Once in a while things change from the everyday and someone tries something new.
If you are on top, and things are going great, this tends not to happen. So it was with some surprise that the great General Motors, leading vehicle manufacturer of the world, with more than 30% total global market share, tried something ‘new’.
Having successfully built its huge empire, primarily in the US, by producing ever larger Body-on-Frame (BOF) full sized cars, exhibiting more chrome, more fin and more engine than the facing competition, it was a small (by US Standards), rear-engined, bath-tub shaped car named Corvair (after a Corvette-based concept from 1955), that showed that the big dog could learn a new trick.
The ‘new’ was not without precedent. In the back rooms, GM engineers were trying all sorts of interesting things, but Styling and Marketing were more than happy to fill up customer orders faster than the factory could build them. However, as the facing ‘Independent’ US manufacturers were in terminal decline during these early post war period, a new competitor was slowly gaining ground, not by copying GM’s flash and fins, but with a little, ugly, slow car from Germany. The badge said VW, but the car was known as the ‘Beetle’.
The Beetle template was straight forward: engine in the back, behind the rear axle. The engine was made of aluminium to help with the weight distribution, and featured horizontally opposed pistons to keep the engine height down. The ‘chassis’ was a simple platform, with the engine hung out the back by four bolts and a throttle cable. The bodywork, designed prior to the war under Adolph Hitler’s close watch, wore an aerodynamic profile, grilleless nose and room for four passengers. The original brief for the car was to be capable of 100 km/h on the new Autobahns, all day long, reliably and economically. Not only was the car designed to a tight, modest brief, it was also intended to put the German populace on wheels, much the way the Ford Model T had in the US 30 years earlier.
Such a modest car was not within the ‘competitive set’ for any of GM’s US product lines, but it was an irritating itch during a prosperous 1950s post-war America, and GM’s crystal-ball readers had forecast that the economy could not continue you grow in an interrupted manner, and there would be a market for a cheaper, more modest car that wore a well-known US manufacturers badge. Ford had similarly crystal-balled this scenario, and produced the cost-focused Falcon, and similarly Chrysler with the Valiant.
Of these products though, GM was the most ambitious, and reset the US-made template.
The car: Corvair.
The Legacy: Disaster!
How could it all go so wrong?
The same drivers that led to the very modest Ford Flacon found their way into the specification of the Corvair’s rear suspension. Missing the stabiliser bars of high-spec performance models, the base Corvair developed a reputation for falling off the road. The …