Corvair cruises past its bad reputation

Chevrolet's first "compact car" took a hit after a 1965 Ralph Nader book. But to this proud owner of a restored 1964 Corvair convertible, the car is too cool not to be called a classic.

Published September 16, 2005

It may be the most maligned car Detroit has ever produced. But Bruce Covert, like the proud father of a problem child, says his baby isn't bad, just misunderstood.

Covert owns a lovingly restored 1964 Corvair convertible. He takes it to a lot of car shows in the area, and visitors often take more interest in his Corvair than in the classic T-Birds and muscle cars.

There are two kinds of reactions. People who drove Corvairs back in the '60s usually have fond memories. People who didn't make references to Ralph Nader.

"People think Ralph Nader killed the Corvair," Covert said. "Actually he kept it going another three years."

The Corvair, introduced in 1962, was Chevrolet's first "compact car," but Covert said it was much larger than people remember.

"It was a small car then, but it seats six people, or five with the buckets seat," he said.

With an air-cooled engine in the rear, it was an oddity and not overly popular even in its heyday.

"People were afraid of it because of the rear engine," Covert said. "Chevrolet even undercut it by bringing out the Chevy II at the same time, which was less expensive."

Some Corvair owners found that it rode kind of rough. If they followed manufacturer's tire pressure recommendations - 32 pounds per square inch in the front, 28 in the rear - they actually got a remarkably smooth ride, Covert said. But a lot of owners didn't bother to check and inflated all the tires the same.

The Corvair's reputation was sealed in 1965 when Ralph Nader, who was essentially unknown at the time, wrote a book titled Unsafe at Any Speed, about the American automobile industry.

Somehow, the book and its title have become associated in the public mind with the Corvair. When GM discontinued the Corvair a few years later people assumed it was because the book had harmed the car's reputation.

Not so, says Covert, who was working in management for General Motors in Detroit at that time.

"Only one chapter of the book was about the Corvair, and even that chapter was about one specific problem," Covert said. "When the Corvair first came out in 1962, if you turned too tight it had a tendency to roll because it had independent suspension, all four wheels. The next year they offered a torque bar and a cable that went between the rear wheels as a $15 option. By 1964 that was standard. By the time the book came out the problem had already been fixed."

Nader's book made the point that GM had put a price - and a very low price - on safety those first two years.

By the time the book came out, Covert said, GM had already planned to discontinue the Corvair. The company's response to Nader's criticism was to keep producing it.

"They wanted to prove him wrong," Covert said. "They wanted to show it was a good car."

1969 was the last year for the Corvair, GM produced only 6,000. The unsubstantiated rumor is that the last Corvair was taken directly from the assembly line to a crusher and destroyed. GM didn't want anyone to have the very last one.

"No one has ever seen car number 6,000 on the road," Covert said. "I've seen number 5,999 myself."

Covert discovered much of the myth and misinformation about the Corvair after he bought his current one seven years ago.

"I never gave them much thought back then," he said. "I needed a bigger car at that time because I had kids. But in 1998 I was looking to get into the so-called classic car field. I went to a lot of local car shows in the Detroit area but most of the cars were out of my price range. Then I saw this Corvair."

It had turned out to be a pretty cool car, Covert said.

Unlike the early Corvairs, which had a boxy shape, the later models had relatively sporty lines that looked like Camaros that came out soon after.

And with its 164-cubic-inch, 110-horsepower engine, it actually proved to be pretty speedy. The Corvair had always been noted for exceptional acceleration, and Covert said he has reached nearly 100 mph with his.

He bought the car for $4,400 but has spent lot of money completing its restoration.

He had kept to the period details. He found an AM radio from the period and added an FM adapter. He had seat belts installed for safety, but only the lap belts that were available as an option back then.

The Corvair was an economy car 40 years ago, and even as a classic it has proven to be a great deal for the money. Covert has spent a fraction of what some of his car club buddies have spent, and gets just as much enjoyment from his car as they do - and probably turns more heads when he drives around town.

"I'd encourage anyone who wants to get into classic cars to look at the Corvairs, the Falcons, the Valiants, the Darts," Covert said. "They're a lot less expensive than some other cars and they're good ways of getting into collecting."