Friday, October 30, 2009

Dagmar and the front end of 1950s American Automobiles -- when the sensual and auto design merged

My thanks to Ed Garten for bringing this topic up for conversation. Both Dagmar and Ed are native West Virginians!

Ask any old guy about Dagmars, and the early 1950s Cadillacs are sure to come up, with their front bumpers. And ask any real old guy, and he will be sure to remember Dagmar as one of the first stars on Television during the early 1950s. Who was Dagmar?

Dagmar declined to give her birth date, although it is listed as November 29 in 1920, 1921, or 1927. She was born in a small town in West Virginia, and her real name was Virginia Ruth Egnor. Before marrying a Naval officer by the name of Lewis in 1941, she worked in a drug store, and as a waitress in Huntington, West Virginia. In New York City she fell in to a number of small parts in burlesque and theater. Her character was that of the dumb blond with obvious physical attributes up front.

Beginning in 1950 she appeared on television, as she was featured in Broadway Open House and with Jack Paar. She was voted the most photogenic girl on TV by a nationwide poll of editors and she appeared on the cover of Life magazine. In 1952 Dagmar starred in her own TV show, Dagmar's Canteen. A flash in the pan, she went though at least two other husbands during the 1950s and faded off the scene -- but her attributes was forever etched in the American Memory. She died on Oct. 9, 2001.

The linking of this woman and her breasts with the grill and front end in the early 1950s was one of the most powerful examples of the merging of the automobile with sexuality and sensuality in the immediate post-war period. Perhaps the only other aspects of cars that held a similar connection were a number of luxury car hood ornaments of the pre-WWII era that featured beautiful flowing female profiles.

Frank Lockhart, the Greatest Automobile Race Driver of them all

Malcolm Campbell, Frank Lockhart, and Ray Keech

Frank Lockhart. Hi folks -- I don't know why, but I am getting very interested in the life and accomplishments of this man.

He was known “the King of the Dirt Tracks,” and as much of a household name as Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey during the 1920s. After his successes on the track he decided to become the fastest man on earth and to accomplish this he built the Stutz Black Hawk, which experts of the day called “the most mechanically perfect automobile ever built in the world.” Eclipsing the then standing record of 206.95 m.p.h. with a speed of 225, a blown tire caused his car to roll down the beach. Lockhart, body broken, died in the arms of his wife at age 25.
In achieving fame Lockhart defied all the odds. He was poor, relatively uneducated, and obscure. Appearing rather frail, he was five foot eight and 135 pounds. But he had a will that was unstoppable. Born in Dayton Ohio in 1903, it was said that he lived next door to the father of the Wright Brothers,. Frank’s father, Casper Lockhart, was a theology student from Indiana. When his father died at age six his mother, Carrie, moved to California. While growing up, Frank was different from the other children. He read material on mechanics voraciously, and enjoyed playing with numbers rather than words. At age eight he built a Soapbox Derby type of vehicle, and won the neighborhood races. But at school he did poorly, only interested in automobiles and drawing cars with envelope profiles. His mother recalled to Griffith Borgeson that “His teachers were always calling me to school and confronting me with drawings of streamlined cars. They would say, ‘this is the way your son is spending his time, drawing these ridiculous things.” I would protest that those were automobiles. They would say, “What! Those things? Nobody will ever ride in things like that they’re impossible. They don’t even have running boards. The child is crazy. Punish him!”[1] Somehow, Frank managed to graduate from high school, but only with great difficulty.
At age 16 Frank owned his first car, a rusted Model T, and he immediately sought to improve it by scrounging parts, including those from Ray McDowell’s Hollywood speed shop. It was from Ray he got a Model T engine, and he rebuilt it on the floor of his mother’s home in Inglewood. Attending a technical school at night, driving at Ascot and other West Coast tracks, he drove his racer with courage and skill. It was recounted that “No one ever sat in a race car like Frank. One a mile dirt track he seemed to begin his slide in the middle of the straightaway. Nobody ever imitated him. His skill and daring were tremendous. He wasn’t exactly cool. He always got real bad butterflies before a race. He’d even vomit. In the car he’d say, “pat me on the shoulder.” You’d do that and it seemed to fix he butterflies. But once the flag feel he was in command of everything. I once asked him what he thought about when he was racing. ‘All I think of from one second to the next,’ he said, is how to drive to win.”
[1] Griffith Borgeson, The Golden Age of the American Racing Car (New York: Bonanza Books, 1966), p.241.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Brief History (1900-1960s) of Automobile Chassis and Body Design

All Steel early Dodge

1934 Press
1934 Traction Avant
Mid-1930s GM Turret top steel body top

Hi folks -- I found this handout in one of my folders as I was sorting my materials on auto history and thought it provides a good overview one important aspect of development that I often neglect.

