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The Chevrolet Corvair Corsa: Unsafe? No, Revolutionary, Jay Leno Says

Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed ushered in a new era of automotive safety, especially in the US. And it also featured heavily in the history of one classic Chevrolet: the often-misunderstood Corvair. But despite the Corvair’s reputation for danger, it still has plenty of ardent fans; Jay Leno is one of them. And as he explains in a recent video, the Chevrolet Corvair Corsa in particular was a genuine and genuinely innovative American sports car.

The second-gen Chevrolet Corvair is less dangerous—and the Corsa made it even sportier

To be sure, the 1960-1964 Chevrolet Corvair can be a handful for the unaware driver, Hagerty reports. That’s thanks to heavily-rear-focused weight distribution, a rear swing axle, and the lack of a front sway bar. However, it’s not the only ‘60s car that such descriptors apply to.

The Volkswagen Beetle, for example, as well as the Porsche 356 and 911 all share a similar layout, Autoweek and Petrolicious point out. And in the case of the 911, many consider that part of its charm. Indeed, the first-gen Corvair’s handling “was no worse than the Beetle,” Hagerty reports, which might be why Stirling Moss defended it.

A light-blue 1965 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa by a red-brick building
1965 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa | Bring a Trailer

That aside, the Corvair was a genuinely innovative car. It was GM’s first unibody car, and the first GM car with an air-cooled rear-mounted engine, Automobile reports. And along with the 1962 Oldsmobile Jetfire, it was one of the first turbocharged production cars, Car and Driver reports. BMW’s first turbocharged car didn’t come out until 1973, and Porsche didn’t turbocharge the 911 until 1974.

And speaking of Porsche, the second-gen Chevrolet Corvair Corsa “really is a poor man’s Porsche,” Hagerty reports. That’s because the 1965 second-gen Corvair received fully-independent rear suspension borrowed from the contemporary Corvette, Hagerty reports. This cured the car’s handling issues, Hagerty reports, and let the Corsa demonstrate its performance capabilities. Plus, it was the first GM with fully-independent suspension, Hagerty reports.

Jay Leno calls his 1966 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa “a revolutionary car for America”

The turbocharged rear-mounted flat-six engine in Jay Leno's 1966 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa with the spare tire
Jay Leno’s 1966 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa engine bay | Jay Leno’s Garage via YouTube

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The first-gen Corvair had 80 hp. In contrast, the second-gen car’s base 2.7-liter flat-six makes 95 hp, Hemmings reports. However, thanks to the turbocharger, the Chevrolet Corvair Corsa has 180 hp, sent to the rear wheels via a four-speed manual, Hagerty reports. And because the car weighs less than 2500 pounds, it goes 0-60 mph faster than a six-cylinder Mustang, Hemmings reports.

Plus, the Chevrolet Corvair Corsa can handle corners. Famed Chevrolet tuner Yenko started out modifying Corvair Corsas for races and managed to beat 911s in SCCA events. Jay Leno also owns one of those Yenko Corvairs and enjoys driving it. But he likes driving the standard Chevrolet Corvair Corsair because of it feels—namely, “like a more expensive car than it is.”

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Jay Leno’s 1966 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa is fairly stock, though he didn’t receive it that way. But after putting the correct parts on it, and replacing the springs and some electrics, the only real modification is the carburetor. And while the turbo can be laggy, it “really kicks in” as the RPM climbs in third gear, he says. Leno even thinks his Chevrolet Corvair Corsa could take a contemporary 911 in a straight line. In many ways, it feels like a distinctly European car.

In the end, it was the European feeling that arguably let the Chevrolet Corvair Corsa down. Despite its performance and four-seater practicality, it didn’t have a V8. As a result, despite impressive sales figures, it couldn’t match the Mustang’s popularity. And while Nader’s book didn’t kill the Corvair outright, it certainly didn’t help. This is a shame because, to Jay Leno, the Chevrolet Corvair Corsa is “one of the greatest American cars [and] certainly one of the most innovative cars of the 1960s.”

It’s an innovative, affordable classic that deserved more in-period success

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If all this makes you want a Chevrolet Corvair of your own, Corsa or otherwise, there is some good news. The cars have a passionate fanbase and they’re relatively easy to work on, Bloomberg reports.

Plus, as Jay Leno describes in his video, there are plenty of accessories and mods available. You can add fuel injection, different carburetors, swap the four-wheel drum brakes for discs, and so on. “You can make it whatever you want it to be,” he says, “and that’s what I love about them.”

The side and blue interior of a blue 1966 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa Convertible seen from the open driver's door
1966 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa Convertible interior | Bring a Trailer

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The improved second-gen Chevrolet Corvairs are also fairly affordable, even the Corsa models. An excellent-condition example typically costs around $15k, Hagerty reports. And most Corsas sold on Bring a Trailer top out at about $20k. But a non-Corsa model can be yours for $10,000-$15,000.

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