The Chevrolet Corvair may be best known for catching Ralph Nader’s ire in his book, Unsafe At Any Speed. Less well known known is a stunning feat that a group of the cars accomplished: traversing the infamous Darién Gap without major modifications.
The Chevy Corvair was an innovative compact family car that had a cool trick up its sleeves. Instead of having the engine housed up front like the typical American car of the day, Chevrolet crammed an air-cooled flat-six powerplant in back. An American take on the popular little rear-engined imports from Europe at the time (Volkswagen wasn’t alone), the Corvair had independent suspension, unibody construction, and seemed like the car of future. It was an instant hit and as Time notes, Chevrolet moved over 26,000 of them in the car’s first two days of sales.
Though it was big compared to genuine imports like, say, the Renault Dauphine, the Corvair was still a pipsqueak by American standards. To prove just how durable the Corvair really was, Chevy sent a trio of Corvairs, a duo of Suburban Carryalls, and a fuel truck on an epic road trip.
Starting in Chicago, the sextet of vehicles would drive all the way south, then attempt to traverse the Darién Gap separating Panama from Colombia. The Darién Gap remains a daunting crossing to this day. If you want to drive from the top of North America down to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, only one section still has no road: the Darién Gap.
The Darién Gap is roughly 60-miles of mountainous jungle, swamp and rivers that separate Panama and Colombia. It’s known for being a particularly inhospitable place with deadly creatures, impassible terrain and the possibility to come across drug traffickers. The Darién Gap makes the Pan-American Highway forever incomplete and while there have been attempts at building a road through, all have seemingly failed. It’s a place that’s unwelcoming for tourists, let alone cars. The Darién Gap lacks any sort of infrastructure and danger is everywhere.
Still, that hasn’t stopped adventurers from trying. A gaggle of Jeeps got through in 1978. British army officer Gavin Thompson led a team of Land Rovers successfully across, as Top Gear reports, in 1972. Top Gear claimed this was the first successful vehicular expedition through the jungle, but Chevrolet’s stunt predated it by a decade. (A Land Rover dubbed “The Affectionate Cockroach” and a Jeep predated both, as the BBC reports.)
The MotorHeads YouTube channel explains what happened with the Corvairs, featuring promotional footage from Chevrolet depicting the journey:
As you’d expect the Corvairs didn’t have an easy time making it through. As easily seen in the promotional videos, the cars got absolutely trashed getting beaten around the jungle.
The Corvairs got skid plates underneath and tow hooks for recoveries, but that’s it. The cars even appear to wear regular street tires.
And as the Motorheads channel explains, the cars got stuck and had to be recovered many, many times. To the cars’ credit, they were going through terrain that even a proper off-roader would struggle with. The team employed locals in the region to act as guides to help them make it through.
While six vehicles entered the Darién Gap, only two made it out the other side. The Suburban Carryalls and the fuel truck were all lost, but the Corvairs pushed through. Weirdly, one of the Corvairs would come only a mile short of making it. The reason why is kind of silly.
According to this report by the BBC, the car didn’t make it because it ran out of fuel and was ransacked while the team went to get more. Per the BBC:
At one point, they miscalculated the amount of gasoline in one of the vehicles. They sent the people in charge of that part of the journey to Paya to look for fuel, while the other two cars continued the adventure.
Regardless, two Corvairs did make it through. They somehow managed to get through what four-wheel-drive Suburban Carryalls could not and proved that Corvairs are extremely tough vehicles.
As for the Corvair that didn’t make it, that car remains abandoned in the forest today, confusing anyone daring to trek through it.
Correction: The correct spelling for the South American country is Colombia, not Columbia. We regret the error. Thanks, kind reader!