Friday, 14 March 2008

Classic - Chevrolet Corvair



The history of mankind is built on a foundation of relentless innovation. The me-first culture of plucking new and crazy ideas out of the ether is what encourages humanity into a competitive struggle with our contemporaries, with differing levels of ferocity depending on the otherworldliness of the concept. Look at Leonardo da Vinci – he came up with the idea of the helicopter in the late fifteenth century. Stupid idea, obviously, as he had no access to aviation fuel and presumably only a basic understanding of antitorque and yaw control. Still, at least he was trying. Thomas Edison, he was quite bright too. Not only did he invent the light bulb (which has come in pretty handy over the years) but he thought up over a thousand other things in his vast mindtank that were damn smart: pneumatic stencil-pens, carbon-telephones, fruit preservers, electric railway turntables… one of the few men who truly deserves the word ‘genius’. And of course, let’s not forget those humble cavemen – if they hadn’t thought of rubbing sticks together to make fire and then smashing rocks into rough circles, SuckSqueezeBangBlow would be rather less interesting.

Inevitably, innovation will always breed imitators. Whilst this generally leads along the linear path of evolution through development, it can also draw into the rather more sinister and dangerous area of the copycat. Let’s look at the example of the air-cooled rear-engined car (but of course). The Volkswagen Beetle is a classic example of a fresh new idea: bold yet logical and efficient in its packaging and design, revolutionary enough to seduce everyone’s favourite genocidal fascist into rolling it out across an entire nation (didn’t really take off under his watch – he had some other agenda…) and sufficiently successful for its designer, Ferdinand Porsche, to evolve it into the 356 and subsequently the 911, the roots of which are directly traceable back to Hitler’s little baby.

The Americans didn’t like this one bit. Being the biggest-selling import in the US, the Beetle had Detroit spitting feathers. ‘You want a rear-engined car with an air-cooled boxer?’, they spat, ‘Fine, we’ll build one.’ Fuelling significant design and marketing decisions with malice and rage is, obviously, a mistake. The Corvair was…well, let’s say it could have been better.

You see, the Beetle was a dumpy little hatchback (ok, saloon technically, but only in the way that a Mini is) with the engine quite near the rear axle line. Potentially tricky handling at the very limit, yes, but not generally outside of the control of the average driver. The Corvair was built in Detroit, which means it was massive. The flat-six sat so far out of the back of the car that any corner could lead you into a terrifying and possibly terminal spin. Little wonder that Ralph Nader felt compelled to write a book largely focused on the car entitled ‘Unsafe at any speed’. (This didn’t help sales towards the end, as you can imagine.)

It wasn’t a terrible car, and initially it enjoyed rather impressive sales – over its ten-year production run, an average of 200,000 units drove off the forecourts every year. It was named Motor Trend magazine’s car of the year for 1960, and at launch managed to survive a 24-hour continuous testing session at the Riverside International Raceway. Well, the one that didn’t roll over managed to survive it anyway.
It wasn’t that safe to be inside, though. Aside from the obvious fact that it seemed to have some kind of malicious disdain for the driver and it really loved bouncing backwards into ravines, it wasn’t totally advisable even to breathe in once you were installed in the vinyl and Bakelite interior. Exhaust gaskets – as with all cars – can fail. It’s just what they do, they can’t last forever. In the Corvair these gaskets were housed inside the heater box, meaning that failure would lead to the cabin filling with carbon monoxide. Not ideal. In addition to this, oil from the poorly-constructed pushrod tubes could also contaminate the air system. So, if it doesn’t run you off the road for having the sheer nerve to attempt to negotiate a corner, then it’ll try to choke you to death instead. What a bastard.

Quite pretty though, isn’t it? Like most of the cars that came out of Detroit in the sixties, it’s rife with fiddly little details and expanses of chrome that indicate the high-rolling lifestyle (or perception thereof) of the intended buyers. And anyway, everyone loves a bit of danger. Sure, the Corvair will probably kill you in the most horrible way, but your final moments would look pretty damn good.

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