Corvair Tire Pressures

I read a Sept 2008 C/D article about GM and all their accomplishments.

The article concentrated on the 60’s

One of the cars they wrote about was the Corvair.

The article stated that GM designed the Corvair to have a wide differential in front to rear tire pressures (15ft. 26rr.)and that the handling problems came when uninformed people set the pressures the same front to rear.

Can any of you oldtimers comment on this specification?

It was news to me.

The rear-engined Corvair needed different tire pressures because the front end weighed basically nothing and the rear end carried all the weight.

I don’t have any experience with early Corvairs, but the later models handled very well. I never owned one, but I had friends who did, and I spent lots of time riding around in their cars.

One was a 140 hp convertible, and the other was a 180 hp Turbo convertible. The 140 hp car was quick, but the 180 Turbo was downright fast, and both were no problem in a corner. Like an old 911, put your foot down and don’t lift!

The Corvair’s bad reputation was undeserved, and remains so to this day. Did anyone ever say a Porsche 911 is unstable or dangerous?

I don’t think tire pressure was the problem. The problem was phony test results. I admire Ralph Nader for a lot of what he did, but I think he fudged the results of his Corvair testing.

I’m Not An Oldtimer, but…

You say, “… the handling problems came when uninformed people set the pressures the same front to rear.”

I remember when Nader started the end of the Corvair. However, I remember the problem being more of an axle problem. The Volkswagens through 1967 and the early sixties Corvair, I believe, had “swing axles” in back. A somewhat quick maneuver, that was possible in most cars could result in that "sickening here we go, feeling " leading to a possible roll-over in these cars.

The 68 bugs went with a double-jointed axle with CVs and the mid sixties Corvairs were also improved to be much safer. By then Nader’s book and rantings cut into sales and ended the Corvair.

I remember bombing around in a 1965 Corvair Monza 4-speed convertible. The car had excellent high and low speed handling and was just a blast to drive. Problem solved. I was upset with Nader and still am to this day. I never lost control of, or rolled my 64 Beetle in tens of thousands of miles of teen-age style driving.

Air pressure maybe entered into this deal, but I don’t even recall that. Front gas tanks freaked some people out, though.

The problems with the original Corvair design were twofold:

*Swing axles that had a u-joint only at the inboard end, leading to poor rear tire contact on sharp turns and when the rear tires encountered a bump in the road.

*The need for drastically different tire pressures in the front and rear tires, as a result of both the swing axle design and the extreme difference in weight front and rear. While I can no longer swear to the exact numbers, the quoted 15 front/26 rear sounds correct.

If GM had prominently mentioned the crucial nature of the tire pressure differential in the Owner’s Manual, or if–more importantly due to the very crucial nature of the inflation pressures–they had placed a prominent sticker somewhere (door jamb, trunk, glove compartment) mentioning how important it was to have the correct inflation pressures, there would not have been many accidents that resulted from the drastically oversteering nature of the car’s handling when the tire pressures were not set properly.

From many posts on this forum, we know how few people bother to read their Owner’s Manual, and yet unless someone looked very carefully at the tire inflation information buried in the text of that manual, they would not have been aware of this vital information. I can recall, in the aftermath of the publicity, a couple of journalists visited a number of Chevrolet dealerships while driving a Corvair, and they asked the service department people at each dealership to write down the correct inflation pressure for the Corvair. In almost every case, the people at the dealerships quoted the correct pressure for models like the Impala–usually 26 psi front and rear. Something like only 1 in 10 dealerships had personnel who had any clue about how important it was to maintain the correct inflation differential between the front and rear tires.

When the tire pressures were set correctly, the handling of the Corvair was manageable and fairly predictable. When–all too often–the tire pressures were not set correctly, drivers who were used to the understeering cars of the era suddenly had to try to correct a vicious oversteer–and many were unable to correct properly or promptly.

Today, we have gone overboard in the other direction with labels telling us to remove the baby from the carriage before folding the carriage or to remove the sun shield from the windshield prior to driving the car. As ridiculous as these labels are, they resulted from situations like GM failing to give sufficient warning about the Corvair’s need for tire inflation pressures that were unlike any other American car of the era.

Without adequate notice from GM, very few people had any idea that the Corvair was unlike everything else that they had ever driven in terms of handling characteristics and tire inflation, and this lack of adequate notice led to a significant number of deaths in one-car accidents.

To compare the performance-oriented owner of a Porsche 911 to the family guy who bought a plain vanilla Corvair sedan to transport his wife and kids is a good example of why owners of 911s don’t complaint about the unique handling of their cars. One group is composed of aficianadoes who dote on their cars and the car’s unique performance characteristics. The other group were by and large just “average Joes” who simply wanted basic, economical transportation for their family. The original Corvair was marketed as an economy car–not as a car for enthusiasts. To expect the family guy to be as knowledgeable about the unique characteristics of his car as the 911 driver, is just not a valid expectation, and that is why GM needed to take special steps to inform Corvair owners of this vital information.

I owned a 1961 Corvair which I purchased used in 1967. The specifications in the owner’s manual did call for a difference in pressure between the front and rear tires. I think you are correct that the specification was 15 psi front and 26 psi rear. The rear axle was a swing axle independent suspension and the rear wheels did have a tendency to tuck in under hard cornering. A $15 investment in a camber compensator, essentially a spring that went between the two rear wheels prevented the rear wheels from tucking under too far. This became standard equipment with the 1964 model. It 1965, the Corvair adopted a fully independent rear suspension that eliminated the swing axles.

