Early 60's station wagon with too short a wheelbase

wagon

#1

This is one for you serious car buffs. My family had an early 60’s station wagon (probably 1962 or 1963) that had too short a wheelbase and had a record of a lot of fishtailing accidents due to this design flaw. When I was 3 or 4 we were involved in a rollover accident when the tail swung out going around a curve. It may have been a Ford, but I’m not sure. Any information on this topic would be greatly appreciated.


#2

Well, there was a station wagon version of the Corvair, and that vehicle was noted for treacherous handling, but not because of the short wheelbase.

The original design Corvairs had swing axles with only one CV joint–where the half-shaft met the differential. So, on curves, the rear tires had very little contact with the road. That characteristic, coupled with the extreme rearward placement of the engine, led to vicious oversteer, particularly if the tires weren’t inflated properly.

The dangerous handling characteristics could be alleviated to a great extent with a “camber compensator” that was available as an after-market device, but unfortunately, the people who were killed by their Corvairs were probably unaware of the existence of this device.

Also, GM did not make enough mention of how vital it was to keep an extreme pressure bias between the front & rear tires. (Something like 20 front/28 rear), and of course, the veterans of this board know how few people actually read Owner’s Manuals, which was the only place where the information about the tire pressure was noted.

The later versions of the Corvair were actually fine-handling vehicles, because GM finally did the necessary development work on the suspension that they had failed to do prior to releasing the vehicle.

So–was it a Corvair station wagon?


#3

VDC knows his Corvairs. Not that it applies, to the OP’s question, they had the same problem that early VW’s had and for those who grew up with the VW or Corvair handling was not a problem, but it sure was for someone use to front engine cars.

If the OP wants to check out this question he may want to search for Corvair and Ralph Nader


#4

Ifit was a Ford, it was likely a Falcon.


#5

Short wheelbase? How about a Rambler?


#6

Short wheelbase? How about a Rambler?


#7

VDC,

Were you thinking of the Corvair Lakewood wagon? (1961) 500 and the 700 series.

1962 Corvair Monza line added a wagon.

Just some more useless trivia. Yuk yuk.


#8

Thanks for the great responses. My mom seems to think it was a Chevy, but I don’t know what model it would have been. The Caprice didn’t come along until 1965, so it had to have been an earlier model.


#9

The Corvair was, indeed, a Chevrolet. Regarding the Caprice, that did not come along until many years later, and as it was Chevrolet’s large car, it could hardly have been considered to have a wheelbase that was too short.

Next up in size from the Corvair was the Chevy II (later called the Nova). This was a conventional front engine/rear drive car and while it was not exactly a spectacular vehicle, it did not have a checkered safety record. One size larger than the Chevy II was the Chevelle (later called the Malibu), and this car was also a conventional front engine/rear drive vehicle with nothing unusual regarding its safety record.

If someone is trying to recall a small American car from the '60s with a bad safety record, it is almost surely the Corvair that they are thinking of. And, since your mother believes that the car in question was a Chevrolet, it is almost definite that this is what you were thinking of.

However, as I said in an earlier post, it was not the length of the wheelbase that was at fault, but rather the primitive rear suspension, coupled with a 6-cylinder engine that was actually in back of the rear wheels, thus creating a terrible imbalance that easily led to unpredictable oversteer.

Combine those factors with GM’s failure to adequately address the critical nature of maintaining a precise inflation bias between the front and rear tires, and you have the formula for many fatal accidents. If that car had come along in this more litigious age that we now live in, the Ford Explorer lawsuits would look petty compared to the suits that would have resulted from Corvair fatalities.


#10

Could it have been a Bel Air, Biscayne, or Impala?


#11

I also should have mentioned we had 5 kids and another on the way at the time, plus ole ma and pa, so I’m thinking it must have been one of the larger models, possibly the aforementioned Bel Air, Biscayne, or Impala models?


#12

If there were that many kids, that would seem to rule out the compact Corvair.

However, the Biscayne, Bel Air and Impala (which were all built on the same chassis) were large cars and they were no more prone to fishtailing than any other large car of the time. The “X-frame” on the large Chevys gave no protection in the event of a side-impact collision, but other than that, there were no particular safety concerns regarding any Chevrolet models other than the Corvair.


#13

Pretty sure it wasn’t a Belaire or Impala. Neither of those had short wheelbases.


#14

I know of no car from the 1960s that was ever accused of having too short a wheelbase, too many fishtailing incidents. Your information may be faulty, just a rumor or myth. A driver involved in an accident may try to shift the blame from himself to the design engineers. All American cars from the 60s were noted for their excessive length… even the so-called compacts!


#15

Lots of cars were involved in roll-over accidents in the early sixties. It was not a wheelbase problem. Consumers wanted horsepower and Detroit gave it to them. Packaged in a 1930’s technology chassis. No brakes, poor steering, garbage tires, no seat belts. You are lucky you are alive. 45,000 a year were (are) not so lucky…


#16

I agree. The more that we hear, it sounds like the OP’s dear old dad concocted a tale to cover for driver error–such as driving too fast for conditions.

The tires of that era were pathetic by modern standards, the suspensions were designed for comfort rather than safe handling, and the overall length and weight of the cars of that era made them ungainly in overall handling. If someone drove too fast for conditions, fishtailing was a distinct possibility.

So, rather than admit to cornering at speeds in excess of the ability of the car, we have the rather unbelieveable statement that the car fishtailed “because the wheelbase was too short”. If the car in question was a compact car, that cause would be suspect, but might pass muster if not much thought is given to the statement. But, since we have apparently ruled out compact vehicles, everything left from that era was built on a LONG wheelbase, and the stated reason for the accident just makes no sense at all.

OP–let’s face it–your father drove too fast for: (pick one or more)
*The condition of the road
*The condition of the car’s tires
*The inflation pressure in those tires
*The condition of the suspension
*The load distribution of the vehicle

I just don’t see any other explanations that make sense here.


#17

I know my Malibu is considered a mid-sized car from that era, and it barely fits in my garage(though the garage isn’t that big to begin with)


#18

While I’ll agree dad was probably semi-responsible for the accident, I’ve seen pictures of the 1963 Biscayne and Bel Air and those things had way too long a back end on them (like a girl I knew in high school). Anyway, I can’t believe they made them with those long tail ends. Thanks for the replies and great information.


#19

It sounds like you are referring to the rear overhang on those cars. If you think that the rear overhang on Chevrolets was excessive, you should look at pictures of the larger GM models of the time! The trunk lid on the biggest models was virtually big enough to play ping-pong on them.

A huge rear overhang, coupled with the pillow-soft suspensions of the time, easily led to bad handling, which was unfortunately the norm back then for American cars.


#20

We had a 61 Chev Biscayne wagon. No way was the wheel base too short or the overhang too long. The Biscayne, Bel Air, and Impala were all identical size vehicles. The only difference was the trim levels and cost.

One thing that the wagons did have though is heavier rear springs to compensate for a loaded wagon. I suppose in an unloaded wagon, you could have gotten a little more bounce in the back in extreme manuevers, but there was nothing unusual or unsafe about these cars except for no seat belts and steel dashboards.

I also had a 61 Corvair and never experienced the problems alluded to but did have a friend that managed to roll his 60 corvair wagon in high school. Knowing him, it was driver inattention.