Ralph Nader published his auto-safety takedown “Unsafe at Any Speed” 51 years ago. Since then, the bestselling book has become synonymous with national crash-protection standards and GM’s uncommonly dangerous (at least as Nader saw it) Chevrolet Corvair.
The notorious compact car saw two generations of production from 1960 to 1969. It had an air-cooled flat-six engine placed in the rear, rather than under the hood, which made it susceptible to spin-outs, and it lacked a simple roll-bar to protect passengers in the event of a flip. Nader said its single-piece steering column would impale a driver upon impact.
But descriptions of its lethal design were overblown. In 1972, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a 134-page report clearing the Corvair of Nader’s accusations: “The 1960–63 Corvair compares favorably with contemporary vehicles used in the tests ... and is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles both foreign and domestic."
GM also redesigned the suspension in 1965 models. In recent years, the average prices for Corvairs from any year have reached an all-time high.
“What Nader did was start an era during which there was more awareness of safety and the manufacturers. The product itself almost became irrelevant at that point,” said Tom Libby, an automotive analyst for IHS. “The book was the major pivot point for the industry.”
It’s difficult to find a group of owners as devoted to their chosen collectible as those who love the Corvair. The cars are in movies, at low-rider rallies (they’re cheaper to buy and modify than the more-popular Impalas), and in Jay Leno’s garage.
“Corvair enthusiasts love their cars,” said Jonathan Klinger, a spokesman for Hagerty, a Michigan-based company that insures collectible and vintage cars. “Part of it is probably they have always been in defense mode, having to explain that the car isn't as dangerous to the general public as it is made out to be, because the Corvair is certainly not the death-trap that Mr. Nader was trying to illustrate.”
In fact, Nader’s book contained just one chapter that discussed the Corvair. And numerous vehicles throughout automotive history were similarly configured and potentially dangerous to drive. Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Porsche and Triumph used similar swing-axel designs in their cars at the time. If you don’t know what you’re doing, a 1970s-era Porsche 911 Turbo can be extremely unsettling to drive.
“The focus on the Corvair was a way to expose the manufacturers in general about things the public had not been aware of,” Libby said. “If it wasn’t that car, it would have been another.”
And, thanks to the passage of decades of road time, Corvairs are better understood now than they ever have been in the past.
“When they first came out, the service stations didn't know how to work on them, and now after all this time you've got this tremendous dedicated group of Corvair people, and any quirk the car may have is fully understood,” Klinger said. “They are a very easy vehicle to work on. That’s what makes them beautiful and fun to drive.”
Chevy made the first Corvairs as simple, four-door sedans (in 500 and 700 trim levels) with a three-speed manual transmission that came standard. A two-speed automatic was optional. Soon after, two-door coupe versions arrived, plus a 900-series “Monza” edition that had sportier seats and a more athletic, four-speed, manual transmission. By the end of its run, the series included coupe, convertible, sedan, and four-door station wagon body styles, plus even a van and pickup truck variant.
Americans bought them as fun drivers that had a particular style behind the wheel, because of their independent suspension and a rear engine configuration that was unique for an American car. They cost well under $3,000 new. They even earned the nickname “the poor man’s Porsche.”
The Corvairs looked different from anything on the market at the time, too. They didn’t have the pony-muscle curves and powerful V8 engine of the popular Mustang, and they were smaller than the heavy, cruiser sedans that GM and Ford were making otherwise. Plus, the turbo-charged engines in later models and compact bodies made them seem faintly foreign, more like something from Wolfsburg, Germany, than from Motown.
There were valid complaints about the cars: The heating system would sometimes leak noxious fumes into the cabin; the cars would leak oil like sieves; the tires were often overinflated in order to compensate for dicey handling; and the polished metal dashboards would blind drivers when the sun hit them. Those idiosyncrasies have failed to deter modern buyers.
“This is a wonderful road car,” Jay Leno said on his YouTube show about his ’66 Corvair Yenko Stinger. “A lot of people put down the Corvair, but I consider it one of the 10 best General Motors cars of all time because it was just so different from anything else they built. They really handle. They’re built nicely. They’re a lot of fun.”
I first became aware of the obsession while talking to Brandon Pendleton, a DJ friend who lives in Miami. The guy owns a café racer motorcycle, runs his own music production studio, and rides expensive fixie bicycles. He could afford to own plenty of vintage cars, but the Corvair seeped into his veins before anything else.
Pendleton paid $6,500 for his 1961 900 Monza five years ago. He loved the pristine white exterior and scarlet interior, plus it had only 90,000 original miles when he bought it.
“I don’t drive too fast — it’s just a cruiser,” Pendleton told me. But his care for the car pays off: So far, he’s not had to deal with any big maintenance problems on it.
According to Hagerty, the average price of a mid-level Corvair in satisfactory and drivable condition today is $6,600, with later models of the 500 line averaging closer to $9,700. Examples in mint condition can run to $20,000 or even, very rarely, $30,000.
Values have leveled a bit in recent years, but Klinger doesn’t expect a plunge. The best idea is to buy one, work on it, have fun with it for a year or two, then sell it for as much or a little more than you paid for it. Despite a slight dip in value for earlier models, Corvairs made from 1965 to 1969 have risen nearly 12% in value, on average, since 2011. Corvairs from 1968 are up 23.78% over the same period, with models from 1966 and 1967 up in value nearly as much.
More important, now is the time to buy. Car prices are generally higher in the spring, when people are thinking of road trips and summer rallies; early autumn leaves many collectible owners debating whether to pack their vintage babies up for winter or just sell them before the cold comes, in order to avoid the hassle and expense of storage.
“For someone looking for a very reasonably priced collector vehicle a little different than what you typically see, the Corvair is an excellent candidate,” Klinger said. “It's not a vehicle that you would want to buy in hopes of tremendous price appreciation, but it’s a fun, honest, simple collector car. I hope to own one myself some day.”
By Hannah Elliott and Chris Rovzar