Origins to 1920 --
  • Coach structures -- phaeton, tonneau, landau, wagonette, etc.
  • Wooden frame/wooden body panels
  • introduction of steel and aluminum sheets
  • Development of hammer, dolly,and buck -- hand formed techniques
  • Metal sheet body on a wooden frame
  • 1915 Hayes body, and notions of structural functionality
  • Introduction of the Budd body-- entire steel car
  • 1922 Lancia Lambda -- monocoque structure with body and frame finding a common solution in the load bearing body
  • X-frame structure of the late 1920s Auburn

1930s & 1940s

  • Citroen Traction Avant (1934) -- mass production of the monocoque body
  • Small scale introduction of Chrome-Moly steel -- racing car bodies
  • Use of aluminum alloys -- Marmon
  • GM Steel Turret top
  • Riveted aluminum body -- 1948 Land Rover


  • Stamped steel unibody construction and mass production
  • Fiberglass body (1953 Corvette) over steel space frame
  • Maserati Birdcage (1959) complex tubular chassis skeleton

1959 Maserati Birdcage


  • Backbone chassis (1962 Lotus Elan)
  • Fiberglas reinforced plastics (Autobianchi Stellina) 1963
  • Persistence of Body-on-Frame solution for mass produced cars in U.S.

    1962 Lotus Elan

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Blackmarket in Gasoline During WWII -- "Gas Chiselers"

The Black Market: “Chiseled Gas”

Consumers, gasoline dealers, and distributors gave the black market a tacit approval. Lifted out of the Great Depression by the war in Europe and a resurgent consumerism, Americans renewed their appetite for automobiles and driving. In his analysis of American culture during the war, John Morton Blum noted, “By stimulating the economy, the war did wonderful things for the American people . . . There were plenty of jobs. Business and farm profits were rising, as were wages, salaries, and other elements of personal income.”43 After Pearl Harbor, Americans spent their disposable income and sought new economic opportunities. Using mass transit, public transportation, and automobiles, “Americans moved faster and in greater numbers than before.”44 As a result of this renewed affluence, Americans needed to buy more gasoline. Harold Williamson observed, “Between 1939 and 1941 the annual domestic consumption of all petroleum products rose by approximately 242 million barrels – an increase of slightly over 20 percent.”45 Perhaps with some irony, however, global war limited the supply of petroleum to the American market, and dashed consumer’s hopes of an open road. The commitment to send oil tankers to Great Britain, coupled with the toll that German submarines took in the North Atlantic and Caribbean, reduced petroleum supplies available on the East Coast. To further complicate things, Japan invaded East Asia in late 1941 and with the fall of Singapore controlled 90 percent of the world’s rubber supply.

Americans resisted gas rationing from its inception. Government officials’ wartime policies concerning the conservation of critical commodities were often at cross-purposes to a rising consumerism among those Americans active on the home front. Economists James Maxwell and Margaret Balcom explained: “The inspiration for the debate was not simply the high esteem in which the American motorist held his car. A babel of voices arose which left citizens unclear as to what was necessary. Some oil companies feared the effect of gasoline rationing on their businesses, automobile associations feared a loss in clientele and State gasoline tax officials feared a loss in revenue.”46

In an attempt to provide East Coast Americans with gasoline, government officials pursued a strategy of “opening the valves.” Pipelines were constructed, railway transportation increased, and domestic refining of crude oil increased. The pipelines ‘Big Inch’ and ‘Little Big Inch’ were built by War Emergency Pipelines Inc. to transport crude oil from east Texas to New York and Philadelphia. But government and industry efforts did not meet military and civilian demand for gasoline. The urgent situation led to the creation of the Office of Defense Transportation, which was given the task of coordinating all domestic transportation for the successful prosecution of the war.47

