheel, my body rotated up enough for my head to dent the metal sunroof.
      In hindsight, I should have let it come around.

  9. My father-in-law had one and loved it. Just a cool, really courageous car designed by a confident company that took chances thanks to great leadership. Now it’s just an annex of the state, pushing EVs.

    One thing that I noticed on Zuckerbook the other day was a sponsored post by GM bragging about how EVs are the wave of the future and all of that jazz. The comments were 10-1 mocking the company and the idea of wholesale EV “transition.”

    It made my dark heart shine. I’ve noticed in similar other posts that people are going ballistic in the comments. I think the people in charge had better take notes. Anger is starting to build and if they’re not careful, a major economic meltdown could be the catalyst for something.

    • ‘comments were 10-1 mocking the company and the idea of wholesale EV “transition.” It made my dark heart shine.’ — dr_mantis_toboggan-md

      And in turn, the good Dr T has made my own dark heart glow.

      Our bent rulers scoff … but the smoldering fire of popular resistance spreads surreptitiously through the thirsty turf, as self-appointed royal personages parade through the streets in their old-school, V8-powered, bulletproof limousines.

      So the peasants have no gasoline? Let them install Level 2 chargers!

  10. I’m just floored when I think about how much GM changed in less than 20 short years from 1960 to 1980.

    They went from bold and daring designs and technologies…like the Corvair, fuel injected Stingray, turbocharged Olds Jetfire, Pontiac Tempest “Rope Drive” and front wheel drive luxury barges to at best unexceptional and at worst insipid designs and badge engineering…like Chevettes and “People Often Notice That It’s A Chevy” Pontiacs.

    • ‘how much GM changed in less than 20 short years from 1960 to 1980.’ — Bryce

      In the third generation after their founding, auto makers transitioned from entrepreneurial businesses to bureaucratically-managed cash cows.

      ‘Roger Bonham Smith, chairman and CEO of General Motors Corporation from 1981 to 1990, [was] a conservative anonymous bureaucrat, resisting change.’ — Wikipedia

      When auto makers (other than Ford) were bailed out by the US fedgov in 2009, they transitioned into de facto gov-directed state industries, though their shares still trade.

      As in so many other fields (prosecuting wars, for instance), gov officials are incompetent to manage auto design and production. Old Adolf H, despite his alarming tics, put them to shame with a Volkswagen that was produced for sixty years.

      Whereas all that Pete Buttigieg will ever put his name on is an enhanced, prostate-massaging butt plug. *rolls eyes*

  11. ‘The Corvair’s trunk was big enough for a person to fit in there.’ — eric

    *cough* ‘Ralph’ *cough*

    p.s. I didn’t do it.

  12. Nader never held a drivers license or even knew how to drive a car…
    Touting Nader as an “expert” on cars is insane.

  13. Ralph Nader, by being on the ballot in several states, was responsible for the Chimp being selected president. He should be banished to hell for all time.

  14. Dad, before I came along and turned him into a jerk, bought the first Corvair in town. He had just graduated from college and landed a high dollar job at Bethlehem Steel. At the time he was going through the management training program and was fairly pumped up about his future potential I guess. He and the other “loopers” were living the dream. Mom said the dealer “didn’t want” to sell it to him because it was the only one on the lot. Liked it enough to trade it in for another one a few years later. They did sell a lot of them, and ten years is a pretty decent run.

    It was an economy car. Entry level for men like my dad, just out of college or a stint in the army. Most people’s idea of a cool car was a big luxoboat like a “hot rod” Lincoln Continental or Cadillac. I imagine at the time it was like the Subaru Eric reviewed earlier this week. After pony cars they got the performance up with multiple carbs and better handling but it wasn’t ever going to get the big engine numbers of a GTO or Charger so on paper it was slow. Those who were able to look past the spec sheet understood. It might have been the first “sleeper” in that respect. If you knew what you had it was probably a great GT vehicle. Shame that people are doing LS swaps, and shoehorning them up front too! Some engineer is rolling in his grave.

    But he did say the heater sucked. Western Pennsylvania winters are a little harsher than Virginia.

  15. The Corvair is not a safe car. It is good the government took them of the roads because everyone who drove them would have died.

    • “The Tesla is not a safe car. It is good the government took them of the roads because everyone who drove them would have died.”

      There, fixed it for ya, no charge!

    • Hi Dick,

      Thee are no unsafe cars – just unsafe drivers. A car is a tool. If you do not know how to use a tool properly, then you should leave it the hell alone, so as to not endanger yourself or others.

      My second car was a ’67 Corvair (the dual single-barrel carb 110hp version). It was my daily driver for 5 years, and not a single accident. Of course, I was raised by a dad who KNEW how to drive and did his best to instill those skills into me and my sisters.

