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The Nader Affair
A recent poll picked the sixties as the most popular decade for automobiles. This is not surprising because if you add 16 to 1946 you get the year in which the baby boomers first got their driver’s licenses, 1962. This huge influx of young drivers fueled an increased interest in cars, especially fast ones. The Pontiac GTO was introduced in 1964 along with the Ford Mustang. Gas was cheap, life looked like forever, and Americans pursued their love affair with the automobile.

Entering stage left, a young, unknown lawyer named Ralph Nader arrived on the political scene. Nader saw the world through dark glasses. Instead of having a love affair with the automobile, he saw it as evil. His infamous 1965 book, Unsafe At Any Speed, started with this gloomy sentence, “For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury, and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people.” Most of us viewed our early cars as at least OK to pretty cool and not a source of “inestimable sorrow and deprivation.” However, most of us were not like Ralph Nader.

Ralph is the poster boy for a new group that emerged in the sixties and is now part of the politically-correct American scene today, the Perpetually Indignant (PI). PI people are always mad about something. They tend to use shrill hyperbole in their speech, which makes them ideal candidates for TV interviews. Nader made an industry out of being PI. He formed all sorts of watch dog groups that are ready to start barking on cue. Circling high overhead of the PI watch dogs, are another species, the trial lawyers. Like vultures, the trial lawyers can smell money from on high and swiftly drop down on promising targets. Trial lawyer contributions feed the PI watch dogs to keep them going. Sadly, every so often, an Enron comes along to energize and justify the PI-Trial Lawyer ecosystem.

Ralph Nader’s Unsafe At Any Speed was published in November 1965. The book dealt with the U.S. automotive industry and General Motors in particular. The book consists of 298 pages in eight chapters and two appendices. The last seven chapters touch on a variety of subjects including the shift pattern of automatic transmissions, frame design, second collisions, pollution, and the traffic safety establishment. Only chapter one dealt with the Corvair.

To give Ralph Nader his due, I agree with some of what he said in this book. Detroit was interested in style over substance; it was stubborn in adopting safety measures; it didn’t exactly rush to solve pollution problems. These complaints weren’t owned by Nader. Many critics of the automotive industry were saying the same things. That said; let’s move on to what Unsafe At Any Speed is popularly known for today. All Corvair fans know that the only thing that stuck in people’s minds was the first chapter, The sporty Corvair – The one-car accident. In this chapter, Nader was deadly in his criticism, and dead wrong.

The Nader Affair played out in three acts:

  • 1965 - The Book
  • 1972 - Exoneration
  • Forever - The Nader Taint

1965 - The Book

Let’s look at the book. Every good trial lawyer knows that the road to success starts with whipping up emotions by focusing on the plight of the victim. Next you must throw in enough malfeasance accusations to establish that the fault lies with some heartless corporation. You have to add carefully selected & directed expert testimony to give some face-validity to your charges. Finally, you wrap the whole argument up with sinister charges of a corporate malaise that puts profits above human lives. That’s the whole plot to the Corvair chapter.

Nader brings out his victim on page 2. An unfortunate lady suffered the loss of her arm in a Corvair accident. To play to emotions, Nader adds word-pictures of a “torrent of blood gushing” and “an arm with a wedding band and wrist watch lying on the ground.” Nader also introduces the thesis that the Corvair somehow did this on its own with the statement that the victim’s “experience with a Corvair going unexpectedly and suddenly out of control was not unique.” Nader continues this thesis of a single-minded evil Corvair that “abruptly decides to do the driving for the driver.”

Because the Corvair’s rear engine and swing axle design were so different from all American cars of the sixties, Ralph centered on these differences as a high-value attack target. The Corvair oversteered at very high cornering forces, so oversteer was bad. Conversely, understeer was good. He also asserted that the Corvair’s swing axle design caused tuck under of the rear wheels that led to Nader-alleged frequent rollovers. In short, as Nader puts it, the Corvair was “one of the greatest acts of industrial irresponsibility in the present century.”

It’s important to note that Ralph Nader didn’t develop all of this insightful automotive engineering perspective through his personal experiences or education. After school at Princeton and Harvard Law School, and a six month stint in the Army, he first worked as a lawyer in Hartford Connecticut until 1961. He then switched to academia and was a professor of history and government at the University of Hartford from 1961 to 1963. He hitchhiked to Washington in 1963 to get a staff job in the Department of Labor. His focus on the automobile started when he was an advisor to a senate committee on automotive safety. Obviously, Ralph was a quick learner to become an automotive expert in so little time.

Ralph didn’t have to hunt hard to find the Corvair as an easy target for his slings and arrows. Ford Motor Company started the whole ball rolling with their anti-Corvair marketing campaign in support of their traditionally designed Falcon in 1960. Ford unleashed TV ads that featured an arrow with a moveable head. The head was supposed to be the engine. When the head was at the front of the arrow, it shot straight and true. When the head was moved to the back of the arrow, it was erratic. This brilliant piece of advertising nonsense implied that a front engine car was the right way, and the Ford way. A rear engine car was the wrong way, and the Corvair way.

General Motors reacted to Nader’s attacks with an amazing amount of corporate stupidity that bordered on the comical. They hired private investigators to look into Nader’s private life and tried to corner him in a compromising situation. Nader rightfully struck back with an invasion of privacy law suit that he eventually won. He used his cash settlement to bankroll his PI efforts. This David versus Goliath battle elevated Ralph to national prominence. It also lent credibility to his book. After all, if GM tried these nasty measures, Ralph must be telling the truth, don’t you think? This question was answered seven years after Unsafe At Any Speed was published.