By early 1942, the transportation bottleneck and burgeoning industrial, commercial, and civilian demand for petroleum products began to put pressure on supplies.48 Before rationing was instituted, government agencies attempted to limit consumer’s access to gasoline. In February 1942, The Petroleum Administration for War (PAW), whose function was to allocate necessary gasoline to subcommittees, recommended a reduction in the amount of time service stations would remain open. In March, the War Production Board (WPB) ordered a 20% reduction in the normal deliveries of gasoline to service stations and bulk plants in District I and the Pacific Northwest.49 Concomitantly, the PAW launched a public information campaign to encourage drivers to economize the use of gasoline and heating oil. “But the public failed to respond,” a PAW official lamented, “because it could not understand why the statements of abundance of a few months before should suddenly be reversed to claim of shortage.”50

As the amount gasoline allocated to the war effort increased and the amount allocated to the citizenry decreased, it became apparent to officials that gas would have to be rationed. Americans still needed the automobile to get to work, for recreation, and to maintain familial and community relationships. Many Americans, whose work was essential to ensure victory in the war, needed to drive to their places of employment. Bradley Flamm wrote, “Private cars had to remain the principal form of transportation . . . and they had to be used as efficiently as possible.”51 Rationing aimed to control the use of gasoline, and urged citizens to draw a distinction between essential and non-essential travel. Since the automobile had become a necessity in American life, a semblance of the structure of everyday life had to be maintained to allow victory in Asia and Europe. Public transportation was not sufficient, and during the war trolley tracks and rail lines were worn to a nub.

Individual travel and disposable income combined to create what The New York Times Magazine called “The Taxi Driver’s Golden Age.”52 With gas rationing, and the number of taxicabs reduced, New York cabbies found themselves, “one of the most popular forms of life.”53 Beyond the urban environment where cabs could transport individuals, government officials faced unprecedented transportation challenges.

On December 1, 1942, the Office of Price Administration (OPA) made gasoline rationing a policy in District I, and later that year a national policy. The Office of Defense Transportation (ODT) was created to keep essential passenger cars and commercial vehicles fueled. In his analysis of the ODT, Framm pointed out, “the system of rationing evolved extensively over time.”54 Beyond reduction of supplies, Framm wrote, “it quickly became a more complex system based on ration books and coupons that were administered by thousands of War and Price Rationing Boards.”55 In theory, rationing was to be executed through a complex system. Economists James A. Maxwell and Margaret N. Balcom described the process:

Rationing is a process of controlling demand for a scare commodity. Therefore, the first step in the function of a rationing program must be placing of ration evidences (representing the right to buy) in the hands of the right consumers and in the right quantities . . . In order to control effectively the use of that currency, and the distribution of the commodity it represents, supervision must be exercised over the industry engaged in distributing the commodity…the principal control was the flowback system.56

At the top were state-licensed distributors, then the intermediate wholesaler, and then a retailer who sold to costumers. A card-based system was put in place temporarily while officials developed a system based on coupons.57 The system depended on the discretion of local administrators. The local boards gave citizens, depending on circumstances, either “A”, “B,” or “C” coupons. Government officials assumed that all cars averaged 15 miles per gallon.58 “A” coupons were the standard ration: 150 miles for occupational purposes and 90 for miscellaneous family driving. This amounted to an annual 5,250 miles per vehicle. “B” and “C” coupons included additional miles for those whose work was seen as necessary in wartime America.59 Boards also provided rations for hardships, furloughs, fleets, and transports.60 Drivers in preferred categories received what they needed. “Rural teachers are limited to 5,400 miles and prospectors for strategic minerals to 11,800.”61 For obvious reasons, American citizens chaffed against rules implemented by their local boards.

In 1943 Joe M. Dawson, a board member in his community wrote, “We are about as popular as tax collectors.”62 He noted, “in the gasoline and fuel-oil rationing . . . there is the most discretion, and much depends upon the judgment of the board members.”63 Doctors, traveling salesmen, and businessmen lobbied Dawson to give them more gasoline. When he did not grant their requests, Dawson would often be “cussed out.”

