Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Distortion and a Failure to Tell the Truth: The Corvair and Automobile History

Innocence and a bit of incompetence can perpetuate bad history. Such is the case of history, and my telling of it with regards to the Corvair. In some previous posts I have hinted that the story I told in my The Automobile and American Life about the Corvair was not exactly right.  True, it was my first book light foray into auto history. So in the past seven years I have learned much more, including more than a tad of humility.

First, here is the story told in the 2009 The Automobile and American Life.

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]

[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.

Ouch!  How wrong I was. That is the problem when one focuses on one source and does not critically follow the topic start to finish.  The Corvair's unsavory reputation has its origins with Ford engineers wanting to protect their own compact car product during the fall of 1959. See the Patrick Bedard article on Nader in the December 1972 Car & Driver, p.45. According to Bedard and Federal investigators, Ford engineers tested the car and unfairly pronounced its handling instability, only later to be challenged and refuted  in a 1972 report written by Federal Government Engineers who carefully studied the Ford video and other materials and then repeated tests done a decade before.  

The use of Maurice Olley's 1953 SAE paper [cited above and seized upon by Nader in Unsafe at Any Speed] was circulated in a unmarked envelope sent to journalists the day after a 70 year-old Olley had given a presentation on the virtues of the rear engine automobile at the Detroit Athletic Club. 

Perhaps the real tragedy of the Corvair was that Nader's  crusade thoroughly tarnished a car design that could have competed with future Japnaes and German motor vehicles.  Indeed, Detroit pulled back to make cars with little downside risk. The complacency of the late 1960s and early 1970s, then, had a component linked back to the failure of the Corvair -- a radically different car that was truly innovative in several different respects.

Forgive me Corvair, for falling for the bait of telling a good but untruthful story that blamed engineers and corporate bean counters.


  1. So Nader was wrong, the Corvair handling was fine and rear engine cars were the future? Really!

  2. The early handling was quickly improved and the handling quirks of rear engined cars were just that: quirks. Ignore the personality of any technology and you see it's 'human' side. Corvair was vilified, but not for its faults. Ugly behavior on parade.

  3. The early handling was quickly improved and the handling quirks of rear engined cars were just that: quirks. Ignore the personality of any technology and you see it's 'human' side. Corvair was vilified, but not for its faults. Ugly behavior on parade.

  4. One has to remember that tire pressure in the front had to be 10 pounds lower than the rear. 20 lb front 30 lbs rear. That corrected the understeer problems. There were stickers in the glove box relative to that..

  5. The tragedy is that by the time Nader's book and attack on the Corvair was published, GM had already fixed the problem with a new design brought out for the 1965 model year. Naturally, Mr. Nader did not mention that!
    So, by the time that the negative impact of "Unsafe at Any Speed" hit the showroom floors, a very good car was trashed and then dropped by GM.
    The early, square Corvairs did have problems, that is true, but equally true is that the later cars did not, but were tarnished by the same brush and a disregard for journalistic honesty in this regard by Mr. Nader.

  6. Not all cars suffered the "jacking" for which VW, Renault, Triumph, and others that used a pure swing axle did.

    FIAT's chief engineer Dante Giacosa pioneered the semi-trailing arm on the "600" of 1955 and it was quickly adopted by the likes of Porsche and BMW. With it, there is actually bump steer tow-in as the tire contact patch is given the conical movement treatment by the skewed pivot axis.

  7. I had a bigger point than just commenting on the Corvair topic in my Blog post. Namely, my book "The Automobile and American Life" received almost uniformly positive reviews in both the popular magazines and academic journals. Yet, the Corvair story was flat wrong -- or at least terribly incomplete. This book has been used in numerous upper level college courses, and also since it is in many public libraries a good number of young people have read parts of it for school projects. So what I did was perpetuate a mistruth. And I would argue that there are other significant interpretations in automobile history that are equally as distorted. So really what zi am arguing is that there are many accepted stories out there that should be looked at far more carefully and reinterpreted so that a more truthful explanation results.
    As far as the legacy of Nader and Corvair goes, I would say that the ultimate "failure" of the Corvair resulted in the U.S. auto industry taking a conservative approach to design for the remainder of the 1960s and into the 1970s. What improvements came centered more on organization and production -- like the attempt to scale up assembly line rates and the use of Unimates at Lordstown. It would be front engine, rear wheel drive vehicles for the most part, as it had been in the" salad" days of the 1950s.

    1. Hi, John, I assume you have been in touch with this organization:

      I have owned over 100 cars, including an XK120MC, a MK7, an XKE, two Triumphs, two MGs, and a host of American cars. After about 85 of these cars, I got eight Corviars at the same time.

      The car I miss the most, is the 1964 Corvair convertible.

      At this time, in the late 80s and early 90s, I was steeped in Corvairs. It was my understanding at that time, that at the national CORSA conventions, Ralph Nader was the principal speaker, and was very well received by the members of CORSA.

      It was also my understanding that Ralph Nader didn't kill the Corvair, that the Mustang did kill it. It was also my understanding at the time, that GM extended the Corvair for one or two years, just because of Nader.

      Correct me if I am wrong.

    2. obbm is correct. GM top brass pulled engineering support on the Corvair in April 1965, with the intent of ending Corvair production in 1967. Nader's book came out seven months later, in November, 1965 and the lawyers convinced the brass that ending production in 1967 would open them up to massive product liability suits because it would look like Nader was right.