As the book Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader’s seminal assault on the Chevrolet Corvair and a complacent U.S. auto industry, marks its 50th anniversary this year, I can’t help but recall how it not only had a profound effect on the future of automobiles but also on my own automotive aspirations.
Like most teenage boys, my favorite part of the newspaper was the used-car classified ads (that was before they pretty much all went online), which I would scan intently every afternoon, looking for great, cheap heaps that I possibly could afford.
I soon discovered that just a few years after Nader’s attack, used Corvairs had hit bottom in values. I thought they were cool so I began saving up for one.
But no. When mom got wind of my plan, she had a fit and absolutely forbade me from having anything to do with those rear-engine death traps. She was a voracious reader and quite familiar with Unsafe at Any Speed. Arguing was futile, so I moved on to other heaps.
Nader’s book was a revelation for most people when it hit the shelves with a bang in 1965. Although the activist lawyer targeted Corvair for its safety failings – mainly regarding its swing-axle rear suspension that created deadly handling deficiencies – Unsafe at Any Speed took the entire industry to task for what Nader considered a total disregard for passenger safety.
Automotive styling and performance were the big draws for new cars while safety ranked low among consumer concerns. A steady annual death rate of 10s of thousands of people did not seem to have much of an impact.
This was when interiors had chromed steel handles and protruding buttons that would gouge and tear in a crash, hard-surface dashboards that would bash heads, and stiff steering columns aimed directly at the driver’s sternum. Modest drum brakes would fade when hot and slip when wet, roofs would collapse in a rollover, and there was a blasé attitude toward such basic safety features as seat belts. Crumple zones? Ha.
Many people felt the innovative Corvair was unfairly targeted by Nader, that they were no more dangerous than plenty of other cars on the road. And after all, Volkswagen Beetles had swing axles (eventually changed to add universal joints). As did the Porsche 356 sports cars, which experienced so much success on the race track. So, too, did another racing stalwart, the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing.
But Corvair was different because of the heavy six-cylinder engine nestled behind its rear axle. Designed to emulate the VWs and Porsches, Corvair sought to boost performance by upping the size of its air-cooled powerplant. But the extreme rear weight bias combined with the swing axles proved to be a bad combination; the outside rear wheel could tuck under during hard cornering, resulting in possible loss of control.
There were other complaints that targeted Corvair’s general handling because of the heavy rear and lightly loaded front wheels. There was talk about the car’s heat exchangers that provided warm air to the interior; they could rust and perforate, allowing engine exhaust to enter the passenger compartment.
Chevrolet redesigned Corvair for 1965 with fully independent rear suspension that was a vast improvement over the swing axles, as well as making other fixes. That came perhaps in reaction to the Nader complaints or just as part of product development. But despite the new car’s advancement and lauds from the press and public, sales never recovered and Corvair was axed after the 1969 model year.
Nader’s book had a huge effect, launching a major safety push for automobiles that continues today with all kinds of advanced testing of every production vehicle to mitigate the dangers of traveling in them. Multiple airbags, three-point seatbelts, hardened passenger compartments and electronic controls have helped raise the survivability rate in even the worst crashes.
Unsafe at Any Speed also sparked a movement we know as consumerism, exemplified by such publications as Consumer Reports, and a pervasive awareness of safety and reliability in all sorts of products, from washing machines to baby food.
Corvairs these days are recognized as collector cars, maybe not terribly valuable but they do have a strong following. Performance models such as the Monza and turbocharged Corsa, as well as the funky station wagon and the van and pickup versions, are gaining interest among collectors who appreciate their inherent value as uniquely styled and fun-driving cars, even if they’re not the safest cars on the road.