The ODT used several methods to control American’s gas consumption. “The most important method of controlling travel demand was to simply limit the amount of gasoline that civilians could buy by rationing supply.”64 Methods also included a national 35 mph speed limit, bans on pleasure driving, and a requirement to carpool. The ODT also had suggested cooperative methods such as the coordination of business and travel schedules.65 The ODT used posters, radio programs, newspaper articles, and advertisements to influence Americans to drive less. They often linked their propaganda with patriotism, and they still encouraged Americans to travel. Flamm explained, “keeping up morale and ensuring that productivity remained as high as possible depended, in part, on ensuring that some purely social and personal travel was permitted.”66

A July 1942 survey, “Do Americans support gasoline rationing?” revealed that 70 per cent of Americans approved and recognized the necessity of the government program.67 Americans recognized the necessity of rationing during wartime, but still disagreed with the decisions of local boards and yearned for the open road. When local boards turned down requests for additional gas, Americans had no difficulty in acquiring ‘black gasoline,’ and a widespread black market for gasoline quickly developed with the coupon system, which threatened to upset the war effort. Maxwell and Balcom estimated that 8% of oil was purchased illegally, and Williamson estimated that in 1944, up to 125,000 barrels a day were illegally procured.68 The PAW wrote that black markets, “drained millions of gallons of sorely needed gasoline from legitimate users” and “time after time threatened to upset the entire gasoline distribution system,” particularly on the East Coast.69 Bradley Flamm asserted that the amount could not be quantified, but remained evidence that “demand for fuel, and the personal mobility it permitted, remained high.”70

When the bureaucrats responsible for the flowback system first generated statistics on gas use, they reported that the market was full of unused coupons.71 The buying and selling of additional coupons enabled Americans who wanted to travel in automobiles during the war to do so. Beyond surplus coupons, many were counterfeit. Highly organized rackets developed to take advantage of the ease of theft, and the lack of impunity. The coupon system welcomed a “Who’s Who” of criminals from bootlegging, counterfeiting, white slavery, kidnapping and murder to the world of oil. A March 27, 1944 Newsweek article noted the ease and profitability of racketeering: “the risks are fewer, the work is clean and not unpleasant, and the operating costs are not nearly so prohibitive . . . the profits are unbelievably high: 1,000,000,000 a month.”72 Racketeers supplied the demand of American consumers for gasoline and enabled automobility. Racketeering was a part of American culture, and the anonymity of car culture provided opportunity for illegal profit.

In the 1944 movie Jitterbugs, comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were a traveling two-man jitterbug band.73 The movie opens with the comedians in their broken down Ford with just an “A” card. Suddenly, a debonair salesman played by Bob Bailey, arrived and sold the duo magical gas pills. The gas pill, sold in 5- and 10-gallon packets, transformed water into gas. They were marketed by Bailey as the answer to the “rationing problem,” which in Jitterbugs was stated to be the “world’s greatest problem.” The con man convinces a na├»ve Laurel and Hardy to play a concert at a local carnival and sell the pills to the crowd. They con a small town American for $223. The trio moves on to engage in other plans to swindle real-estate racketeers and other fortune seekers. In Jitterbugs, trust or good feelings were absent in wartime America.

Beyond approval, many American consumers purchased from the black market. In 1943, Colliers writer Mike Miller traveled on “chiseled gas,” from the Mexican border at Brownsville, Texas to the Canadian boundary at International Falls, Minnesota. A chiseler, defined during the war, was one who drove to gas stations and attempted to ‘finagle’ a tank of gas. Some gas stations refused Miller service, but many were willing to sell gasoline at the regular market price. He also discovered that truckers reported they used gas, but still had gas in the tank, and received more tickets to sell. Miller noted that retailers were permitted to build surplus in their tanks. He wrote, “No one had stopped me to ask if the trip was necessary or to examine my ration books. There was an A card sticker on the windshield.”74 Miller’s trip might have been more difficult if he traveled from Florida to Maine, but his journey exposed the OPA’s inability to prevent a black market.

By 1943, the black market threatened America’s successful prosecution of the war. The Senior Scholastic, in a call to “Smash the Black Market Menace,” wrote “the general public has been too tolerant, or ignorant, of the activities of the black market.”75 The article blamed ignorance and called for teamwork. It linked American’s driving directly with the war: “The Nazis know that a breakdown in our gasoline rationing program would seriously hamper the American war effort.”76

By 1944, the Office of Price Administration recognized the black market as a serious threat to the American war effort. Chester Bowles, an OPA administrator wrote, “every gallon of gasoline bought in the black market is an overdraft on our precious war stock: gas that is diverted from legitimate users.”77 In 1944, even with limited manpower, the OPA began to thwart the black market. First the OPA launched a public information campaign to warn the American people of ‘black gasoline.’ Second, the OPA appealed to car owners to endorse their coupons. Beginning in March 1, all “B” and “C” stamps were issued with serial numbers to make stolen and counterfeit coupons easier to trace.78 The Petroleum Industry War Council created a Black Market Committee and that paid for $500,000 in newspaper ads. By the summer of 1944, a majority of the American public was informed of ‘black gasoline.’