      I wish I still had that Corvair. It had 10 times the character of anything being sold today.

      • Ditto that, Leadfoot!

        I had a ’64 Monza 110 – until (like an imbecile) I sold it in 2003. I wish I hadn’t. It was one of the most fun classic cars I’ve ever owned.

        • I agree, LeadFoot. Up here, once the snow flies, it is like people forget how to drive on said roads in the span of three months on the ice and snow. Some go veeeeeery slow, and then have a line of cars behind them, because they are too inconsiderate to pull over and let others pass. So I end up being the one that passes all of them (when the coast is clear), giving the others courage to do the same. Others go way too fast, and they are the ones that end up in the ditch up the road. You just cannot win. Many in town do not pay attention, so red-light runners are even worse in the Winter months, as many do not even bother to try and slow down when the roads are icy, and simply drive (or slide) through the red light without even looking at cross traffic. It is one reason why I keep a cars length distance between me and the vehicle in front of me at a red light. I have avoided many rear ending hits because the yo-yo vehicle I see behind me in the rear view mirror was going too fast, but was able to get into either lane beside me before he crashed into me. Many multiples “yes'” to your post. Even if there are moron drivers on the icy roads (and there is no escaping them, sadly), knowing how to handle ones rig makes all the difference in the world!

          • Good morning, Shadow!

            I anticipate “lock downs” – for snow (and then, rain). It’s “not “safe” to drive under such conditions; also, granny might die. I am not being sarcastic.

            • Ugh, do not give them any ideas, but at the rate of the absurdities taking place in this country, I am afraid you may be right. I just did a garbage run. It is just before 1 AM, and had to laugh….’cause it is actually DARK outside! What a trip to drive in the dark again. So that means everyone has to re-learn how to drive in the dark again before the snow flies (ha ha). Which means slowing down a bit so as to watch for ole Bullwinkle, ’cause the Bullwinkle vs. vehicle (or motorcycle) just does not work out too well for the vehicle. Can you imagine them deciding no one can drive once it gets dark out because, well, it is not saaaafe? As far down as we are sliding into stupid, I can see that coming one day, too.

  16. It is indeed remarkable that the Miata is still being made, and sold. Quite successfully. I’m sure its time is coming though, as they do have enough power and handling characteristics to get yourself in a world of hurt if you don’t know how to handle it. Of course they are very good at accident avoidance, as their handling and braking will allow you to drive around other people’s mistakes.

  17. “Driving, meanwhile, has become a kind of expensive bore-fest, which accounts for the fact that so many young people would rather just buy a new smartphone than get a driver’s license.”

    Great quote, and so true for 2023.

    Back in 1984 when I turned 18, I wasn’t that interested in getting a driver’s license, but my dad forced me to take the driver’s test and I passed on the first go around. Back then, young people could find somewhat affordable first vehicles. Mine was a red 1980 Pontiac Acadian, bought for around $1,800 with a full set of snow tires included. I loved that four door Canadian Chevette. The seats were the softest fake leather I have had in any car. Too bad it rusted itself to the junk yard.

    Speaking of expensive bore-fest, I was playing tennis at a local park last week and a parade of expensive boxes drove past me to park near a gazebo (where some sort of picnic was going on). Me and my friend commented on the boring expensive boxes (the AWD SUVs so popular these past 20 years especially with women). My friend drives a 2010 Buick Lucerne sedan and I drive a 2018 Mazda3 sedan. Our cars looked out of place amongst the square, tall boxes littering the parking lot.

    I wish Chevettes were still around. My cherry red Pontiac Acadian would stick out like a sore thumb in today’s parking lots full of expensive boring boxes.

    • The last time we went to Dallas at the end of June, what stood out were the many new Nissan Rogues running around town. They stick out because, at first glance, they seem slightly top heavy and long, probably to give more cargo space than the competition.

      Brie’s waistline must be working as a sales tool for Nissan, but “The Marvels” might be delayed again.

    • “Expensive boring boxes”, which are hard to see around if you happen to be driving a car, a sedan or a coup. Backing out of a parking space usually involves prayer, that if anyone driving by this adventure when you are creeping back, has the wherewithal to tap their horn while you take a leap of faith that they do, and will.

    • I work in nursing, and I always liked asking the old timers (especially the WW2 vets, which of there are few around anymore) what their first vehicles were. One really cracked me up when he said “…a 1930 Ford”, but he said he really liked his ’57 Chevy. Another had a 1925 something-or-other. Cannot remember the brand, but he said “…we hauled hay with it”. And then when I looked to see what a ’57 Chevy looked like? Aw…drool, drool….

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