The Uber Beetle

  • August 9, 2023

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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