In 1943 the OPA cracked down on the black market. Chester Bowles declared, “We must smash the racketeers, if we are to save soldiers’ lives.”79 Before the war ended, more than 4,000 stations had lost their selling licenses, and 32,500 drivers lost their ration coupons due to illegal gasoline transactions.80 In 1944, Congress convened to address the problem.81 Despite a diminished black market, more oil was dedicated to military use. In the latter years of the war, Americans hoped for more gasoline, but the prospects were bleak. A September 1943, Business Week article noted that the “PAW considers civilian supply seventh on its list of important jobs.”82

Business Week explained that rationing was more of a problem than a solution, because, “car owners turned out to be rugged individualists.”83 In June 1943, more gas came to America by barge, but the Army and Navy demanded more gasoline,84 so much so that, “Good Humor’s jingling ice cream trucks were swept off the streets,” and made stationary outlets.85 By summer 1943, rationing became more stringent. Gasoline supplies for civilian use were pressured between military demands for both aviation gasoline and all-purpose gasoline.86 The Nation declared, “Maybe We’ll Get More Gasoline, but Outook’s None Too Bright.” Civilian supply remained lowest on the PAW’s triage even with crude production oil reaching a peak in 1944. Americans supported the war effort and wanted to defeat the Nazis and Japanese empire abroad, but the war revealed an American dependency on gasoline for the operations of daily life and a car culture of individual anonymity that permitted ease of theft and widespread complicity in a black market. Gas rationing also revealed the masterful effort of various government agencies to control automobile travel. In his final analysis, Bradley Flamm asserted that “had the American public been able, they would have used the money they were finally earning after the lean years of the 1930s to get in a car and go,” and thus the efforts of the ODT to control American desires was “a remarkable accomplishment.”87

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Car Chases in the Movies -- A Brief Review of Jesse Crosse's "The Greatest Movie Car Chases of All Time"

Hi folks -- from time to time in my The Automobile and American Life I make an attempt to include film in my cultural and historical analysis. Trained as an historian of science and technology, I began to bring in film into my classes by the early 1990s, especially to either illustrate the technology I was talking about, or to raise questions about technology and society. One of my favorite essays that I drew on and had students read then was George Basalla's article on Keaton, Chaplin, "The General" (1926) , and "Modern Times" (1936), contained in Caroll Pursell's collection of essays entitled Technology in America. Basalla made one think hard about these two films -- actually, there was a third film included in the essay as well, Keaton's "The Navigator." I have yet to really think hard about what the chase scene means in film and automobile history, beyond the superficial. While Jesse Crosse, in The Greatest Movie Car Chases of all Time has done some good work in this area, much, much, more remains to be thought through and teased out. For example, in what ways are there commonalities between scenes involving horse and stagecoach chases, or on foot chase, and those involving automobiles? How important are the road and the environment to the scene as opposed to the car? What about human facial and body expressions, inside and outside the car? How does new technology involved in cinematography -- and the organization of personnel;, enable enhanced levels of sophistication to result during the filming process. Systematically, how can one explain the evolution of camera angles to the development of realistic scenes? And finally, what are the psychological dynamics that cause members of the audience to react the way they do to such scenes?

Do these scenes make us more wary of technology, or do we become more complacent about the dangers of driving? What does all of this say about controlling technology.

For what it is worth, here are Crosse's list of the to twenty car chase films.

1. Bullitt (1968)
2. Ronin (1998)
3. The Seven Ups (1973)
4. The Italian Job (1969)
5. Le Professional (1981)
6. The Bourne Identity (2002)
7. The Road Warrior (1981)
8. C'Etait un Rendezvous (1976)
9. The Blues Brothers (1980)
10. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
11. Gone in Sixty Seconds (1974 and 2000)
12. Vanishing Point (1971)
13. Taxi/Taxi 2 (1998, 2000)
14. Another Day (2002)
15. The French Connection (1971)
16. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
17. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
18. The Rock (1996)
19. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
20. Thunder Road (1958)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Grandma's Memories of the Overland Whippet: Whippet Economy Run

Willys, the makers of the Whippet, also used the economy run as a powerful marketing tool for their economy cars during the 1920s. This is a 1926 ad taken from the Oakland Tribune.

