Chevrolet's 50-year-old Corvair automobile still has a reputation for being "unsafe at any speed," even though such claims were disproved after the innovative car was discontinued. At the April 8-11 Food Lion AutoFair at Charlotte Motor Speedway, members of the Queen City Corvair Club will celebrate the car that was killed by a bestselling book.

"The earliest Corvairs did have some handling problems," admits club president Marvin Crook, of Monroe, N.C., who owns an Artesian Turquoise 1966 Corsa sport coupe. "They were nothing like what the book suggested, and Chevrolet's redesign in 1965 made it a wonderful car."

Crook's '66 is one of 1.7 million Corvairs built from 1960-69 that were available in a wide range of body styles and equipment levels. His Corvair will be joined at the Food Lion AutoFair by a 1961 station wagon owned by Bruce Hewitt, of Vale, N.C.; an unusually rare '64 Greenbrier van belonging to Spencer and Clare Shepard, of Charlotte, N.C.; a turbocharged '64 Spyder convertible owned by Scott Good, of Hickory, N.C.; and a '65 Monza convertible from Travis Jenkins, of Pineville, N.C.

In 1960, Chevrolet introduced the revolutionary compact Corvair that, like Volkswagen's Beetle, carried its engine and transmission in the trunk. This put the powerplant's weight over the driven wheels for better traction and gave designers the opportunity to use a desirable independent rear suspension. Eliminating the driveshaft allowed a flat floor in the roomy passenger compartment.

Air-cooling the 80-horsepower, 140-cubic-inch six-cylinder engine reduced weight and made it resistant to freezing temperatures. With a curb weight of only 2,300 pounds, the Corvair delivered decent acceleration and as much as 22 miles per gallon.

Its frameless unit-body styling was a blend of popular European and American trends of the time, and the Corvair found favor among families and young drivers who were tired of the bathtub-shaped, chrome-heavy barges in their neighbors' driveways. Chevy sold more than a quarter-million Corvairs that first year, and a turbocharged engine and convertible option in 1962 gave the automobile genuine sports car appeal.

For five years, Corvair owners were happy with their unique vehicles, but consumer advocate Ralph Nader's 1965 book argued that the littlest Chevy had a tendency to spin dangerously out of control under normal driving conditions. Unsafe at Any Speed told of one-car accidents involving Corvairs. Nader felt the Corvair's rear-weight bias, relatively long wheelbase, and narrow track (the distance between left and right tires) encouraged the back of the car to swing ahead of the front in turns. He attacked Chevrolet's independent rear suspension design, claiming it allowed the wheel to sag far enough that the metal rim could dig into the pavement and cause a rollover crash. Unusual factory-specified tire pressures (often ignored by owners) and an inadequate front anti-sway bar were also cited.

Because of its timing, Nader's book did not mention the improvements that went into the 1965 Corvair, which had a redesigned independent suspension and stronger anti-sway bar. The '65 Corvair also had a sleeker, more stylish body that some automotive writers of the time described as being the most beautiful contemporary American design.

A new look for a popular make of car is usually met with tremendous enthusiasm, but the Corvair's soiled reputation, combined with the introduction of Ford's new Mustang and other sporty competition, caused a decline in sales that persuaded Chevrolet to pull the plug at the end of 1969.

That would be the end of the Corvair story were it not for a 1971 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that tested a '63 Corvair and '67 Corvair against a Ford Falcon, Plymouth Valiant, Volkswagen Beetle, and Renault Dauphine. The 134-page report and 24-page independent review both exonerated the rear-engine Chevy's safety, indicating the earlier (1960-64) design "does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover" and that it was "at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles."

The U.S. Dept. of Transportation mailed letters to Corvair owners in 1972 to reassure them there was nothing inherently unstable about their cars.

"In my years as a Corvair owner, I get asked a lot about the car's so-called ‘problem,'" Crook says. "All I can tell them is that Corvairs are very fun to drive and that I haven't met anyone who's had a problem with them."

Crook and other members of the Queen City Corvair Club will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their favorite rear-engine Chevrolet with a special display during the April 8-11 Food Lion AutoFair at Charlotte Motor Speedway. AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday. Ticket prices are $10 for adults; children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For more information on the four-day event, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit the event page.