With the camber compensator bar, the 1961 Corvair I owned handled very well. I was careful to maintain differential tire pressure between the front and rear tires.

I owned a '62 or '63…An old beater. I purchased it for one reason only, Winter Driving. They were phenomenal snow cars. I think I ran 18 in the front and 32 in the back…I installed a pair of 700X13 recapped snow tires inflated to 25 PSI and NEVER walked home again… I lived in hilly country in western Connecticut (New Milford). These were the days of two-ply rag tires, so ANYTHING approaching spirited driving would get you into SERIOUS trouble quickly. But even back then, a Corvair Turbo-Spyder was a formidable rally car in the hands of of competent driver…

The front had no weight and had no need of high pressure anyway. That was just one problem and not the most dangerous one, as earlier posts mentioned.

The Corvair’s bad reputation was undeserved, and remains so to this day.

I agree. I learned to drive on my father’s 1960 Corvair. It normal to me. I only got in trouble driving my brothers CheveII or a rented Pinto. Both light rear ends. I am sure someone who learned to drive on a Pinto would have hated and had problems with the Corvair.

I learned to drive on a '61 Corvair (my dad’s) and then put many miles on a '65 Corvair (also my dad’s). I truely believe that the Corvair got a bad rap…from a lawer trying to make a name for himself.

Small cars in the '60s were not that safe and good handling to begin with. None of them were. Look at what was on the market. Look at the early VW Beetles. My first car, a '61 VW Beetle, was definitely less stable than the corvairs. Look at Pintos. Heck, look at Spitfires. Open the hood and look what’s there to protect you…an engine the size of a 4-slice toaster and a little thin sheetmetal. Ever seen one of the first Civics? They were miniscule. The TV ads used to say that if everyone drove Civics there’d be twice as many parking spaces. My friend had an Isetta…now THERE is a dangerous vehicle!

None of these cars was immune to being blown around on the highway. And none were safe in an accident.

Ralphie did some good things by causing the feds to begin to mandate safety. But the Corvair was not one of the more dangerous choices on the road. The Corvair was one of the better choices.

My father-in-law liked Corvairs enough to buy one for his daughter (now my wife) as a college graduation present. Later on, he bought one for himself. She inherited it when he passed on.

You are correct about the 15/26 front/rear pressure differential. However, that makes the car understeer heavily. I prefer 25/30 for more neutral handling.

The Corvair was one of the best handling American cars of its day. But that doesn’t say much when you consider how bad the others were. Although the steering and suspension on our Corvair are in good condition, it doesn’t drive as well as our 1998 Subaru Legacy wagon.

As I remember on a 1967 Corvair which did not have the swing axle, the pressures were 22 and 32 psi. The steering was quite neutral at that pressure and gave a sporty handling. The problem with the Corvair was that most other sedans were very front heavy, had front sway bars, and would understeer on a hard corner. In a situation where a turn was taken too fast and the tires dropped off the edge of the road, the steering wheel could be horsed over and the car would climb back on the road with the rear basically in track. When this was done with the Covair, the rear end would swing out. Since the front wheels carried very little weight, the steering was light so it was easy to oversteer in a panic. If the rear tire caught on anything during the oversteer or bite hard as it climbed back onto the pavement, the car would roll over. The car was not amenable to youthful or drunk driving. Of course, the VW was not much better. The driver just had be to more aware and respectful of the sedan’s characteristics. Also remember that this was the age of bias ply tires.

The different tire pressures are valid for the stated reasons. My first car was a 1966 Mod. 500 with a Spyder engine and transaxle. It was a blast to drive-the ultimate “sleeper” road car. Handling was no problem. Oh yeah, and Ralph Nader was a PUTZ! All of his complaints were addressed by the time his book went to print. Most of the early Corvair crashes can be traced to owners/drivers who DIDN’T read the owners’ manual on what is concidered to be the second most expensive purchase a person will make in their lifetime. Statistics say that only 30% of the folks driving have read the manual for thier vehicle.

I had a 61 that I bought sometime around 71. I know there was a difference in pressure but sure can’t recall paying much attention to it. It was just a 2nd car and never left town. I had snow tires on the back in the winter and on snow days, we’d take it out and try to get it stuck. Never did. Hung it up on a big snow bank and it just kept digging and digging until we drove out. Fun car. Smelly though and touchy with the carbs.

Bias Ply Tires …

… never liked to “walk” up a lip on the edge of pavement, from my experience. You are correct in placing much of the blame on the tires and not the car. Bias ply tires were not for novice or impaired drivers. Radials are much more forgiving.

“Statistics say that only 30% of the folks driving have read the manual for thier vehicle.”

Yes, and knowing how few people actually read the vital information in the Owner’s Manual, GM had a responsibility to place the tire inflation pressure information in a more prominent place, simply because the Corvair’s handling was so different from any other American car of the era, and because the correct tire pressures were so important in order to keep the car from going into sudden extreme oversteer for unsuspecting drivers.

While modern cars have tire inflation information posted on the door jamb, cars of that era did not. The Corvair should have had the tire inflation pressure information posted somewhere prominent (glove compartment lid, door jamb, sun visor), simply because manufacturers know how few people actually read the manual and because this particular information was so crucial on that particular vehicle.