1972 - Exoneration

In September 1970, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began an evaluation of the handling and stability characteristics of the 1960-1963 Corvair. This evaluation was belatedly begun in response to Ralph Nader’s continuing noise and the frenzy of law suits which started when the trial lawyer’s smelt money (the Corvair was even featured in a paper presented at the national convention of the American Trial Lawyers Association). It should be noted that by the time this study was started, the Corvair had been dropped as a product (May 1969) and GM had been remarkably successful in defending the Corvair design in court.

Ralph Nader was instrumental in causing this investigation and was aggressive in trying to influence the outcome. The final report includes four Nader letters (three from Ralph and one from an associate). I find the Nader letters to be the most interesting parts of the final report. Ralph is at the top of his game in these letters. He repeats old charges, brings up the specter of massive corporate conspiracies, and bullies the poor NHTSA folks. Here are some classic Nader extracts from these letters:

Now comes decisive evidence which reveals a labyrinthic and systematic inter-company collusion involving high General Motors officials, to sequester and suppress company produced data and films proving the Corvair (1960-63 models) dangerously unstable.

It can now be reliably stated that GM proving ground tests and films back in 1962-63 conclusively proved the Corvair to be uniquely unstable with unprecedented rollover capabilities unlike any other American car. … these data and films were secreted in a special category of “hot documents.”

The Department of Transportation can no longer avoid confronting the GM-Corvair depravity and the daily carnage of innocent people injured or killed in these vehicles. Probably 600,000 of these Corvairs are still on the road, driven increasingly by the young and the poor.

If the Department of Transportation fails to act in this case on the basis of theories as the one that other vehicles, like the Volkswagen, also exhibit a propensity to rollover, its erroneous rationale would represent an insidious precedent in the safety arena. It would also represent a sanctioning of the most open, notorious and continual misrepresentations by General Motors.

When you read the report, you get the idea that the government is arbitrating a conflict between a man, Nader, and a car, the poor Corvair. The NHTSA, recognizing the public relations and political dangers if they disagreed with Nader, did the smart thing and commissioned an independent Advisory Panel of professional engineers to review the “scope and competence” of the investigation.

The NHTSA reviewed all of the mass of GM documents and films, including Nader’s “hot documents.” They performed extensive track tests of the allegedly-evil 1963 Corvair a 1962 Falcon, a 1960 Valiant, and a 1967 Corvair. They also included a 1962 Volkswagen and a 1963 Renault to cover the range of contemporary vehicles used on the highway.

All vehicles were tested under the maximum manufacturer’s recommended load. Off-design tire pressures were used on one specific test where the result would be most dramatic. Importantly, the cars were fitted with outriggers to prevent overturning.

The NHTSA results are remarkably simple when compared to Ralph Nader’s cataclysmic rhetoric. That’s how the truth usually is. Here is the verbatim conclusion.

The 1960-1963 Corvair understeers in the same manner as conventional passenger cars up to about 0.4g lateral acceleration, makes a transition from understeer, through neutral steer to oversteer in a range from about 0.4g to 0.5g lateral acceleration. This transition does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control.

The limited accident data available indicates that the rollover rate of the 1960-1963 Corvair is comparable to other light domestic cars.

The 1960-1963 Corvair compared favorably with the other contemporary vehicles used in the NHTSA Input Response Tests.

The handling and stability performance of the 1960-1963 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover and is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles both foreign and domestic.

The Advisory panel, which consisted of highly qualified advanced degree engineers, agreed with the report conclusions. They noted that, “significantly, in the Texas A&M input response tests, there were no roll-overs (outrigger contacts) for the Corvair in any of the tests but the 1962 Volkswagen showed a marked tendency to overturn in the reverse steer and drastic steer – drastic brake tests.” They also noted that GM furnished to the Department of Transportation a large amount of very candid information which made it possible to evaluate the actual characteristics of the 1960 – 1963 Corvair.

The most telling comment of the whole Nader Affair, can be found in the Advisory Panel's musings on why this all happened. They stated:

In the opinion of the panel, Ralph Nader, et al sensed there was a difference between the Corvair and contemporary American cars of the 1960-through-1963 period. He expressed his feelings in terms that the Corvair handled in an unstable manner and also had a propensity to overturn.

In other words, the Corvair was unjustly persecuted because of Nader’s feelings, not engineering logic. Ironically, Nader usually celebrates diversity as a hallmark of his political movements. The Corvair’s only fault was that it was different.

Forever – The Nader Taint

Today, although over forty years have passed since Ralph Nader set his sights on the Corvair and drew blood, the Corvair and Nader are still linked. Despite the thorough exoneration of the Corvair by the NHTSA evaluation, Nader’s original attacks are still remembered by the general public; the exoneration is little noticed. That’s life.

A lot of time has passed since 1965, and time does cure most ills. The national Corvair society, CORSA, invited Ralph to speak at their annual convention in 1991 and he accepted. He even had his picture taken with a Corvair.

Today, I believe that the Nader Affair actually adds to the fun of owning Corvairs. Sure a Mustang owner can talk about cubic inches but Corvair collectors have a wealth of conversation material.

We can talk about the Corvair’s truly unique engineering. We can describe the suspension evolution that led to one of the best handling American cars ever produced. We can mention that General Motors led the industry with the first production use of automobile turbochargers in the Corvair and Oldsmobile. We can talk about how Yenko Stinger Corvairs triumphed on race courses. Best of all, when someone mentions Ralph Nader, we can smile and once again relive the sixties as we rise to defend our beloved car.