Simanaitis Says

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R&T INTRODUCED ITS READERS to compact cars in November 1959. Yesterday in Part 1, its chart identified 21 of these with wheelbases between 100 and 110 in., and the magazine’s John R. Bond offered a tech analysis of the Chevrolet Corvair. Today in Part 2, tidbits are gleaned from its road tests of this air-cooled rear-engine compact and its principal competitor, the Ford Falcon. 

Model A Successor. “For over 25 years,” R&T wrote, “the Ford Motor Company has been besieged by the cry, ‘Bring back the Model A!’ As far as we are concerned the new Falcon 6 is a reasonably close facsimile, at least in terms of what the Model A might have been if it had continued with year-to-year improvements.”

Driving Impressions. John R. Bond’s first impressions came at Ford’s Dearborn test track with Falcon prototypes: “Driving impressions of the Falcon are not difficult to describe, but do not sound glamourous. In simplest terms, everything has been extremely well planned, and there’s absolutely nothing basic to criticize.”

I hadn’t realized John was as tall as this. (I never met him, though I do recall a memorable phone call soon after I joined the magazine: “Hi, Dennis,” he said, “I’ve got a question for you.”) 

“To our minds,” John wrote, “the Falcon has two outstanding features. The first is the engine. It is smooth, quiet and has extraordinarily good torque…. The car feels like and is a very brisk performer: It will readily out-accelerate the standard 1959 Ford 6, by almost 2 sec to 60 mph to be specific.”

John continued, “The second outstanding feature of the Falcon is in the ride and handling departments. It isn’t hard to get good handling in a compact car, but it is extremely difficult to combine handling with good ride…. There is understeer, of course, and a fast bend takes a little pressure on the wheel to hold it—but it’s nothing like one of our larger cars. It’s definitely a step in the right direction, even if it isn’t a sports car.”

“Falcon interior is not totally unlike other Ford cars.”

The Corvair Test. Akin to the Falcon experience, John’s Corvair test took part at the company’s proving ground. “After a slight delay,” he said, “we were admitted into the main area. Here cars of all sizes and types, including several compact cars with weird fins, were sitting around. These, it seems, were the jokers, designed to mislead the competition. Finally we were led up to a neat but plain black 4-door sedan. This was a standard production Corvair with stick shift, and it was to be our test car.” 

“The lack of a phony grille is to GM designers’ credit,” wrote R&T.

The car, John wrote, “truly was designed from a clean sheet of paper to do a job and to do it efficiently and properly. Hip room, leg room, head room—all are so nearly equal to what has become standard practice in U.S. cars that all excuses for having a ‘big’ car become silly…. The Corvair’s very nearly dead-flat floor makes the large 6-seater even sillier.” 

“Low seats, but no windshield post to dodge, and no hump.”

Air-cooled Tradeoffs? “A second surprise offered by the Corvair,” John said, “is the general tenor of its noise level. When it goes by, the sound is like that of any conventional car: the coffee grinder effect of most air-cooled engines is missing.”

Away with a Myth. John stated, “All the gossip about this car’s dangerous handling characteristics can be dismissed. Summarized, this is how it handles: 1) It definitely understeers at all times. 2) The understeer is less than usual and the car is much easier to ‘hold’ in a high-speed bend. 3) The light understeer does not change with loading. It’s the same whether the driver is alone or had 5 other with him. 4) On total spin-out (or loss of all adhesion) the Corvair’s tail goes out and through the fence first (a nose-heavy car will generally go through the fence nose-first).”

Or, in Retrospect…. Either the front tires consistently operate at higher slip rates (Point 1) or not (Point 4). And, to those who confuse “slip rate” with “sliding,” the prospect of going through the fence backwards is somehow less appealing than “driving through” frontwards. 

John’s Concluding Words. Composed in reference to opulence of the typical 1959 domestic automobile, John wrote, “This is wonderful and, for a low-price car at least, a return to sanity. In fact, the Corvair is a sane, sensible, well designed car of a type we’ve been asking for for 10 years. Now that it’s here, we think even Chevrolet will be pleasantly surprised by the demand for it—and will be working overtime to supply cars.”

Numbers Speak. The Falcon didn’t quite achieve Ford’s 1960 goal of half a million, but 456,703 of them made it the company’s best-selling car that year. The first-generation series, 1959-1963, was assembled in three U.S. Ford plants as well as in Canada, Mexico, Australia, Argentina, and Chile. See also the second-generation Falcon’s Monte Carlo history.

The Corvair’s first generation, 1960-1964, never quite caught on. Its 1960 sales totaled 250,007; best year of the series was 1963 at 286,453.

By the way, the original VW Beetle’s annual sales were to peak in 1968 at 399,674, with figures exceeding 300,000 each year from 1966 through 1973. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023    

3 comments on “COMPACT COMPARO PART 2

  1. Mike B
    February 28, 2023

    One wonders if the “coffee grinder” sound effect was related to the sound of a flat 4 (VW) rather than of air cooling per se. I hear some of that today from Subarus. With 6 cyl, a Corvair would be smoother, and I don’t notice much “coffee grinder” effect with Porsche 911s (even older air-cooled ones) either.

    The effect of tire pressures on handling has to be acknowledged, and the fact that the Corvair had such a large difference between front & rear undoubtedly led to handling disruptions when some air hose jockey set them all at 32 like they would for every car. My Prius requires a difference of 2# between front and rear (higher in front), and if they’re all set the same (thank you, NOT, Toyota dealer who can’t read and abide by your own sticker!) the handling does get noticeably squirrelly (though not unsafe). IIRC VWs of the ’60s (Dad had a ’63 that I learned how to drive in, on the hills of SF, though I was able to save the one big spin I had) also had a tire pressure difference.

    And back in those days, before seat belts, padded dashes, and airbags, it might actually have been better to go off the road backward. Lean against the seatback on impact. Though whiplash would have been a problem since the cars also lacked headrests. Ah yes, of course, in most cars (though not the Corvair) the gas tank was back there…

    February 28, 2023

    My parents both had a white Falcon back in the early 60’s, one stick and the other auto.  I am and always was a stick driver. One day I was driving the auto and had to make a panic stop.Slammed down my left foot and caught the edge of the brake and “shifted” into park.. Still have the same problem. Couple years ago I drove a new MINI auto for  their commercial. Told them I could not drive auto, they all laughed until I tried. Happened again when I was driving a loaner MINI out of the dealership across  a six lane highway. Some idiot cut me off and it was Falcon time all over again.John

  3. -Nate
    March 1, 2023

    I missed the boat on Falcons / Comets when new .

    I preferred weird imports like pop’s ’59 Peugeot and all those little VW’s buzzing ’round .

    It looks like I missed some good little cars, I’ve always preferred small vehicles you put on like a pair of gloves .

    My 1961 Corvair 700 base Coupe was a brilliant little car .

    I became a VW Mechanic and still love the early noisy and slow Beetles, folks tell me I go fast, having driven actual fast cars that makes me smile .

    Good to see the Falcon getting some love before they’re all gone .


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