I was reading the Dayton Daily News Wheels section this morning and came upon the story of the Orphan Car Show that was held September 26, and in that article a discussion of the Corvair. For some time I have been thinking that my section in The Automobile and American Life was superficial and interpreted things incorrectly. I usually am hard on those who do "surface" history, and in this case am guilty of doing the same. After thinking about this whole episode, I am now of the opinion that while Nader's safety crusade had a positive impact on the future of the American auto industry in terms of forcing manufacturers to make safer cars, it also did something of long term significance that was negative in a very serious way. By coming down so hard on the Corvair, Unsafe at Any Speed ensured that the one chance that the American Automobile Industry had to totally revise its designs towards more aerodynamic and fuel efficient vehicles was cut short. The Big Three continued making its conventional front engine, rear drive, big cars after 1965 precisely because of the Corvair failure, and this opened the door to the Japanese in the 1970s to seize that market and take us where we are today. When lawyers and government bureaucrats perturb the consumer marketplace disastrous results can ensure, and that was the true legacy of Unsafe at Any Speed and the tragedy of the Corvair.
Here is the original excerpt from my book. Students, do better than I when doing your historical analysis! Historians, be open to changing views after learning more. History does renew itself.
From Chapter 9 of The Automobile and American Life:
Crews’ story is only one snapshot of a complex set of impressions concerning the car and society during this time of inordinate introspection. A holistic account demands the consideration of intellectual impulses and politics at the top as well a social customs and mass movements at the bottom, for just as modern corporations came under suspicion after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962, so too did the professionals associated with universities and chemical companies. And as much as Ralph Nader attacked GM for its Corvair in his Unsafe at Any Speed, he also broadened his critique to include the engineers who worked in
At the heart of Nader’s early work was his attack on the safety of General Motor’s Corvair. In Nader’s opinion, “the Corvair was tragedy not a blunder.” The tragedy was a consequence of engineers who cut corners to shave costs. This was a common occurrence in the auto industry and indeed all manufacturing, but with the Corvair it happened in a big way. Fatefully, during the late 1950s, General Motors, under the leadership of engineer Ed Cole, developed the Corvair, in part the consequence of the unexpected success of the Volkswagen Beetle, but also the result of two decades of engineers’ fascination with the concept of a vehicle with its engine placed in the rear. While the Corvair had its supporters who argued that the car got a raw deal by consumer advocates, it was generally regarded as one of a number of post-1960
The tragedy can be translated into human terms. For example, in August 1961, Mrs. Rose Pierini of
Indeed, during the 1960 to 1964 model years, the Corvair could go out of control at 22 mph with a turning radius of 50 degrees and front rear and tire pressures of 26 psi. Ford engineers quickly discovered this fact, when in 1959 two of them lost control of an early Corvair on the
The tragedy began with conception and development of the Corvair by leading GM engineers – Edward Cole, Harry Barr, Robert Schilling, Kai Hansen, and Frank Winchell. Cole, an long-time devotee of rear-engined cars, saw a market as early as 1955 for a small, compact car, and in 1956, after rising to the head of the Chevrolet Division, put his finest engineering talent to work on the project. By 1957, the program was given a full go ahead, even though executives knew that several design obstacles had yet to be overcome.
As early as 1953, GM executives were aware of the main problem that was associated later with the Corvairs. In that year, one of the GM’s brightest engineers, Maurice Olley, wrote a technical paper, “European Postwar Cars,” that contained a sharp critique of rear-engined automobiles with swing-axle suspension systems. He called such vehicles “a poor bargain, at least in the form in which they are at present built,” adding that they could not handle safely in wind even at moderate speeds, despite the tire pressure differential between front and rear. Olley went further, depicting the “forward fuel tank as a collision risk as is the mass of engine in the rear.”
Despite these warnings, GM went ahead, with its primary aim being a target rate of return on investment. The 1960 Corvair came off the assembly line at two-thirds the weight of a standard Chevrolet, with a selling price $200 lower than standard models, but to keep costs down and profits high, compromises had to be made. Suspension stabilizers were left off, and a peculiar kind of swing axle was used that created “oversteer” or instability when deviating from a straight path. To compensate for oversteer, Corvair engineers recommended that owners maintain critical tire pressure differentials between front and rear wheels. This whole design, confessed one GM engineer, was based on lower cost, ease of assembly, ease of service, simplicity of design, and the desire to create a soft ride.
The biggest problem with the Corvair was that GM was slow to react to a known problem – the large number of accidents due to loss of control. The company was silent when questioned on the matter. Until Nader gained a wide public audience, GM did little or nothing. The moral of the story is that the corporations of the early 1960s only faced the consequences of their actions when threatened with government sanctions, expensive litigation and court judgments, or public hostility on a massive scale. Indeed, it took GM four years and 1,124,076 Corvairs to correct the problem.
The convergence of forces for change took the industry by total surprise in the months immediately after the 1964 presidential election. The Johnson administration's willingness to sponsor social reform legislation, the appearance on the
 Ralph Nader, Unsafe at any Speed (New York: Grossman, 1965). On Nader, see Justin Martin, Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon (
 Maurice Olley, “European Postwar Cars,” SAE Transactions 61 (1953): 503-28.
 Corvair enthusiasts and apologists abound, despite the historical record concerning its safety in models manufactured between 1960 and 1963. See David E. Davis, “Why Ralph Nader was Wrong,” Automobile (January 2006): 87-90.
 “Automobile Design Liability: Larsen v. Genera Motors and its Aftermath,”