Today, the Corvair is best remembered as the subject of Ralph Nader’s 1965 book, “Unsafe at Any Speed.” The attorney, future presidential candidate and consumer rights advocate’s infamous tome was instrumental in establishing stricter federal automotive safety regulations. Nader singled out the Corvair, with its unusual rear-engine layout and unique handling characteristics, as an example of Detroit’s alleged negligent disregard for its customer’s safety.
The book’s release, which occurred about halfway through the Corvair’s two-generation life cycle, dramatically soured the public’s perception of the model. It started out as a bestseller for General Motors, which moved between 250,000 and 350,000 units each year from the car’s debut in 1960 through 1965. Following Nader’s “death trap” accusations, sales plummeted to just 109,880 units in 1966, a drop of more than 50 percent compared to the previous year.
Despite its ruined reputation, Chevy soldiered on with the Corvair through 1969. By that final year, however, production had fallen to a paltry 6,000 units. While safety concerns scared away many potential buyers, they weren’t the sole reason for the car’s precipitous drop in popularity. The introduction of the similarly priced and considerably more exciting Ford Mustang played a considerable role, as did the Corvair’s relatively under-powered engine choices. Overall, the late 1960s were a heyday for American classic cars and the controversy-plagued Corvair largely got lost in the shuffle.
In the early 1970s, Texas A&M University and other agencies conducted tests to determine if the Corvair’s handling characteristics really were as dangerous as Nader’s book claimed. The researchers at Texas A&M, as well as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration eventually reached the same conclusion: the Corvair was no less safe than most other vehicles produced during the 1960s. Of course, Chevrolet had stopped making the car years before the findings were published. Deservedly or not, the Corvair’s unique place in automotive history, as the vehicle most responsible for bringing automotive safety to the forefront of the public consciousness, had been set in stone.
In 1969, during its final year of production, Chevy offered the Corvair in just two variations, the Monza hardtop coupe and the Monza convertible. In previous years, the Monza had been the car’s “deluxe” version and was one of several available trim levels.
For its last few months of production, the Corvair was made almost entirely by hand in a dedicated workshop. This was done to free up assembly line space for the popular Chevy Nova. Due to its hand-built status and the fact that it was the last of its kind, modern day collectors most covet the 1969 Chevrolet Corvair Monza.