Grandma (Mildred Deason Golden) is 84 now, raised on a farm in Clanton, Alabama. In years passed she told me that her father once had a Whippet, and I didn't think anything of it until today when I saw a an advertisement in the Oakland Tribune for a Whippet, touting a recent economy run. What was a Whippet? In 1926, Willys replaced the Overland with the Whippet, and this low-priced model would remain in production until 1931.

Grandma (she was about 10 when they had the car, so about 1935) told me today that the Whippet they had was a "home-made job" with a cab and some sort of a rear cargo area. It was green and beige, and whenever the kids saw it they laughed because they thought the car was so funny-looking. At times her dad could get the car to run, or chug, for a while, but then it invariably died and all the kids would have to push it back home again. What Grandma remembers the most about this car were its the big headlights. She thought they were scary, especially when you stood right in front of the car.

Here are some Whippet images:
a 1926 or 1927 Whippet sedan

1928 Whippet advertisement

1929 Whippet Touring

My Interpretation of Ralph Nader, Unsafe at Any Speed, and the Corvair was Possibly Wrong!

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 Detroit. Perhaps more than anyone else since Thorsten Veblen, Ralph Nader focused on the shortcomings of engineers and in the flawed institutional arrangements that existed where they worked. Published in 1965, Unsafe at Any Speed accused automotive engineers of disregarding ethical principles and ignoring public safety. The publicity given to his critical analysis, and Nader’s own crusade spurred the consumer movement and the work of trial lawyers, both of which have led to powerful social changes since the early 1960s.[1]

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 Detroit products that were egregiously unsafe and based on flawed designs. It was hubris, economics, and blind obedience on the part of engineers working in a flawed institutional environment that led to the Corvair tragedy. The Corvair was the wrong car at the wrong time in American history.

The tragedy can be translated into human terms. For example, in August 1961, Mrs. Rose Pierini of Santa Barbara lost control of her new Corvair while driving 35 mph. The car flipped on its top, and Mrs. Pierini was trapped underneath, blood gushing from a dismembered arm that was lying in the street. She would later receive $70,000 after being worn down by GM attorneys and deciding not to go any further with her lawsuit. In a similar fashion, GM Truck and Bus Vice-President Calvin J. Werner, living in Dayton, Ohio, purchased a Corvair for his daughter. She was afraid to drive the car, but her brother was not. That brother would also die in a low-speed accident, the consequence of the vehicle’s inherent instability. The Werner family’s plight is reflective of just how little the public, and indeed even GM insiders, knew about the inherent design flaws of the Corvair during the first few years after its introduction. There was a conspiracy of silence about unsafe vehicles before the era of recalls.

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 Dearborn, Michigan test track.

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.”[2]

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.[3]

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 Washington scene of Ralph Nader, Abraham Ribicoff, and the American Trial Lawyers' Association are all part of the story. Significantly, a 1966 landmark case, Larsen vs. General Motors, marked a new trend in automobile liability decisions.[4] Manufacturers were now held responsible for inadequate designs that resulted in injuries due to a collision. Other cases followed Larsen, but it was this case, involving the dangerous design of the Corvair steering column, that made possible an additional recourse for consumers. With agencies like the Department of Transportation often influenced by industry, the judiciary was a second route to ultimately enhancing automobile safety.

[1] Ralph Nader, Unsafe at any Speed (New York: Grossman, 1965). On Nader, see Justin Martin, Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon (Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2002). See also Mervyn Kaufman, “Ralph Nader: “Crusader for Safety,” Automobile Quarterly 5 (Summer 1966), 4-7.

[2] Maurice Olley, “European Postwar Cars,” SAE Transactions 61 (1953): 503-28.

[3] 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.

[4] “Automobile Design Liability: Larsen v. Genera Motors and its Aftermath,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 118 (December 1969), 299-312; Ralph Nader and Joseph A. Page, “Automobile Design and the Judicial Process,” California Law Review 55 (August 1967): 645‑77.