The Corvair

The Corvair.

Interestingly, I have a book by John Z. Delorean (with J. Patrick Wright) called 'On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors'. Here are some excerpts that both sides may find interesting which deal with the Corvair.(from pages 65-68

The problems with the Corvair were well documented inside GM's Engineering Staff long before the Corvair ever was offered for sale. Frank Winchell, now vice-president of Engineering, but then an engineer at Chevy, flipped over one of the first prototypes on the GM test track in Milford, Michigan. Others followed.

The questionable safety of the car caused a massive internal fight among GM's engineers over whether the car should be built with another form of suspension. One side of the argument was Chevrolet's then General Manager, Ed Cole, an engineer and product innovater. He and some of his engineering colleagues were enthralled with the idea of building the first modern, rear-engine, American car. And I am convinced they felt the safety risks of the swing-axle suspension were minimal. On the other side was a wide assortment of top-flight engineers, including D. Polhemus, engineer in charge of Chassis Development on GM's Engineering Staff, and others.

These men collectively and individually made vigorous attempts inside GM to keep the Corvair, as designed, out of production or to change the suspension system to make the car safer. One top corporate engineer told me that he showed his test results to Cole but by then, he said, 'Cole's mind was made up'.

Albert Roller, who worked for me in Pontiac's Advanced Engineering section, tested the car and pleaded with me not to use it at Pontiac. Roller had been an engineer with Mercedes-Benz before joining GM, and he said that Mercedes had tested similarly designed rear-engine, swing-axle cars and had found them far too unsafe to build.

At the very least, then, within General Motors in the late 1950s, serious questions were raised about the Corvair's safety. At the very most, there was a mountain of documented evidence that the car should not be built as it was then designed.

. . . The results were disastrous. . . Young Corvair owners, therefore, were trying to bend their car around curves at high speeds and were killing themselves in alrming numbers.

. . . The son of Cal Verner, general manager of the Cadillac Division, was killed in a Corvair . . .The son of Cy Osborne, an executive vice-president in the 1960s, was critically injured in a Corvair and suffered irreparable brain damage. Bunkie Knudsen's niece was brutally injured in a Corvair. And the son of an Indianapolis Cherolet dealer was also killed in a Corvair . . .

When Knudsen took over the reins of Cherolet in 1961, he insisted that he was given corporate authorization to install a stablizing bar in the rear to counteract the natural tendencies of the Corvair to flip off the road. The cost of the change would be about $15 a car. But his request was refused by The Fourteenth Floor as 'too expensive'.

Bunkie was livid. As I understand it, he went to the Executive Committee and told the top officers of the corporation that, if they didn't reappraise his request and give him permission to make the Corvair safe, he was going to resign from General Motors. This threat and the fear of the bad publicity that surely would result from Knudsen's resignation forced management's hand. They relented. Bunkie put a stabilizing bar on the Corvair in the 1964 models. The next year a completlely new and safer independent suspenion designed by Frank Winchell [the 'diagonal pivot swing axle' by the way] was put on the Corvair. And it became on the of safest cars on the road. . . .

There wasn't a man in top GM management who had anything to do with the Corvair who would purposely build a car that he knew would hurt or kill people. But, as part of a management team pushing for increased sales and profits, each gave his individual approval in a group of decisions which produced the car in the face of the serious doubts that were raised about its safety, and then later sought to squelch information which might prove the car's deficiencies.

. . . In April of 1971, 19 boxes of microfilmed Corvair owner complaints, which had been ordered destroyed by upper managment, turned up in the possession of two suburban Detroit junk dealers. When The Fourteenth Floor found this out, it went into panic and we at Chevrolet were ordered to buy the microfilm back and have it destroyed.[End of excerpts]

One of the things that corsa mentioned is the fact that Porsche -- certainly one of the most prestigous autos on the road -- used the same rear-engine, swing axle design for ages. But isn't it also true that while these Porsches that used this method were known for the their agility -- that 1)at the same time their handling characteristics have been described as 'tricky' by professional drivers because of this design and 2) that only truly experienced drivers are able to exploit the positive characteristics of the rear-engine, simple swing-axle? (These tricky characteristics would tend to be more present in the older rear-engine Porsches, for continued development has constantly improved this design.)
Likewise, Porsche is obviously more committed into thorough testing and R&D than GM is (and was!) before releasing a product line. Hence their extreme cost comparatively. Historically, GM has had many more recalls dealing with safety problems than Porsche, as you might expect.